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20 October 2014
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Interpretation: The Lusitania
What happened to the Lusitania?

RMS Lusitania (© IWM)

On 1st May 1915 the British passenger liner Lusitania, under the command of Captain Turner, set sail from New York destined for the port of Liverpool. On 7th May the ship crossed paths with the German U-boat U20 off the Head of Old Kinsale, Ireland. At around 2:10 pm a single torpedo was fired without warning at the side of Lusitania on the command of Captain Schweiger. This caused a large explosion, followed by a second, muffled explosion coming from the bottom of the ship. Lusitania tilted to its right side and within eighteen minutes was sunk.

The losses were high. The tilt of the ship as she sunk meant that the lifeboats on the left hand side could not be launched. Distress signals were sent out. An old battle cruiser - the Juno - was in the area but did not pick up any survivors. The problem was Juno was slow and armed making her a perfect target for the U20. In fact she had already narrowly escaped Captain Schweiger’s U-boat earlier that day. Several other ships responded but only reached the Lusitania two hours after she had sunk. Out of approximately 2,000 passengers that were on board, 1,201 people lost their lives, 128 of which were American citizens.

The details surrounding the sinking of the Lusitania caused a great deal of controversy and were interpreted differently by both sides. Whether or not Germany was justified to sink the Lusitania without warning, opinion swung in favour of Britain. This anti-German feeling inspired a wealth of propaganda.

Fierce anti-German riots occurred in many countries, as people were horrified to learn that the passenger ship had been sunk without warning. The United States in particular were highly critical of the act.

For weeks Americans have been saying: 'If the Germans sink any big liner you will see an overwhelming storm of hostility to them in this country.' Today it is conceded that the crucial point is, were any American lives lost? If American lives have been lost, then, on all sides, one hears this expressed: 'Wilson must act up to the terms of his Note and call the Germans to strict accountability.'
The Times, 8th May 1915

Thinking point: Why was the US so enraged by the sinking of the Lusitania?

One hundred and twenty eight American citizens had been killed. President Wilson sent a note to Germany demanding 'reparation so far as reparation was possible'. After a total of four notes were sent, Germany accepted responsibility, agreed to make reparations and stop sinking passenger ships without warning. Although American involvement in the War had been avoided the incident had placed a great strain on US-German relations and helped to turn neutral opinion in America. When Germany resumed unrestricted submarine warfare in 1917 it was no great surprise that the USA entered the War.

How do you think the sinking of the Lusitania affected the War?

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A - Britain did not support making any kind of peace with Germany, as the people wanted to see the Germans defeated and the victims of the Lusitania avenged.

B - The US entered the War and brought overwhelming pressure on Germany.

C - The German policy of unrestricted submarine warfare was condemned, and caused anti-German feeling around the world.

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