1. Unprecedented attack
On 7 May, 1915 the Lusitania – one of the largest, fastest and most luxurious transatlantic passenger liners of its day – was hit by a German torpedo and sunk as it sailed into the Irish Sea.
She was six days out from New York and nearing her destination of Liverpool. On board were 1,300 passengers – including 129 children – and a crew of nearly 700. The culprit was a German U-boat.
There is still controversy as to why the Lusitania travelled into what the Germans had designated a war zone, dense with U-boats, without any protection from the Royal Navy. Mystery also lingers as to why this mighty ship sank in just 18 minutes – was the Lusitania carrying arms and ammunition that caused a fatal explosion?
2. Sailing towards disaster
3. Was the sinking justified?
By spring 1915, the German home front was experiencing shortages of food and fuel due to the massive needs of the army, and the Royal Navy’s blockade of German ports which hindered access to supplies from overseas. Families across the country were facing the prospect of starvation.
Britain was suffering no such shortages because it was importing vast amounts of cargo from the US. The German navy wanted to strike back and put pressure on British supplies.
Deadly German U-boats
In the spring of 1915 the Germans' only means of attack were submarines. Commanders were given orders to fire without warning – no allied ship was safe.
The Germans would later justify the sinking of the Lusitania because the ship was carrying “contraband of war” – munitions. They would have been entitled to force the ship into port, inspect its cargo and seize it, as the Royal Navy frequently did with ships bound for Germany. Most experts, however, agree that to sink an unarmed passenger liner carrying hundreds of civilians without warning was illegal under international law.
Walther Schwieger, the U-boat captain, was shocked by what he had done: "It looks as if the ship will stay afloat only for a very short time... I couldn't have fired another torpedo into this mass of humans desperately trying to save themselves."
4. Why did passengers travel into danger?
Days before the Lusitania set sail, and on the same page as an advert by Cunard for the trip to “Europe, via Liverpool” on the Lusitania, the Imperial German Embassy published its own message warning “vessels flying the flag of Great Britain…are liable to destruction” and travellers “do so at their own risk”.
But nobody at the Admiralty, including Winston Churchill, seemed to take the threat seriously.
As Parry Jones, a Welshman who survived the sinking, recalled years later: “I don’t think anyone took very much notice of this because they thought, well, no nation would dare go to the point of sinking a passenger liner and especially a liner so famous as the Lusitania.”
5. Was the captain negligent?
If he had gone down with his ship, like the skipper of the Titanic, Captain William Turner might have been remembered as a heroic figure. But he survived and became a scapegoat.
The Lusitania’s maximum speed was 25 knots but one of its boilers was out of operation so this was reduced to 21 knots. Even so it was still too fast for U-boats, with their top speed of 12 knots.
Captain Turner sailed in a straight line through the perilous waters of the Irish Sea. If he had employed a zig-zag course his ship would have been a more difficult target for the U-boat torpedoes. He was later heavily criticised for this decision.
It remains unclear whether he was given specific orders to zigzag although he did take other precautions – posting extra lookouts and ordering a blackout on the ship at night.
Captain Turner was exonerated by a British board of inquiry and by a civil trial in the US, both of which laid the blame solely at the feet of the Kaiser.
Moment of impact
At 2.10pm one of the German torpedoes hit and a second internal explosion followed soon afterwards. The ship let in huge amounts of water and began listing heavily to starboard.
Historians and authors have speculated about the cause of this second explosion. Was it the 4,200 rounds of small arms ammunition in the cargo-hold going off? Or was it coal dust igniting when the torpedo hit a coal bunker?
The Titanic took almost three hours to sink in the north Atlantic. Many passengers believed even if the Lusitania was hit by a torpedo or a mine it would take five or six hours for her to sink. In the event it took 18 minutes.
6. Did the British deliberately stand back?
It has long been suggested the British government knew of German plans to sink the Lusitania but neglected to put in place protective measures, such as using a destroyer escort. The argument goes that the loss of life – especially American lives – would encourage the United States to enter the war.
If so, it did not work immediately. It was another two years before the Americans finally entered the war.
The British government’s behaviour regarding the Lusitania was more likely incompetence than conspiracy. It did not lay on a destroyer escort for the Lusitania, either believing the ship would be too fast for a U-boat or that the Germans would not attack a civilian vessel.
Even so, Churchill later wrote: “In spite of all its horror, we must regard the sinking of the Lusitania as an event most important and favourable to the Allies… The poor babies who perished in the ocean struck a blow at German power more deadly than could have been achieved by the sacrifice of 100,000 men.”
7. Who was to blame for so many casualties?
Experts agree the sinking of the Lusitania broke international law and set a dangerous precedent, yet who was to blame for such a large loss of life?