The Back Story Behind The Lusitania
''.....Responsible Spokesman For The Rights of Humanity.''
The sinking of the Lusitania was not the single largest factor contributing to the entrance of the United States into the war two years later, but it certainly solidified the public's opinions towards Germany. President Woodrow Wilson, who had insisted on neutrality and isolationism, found himself further and further drawn into the conflict. Many, though, consider the sinking a turning point— technologically, ideologically, and strategically—in the history of modern warfare, signaling the end of the traditional military war practices of the nineteenth century and the beginning of a more ominous and vicious era of total warfare.
On February 5th, 1915, Germany issued a proclamation that made the front page of the New York Times. ‘’New Berlin Decree Declares Waters Around British Isles to Be a War Zone’’ Germany warned that ‘’even passengers ships would not be spared.’’
The war had only just begun when Germany unleashed a terrible new weapon of war – the U-Boat. The rules of warfare were being rewritten and the Germans had conducted a blockade around the British Isles to prevent arms and food supplies form making their delivery. At first, these U-Boats were taken lightly. But still, every report of a U-Boat was brought to the attention of the Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill. It was in clear violation of international law, but Churchill thought the small merchant ships were expendable given how many there were.
Despite the threats to passenger ships, the British again seemed unfazed. Churchill wasn’t about to lose neutral shipping to its many ports, which was even greater than the United States. Many other countries were shipping goods to England.
A huge warning from the German embassy appeared in the newspapers. The Lusitania was the flagship of the British Empire. Surely, the Germans wouldn’t take down a passenger ship with civilians. To do so would guarantee that the neutral nations of the world would play their cards on behalf of the British.
The huge passenger ship was a city on the open seas, a marvel that stopped people in their tracks when it approached shores everywhere. It was believed that the sheer speed of passenger ships was enough to evade a German torpedo. Even if the captain had received warnings of torpedoes, what could be done? So, when subsequent warnings came in, the initial reaction was to ignore them.
To see the Lusitania in her day was to see a splendid vessel. She seemed indestructible. In order to ease people’s tensions about the German warnings, the ministry sold the idea that a fast ship could evade any torpedo. After all – no ship travelling at 14-knots or greater had been hit by one. Secondly, there was an assumption that the Lusitania would enjoy a British Warfare escort when it came within the area of the war-zone.
There was much asked by the press regarding the warning of the Germans. It definitely had our attention and there was a general uneasiness about the possibility of being sunk. Captain William Turner was a seasoned captain with great sea-experience and he was probably the most trusted captain in the entire fleet. Turner seemed nonplussed by the threats and thought the entire idea preposterous.
But the Germans were making steady improvements to their U-Boats. Within a year of 1914, their U-Boats could go further, carry up to seven torpedoes, and were actually capable of travelling a faster speed than the British had calculated.
At 12:28, Lusitania takes up its anchor and leaves the harbor of New York on its way to Liverpool England. Two Hundred Americans were on board, and over half were children. At the same time, on the same day, the German U-Boat U20 had also left its shores. Captain Walther Schwerner was already a hero in Germany for the amount of success he had sinking British merchant vessels. He seemed to have an uncanny knack for sneaking up on these vessels and his accuracy was the best in the entire German fleet.
<----- U20 Submarine Capt. Schweiger--->
The risk in being on a U-Boat is that planes could easily see the submarines from the air. Since they hadn’t yet developed a vertical launching base, they were helpless to fire at the planes overhead. Furthermore, destroyers were always in the area and it was quickly realized that a destroyer needn’t even hit a submarine to blow it to pieces, Even a close call would rip the rivets apart and split the delicate sheet metal tube that they were in.
Little did Schweiger know that the admiralty had decoded their messages. Intelligence such as this was a great gift. It meant that ships could be diverted away from potential danger. But – not every ship could make use of this technology, for it would tip the Germans off and put the British back into the dark again. Although it is difficult to accept – some of the merchant ships were left deliberately out in the open so as to not tip the Germans off. It was a scary and risky proposition to be in one of those vessels!
The U20 was seen in the Irish Sea and appeared to be waiting. An emergency bulletin came to the bridge indicating that another British vessel was sunk off the coast of Ireland near Queenstown. Although it was a small fishing boat, it sent another shock to the British. Although these were smaller vessels – it was costing the Germans precious torpedoes for such small targets and thus there was a trade-off; knock out British shipping even though it was taking few lives in exchange for the propaganda it would have in Germany. A big ship would greatly impact the entire war and enhance Schweiger’s reputation.
Even still - there was little doubt as to the U-Boat that was responsible. Churchill now grew concerned about the possibility of a passenger ship as a target. ‘‘’The essential focus for our fleet is top-line vessels. Up until now, the U-boats have been knocking out fishing boats. Now we fear they have raised the stakes.’’
Given the fact that they were still four days away from the range of the U20, there was no reason to worry. But the feeling now was growing more pensive. Oftentimes the wealthier classes were permitted to take tours of the Bridge. This was not the case on this trip. Even Alfred Vanderbilt was denied a special trip to see how the ship operates.
But even with this warning, the British admiralty chose to tell the Lusitania to zig-zag and move up to 21-knots. One suggestion was to re-route the Lusitania around the north of Ireland. ‘’Why add another day to the thousands of people onboard?’’ Asked Churchill. All warships in the area were alerted but they wouldn’t get there for an additional day, resulting in the extra day of passage.
Meanwhile, onboard the ship, the captain reluctantly decided to offer a warning to the passengers. The survivors recounted the warning by Captain Turner. ‘’Ladies and Gentlemen, we have had a warning that German subs have been spotted in the Irish Sea. Tomorrow, we will be escorted by the Royal Navy upon entering the war zone.’’ He continued, ‘’…Keep your curtains drawn shut and gentlemen, do not light your cigarettes while on deck.’’
Captain Turner was assuring the passengers but he knew all too well that the Royal Navy wasn’t going to be there. Vanderbilt challenged Turner at once. ‘’Why are we not operating at full speed?’’ he asked. Turner opened up and told Vanderbilt that it was because they were told to conserve coal. Even still, at 21-knots, there was no way a torpedo was going to catch up to her.
The Admiralty thought the U-Boat warning was nothing new- after all, warnings had been a part of every day life on the Lusitania. But even the passengers were ill at ease when they didn’t see any British destroyers escorting the ship. Meanwhile, the Lusitania was ordered to be darkened and three of the four boilers were ordered at full-speed.
The morning of May 7th was a foggy one. The Lusitania had to slow down to fifteen knots in case they came upon something. They ended up issuing a special warning to the Lusitania informing them of the proximity of U20. Without visibility however, this was going to be a difficult situation. But when the fog lifted, the sight of the Irish countryside lifted everyone’s spirits.
Then – on day five, the U20 sent out the alarm. The distinctive smokestacks were suddenly sighted. A great excitement ensued as the voice scripts aboard the U20 indicate:
‘’Bow Planes set at zero! Stern, set at zero! Stern planes up to five! Come up – both planes set at zero. Hold now, hold now at periscope depth!’’ The tension quickened and collective heart-rates raced.
One observation was obvious from the onset. Captain Schweiger mentioned, ‘’She seems slow – much slower than normal.’’ The ship is moving so slow in-fact, that it seems as if the Germans are miscalculating the mathematical figures. ‘’It can’t be right, ‘’ says one engineer to another. Even still, the Lusitania is making decent enough speed that a direct hit would seem daunting. Schweiger scanned the waters for an escort ship. ‘’Nothing…Nothing…’’
Then – the British make a huge mistake. The Lusitania changes course and heads directly toward the U20. The move gave the Germans a way to measure the distance and speed against the backdrop of he Irish landscape. They could scarcely believe their eyes. Now a direct hit seemed a possibility they didn’t have moments before
‘’It’s not possible!’’ Schweiger exclaimed. But it was true. A great amount of tension overruns the crew of the U20. The torpedo is loaded in the firing valve. ‘’FIRE!’’ The U20 has now become a killing machine in a mass category. As soon as the order was given, there was a palpable pull on the sub. An eerie quiet was aboard the ship while the men waited. And waited.
Meanwhile, At 2:10 pm, the lookouts on the Lusitania spot the torpedo tail trailing in the water. The captain ordered the ship turned hard-to-starboard. Panic ensued. A small explosion was followed by a larger one. Almost at once, the ship began to list. First at seven degrees, then at ten. The torpedo locked the rudder and knocked the engines out of commission. The scene below was gruesome. Flash fires burned flesh completely off of the sailors. Like monsters they walked in agony while burning to death.
There was chaos onboard.
From their vantage point, the Germans could see the life-boats being lowered into the water. Suddenly there was a sense of remorse onboard the U20. One of the officers, Anton Vogele refused an order to fire a second torpedo. It hardly mattered at this point. The Lusitania was in dire trouble.
The ship had to slow down in order for the lifeboats to be settled into the water. The ship was leaning at 20-degrees and the order was given to abandon the ship. There was little to do now but wait and watch. Lifeboats were set into the water but with many people floundering in the water, they would weigh down the boats and cause the deaths of those thought to be saved.
It had been just three years since the Titanic went down and the Lusitania was a wonderful sight to see. Thousands of people came out to the port to see the Lusitania off of Pier-54. It must have been an awesome feeling indeed. Banners flew and huge signs were everywhere. Carrying the hopes and dreams of 2000 people into the Atlantic was a ship opportunity that made an uncertain voyage to a continent mired in a war that Americans could scarcely imagine in its neutrality.
The ship was built in 1906 and was among the first to be completed. There was fierce competition in the Atlantic trade and tourism industry and passenger dream ships were more and more common. But the war in Europe was very much on the minds of those here in the States. Woodrow Wilson’s neutrality had seemed to some as if it was appeasement. The German members of the embassy were regular visitors to Wilson who amazingly let them use the White House Telegraph machine that was in his office, often leaving them to their privacy!
But in Europe, there was little doubt who the catalyst was to the awful bloodbath. Popular sentiment blamed the Germans, which at a time of high Roman Catholic immigration, created a real divide here in the States. Germans were spat upon, forced to close businesses and suffered other indignations.
Germany was concerned that the Lusitania was carrying weapons onboard and began to torpedo merchant and passenger vessels alike. The earlier German attacks on merchant ships off the south coast of Ireland prompted the British Admiralty to warn the Lusitania to avoid the area or take simple evasive action, such as zigzagging to confuse U-boats plotting the vessel’s course.
The New York Times produced a list of the cargo aboard the Lusitania. There were indeed weapons onboard, however these were small arms, pistols and rifles. In fact, there was an estimated total of $66,000 worth of guns on the ship. In today’s terms, that’s close to $400,000.
Among other items on the cargo manifest include 288 lbs of American Cheese and 52 tubs of butter. There was 100 cases of pork-and-beans and 70 lbs of maple syrup. There was 199 lbs of sheet brass along with aluminum and other parts that used in the making of armaments.
Day two on the Lusitania begins as the one before. But no one knew what was to come. There was the great playwright and theatre producer was surrounded by piles of scripts. Frohman was best known for the ‘Adventures of Peter Pan’ and his outlook was one of great optimism. He was loved throughout New York City. He suffered from Rheumatism and he used a walking stick to allow him to walk.
Though often in pain, he never showed it. He was pleasantly surprised to find his friend in cabin D-15, twenty-five year old French Actress Rita Jolivet. She had been in a number of his productions. She bought her ticket on a whim, only making her decision early in the morning. World War I was very personal to immigrants here in the United States and Jolivet had family fighting in battle. So when her sixteen year-old brother was due to be posted to the Western Front and she wanted to see him.
What a ship the Lusitania was! ‘’The Greyhound of the Seas," driven by four giant Parson’s Engines at 68,000 horsepower, its top speed of 25 of knots made her a world famous speed holder. Overseeing the engines was one of Britain's finest navigators- Andrew Coburn. He had reached the pinnacle of his career. He was with Cunard shipping for twenty five years and was described as ‘’ridiculously competent.’’ Her arrival would take just six days and this was important because U-Boats could only hit slow moving targets. But that didn’t matter to the U-20.
On the bridge of the Lusitania are the dreams of the crew. Percy Hefner was one of the members of the team. He was newly married and described as ‘’refreshingly sober, not given to drink.’’ Way back in 1907, he was a witness to the launch of the Lusitania in Glasgow. He wanted nothing more than to serve on that ship. The torpedo fired by the U-Boat closes in on Lusitania. An urgent call came to the bridge that here was a torpedo coming. How anyone knew was a story all by itself.
But the captain could do little but ignore it. The impact was alarming to everyone. Still twelve miles from shore, the Lusitania was too far off to get a speedy rescue. The explosion was just above the water line and initially it wasn’t seen as threatening. The captain wanted to ensure that the boiler room doors were closed to ensure that water from one compartment didn’t flood into the others, something they would have certainly picked up on with the sinking of the Titanic. Then – about a minute after the torpedo hit, there was a secondary explosion.
Thought to be a box of weapons or bombs, it was in-fact a boiler room explosion. But now the ship is listing 25-degrees to starboard. The captain could not turn the ship. Its controls were stuck. The U-Boat by now was low in fuel and down to three torpedoes. Schweiger was sure he needn’t fire another one. ‘’…I couldn’t find it in my heart to fire another torpedo into the mass of those who were already drowning.’’ Meanwhile, onboard the ship, people in lower areas of the boat attempted to take an elevator to the deck. Just three hours later the ship was hit with more explosions as boilers blew and the electricity went out.
People were trapped in the elevators. With the ship listing as it was – launching the lifeboats was all but impossible. They would swing backwards and be ripped across the deck. people made the decisions to jump into the water. Frohman continued to pass his lifejacket to others. He calmly smoked his cigar and encouraged others to survive. There were many stories concerning his altruistic behavior. One person recalled him saying something to the effect, ‘’Why fear death, it is the most beautiful adventure life gives us.’’ It was a quote from Peter Pan.
A 1916 History Book ''Gleefully'' promotes World War I
Note the Image on the Cover - The Lusitania
Sixteen minutes after the impact the ship is listing at 34-degrees. The green cliff of water had overtaken 90% of the ship. At 2:28, just 18 minutes after she was struck, the Lusitania disappears under the sea. Watches found on many of the bodies of the dead were all stopped at this time. For those that survived, the wait was long. Two hours went by. It seems that ships weren’t in any hurry to take their chances on navigating around U-Boats. The water was just 50-degrees and hypothermia quickly set in. The conditions were particularly hard on infants that survived the sinking of the ship and several died while waiting to be rescued.
Three hours later, 700 people would finally be saved. The dead however arrived on the shore for weeks to come. 1,992 people would lose their lives, including 128 Americans. Woodrow Wilson was furious. ‘’The British are thieves, the Germans are murderers.’’ The Germans did not want to risk the United States involvement in the war. So, for the time being, they seemed to appease Wilson by promising not to employ unrestricted submarine warfare. But opinion on Germany took a steady turn for the worse with stories of their atrocities in Belgium. The New York Times reported a slaughter in Brussels in 1916.
Figure 5- Survivors of the Lusitania Figure 4- Cokh Ireland (Formerly Queenstown)
Back in the States there was a general outrage but surprisingly the story slipped to page three as other events in the war resumed their place in the Times. When another vessel narrowly escaped a torpedo, it was clear the Germans weren't going to honor their agreement. Meanwhile, within the German leadership, the realization set in that U-Boats were the weapon of the future and much of their scientific and mechanical research was devoted to maintaining their navigational superiority with respect to U-Boat warfare.
On March 24, 1916, the Sussex, a channel ferry, was on a voyage from Folkestone to Dieppe when she was sunk by another U-Boat and severely damaged. What should have been a short trip became a nightmare for those on board. 82 people were killed during the attack and many more were injured. Public opinion showed outrage and anger.
57 people were killed in the blast with several US citizens wounded. The public had more than their share. Enraged, angry, and indignant, simultaneous demonstrations erupted throughout the United States. Wilson clearly had to do something. Congress called a session and the President spoke to the nation. Although he wanted to appear strong, but in fact he was even more ambiguous than before.
Woodrow Wilson continued to his position of isolation but began to leave the door open. His ability to speak in long and flowing terms failed to reach many in the States. But his message was resounding in Europe. The British remained desperately hopeful that the Americans would finally enter the war. But in the meantime – they were growing equally frustrated with Wilson’s slow moving ebb toward battle.
‘’I have deemed it my duty, therefore, to say to the Imperial German Government that if it is still its purpose to prosecute relentless and indiscriminate warfare against vessels of commerce by the use of submarines, notwithstanding the now demonstrated impossibility of conducting that warfare in accordance with what the Government of the United States must consider the sacred and indisputable rules of international law and the universally recognized dictates of humanity, the Government of the United States is at last forced to the conclusion that there is but one course it can pursue and that unless the Imperial German Government should now immediately declare and effect an abandonment of its present methods of warfare against passenger and freight-carrying vessels, this Government can have no choice but to sever diplomatic relations with the Government of the German Empire altogether.
This decision I have arrived at with the keenest regret; the possibility of the action contemplated I am sure all thoughtful Americans will look forward to with unaffected reluctance. But we cannot forget that we are in some sort and by the force of circumstances the responsible spokesmen of the rights of humanity, and that we cannot remain silent while those rights seem in process of being swept utterly away in the maelstrom of this terrible war.’’
Woodrow Wilson, Address to Congress 1915
The British Use Propaganda to Drive American Opinion
The British were masters at shaping public opinion. There was no doubt that the British were unhappy with American neutrality during their worst war. ‘’They (The United States) offer no explanation for the lack of involvement in a war that will not end until it is on the shores of New York City!’’ Protested a furious Lloyd George.(Member of Parliament)
Winston Churchill was credited for coming up with the idea of turning public opinion against the Germans. He believed that American causalities would entangle the United States into the war.
He was very impatient with American neutrality. But Churchill was well aware of American power and industry. Yet for two years England held off the enemy. They made sure he was fighting with English forces while on the European continent.
Statistics of War: World War I was truly a World Conflict. 27 Nations enlisted people to fight in the conflict. One of the least known facts has to do with two Indian fighter pilots. Harden Singh Malik was the first native of India to sign with the Royal Air Force.
He would ultimately serve as his countries’ ambassador to France.
Indra Lal Roy was India’s only Ace. He was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.
What is it that made the Lusitania such an enigma in history? The sinking of the ship shaped American public opinion. Wilson still refused to act - instead offering his 'objection' to the action. William Jennings Bryan - a renowned pacifist, resigned over Wilson's refusal to act. The public opinion was so strongly aghast at the German actions that it began to affect Wilson's popularity. Isolationism comes with a huge cost.
The British Admiralty had secretly subsidized her construction and the ship was built to Admiralty specifications with the understanding that at the outbreak of war the ship would be consigned to government service. This was the understanding with all of the vessels from this era.
As war clouds gathered in 1913, the Lusitania quietly entered dry dock in Liverpool and was fitted for war service. This included the installation of ammunition magazines and gun mounts on her decks. The mounts, concealed under the teak deck, were ready for the addition of the guns when needed.
The legacy of the German war mentality was to own the seas. Geographically land-locked, Germany held few terrain advantages. It could be attacked from multiple sides. But on the high seas, Germany could bring other countries to their knees. It was a lesson learned in World War I with the sinking of the Lusitania. After all, Germany was the first to build a fleet of underwater boats. The United States had only experimented with submarines.
World War I didn't teach the lessons we needed to adhere to. We know this because the same mistakes were made heading into World-War-II. It was with devastating consequences that American Isolationism would prevail as it did.
When it came time to help the British, the United States could offer only a few WWI ships that needed to be upgraded in the most major of ways. This was 1940 and it was an election year. Americans had no appetite for war and so it left Roosevelt with few options to help the English. The old ships were all England would get until America's inclusion in the war.
They were hardly prepared to take on World War-II era technology. In World War II, the German U-Boats were efficient in their brutality and blockade ability. Admiral Doenitz stretched out the U-Boats and surrounded Britain. The idea was to attack convoys at night. Doenitz called it ''Wolfpack.'' The U-Boats are to attack on the surface and where they cannot be detected by sonar.
On October 5th, 1940, a convoy of 35 ships were loaded with timber and steel. But many of the ships are old and slow, representing a perfect target for the U-Boats. The U-Boat 48 converged on the convoy with five other U-Boats. The moonlight created a perfect lighting for U-Boats to strike. Barely visible from the bow of a ship, these ominous explosive sea stalkers were able to get very close to the target, ensuring maximum damage.
The attack is led by Otto Kretschmer, also known as the ''Tonnage King.'' He sank over 120 tons of shipping. It critically endangered the food supplies of Britain and Scotland. Kretschmer was a master strategist, and was among the first to understand the importance of sea positioning. His attention to detail would also be part of his undoing.
The German High-Command insisted on knowing the positions of every U-Boat in the North Atlantic. Kretschmer insisted on it too. He wanted to be a hero in Germany and he consistently set himself in favorable position to sink these merhant marine vessels. Typically he liked to get ahead of the convoy and let the merchant ships come to him. Time and time again, the convoy took torpedoes. The Germans had mastered the sea - for the time being.
But it was only a matter of time before the code-breakers in England figured out the codes. These code-breakers were mostly women, making this the first use of women in an intelligence gathering operation. Known as The Bletchley Park Codebreaking Operation, these 10,000 people were vital in saving the British from a certain defeat during World War II.
The U-Boats sank over half the convoy and ships were urged not to pick up the survivors. They couldn't take a chance on getting hit any more. British soldiers were left to freeze in the chilling waters and drown. Throughout the autumn of 1940, the U-Boats pick off the British supply ships in great numbers. By now, Doenitz feels the U-Boats are winning the war for Germany by sinking two and half tons of cargo while the Luftwaffen devestated London form the air. England's future looked bleak.
Of course, all of this changed when Japan attacked the USA at Pearl Harbor in 1941. A war that was going the way of the Germans was now at risk for them with a new player against them. The Germans initially wanted to wait to declare war against the USA after the attack kn Hawaii. But they were all-in now. The war was comprehensive and total, and it would spell the beginning of the end of German naval superiority.
The sinking of the Lusitania never strayed far from British consciousness. Doenitz made sure that the German U-Boats were starving England into submission. Facing certain defeat, the British had to come up with new answers for old problems. With each sinking of convoy ships, it was compared to the Lusitania. Righteous indignation caused the British to throw extra resources into developing a maritime program that would finally challenge the Germans.
The Lusitania brought America into not one, but indirectly, two World Wars. Germany would no longer be able to capitalize on its naval superiority for any length of time as the United States and Britain and France would be ready to meet the challenge. In many ways, the Lusitania sacrifced it all to give the war to the Allies and forever change the face of history. ****
Bridgeland 2002, pp. 89-98