The RMS Lusitania, a British ocean liner, was tragically sunk by a German U-boat torpedo off the coast of Ireland on May 7, 1915, during World War I.

This catastrophic event resulted in the loss of 1,198 lives, including 128 Americans, and took a mere 18 minutes for the ship to sink after being struck.

The sinking of the Lusitania significantly shifted public opinion, especially in the United States, against Germany and was a key factor influencing the U.S.’s eventual entry into the war.

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Background Of The RMS Lusitania

The RMS Lusitania, conceptualized in the early 1900s, was a product of intense maritime competition, primarily between Britain and Germany. This era witnessed a race to build the largest, fastest, and most luxurious ocean liners. The Lusitania, commissioned by the Cunard Line, a British shipping company, was to be Britain’s answer to the growing dominance of German liners.

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Construction of the Lusitania began in 1904 at the John Brown & Company shipyard in Clydebank, Scotland. The ship’s design was a marvel of the time, incorporating the latest advancements in shipbuilding and engineering. It was powered by revolutionary turbine engines, which allowed for greater speed and efficiency compared to traditional piston engines.

Measuring about 787 feet in length and with a beam of 87 feet, the Lusitania was, at the time of her launch, one of the world’s largest passenger ships. Her design emphasized not only speed but also luxury. The interiors were sumptuously appointed, featuring dining rooms, lounges, and cabins finished with the finest materials and craftsmanship. The first-class accommodations were particularly opulent, designed to cater to the wealthiest and most influential passengers of the era.

Launch of the RMS Lusitania 7 June 1906.

The Lusitania’s amenities included electric lighting, wireless telegraphy, and revolutionary safety features, including watertight compartments and advanced lifeboat provisions. Despite these safety measures, the design did not anticipate the kind of rapid sinking that would later occur after a torpedo strike.

The Lusitania embarked on her maiden voyage in September 1907, sailing from Liverpool to New York. Her speed and elegance quickly made her a favorite among transatlantic passengers. The ship regularly made crossings between England and the United States, carrying a mix of wealthy travelers, immigrants, and cargo.

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During this period, the Lusitania, along with her sister ship, the RMS Mauretania, captured the public’s imagination. They were symbols of national pride and technological achievement, representing the apex of British naval engineering and luxury.

The Lusitania played a crucial role in the era of transatlantic travel, which was marked by an increasing movement of people and goods between Europe and North America. This era saw a mix of passengers, including affluent travelers seeking luxury, as well as immigrants seeking new lives in the United States.

Outbreak Of WWI

The outbreak of World War I in July 1914 marked a significant shift in the nature of naval warfare. The war began primarily as a land conflict, but the sea quickly became a crucial front. Great Britain, with its dominant Royal Navy, sought to leverage its maritime strength, while Germany looked to challenge this dominance with its growing naval capabilities, particularly its fleet of U-boats (submarines).

One of the first British strategies was to implement a naval blockade of Germany. This blockade was designed to cut off all supplies to the Central Powers, aiming to weaken Germany’s economic and military capacity. The blockade restricted not just military supplies but also civilian goods, leading to significant shortages and hardships in Germany and its allies.

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The British blockade was unprecedented in its scope and effectiveness. It was a key factor in the eventual Allied victory, but it also contributed to significant civilian suffering and was a subject of controversy.

In response, Germany initiated a submarine warfare campaign, primarily using U-boats. This campaign targeted Allied shipping lines, aiming to disrupt the supply and troop movements crucial for the Allied war effort. German U-boat strategy evolved over the course of the war, starting with targeted attacks under the “prize rules” (which called for warning the target and ensuring the safety of passengers and crew) to a more unrestricted submarine warfare, which involved attacking ships without warning.

In this perilous maritime environment, civilian ships, including the Lusitania, found themselves in increasingly dangerous waters. Despite the risks, ocean liners continued to operate transatlantic routes. The Lusitania, renowned for its speed, was thought to be able to outrun submarines, offering a sense of security to its passengers and crew.

The traditional rules of naval engagement, which protected civilian vessels, were being eroded in this new form of warfare. The distinction between military and civilian targets became blurred, leading to increasing risks for passenger liners. This situation was further complicated by the use of ships like the Lusitania for carrying war materials, which, in the eyes of the Germans, made them legitimate military targets.

In the lead-up to the Lusitania’s fateful voyage, there were explicit warnings from the German Embassy in the United States about the dangers of traveling through the war zone. However, these warnings were largely unheeded by the public and the shipping companies, who either underestimated the threat or believed in the invincibility of such grand ships against submarine attacks.

Her Last Voyage

The Lusitania’s final voyage began on May 1, 1915, when it departed from New York City bound for Liverpool. Despite the backdrop of war and the known risks posed by German U-boats, the ship was fully booked. The passengers aboard were a diverse group, including American and British citizens, prominent businessmen, writers, artists, and families. Many were confident in the ship’s speed and advanced design, believing it could evade any German submarine attack.

One of the most contentious aspects of the Lusitania’s final voyage was its cargo. Officially, the Lusitania was carrying a typical mix of passenger luggage, consumer goods, and raw materials. However, it was later revealed that the ship was also transporting a significant quantity of war materials bound for Britain, including ammunition. This cargo was legal under American neutrality laws at the time but later fueled German justifications for targeting the ship.

RMS Lusitania departing New York Harbor, 1 May 1915.

As the Lusitania made its way across the Atlantic, the atmosphere aboard was reportedly relaxed. Passengers enjoyed the luxurious amenities and the excitement of transatlantic travel, largely oblivious to the lurking dangers. The ship maintained a high speed, but wartime conditions, including a coal shortage and the need to navigate carefully through mined waters, meant that it wasn’t traveling at its maximum speed.

Captain William Thomas Turner, commanding the Lusitania, was an experienced mariner. He was aware of the risks posed by German U-boats and took various precautions. The ship’s route was altered to avoid known danger zones, and lookouts were posted to watch for submarines. However, the ship did not travel in a zigzag pattern, a maneuver used to evade submarines, as it was thought that the ship’s speed made this unnecessary.

As the Lusitania approached the coast of Ireland, it entered waters that were known to be patrolled by German U-boats. The area had already seen several ship sinkings. Despite the clear danger, the Lusitania continued on its planned course, under the assumption that its speed and size provided adequate protection.

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Before the voyage, the German Embassy in the United States had issued a warning, published in newspapers, stating that ships flying the flag of Great Britain, or any of her allies, were at risk of being sunk in the waters surrounding the British Isles. This warning was part of Germany’s policy of unrestricted submarine warfare. While some passengers and crew were anxious about this warning, many others discounted it, trusting in the ship’s capabilities and the unlikely prospect of a direct attack on a passenger liner.

The Sinking Of RMS Lusitania

On the afternoon of May 7, 1915, as the Lusitania neared the southern coast of Ireland, it entered into the crosshairs of the German submarine U-20, commanded by Kapitänleutnant Walther Schwieger. The U-boat had been patrolling the area as part of Germany’s intensified submarine warfare campaign. Upon spotting the Lusitania, Schwieger recognized a prime target and decided to attack, despite the ship’s civilian nature.

At approximately 2:10 p.m., the U-20 fired a single torpedo at the Lusitania. The torpedo struck the starboard side of the ship, below the bridge. Passengers and crew reported hearing a loud explosion, which was followed by a larger, more devastating second explosion.

The nature and cause of the second explosion remain a subject of debate and speculation. Some theories suggest it was caused by the ignition of the munitions the Lusitania was carrying, while others propose it was due to a boiler or coal dust explosion. Regardless of the cause, this second explosion was catastrophic, significantly accelerating the ship’s sinking.

An illustration depicting the sinking of the Lusitania.

The damage from the explosions was severe, and the Lusitania began to list sharply to starboard. Chaos ensued as passengers and crew scrambled to the lifeboats. The severe list and the rapid sinking made it extremely difficult to launch the lifeboats, resulting in many of them spilling their occupants back into the sea or trapping them on board.

The Lusitania sank in just 18 minutes, an astonishingly quick demise for such a large vessel. This rapid sinking left little time for an orderly evacuation. Of the 1,959 passengers and crew aboard, 1,198 lost their lives, including 128 Americans. The high casualty rate was due in part to the quick sinking and the difficulties in launching lifeboats, as well as the cold temperatures of the water.

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Rescue efforts were hampered by the Lusitania’s location and the rapidity of its sinking. Fishing boats and small vessels from the nearby Irish coast were among the first to reach the survivors. Larger ships arrived later to assist, but for many, help came too late.

The sinking of the Lusitania sent shockwaves around the world. The loss of civilian lives, particularly those of Americans, caused international outrage and significantly shifted public opinion, especially in the United States, against Germany. This event was pivotal in eroding the neutral stance of the U.S. and eventually contributed to its decision to enter World War I in 1917.

Aftermath

The sinking of the Lusitania had a profound impact on public opinion in the United States, which, until then, had maintained a position of neutrality in World War I. The loss of 128 American lives in this disaster ignited a wave of anti-German sentiment across the country. American newspapers and public figures condemned the attack as barbaric and inhumane, fueling a shift in public opinion that gradually eroded the previously strong sentiment for neutrality.

Globally, the sinking was met with horror and condemnation. In Allied countries, particularly in Britain, the event was used as a propaganda tool to depict Germany as ruthless and uncivilized. This sentiment further solidified the Allied resolve against Germany and its allies.

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Germany’s response to the sinking was one of defense and justification. The German government argued that the Lusitania was carrying a large cache of ammunition and was thus a legitimate military target under the rules of war. This claim, while partially true, did little to quell the international outrage, particularly as it involved civilian casualties.

The Lusitania incident significantly affected the path towards U.S. involvement in World War I. While it did not immediately lead to the United States entering the war, it was a critical step in changing American public opinion. The incident put pressure on President Woodrow Wilson’s administration to take a firmer stand against German aggression, leading to a series of diplomatic exchanges between the U.S. and Germany regarding unrestricted submarine warfare.