35: Sinking of the Lusitania


On May 9th the passenger ship Lusitania was hit by torpedos by a German U-Boat. 1,191 passengers would perish, including almost 200 American citizens.



Hello everyone, and welcome to History of the Great War episode 35. Before we get started today I would like to thank everyone who has visited the Facebook, Twitter, or the iTunes page for the podcast over the last week. Had a few awesome new reviews that were extremely encouraging. I also have a special favor to ask of all of the listeners. Since I started the show I have been trying to create the best show that I can but I am curious as to what exactly you would like to see from the show. To this end, and to satisfy my inner statistics nerd, I have created a survey at historyofthegreatwar.com/survey the responses are one hundred percent anonymous and you can fill out exactly as much as you would like. I’m thinking that if we can get to 100 responses I have a special bonus episode up my sleeve that I think most everyone will enjoy. So if you want to help out the show, and maybe decide its future direction, head over to historyofthegreatwar.com/survey and let your voice be heard. I would also like to thank Peter from Cambridge for his donation this week. I’m not going to say Peter’s last name but you should all know I think his last name is pretty cool.

Today’s episode is on a very specific incident that had far reaching consequences. The event occurred on May 7th 1915 which just so happened to be a Friday. When the Lusitania was hit by a German U-boat’s torpedo on this date it resulted in headlines all around the world. The Lusitania wasn’t the first, and certainly wasn’t the last ship to be sunk by the German submarines during the war but a combination of recently declared unrestricted submarine warfare, American citizens onboard, and controversy about exactly what the ship was carrying made for a much larger effect than any other sinking during the war. To understand the event and why it mattered so much we have to start back in 1914 and the beginning of the British blockade of Germany at the start of the war, then we will role into a discussion about the Rules of War on the high seas in 1914 before looking at the Lusitania and its fateful final voyage. We will then discuss just a bit about the response in America after the sinking along with some of the theories and conspiracies surrounding the sinking to close out the show. There are libraries worth of books and articles out in the world about the Lusitania, made even greater by the centennial anniversary of its sinking, and hopefully this episode will serve as a primer should you want to dive deeper into the source material.

The story of the Lusitania starts right at the beginning of the war with the British decision to enact a blockade of German ports. This was pretty much expected by the Germans, French, and really anybody who was paying attention at the time. The British had the largest navy in the world and the best, and least risky, way for that navy to be used was to blockade the German ports to prevent the flow of war material into the country. I’m not going to go into all of the details on this blockade today, expect an entire episode dedicated to it later this year, but I will give enough backstory today so that we can see how it tied into the sinking of the Lusitania. The policy of blockade would lead to the declaration in November 1914 that the entirety of the North Sea was a war zone. Now with this declaration the British, in effect, freed themselves a bit on how aggressively they could pursue the blockade. When the British enacted the blockade they weren’t just stopping military goods from entering the country, which would have been completely within their right as a belligerent in the conflict, they were also stopping all commerce from entering German ports, this included humanitarian supplies like food, medicine, things of the sort that were not weapons or armaments. Now this was technically against the rules. Britain maintained this iron clad blockade of the sea, or at least they liked to think it was iron clad but it actually wouldn’t be greatly effective for the first few months of the war as they sort of got the logistics of keeping that many ships at sea in that great of an area for such a long period of time. By the time we get to 1915 though the blockade is becoming a larger and larger menace for the Germans. This growing cause for concern would lead the Germans to declare unrestricted submarine warfare early in 1915. They would begin by declaring the seas around the British Isles a war zone and that they would sink all shipping without any warning starting on February the 18th. This policy would do away with all of the previously established rules of maritime war, which the Germans had held to up to this point. The German submariners would now have the ability to sink any ships that they found in their sights regardless of cargo, country of origin, or purpose. I’m sure you can imagine how concerned every shipping company in the world became when this news got out. It is important to remember that during the war, and during the Second World War as well, the governments involved didn’t own all of the ships that were carrying goods back and forth. Instead the ships were owned by shipping companies and the governments paid for their services, or requisitioned them in some cases. This meant that, even with insurance guarantees from governments, there was a real risk for shipping companies not just in the warring nations but also neutral countries all over the world, like say, the United States just to pick a random one out of a hat. Up to this point the Germans, for the most part, hadn’t been sinking neutral shipping something that was about to change.

So what were these rules that the British and Germans were breaking with their new policies? Well, there were conventions about blockades and war upon the sea that all of the participants in World War 1 had agreed to, the most recent of these was the Declaration of Paris in 1856 which not only laid down the rules for blockades but also for submarine warfare and for what merchant ships could and could not do. The most important two pieces of these rules were the Cruiser or Prize Rule sections which dealt specifically with submarines and other commerce raiding of merchant ships. To quote a few regulations about what exactly submarines had to do “In their action with regard to merchant ships, submarines must conform to the rules of international law to which surface vessels are subject.” That one is easy, basically they have to obey all other rules, no big deal, but the next one…“In particular, except in the case of persistent refusal to stop on being duly summoned, or of active resistance to visit or search, a warship, whether surface vessel or submarine, may not sink or render incapable of navigation a merchant vessel without having first placed passengers, crew and ship’s papers in a place of safety. For this purpose the ship’s boats are not regarded as a place of safety unless the safety of the passengers and crew is assured, in the existing sea and weather conditions, by the proximity of land, or the presence of another vessel which is in a position to take them on board.” So, what the submarines had to do was take every strongpoint they had, everything that made them successful in the pursuit of war and chuck it right out the window and instead expose themselves and make themselves extremely vulnerable. The entire attack pattern of submarines is based off of stealth and when they surfaced in full view of the other ship they were at their most vulnerable. Now there were restrictions also placed on merchant ships to try and balance this out a bit. The Merchant ships had to fly their own flag, so they couldn’t pretend to be from neutral countries and if they were confronted by an enemy raider be it a surface ship or a submarine they had to stop and allow themselves to be searched. These merchant ships were also not supposed to be armed or to take any hostile action against their attackers. Obviously both of these sets of rules required more than a modicum of trust between both parties in the confrontation. But I believe it presented far more risk to the submarines, something the Germans certainly would have noticed. The process became even more precarious when the British told merchant cruisers to try to ram submarines if they surfaced. Much like in the second world war all these rules would prove to be completely untenable during war time, it was a foregone conclusion really. But I want to make it clear that it wasn’t because the German were monsters or because they were just out for blood but instead the fact that the rules were just too easy to abuse by both sides, and both sides did certainly abuse them equally. All of these abuses came to a head when a German U-Boat crossed paths with the Lusitania.

The Lusitania was a passenger liner that was launched in 1906 by the Cunard Line which owned and operated the ship for the next 9 years. At the time that she was built the Lusitania was the largest ship afloat, only to be surpassed in size by her sister ship the Mauritania just a few weeks later when it was launched. The Cunard line couldn’t afford to build the two ships themselves so instead they reached out to the British government for a loan. This may seem like a slightly odd arrangement for a government to fund a set of passenger liners but it was for a reason. At around this time a lot of the British shipping companies were facing financial difficulties due to increased competition from American and Continental based companies. This caused some concern in the British government. When war came everybody knew that the British war effort would be almost entirely sustained by overseas shipping so it was imperative for the British government to be able to have a large fleet of transport ships available as soon as a war started. It was partially due to this reason that the British government decided to help the Cunard line in the production of the Lusitania and Mauritania in 1906, there was an agreement between the two parties that the ship could be requisitioned and converted into an armored merchant cruiser if it was required. An armored cruiser was, quite literally, just a civilian ship with some guns mounted on it and this is really the root of the controversy that would surround the sinking in 1915. When the war started in 1914 the Lusitania was requisitioned by the navy and it was even listed as an Armored Merchant Cruiser both in official documents and in the 1915 edition of Jane’s Fighting Ships. This act in and of itself wasn’t crazy it was even typical for civilian transports to be converted into Armored Merchant Cruisers during the war. These ships were ideal for the long trans-oceanic voyages that the rest of the shipping took and the armored cruisers made ideal protection from German surface raiders. They also, of course, had large capacities which would allow them to also transport troops, wounded, supplies, really anything that large ships could carry. Obviously they weren’t going to stand up to much of a fight from enemy battleships but in terms of chasing off a few enemy armored cruisers, maybe a destroyer or two, or really just trying to look as menacing as possible, they did pretty good. While the ship was listed as an Armored Merchant Cruiser in official documents in 1915 it found itself making civilian shipping runs from America to Britain transporting goods and civilians between the two countries. The transport of such civilians wasn’t exactly booming during this time, but there was enough to keep the Lusitania and a few other passenger liners busy.

Before the Lusitania made its last voyage out of New York the German Embassy was fully aware of both the unrestricted submarine warfare policy that had been imposed in February as well as the backlash that would result if a bunch of American citizens were killed in an attack. Because of this knowledge, before the Lusitania’s voyage the German Embassy in the United States took out advertisements in several papers all over New York and the eastern seaboard with the following words “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. IMPERIAL GERMAN EMBASSY Washington, D.C., April 22, 1915.” The Lusitania would leave New York about a week and a half later on May 1st. To go along with the 1962 civilians on the ship were 4 million rifle cartridges, 1,250 empty shell cases, 18 cases of non-explosive fuses, and a lot of other non-war material. All of this was listed on the publically available shipping manifest, so it wasn’t like they were hiding this material from anybody. However, there was a more detailed manifest given to the U.S. customs office that said that the empty shell cases were actually live 3 inch artillery shells. These facts are extremely important when looking at the reactions of the three major countries after the sinking which we will discuss shortly. After 6 days at sea the Lusitania found itself just off the southern coast of Ireland and at 2:10PM the U-20, a German U-Boat, fired on the Lusitania with a single torpedo. The torpedo struck on the starboard bow. The first explosion was followed by a second and the ship quickly began to sink. The ship began to list severely very quickly which meant that only 6 of the lifeboats aboard were able to be launched due to how rapidly it was sinking. Charles E. Lauriat Jr. would be one of the men aboard the ship and he would write an entire book about his experiences after the war. These are just two long quotes which I given I succession “I felt that the steamer must make her final plunge any moment…Men were striving to lower the boats and were putting women and children into them, but it seemed to me that it only added horror to the whole situation to put people into a boat that you knew never would be cleared and which would go down with the steamer” After realizing that the boats at his current position would never be launched Charles moved to the other side of the ship “I climbed into the stern of a boat, which was floating flush with the rail on deck B, so far had the steamer settled, and helped clear the fall. We freed our end and swung the ropes clear but we couldn’t make anyone forward understand what to do or how to do it. I remember looking forward and seeing someone, I think it was a steward, bravely cutting away at the thick ropes with a pocket knife. How I wish he had had an axe! What would I have given for one real sailor man forward!” The lifeboat that Charles was in was not able to be launched so he had to jump from the boat before it was brought down with the ship. Most of the people in Charles’ lifeboat or on the ship in general were not as lucky. Of the 1962 people on the ship 1191 lost their lives. Honestly it is somewhat impressive that 764 people were able to survive due to the water temperature and how fast the sinking occurred. Ships from the nearby coast and from the Royal Navy quickly moved in when they learned of the sinking which saved many lives. Of the civilians that lost their lives 128 were from the United States.

With the death of American citizens there was of course a very emotional response from the United States. The British, in general, attempted to stoke the flames while the German representatives also made their case, a primary point of which was the notification in American newspapers about the risks that the civilians were putting themselves in by travelling on a ship that was going through the warzone. The Germans also pointed to the military cargo on board and claimed that this made the ship a valid military target, it was even listed as a military vessel. The United States president, Woodrow Wilson, who will become the center of the American neutrality debate, and the center of several episodes in about 2 years took a level headed approach to the situation. He had high ranking advisors on both sides of the debate. On one side there were members who were sympathetic to the German arguments. They mostly pointed to the fact that the United States was turning a completely blind eye to the British blockade and its illegal seizure of non-military goods. On the other side were advisors who were incensed, justifiably so, by the killing of American civilians. They pointed to the usage of unrestrictued submarine warfare, how it broke all of the rules of war at the time and how it was bound to continue killing countless civilians. Wilson believed very strongly, as did most of the American public at this stage, that the United States should stay out of the war and therefore he chose a middle path. He demanded an apology from the Germans and a change to their tactics so that this type of incident would not occur again. It would take a little while but the Germans would finally agree to the official apology as well an alteration to their rules of engagement so that submarines could only attack ships flying the British flag without warning and would treat neutral ships by the old prize rules. This was enough for President Wilson to consider the matter done, although the event would have a much longer lifespan in the American publics’ memory. We will of course revisit the topic of unrestricted submarine warfare and its effect on America in 1917 when the time comes.

The Lusitania incident, maybe moreso than any other incident we have discussed so far is shrouded in a mist of conspiracy theories. Most of these theories revolve around what exactly the British government did and didn’t know prior to the incident and what exactly they thought would happen. One of the theories is that the Lusitania was carrying far more military material than is officially claimed. There could have been tons more on board if the manifest was slightly…non-factual. Dives to the site have found the rifle ammunition listed on the manifest but in 2014 the British released papers from 1982 where they told a diving company that was exploring the wreck that there were definitely explosives on board and they should be careful. Another of the theories is that the British government willfully put the Lusitania in the path of danger as a way to maybe bring America closer to the British side. America was the Great Neutral and if there was anyway of bringing them into the war soon, was it worth one ship and the lives on board? There are still papers and records classified by the British government relating to communications about the Lusitania which is more than a little odd, although I’m not sure it means too much. Even if it means nothing, it is more than enough to get people’s imaginations running wild. I generally fall on the more benign side of these theories. Generally it is the most simple, and maybe even boring, story that is true. I think that the British government didn’t want the Lusitania to be sunk and maybe there were a few more bits of military cargo than claimed. After it was sunk the government took the best course of action for their country and that was to use the tragic loss of life to their benefit by using it to bring a large nation onto their side.

Did it change the course of the war? I’m inclined to say probably not. Sure it maybe nudged the American public a bit towards Britain but, honestly, I don’t see a timeline where that doesn’t happen even if the Lusitania never existed. It was a tool used by the propaganda creators in the Allied countries to use to their advantage, and they did a very good job but without the Lusitania there probably just would have been some other incident at some other time that they would have used. The strain that German unrestricted submarine warfare put on neutral countries was severe enough that it probably would have eventually brought the United States into the war even if tragedies like the deaths on the Lusitania never happened. The fascination around the Lusitania, and the questions that are still unanswered have resulted in hundreds of books in publication about the incident. The propaganda and spin from both sides has caused the real story to be difficult to find and to put into perspective. What it really comes down to is the fact that on May 7th 1915 a German U-Boat sunk a ship and 1,191 innocent civilians lost their lives.

Thank you for listening this week and I hope you will join me next week as we take our first trip into the air to look at some of the aerial innovation that was occurring during the first 9 months of the war.