On June 7, 1906, Britain’s Cunard Line launched the world’s largest ship – RMS Lusitania. It was designed by Leonard Peskett and built by John Brown and Company of Clydebank, Scotland, beginning in 1904. After two years of construction, the impressive vessel measured roughly 787 feet and weighed more than 31,500 tons. It was a ship of luxury, but became more notable for its speed. After a year of sea trials off the coast of Ireland, Lusitania set sail from Liverpool, England, for New York City on its maiden voyage September 7, 1907. A month later, the liner won the Blue Riband for fastest Atlantic crossing, speeding across the ocean at 24 knots. For the next eight years, Lusitania, with its equally remarkable sister ship, RMS Mauretania, would continually transport passengers across the Atlantic in style. In May 1915, however, Lusitania and many of its passengers and crew would become casualties of the Great War.
When World War I began in July 1914, Europe erupted into a major conflict that would impact the entire globe. The primary adverse factions were between the Central Powers – Germany, Austria-Hungary, Turkey and their allied nations; and the Allies – France, Great Britain, the Russian Empire and their allied nations. President Woodrow Wilson vowed neutrality for the United States, a stance most American citizens favored. As the war progressed in Europe, Germany found it was no match for the formidable British Royal Navy. Germany suffered defeat in several naval battles in the early war years, despite its attempts to build a navy prior to the war’s start. Furthermore, Britain had set up a naval blockade of Germany to prevent import goods in hopes of strangling Germany’s economy. Prior to the blockade, Germany did not employ its unterseeboots on passenger vessels. Its efforts were focused more so on the British Royal Navy. But it soon learned that their most vulnerable point was indeed the trade routes.1 With the blockade firmly in place, the German economy was in danger. The German government felt justified in enacting a new strategy for their U-boats: unrestricted submarine warfare. This tactic allowed U-boats to encounter and attack any enemy vessels in waters that had been declared a war zone.2 No ship – neutral or naval – that chose to enter war zone waters would be safe from an attack and being sunk without warning. This policy would lead to one of the first US impacts of the Great War.
British passenger liner RMS Lusitania departed from New York on May 1, 1915, bound once more for Liverpool, England. Nine days prior to its departure, the German Embassy placed an advertisement in multiple US newspapers:
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 and her allies; that the zone of war includes the waters adjacent to the British Isles; that, in accordance with formal notice given by the Imperial German Government, vessels flying the flag of Great Britain, or 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. IMPERIAL GERMAN EMBASSY WASHINGTON, D.C., APRIL 22, 1915.
The British government warned Lusitania to avoid certain areas, and to sail in a zigzag pattern so as to confuse and evade any U-boats. Despite the warnings and the dangers it posed, Captain William T. Turner embarked on the journey as normal. There were approximately 1,959 souls on board: 702 crew and 1,257 passengers. Of those passengers, 159 of them were American. On May 7, 1915, just after 2:00 p.m. off the coast of Ireland, a German U-boat fired two torpedoes, striking the starboard side of Lusitania. After being hit, a second, larger explosion severely damaged the ship, causing it to sink in less than 20 minutes.
The casualties included 1,198 passengers and crew of which 128 were American citizens. Among the dead was Albert Lloyd Hopkins, president of Newport News Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Company. His company had been licensed to manufacture armor plates for battleships since 1900. Hopkins was traveling to Britain to negotiate contracts for these plates when Lusitania sank. His body was found among the wreckage, labeled #194.
The attack on Lusitania would become a turning point in the United States’ perception of the European war. Americans were still divided about the events taking place overseas, and whether or not the US should get involved. But they condemned such actions against defenseless ships as Lusitania.3 Despite the sinking, President Woodrow Wilson was reluctant to enter the war. He protested Germany’s actions with a series of letters scolding its methods, and insisted on an apology from German authorities. Germany contended that the attack was taken with appropriate action. Its stance: Lusitania was carrying and transporting large quantities of ammunition to Britain. The Germans further argued that the ammunition was the cause of the second, larger explosion, and thus, the ultimate destruction and sinking of the ship. The German government maintained its defense that its actions were warranted as a response to the British naval blockade preventing food and supplies being allowed into Germany.
Americans were still not convinced the attack was justified. To provoke a stronger American response to the situation, various forms of propaganda were used. The poster Enlist by Fred Spear was published in June 1915. Its somber image of a drowning mother cradling her child as they sink down into the ocean, was powerful, yet heartbreaking. And with only a single word on the poster, it reminded American citizens that there was something they could do: Enlist and help fight. In Europe, the British took advantage of Germany’s lack of contrition through propaganda as well, including making fake “German” medallions celebrating the sinking. They hoped to prompt the US government into war on the Allies’ side. Yet President Wilson was determined to keep the United States out of the war. Not everyone agreed with the president’s methods, including former President Theodore Roosevelt, who opposed Wilson’s diplomacy. He believed the attack deserved a US military response, and that war should be declared. Germany eventually conceded to cease its unrestricted submarine warfare on passenger ships. But it would not last.
Throughout 1915 and 1916, several British liners were sunk by German U-boats. In August 1915, Arabic was destroyed, killing two Americans. In November, a U-boat sank an Italian ocean liner. With the torpedoing and sinking of the unarmed French steamer Sussex, President Wilson issued the Sussex Ultimatum on April 18, 1916. Essentially, Wilson once more criticized the German government’s policy of unrestricted warfare. This was another strong warning that the US would not tolerate such actions and it demanded the Germans to discontinue use of this method. German U-boats, for a time, stopped their efforts of attacking passenger vessels, but as before, it would only be temporary. By February 1917, re-establishment of unrestricted submarine warfare left the US government no choice but to break diplomatic relations with Imperial Germany. On April 6, 1917, America declared war on Germany and officially entered the Great War.
RMS Lusitania was a marvel of the seas, built with a combination of both luxury and speed. Over its many years traveling across the Atlantic, it transported thousands of passengers from Europe to America and back. The ship’s tragic ending would bring a war that seemed so far away for US citizens a little closer to home. But it would still be another two years after the incident that the US would enter the war. Evidence over the years has proven that Lusitania was, in fact, carrying ammunition on board when it went down. While the sinking of Lusitania was not an immediate catalyst for America entering World War I, it did force the US government to become more aware of the conflict taking place overseas. Germany, realizing its limitations, particularly against the British Royal Navy, deferred to tactics it believed would help the war turn in its favor. Yet, the continued acts of unrestricted submarine warfare forced America out of a position of neutrality, into the war on the side of the Allies. With America’s support, the Allies would go on to win the Great War when fighting came to an end and the armistice was signed on November 11, 1918.
- Edwyn A Gray, The U-Boat War: 1914-1918 (London: Leo Cooper, 1994), p. 55.
- Lowell Thomas, Raiders of the Deep (Cornwall: Periscope Publishing Ltd., 2002), 38.
- Douglas Carl Pfeifer, Choosing War: Presidential Decision in the Maine, Lusitania, and Panay Incidents (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), 75.