“At 2:15 p.m. when ten to fifteen miles off the Old Head of Kinsale, the weather being then clear and the sea smooth, the Captain, who was on the port side of the lower bridge, heard the call, “There is a torpedo coming sir,” given by the second officer. He looked to starboard and then saw a streak of in the wake of a torpedo travelling towards his ship. Immediately afterwards the “Lusitania” was struck on the starboard side somewhere between the third and fourth funnels. The blow broke number 5 lifeboat to splinters. A second torpedo was fired immediately afterwards, which also struck the ship on the starboard side. The two torpedoes struck the ship almost simultaneously.”
– From the report of the Formal Investigation into the sinking of the “Lusitania” by the British Board of Trade.
On the afternoon of todays date, May 7, in 1915, the British ocean liner Lusitania was torpedoed without warning by a German submarine off the south coast of Ireland. Within 20 minutes, the vessel sank into the Celtic Sea. Out of a total compliment of 1,959 passengers and crew, 1,198 people were drowned, including 128 Americans.
Wilson Tries to Keep the U.S. Out of “the Great War”
The American government of President Woodrow Wilson (above) had throughout the years of the conflict in Europe sought to maintain a middle course between the fighting states of Europe since their war began in August of 1914. Despite heavy pressure from some in the United States, lead by former President Theodore Roosevelt that America ought to enter the war on the side of the Allies, the Wilson administration held out against US intervention. Wilson believed that how ever much the American public might sympathize with the Allied powers of France and England, the citizenry of the US did not want to be dragged into what was seen as essentially a European affair. Besides, the Allied Powers also included the Czarist regime of Russia which was seen by many as being as despotic and repressive as the Imperial regimes that ruled in Germany and in her ally Austria-Hungary. And there was a considerable segment of the American public, many of them fairly recent immigrants from Germanic countries that was sympathetic to the German side. Nevertheless, the German government’s declaration of unrestricted submarine warfare on all ships sailing in, and around the British Isles was taken as a direct threat to Americans and to American intersts. Great Britain was afterall one of the closest and most important trading partners with America. As a result of the german declaration, tensions were on the rise, especially when ads were taken out in US newspapers signed by the Imperial German Government warning of the danger such as this one dated April 2, 1915:
“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…that the zone of war includes waters adjacent to the Britsh Isles…that vessels flying the flag of Great Britain or of any of her allies are liable to destruction in those waters and that travellers sailing in the war zone on ships of Great Britain or her allies do so at their own risk.”
“The Lusitania” is Torpedoed on May 7!
In spite of ads such as the one above, Lusitania left New York on May 1 with no significant cancellations to her passenger manifest, bound for Liverpool. With such notable citizens aboard as the millionaire sportsman Alfred Gwynne Vanderbuilt, and the great Theater producer Charles Frohman, and the writer Elbert Hubbard, the passengers numbered over 1250, more than 159 of them Americans, together with over 700 crew members. When the torpedoes struck, the passengers
had just finished lunch. Actually,the torpedoing vessel German U-boat U-20 fired only one torpedo according to her Captain, Walter Schweiger. The second explosion may well have been one of Lusitania’s boilers. Schweiger then recorded in his log:
“Torpedo hits starboard side right behind the bridge. An unusually heavy explosion takes place with a very strong explosive cloud. The explosion of the torpedo must have been followed by a second one [boiler or coal or powder?]… The ship stops immediately and heels over to starboard very quickly, immersing simultaneously at the bow… the name Lusitania becomes visible in golden letters.”
“The Lusitania” Sinks in Less Than 20 Minutes
Despite the efforts of Lusitania’s very experienced captain William Thomas Turner (below) to reduce her speed and beach her, she sunk in less than 20 minutes. Over 1190 people were lost; one
hundred of those killed had been children. The sinking caused massive outrage in the Untied States. The publication “The Nation” called it “a deed for which a Hun would blush, a Turk be ashamed, and a Barbary pirate apologize.” The German government claimed that the Lusitania had been carrying munitions and other materials of war. Lusitania had in fact been fitted with gun mounts, but the guns themselves had never been fitted. And she had been carrying 18 pound shrapnel shells, an estimated 4,200,000 rounds of Remington rifle cartridges and 1,250 empty shell cases. But this was part of “a general cargo of the ordinary kind” according to the Board of Trade Report. “There was no other explosive on board.” President Wilson, while outraged by the sinking, still resisted entering the war as so many urged him. In a phrase which struck many as being lawyerly to a cowardly degree, he said :
“There is such a thing as a man being too proud to fight. There is such a thing as a nation being so right that it does not need to convince others by force that it is right.”
Outrage Over the Sinking of “The Lusitania” Helps Lead the U.S. Into World War One
In spite of the restraint that he showed in delivering several very strongly worded notes to the German government, his Secretary of State,William Jennings Bryan resigned in protest that the reaction was overly provacative. Nevertheless, Wilson’s judgement that the public, however outraged, was not yet ready for war with Germany was borne out as being essentially correct. In November of 1916, campaigning on a slogan that said “He kept us out of war!”, Wilson was resoundingly re-elected to a second term. But the public appetite for such restraint had clearly begun declining since the sinking of the Lusitania, and in April of1917, barely one month after his second inaugural, Wilson asked Congress for a Declaration of War on Germany. Winston Churchill, who at the time was the First Lord of the British Admiralty, had no doubts as to the role of the sinking of the Lusitania in the march of America towards entering the war on the Allied side, in spite of President Wilson’s restraint. In 1923 he wrote:
“The United States, whose citizens had perished in large numbers, was convulsed with indignation, and in all parts of the great Republic the signal for armed intervention was awaited by the strongest elements of the American people. It was not given, and the war continued in it’s destructive equipoise. But henceforward the friends of the Allies in the United States were armed with a weapon against which German influence was powerless, and before which after a lamentable interval cold-hearted policy as destined to succumb.”
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“The American Heritage History of World War One” Narr. by S.L.A. Marshall, Simon & Schuster Inc., New York, 1961
“The World Crisis – 1915″ by Winston Churchill, Scribners & Sons, New York, 1923
“Shipping Casualties – Loss of the Steamship ‘Lusitania’.” – The Report of the Formal Investgation, HM Stationary Office, 1915.