25 July 2015

A magnificent luxury liner torpedoed: Lusitania 1915

The Cunard liner Lusitania must have been a beautiful ship, mostly for the 563 first class passengers and the 464 second class passen­g­ers. Not for the 1,138 passengers in steerage who were squished in small cabins, but at least they had electric lights and heating.

Lusitania Online shows us how majestic the facilities were. The First Class library-writing room was fitted out in the 18th Century style of the Adams brothers; the First Class lounge was a master-piece of James Millar's architech­ture. In the first class lounge, the huge barrel-vaulted skylight contained 12 stained glass windows by Oscar Patterson. But it was the First Class Dining Saloon that was the joy of James Millar's architecture - the Saloon occupied two decks and was capped by a huge dome.

The book Lusitania: Triumph, Tragedy and the End of the Edwardian Age by Greg King and Penny Wilson said the ship was so luxurious that she was the favoured vessel of the rich and famous who crossed the Atlantic. Regularly! The art dealers and film stars must have imag­ined they had the best of both worlds – Edwardian elegance AND Mod­ernity. And the ship was fast! Known as the Greyhound of the Seas, the Lusitania was the fastest liner afloat.

Lusitania's first class lounge and music room

The War to End All Wars had been raging since July 1914. And by early 1915 a new threat began to materialise in World War One: submarines. At first subs were used by the Germans only to attack British naval vessels, and they were sometimes successful. Then the U-boats began to attack merchant vessels, if they thought weapons were on board.

So why did the Lusitania sail? She had been briefly commandeered for war service in 1914, but had soon after been returned to commercial uses - passengers, mail and freight across the Atlantic.  

Then it all changed, as a result of the British declar­ing the North Sea a war zone in November 1914. Geography and naval inferiority denied Germany any opportunity to establish an equivalent counter blockade by surface ships. So German's target became merchant ships, to cut the supply line at source.  It was a desperate "no holds barred" strategy, but the alternative would have been slow economic strangulation for Germany.

The German government upped its submarine campaign. On 4th February 1915 the British were given a fortnight’s warning: Germany declared the seas around the British Isles a war zone… where all Allied ships would be sunk without warning. The Germans, however, did note that efforts would be taken to avoid sinking neutral ships.

So why would intelligent people sail on a British ship into the dangerous North Sea War Zone after 18th Feb 1915? Did they think that wealthy people would be exempt from torpedoes in the mid­dle of a hideous war? Or did they assume the Lusitania could speed her way out of any submarine attack? The crew may have had no choice about sailing, but I think the paying customers must have been demented!

The Lusitania was torpedoed off Cork in Ireland
7th May 1915 

The German embassy in Washington paid for a large advertisement in the New York Times and 49 other American newspapers. It was to remind travellers intending to embark on the Atlantic voyage that British or Allied vessels were liable to destruction in the war zone adjacent to the British Isles. And that any travellers who crossed by such means did so at their own risk. As it happened, the Lusitania and its customers left New York City on May 1st 1915, bound for its home in Liver­pool with 1,257 passengers. As you would expect on a British ship, most of the passengers were 1,000 British and British Commonwealth citizens especially Canadians, but there were also 139 Americans, 72 Russians and a few others on board.

One German submarine U-20 had entered the Irish Sea on May 5th 1915 and, within a couple of days, had sunk three British ships: Earl Of Lathom, Candidate and Centurion. This German sub had only two torpedoes left to fire and was low on fuel. So the German Captain Walter Schwieger decided to steer for the open waters of the Atlantic and home. But this was the VERY day the speedy Lusitania was steaming off the coast of Ireland, very close to home.

British Captain Turner had been warned by wireless that submarines were active off south coast of Ireland. Five further Admiralty warnings were sent that night (7th May) and the following day. And the warnings were spot on. The two ships started converging at 2 pm. After stalking his prey for an hour, Captain Schwieger unleashed one torpedo that hit its target half way down one side. The first explosion was followed quickly by a second, more powerful explosion.

Within 20 minutes the great liner had slipped under the water, yet only two of the port side lifeboats were launched and only six of the starboard side lifeboats got away successfully. 1198 victims, passengers, crew and bandsmen, went down with the ship.

German Embassy advertisement 
warning about all British and allied ships, 
published in The New York Times, 1st May 1915 
next to an ad for the Lusitania.

Saul David argued persuasively that critical mistakes had been made regarding the route, speed and safety provisions of the Lusitania, but his article went feral with two of his conclusions. Firstly “the presence of munitions may not have caused the Lusitania to sink, but it did transform the liner into a legitimate military target”. Good grief - it was two years into the worst war the world has ever seen. Of course there were heaps of weapons on board!!

Secondly David said the British government knew that the sinking of a non-military ship with the loss of 1,198 lives was a useful means of swaying American opinion in favour of entering the war on the Allies’ side. Did Mr David really imagine the British government would risk a single British or British Commonwealth life, just to sway political opinion in Washington DC?

In May 1915 the USA there was no declaration of war against Germany and no joining in with the Allied cause. However after two further years of American debate, neutrality was no longer seen as working. By February 1917, America decided to be part of the Allied forces lined up against Germany in war.

Lusitania: life, loss, legacy is a permanent exhibition at Merseyside Maritime Museum exhibition that marks the centenary year (1915) of the sinking of the Lusitania in Liverpool. Highlighting new research about the people involved in the Lusitania story, the display also considers the role of Liverpool’s liners in WW1. This event devastated the tight-knit dockland communities in north Liverpool, where most of Lusitania's crew lived. 405 crew members died, including many Liverpool Irish seamen.


Andrew said...

What a ship she was. Antiques Road Show was on in the background last night and I heard the Lusitania mentioned but missed what it was about. No one would have had a chance if she sank in 20 minutes. I suppose she would have been safe once she was away from Britain when travelling on to Europe.

Joe said...

It would have to have been a major emergency that got me onto a huge ship, sailing into a war zone full of subs, in the middle of a total war. I would have been amazed and grateful that the German embassy was so brutally honest.

Hels said...


This gorgeous ship made over 200 trans-Atlantic crossings but I cannot find any mention of travelling on to Europe. The home port was always Liverpool and the only other port seemed to be New York. I assume Cunard poured endless money into the Lusitania because the Liverpool-New York trips were always filled with passengers, very popular and highly profitable.

Hels said...


I am horrified that wealthy people were partying their nights away on board the ship while millions of young soldiers were being shot dead in the trenches. So since people were still sailing to Liverpool in 1915, the German embassy was right to put clear warnings in the newspapers. The warning led to some anti-German feeling in the American press and caused some of ship's passengers to cancel their trip. But most went ahead anyhow.

Lord Cowell said...

I agree that it was very ill advised, even hubristic, for passengers to travel that route without dire need of getting to the UK.

I believe that the ship was carrying a huge amount of brass and copper as well as ammunitions, which had become very scarce by that stage. Some of the brass was destined to be formed into munitions, whilst some into Christmas tins gifted to each of the active servicemen with a variety of small gifts inside (as a personal gift from the 17yr old Princess Mary to the troops).

Hels said...

Lord Cowell

brass, copper, guns, food supplies... anything that Britain desperately needed. How silly of some historians to suggest that the British ships should not have been carrying war time supplies in secret. Run for your life if an article starts "Did Winston Churchill engineer a conspiracy to sink Lusitania and bring the United States into World War I? Did his cover-up include hiding the weapons in the ship?"

Hels said...

Lord Cowell

I loved the story of Princess Mary's gift to the soldiers and wrote it up in http://melbourneblogger.blogspot.com.au/2014/11/gifts-to-soldiers-in-ww1-trenches-from.html