Lusitania by Norman Wilkinson


Lusitania: Act Of Barbarity Or Legitimate Enemy Target?

The Cunard ship was sunk off the coast of Ireland in 1915 by a German torpedo. But was the ship carrying something other than passengers?

Lusitania by Norman Wilkinson

Less than a year into the First World War, one of history's most infamous maritime disasters occurred off the coast of Southern Ireland. It resulted in the loss of 1,198 lives and the sinking of a grand ship – RMS Lusitania. 

Going under in less than 20 minutes, the circumstances of the disaster seemed, at first, straightforward: a German U-boat, a torpedo, a luxury liner filled with innocent civilians. A savage act drawing condemnation worldwide.

Yet, over the following several decades, little by little, more and more doubt began to be shared about the ship's activities during the time of its sinking.

There were suspicions over the actions of the British government who, it was claimed, could have done more to protect those on board. Challenging questions were asked as to why the ship had no protection vessels or why the Royal Navy dropped depth charges on the wreckage during the Second World War.

The most enduringly difficult question Cunard and the British Admiralty faced after the event was why, having been hit with just one torpedo, did the ship sink so quickly?

These curiosities led to numerous conspiracy theories about Lusitania, and 99 years after the disaster, an incredible revelation hidden away in a secret British document. 

New York Times front page of May 8, 1915. Credit: NYT

'Loss of the Lusitania Fills London With Horror and Utter Amazement' ran the New York Times headline on the front page of its May 8, 1915, edition, the day after the disaster.

They were wrong. The news of this great ship's sinking had filled more than just London with horror.

Instead, the reaction of everyday Americans to its loss would contribute to the United States entering the World War One within two years. In Britain, questions remained unanswered about the disaster for the next 100 years. 

The circumstances of the sinking of this world-famous liner began long before the commencement of the First World War. To understand why so many British and American passengers met their end that afternoon, we have to understand matters around its construction and the reasons why Cunard required such a speedy and large vessel to use on transatlantic crossings.

The story began at the turn of the century when US millionaire, JP Morgan, invested in the transatlantic shipping trade by creating a new company.

He also bought up control quantities of shares in other large shipping firms such as White Star Line.

By 1902, Morgan negotiated a community of interest with shipping rivals to fix prices, notably German carriers such as Norddeutscher Lloyd and the Hamburg America Line. These business arrangements led to Morgan pursuing efforts to buy one of his only remaining competitors, Cunard, which raised concerns about the loss of Britain's shipping prestige internationally. 

The Cunard chairman, Lord Inverclyde, approached the government for help, which was provided to save the loss of Cunard's world-renowned (and British) shipping name. The deal involved a large taxpayer loan at a favourable rate, enough money to build two new ships, annual subsidies for the vessels once made and a mail contract worth almost £70,000. In return, Cunard had to build the new ships to Admiralty specifications so they could be called upon as axillary cruisers should a war occur. 

The new ships were named Mauretania and Lusitania, the first of which – Lusitania – was launched on June 7, 1906.

The specifics of the Admiralty-approved design of the new ships meant that Lusitania could, if required, be converted to an armed merchant cruiser and used as a weapon in conflict. When World War One broke out, she was requisitioned by the British Admiralty and put on the official list of armed merchant carriers.

Lusitania’s Specifications

Name - Lusitania

Operator - Cunard Line

Type - Ocean liner

Tonnage - 31,550 GRT

Length - 787 ft (239.9 m)

Capacity - 2,198

Crew - 850

Port of registry - Liverpool

Builder - John Brown & Co, Clydebank

Laid down - August 17, 1904

Launched - June 7, 1906

Maiden voyage - September 7, 1907 (New York)

In service - 1907 to 1915

Fate - Torpedoed by U-boat U-20 on May 7, 1915.

Wreck - 11 miles off Old Head of Kinsale Lighthouse at a depth of 93 m.

The German Embassy in Washington placed over 50 adverts in newspapers warning the public not to travel on ships.

'The Hun's Most Ghastly Crime'

In early 1915, following a naval blockade by the British on German-bound shipping, Germany initiated unrestricted submarine warfare – ignoring Prize Rules – which threatened the sinking of vessels without warning. 

Under Prize Rules, merchant crews had to be taken off a ship and placed in safe custody, meaning that a U-boat would have to first surface and offload the crew of its target vessel. By tearing up these rules, life on the seas during World War One became considerably more dangerous. 

In the days before the Lusitania's final voyage east across the Atlantic, the German Embassy in the United States placed no fewer than 50 adverts in newspapers, in some instances immediately next to advertisements for the Cunard liner. They warned the public not to board the ship, as it was, under their rules, a legitimate target for submarine attack. Their reasons were based on Britain's requisitioning of the liner at the start of the war. It was officially on the register of armed merchant carriers. 

NOTICE! TRAVELLERS intending to embark on the Atlantic voyage are reminded that a state of war exists between Germany and her allies and Great Britain and her allies; that the zone of war includes the waters adjacent to the British Isles; that, in accordance with formal notice given by the Imperial German Government, vessels flying the flag of Great Britain, or any of her allies, are liable to destruction in those waters and that travellers sailing in the war zone on the ships of Great Britain or her allies do so at their own risk.

Lusitania in New York - Bain News Service, Publisher. Lusitania seen from Singer Bldg, N.Y.C. Retrieved from the Library of Congress.

On Lusitania for her 202nd crossing were 1,266 passengers and 696 crew.

At 2.10pm on May 7, the liner crossed U-20, a submarine of the Imperial German Navy, 11 miles off the coast of Ireland. At this stage in the ship's journey, Lusitania was firmly within the declared maritime warzone around Britain.

U-20's Captain, Walter Schwieger, ordered fire, resulting in a single torpedo landing a direct hit on the ship's starboard bow. A short time later, a second explosion from within Lusitania expedited the peril her passengers and crew faced. Due to the ship's list, just six of the 48 lifeboats got away.

Of the 1,962 people on board, 1,198 lost their lives. Just 764 passengers and crew survived. A further three succumbed later. British newspapers called it "The Hun's Most Ghastly Crime."

Most of those who lost their lives were British, with many crew deaths concerning Liverpool-born Cunard staff. The loss hit the city particularly hard. To this day, there are memorials and continuous museum exhibitions dedicated to the memory of those lost. 

However, there were also many American deaths in the attack, totalling 128, including influential aristocrats Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt and Albert L. Hopkins. This resulted in an outraged American public.

Although this was not directly responsible for why President Woodrow Wilson took the USA into the war, it did contribute to the broader American process of entering World War One.

Lusitania was struck by one torpedo shortly after 2.10pm on May 7, 1915. It was 11 miles off the coast of Ireland. Credit: Bundesarchiv, DVM 10 Bild-23-61-17 / photographer: unknown / Licence CC-BY-SA 3.0

Faced with a global outcry, a spokesperson for Imperial Germany issued a statement pointing out that the ship was an auxiliary cruiser and accused the British of using Lusitania to transport "contraband of war." This statement was followed by a further accusation from Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz that Lusitania was "heavily laden with munitions", and Germany had been within her rights to sink her.

As the debate ran, the ship's cargo manifest appeared in the New York Times detailing that Lusitania had only been carrying small arms munitions provided by the US. It reported the cargo holding 4.2 million rounds, 1,250 empty shell cases, and 18 boxes of non-explosive fuses - all of which were considered lawful trade. Cunard and the British government outright refused accusations of carrying anything more extensive or dangerous.

President Wilson refused to declare war on Germany, even though among the American public, appetite existed. Instead, he hoped to negotiate a complete end to the conflict. The German position remained unchanged. They refused Wilson's request for apologies to be issued and compensation paid. Yet, Germany did agree to end the indiscriminate policy of sinking ships under its unrestricted submarine warfare.

As of September 9, 1915, Prize Rules were re-established, and the attacking of passenger liners was banned altogether.

When they deserted this policy, two years later, coupled with the Zimmermann Telegram, the United States finally declared war on Germany.

Lusitania was financed using a loan from the British government. However, this meant the design specifications had to be overseen by Admiralty. Credit: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Detroit Publishing Company Collection

At the ship's inception in the early 1900s, due to the financing deal struck between Cunard and the British government, Lusitania was designed and built to incorporate hidden compartments within its hull.

Germany claimed that far more dangerous munitions such as aluminium powder and guncotton were stored within these hidden locations or disguised within the cargo. 

For decades, the British government maintained that no significant munitions were on board Lusitania. They said the German attack was utterly unlawful. 

In 2014, 99 years on from the disaster, it was revealed by the government's own declassified papers that this claim had always been a lie. 

The 2014 released papers revealed that in 1982, faced with a salvage operation on the wreck, the Foreign Office provided frank concerns that the ship could "literally blow up on us." The memo added:

"Successive British governments have always maintained that there was no munitions on board the Lusitania (and that the Germans were therefore wrong to claim to the contrary as an excuse for sinking the ship). The facts are that there is a large amount of ammunition in the wreck, some of which is highly dangerous.

"The Treasury have decided that they must inform the salvage company of this fact in the interests of the safety of all concerned. Although there have been rumours in the press that the previous denial of the presence of munitions was untrue, this would be the first acknowledgement of the facts by HMG."

In a 2008 dive, the presence of more than four million .303 rifle rounds and tones of additional munitions, including shells, powder, guncotton, and fuses, was confirmed. The team reported the cargo had been disguised in crates "dubiously marked cheese, butter and oysters." All along, the Germans had been right. Lusitania was carrying more than the British government maintained. 

In 1925, Germany paid compensation totalling $2.5 million to the families of the American passengers lost on Lusitania. However, since the release of the 1982 memo, some historians claim the blame ought to rest with the Admiralty. 

Perhaps the words of President Wilson's Secretary of State, William Jennings Bryan, at the time were correct: 

"Ships carrying contraband should be prohibited from carrying passengers ... It would be like putting women and children in front of an army."


Images in this article are courtesy of the US Library of Congress and the Bundesarchiv - Federal Archives.