7/5: The sinking of the Lusitania

The dramatic obverse design of this medal portrays the last moments of the liner RMS Lusitania, which was sunk by the German submarine U-20 on 7 May 1915 with heavy loss of life. The medal is a British copy, struck in iron, of a medal produced by the Munich-based metalworker and medallist Karl Goetz, who intended to satirize what he saw as the greed of the Cunard Line in continuing to operate the ship in a warzone whilst allowing her to be used to transport contraband military materiel from the then-neutral US to aid the British war effort.

The obverse inscription reads:

Keine Bannware!

Der Grossdampfer
Durch Ein Deutscher
Tauchboot Versenkt
5 May 1915.

This translates as: “No Contraband! The large steamer Lusitania sunk by a German submarine/5 May 1915″. The copy erroneously uses the British spelling of “May”. The medal inaccurately portrays the ship going down by the stern.

The reverse of the medal portrays a skeleton handing out tickets for the ill-fated voyage with the inscription “Geschaft uber alles” (Business before everything).

Crucially, Goetz got the date of the sinking wrong, leading to the belief among the British and Americans that the attack on the Lusitania was premeditated and the medals had been produced in advance of the sinking to glorify the destruction of the great liner – neither in fact being the case. Goetz corrected the error in later editions of the medal but the damage was done. Selfridges of London were commissioned to produce copies of Goetz’s medal in large numbers, to whip up anti-German sentiment.

It was hardly necessary. With 1,198 dead, including all but a handful of the 139 Americans aboard, there was universal outrage on both sides of the Atlantic, probably only matched 86 years later by the events of 9/11. Had U-20’s 32-year-old skipper Walther Schweiger – seen in much the same light as Osama bin Laden would later be – survived the war he would undoubtedly have been put on trial by the Allies, but he was killed in 1917.

But was Schweiger really a war criminal, or was the Lusitania – as Goetz and later apologists for the sinking imply – a legitimate target? Frankly, in the light of subsequent events, the point is moot. Was Guernica a legitimate target? Or Coventry, Dresden, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Mi Lai or KAL Flight 007? During the last century, advances in technology made it ever easier to kill large number of people, and civilian casualties – hardly something new in the history of warfare – increased accordingly. The sinking of the Lusitania was simply the first instance in which a warring state had used weapons of mass destruction against the citizens of its enemies. As with 11 September 2001, 7 May 1915 merely saw Homo sapiens’ penchant for killing one another enter a new phase.

It is probably more meaningful to look at the sinking itself, and when one does, the parallels with later events – 9/11 in particular – become apparent.

When launched in 1906, the Lusitania and her sister ship Mauretania were the largest and fastest ships afloat. Cunard took the bold step of using the newly-invented Parsons Turbine in place of the reciprocating engines that were then generally used in large ships, which gave them a service speed of 26 knots. White Star’s Olympic and Titanic, launched five years later, were substantially larger, but nowhere near as fast.

To help meet the enormous cost of construction, Cunard lobbied successfully for a government subsidy. In return, the ships were built to Admiralty specifications, so that they could be armed and function as naval auxiliaries in time of war. In fact there is no way liners could ever hope to fight warships on equal terms, and although armed merchantmen did fight enemy warships with great courage – most notably the Rawalpindi and the Jervis Bay during WW II – the final outcome of such battles was always inevitable. However even by the outbreak of the Great War it was recognised that high-value units such as the Lusitania and the Mauretania would be of more use assigned to other duties, most notably carrying troops, and indeed the latter did serve in this capacity during the war.

The Lusitania, however, remained in passenger service, and on 1 May 1915 she sailed from New York, having arrived there from Liverpool on 24 April. Just days earlier, on 22 April, the German Embassy in Washington had issued a chilling warning:

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.

Washington, D.C. April 22, 1915

By a strange twist of fate, the notice appeared side by side in the New York Times with an advertisement for the Lusitania’s eastbound crossing. This did lead, understandably, to concern among Lusitania’s crew and intending passengers. The liner’s experienced skipper, William Turner, 58, tried to calm fears by explaining that his ship was fast enough to keep out of trouble. The reality was the ship was operating with only 19 of her 25 boilers in use, the remainder being shut down to save coal, which reduced her speed to 21 knots; the more experienced hands from her pre-war crew had joined the Navy and been replaced with less capable men; and boat-drills on the voyage were poorly attended and casually carried out.

As with the recent terrorist attacks on the United States, Madrid and London, the chances to avoid what would probably now be referred to as 7/5 were missed.

As the ship entered what the Germans had designated a warzone, Turner failed to carry out Admiralty-designated zigzag manoeuvres and ignored two submarine warnings, apparently more preoccupied with reaching Liverpool on the right tide. The Admiralty in turn failed to send out a destroyer escort that might have deterred a U-Boat attack. Precautions were not entirely absent: lifeboats were swung out and extra lookouts posted. The ship’s watertight doors were closed. Unlike those in the Titanic, these went up the full height of the hull, but while the Lusitania would probably survived a collision of the type that sank the Titanic, they were to afford no protection against what lay ahead.

Early in the afternoon on 7 May, the Lusitania was off the Irish coast, close to the Old Head of Kinsale. She had encountered fog and was steaming at a reduced speed of 18 knots when at 14:10 she crossed the bow of U-20. Kapitan-Leutnant Walter Schweiger, barely able to believe his luck, gave the order to attack. One story states that the boat’s quartermaster, Charles Voegele, refused to give to order to fire on the liner and was subsequently court-martialled and jailed for three years. If true, this lenient sentence must have reflected the ambiguity felt in Germany over the sinking. The normal penalty for refusing to obey a direct order in a combat situation would have been death.

The Lusitania was struck by a single torpedo on her starboard side, just forward the bridge. Almost immediately, the huge liner suffered a second, larger explosion. Water poured in, and she immediately began to list 15 degrees to starboard. An SOS was sent out and Captain Turner gave the order to abandon ship. But the list made it very difficult to launch the lifeboats and only six of 48 boats were successfully launched from the stricken liner. As the ship began to go down by the bow, panic broke out on board. Captain Turner tried to make for the Irish coast, in the hope of beaching the ship, but power to the rudder was out.

The oft-repeated horror-story of passengers drowning, trapped between floors in the lift in the First Class accommodation, is almost certainly apocryphal. In common with all lifts of that time, the one aboard Lusitania required an operator to work it, and both the ship’s lift-operators survived the sinking. This did not prevent a recent drama documentary about the disaster featuring the brave but hopeless attempts of an American woman to open the door of a lift with a hatpin, though this might have also been inspired by the actual escape of a group of people from a lift in the doomed World Trade Center.

The Lusitania sank in 20 minutes. It took some hours for help to arrive from the Irish coast, during which survivors clung to wreckage, including – it is said – a chicken coop. Many survived the sinking itself, only to perish in the chilly waters before they could be rescued. Like Captain Smith of the Titanic, Turner stayed with his ship until the end, but unlike the former, he was among the survivors.

The cause of the second explosion, which doomed the great liner, is argued to this day. Some claim U-20 actually fired two torpedoes, but the Imperial German Navy authorities doctored Schweiger’s log to try and mitigate the storm of international protest; others attribute the explosion to the alleged munitions aboard; oceanographer and explorer Dr. Bob Ballard blames coal-dust in the Lusitania’s bunkers, almost empty towards the end of the voyage; another theory (which seems the likeliest) is that a boiler-room explosion did the damage. Schweiger’s log in fact considers all three possibilities.

After the Titanic, the sinking of the Lusitania is generally accepted as the most famous maritime disaster of all time, but what makes it all the more shocking is that while the former was an accident, the latter was an act of war. However it is viewed, the fact remains that an unarmed passenger liner was deliberately targeted, resulting in the deaths of almost twelve hundred innocent civilians.

The final word on the Lusitania must go to the late Frank Braynard, from his 1985 work Fifty Famous Ocean Liners:

”…[the war’s] long range impact on history has yet to be properly understood. The part the Lusitania was to play had nothing to do with her qualities as a great ship. She was the victim of the war, as were the millions who were slaughtered in that asinine display of mankind’s stupidity”.

© Christopher Seddon 2008


Author: prehistorian

Prehistorian & author