📸 The Lusitania sinking after being struck by a torpedo. (Source: Getty)
📸 Front page coverage of the sinking. (Source: Encyclopædia Britannica)
It was one of the largest and fastest ships of its time, but today the RMS Lusitania is remembered for its tragic end. On May 1st, 1915, the Lusitania departed from New York City on a voyage to Liverpool with 1,959 souls aboard, but it was not just carrying passengers. Within its cargo hold were 4.2 million rifle rounds, 1,250 shrapnel shell cases, and 18 fuse cases, all destined for the battlefields of the Great War. It would never reach its destination.
Before its sinking, the Lusitania was a respected luxury cruise liner. Built from 1904 to 1906, the RMS Lusitania was briefly the world’s largest ship, until it was overtaken by its sister ship, the Mauretania. The ship was named after the ancient Roman province of Lusitania, which included all of modern Portugal. While Lusitania was considered a civilian vessel, its construction was financed by the British government with the understanding that the ship could be converted to an “armed merchant cruiser."
When the First World War erupted in 1914, the Lusitania was caught up in naval warfare between the British and German empires. The British Royal Navy blockaded the German coastline, preventing its adversary from shipping in key supplies. Not only did this make it harder for the German military to obtain arms, but it threatened the German people with starvation.
📸 An illustration of the sinking by an unknown artist.
In response, German U-boats began torpedoing British ships. While they initially only attacked naval vessels, the U-boats began targeting merchant ships in 1915. They argued that because Britain used such ships to transport weapons and munitions, they were not truly civilian targets, making them fair game for naval attacks. In the spring of 1915, Germany’s embassy in the United States published warnings in several American newspapers, advising Americans against traveling to Europe.
Despite this threat, the Lusitania continued to operate across the Atlantic Ocean. The ship entered Irish waters on May 7th, slowing so it could navigate the foggy weather. The calm water belied the danger lurking just below the surface. Off the coast of Ireland, around 15 German U-boats patrolled these waters, among them the infamous U-20 commanded by respected Kapitänleutnant Walter Schwieger. Under Schwieger, the U-20 had sunk nine British ships. The Lusitania would be its tenth.
📸 The Lusitania wreck. (Source: ITV)
The torpedoe was spotted by Leslie Morton, a young lookout assigned to the Lusitania, who saw a line of bubbles rising to the surface, headed to the boat. The missile struck the Lusitania, causing a massive explosion that may have been compounded by the ordinance being carried aboard. Within just a few minutes, the order was given to abandon ship, but the speed of the sinking hampered the evacuation. Among the survivors, about 160 were rescued by the Wanderer, a nearby Manx fishing boat.
After the sinking, the American public was enraged, with the Lusitnia serving as one of many catalysts for the U.S.’s entry into the war two years later. The 1,198 passengers killed were among the 20,000 killed during the U-boat campaign, and among the millions that lost their lives during the First World War. The Lusitania wreck still sits about ten miles off the coast of Ireland, bearing the scars from one of the most destructive conflicts in human history.
📸 The Lusitania deck plans.
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Stavridis, James. “Sea Power: The History and Geopolitics of the World’s Oceans.” Penguin Press, New York (2017).