R.M.S. Lusitania, a Cunard liner launched in 1906 was for a time the world’s largest and fastest ocean liner. She is shown here in Cunard colors prior to the outbreak of World War I.
By John Steele Gordon at American Enterprise Institute
See also Steven Hayward’s article, which has the Churchill angle, at Power Line.
On May 7, 1915, the Lusitania sank beneath the waves, taking the lives of 1,198 people with her, including 128 Americans. The action moved public opinion sharply in favor of the Allies ahead of the first World War.
On May 7, 1915, 100 years ago, the great Cunard liner RMS Lusitania was steaming eastward in sight of the Irish coast, headed for Liverpool in calm seas with bright sunshine. On board were nearly 2,000 passengers and crew.
Lusitania in her World War I colors. With the outbreak of the war, the Cunard red and black smokestacks were painted black as a quasi-camouflage.
Shortly after 2:10 p.m. a torpedo launched by the submarine U-20 of the Imperial German Navy slammed into the starboard side of the ship beneath the bridge and exploded. A secondary explosion soon after ripped the ship apart, and she immediately listed heavily to starboard. This made it impossible to launch most of her lifeboats. There wasn’t time anyway: In only 18 minutes, the great ship sank beneath the waves, taking the lives of 1,198 people (including 128 Americans) with her.
The world’s reaction to the sudden, unannounced attack on a passenger ship — an action for which the only outcome would be great loss of civilian life — was enormous and profoundly affected the eventual outcome of the First World War, which had started ten months earlier. But did the attack violate the “rules of war”?
Lusitania takes a torpedo on her starboard side just behind the bridge.
The onrush of industrialization in the years after 1870 had produced a whole new military landscape. The old rules of war, along with the new ones that had been developed based on theory, not military and strategic reality, no longer worked and an update was badly needed. Nothing made that clearer than the sinking of the Lusitania.
There had not been a war between great powers in Europe in more than 40 years, while the technology of war had been advancing quickly. By May 1915, the inventions of the machine gun and barbed wire had already reduced the western front to static trench warfare. Thousands of soldiers died to win mere yards of ground. The solution to this stalemate, tanks, wouldn’t be developed until 1917. Meanwhile, the slaughter went on and on.
And there had not been a naval war between great powers in 100 years, since the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815. In that time, the technology of sea warfare had changed utterly. Sailing ships-of-the-line, which could fire a broadside a mile or so but usually fought much closer — often less than a hundred yards — had been replaced with steel-hulled battleships that could hurl 14-inch shells 20 miles with great accuracy. There were no passenger ships at all in 1815. Passengers were carried supernumerary on cargo ships.
The great ship sank in only 18 minutes.
It was rare for wooden commercial ships to be sunk. Indeed, that was the last thing the attacking captain and crew wanted, as the ship and its cargo, once brought to port, would provide a great profit to its captors. Rather, merchant ships were captured, usually without a fight. Any passengers on board were allowed to proceed once they got to shore.
And besides battleships, there were now submarines. The submarine had been a concept as early as the American Revolution, but it only became a practical, industrial technology at the very end of the 19th century. By World War I, Britain had 74 submarines in its fleet, while Germany had about 20. Germany rapidly built up its submarine fleet after the outbreak of the war.
Germany was the weaker of the two naval powers and, as such, needed to follow the strategy of “la guerre de course,” a war against Britain’s vast merchant marine rather than its greatly superior battle fleet. And the submarine was perfectly adapted for this kind of naval war. Stealthy by nature, a submarine could sneak up on a merchant ship, which moved slowly, rarely more than 10 knots, and put it under attack.
Lusitania sank so rapidly that few lifeboats were launched.
But it was impossible for a submarine to take possession of and sail a merchant ship into a friendly port, as U-boats did not have any spare crew and Germany’s ports were behind the British blockade. Instead, submarines had to sink them. Under the rules of war that had been developed to deal with submarines, they were supposed to surface and give the crew time to get into the lifeboats before sinking the ship.
Germany, blockaded by the Royal Navy, had to rely on its own factories to produce the means of war. Britain and France could call on the immense productive capacities of the United States and their worldwide empires to supply them with the guns, airplanes, ammunition, and airplanes (not to mention food and men) needed to fight a modern war.
To try to reduce this great advantage of the Allies, Germany declared a war zone around the British Isles, announcing that vessels in those waters were subject to being sunk without warning. Passenger ships were supposed to be off-limits unless it was known they were carrying war matériel.
However, the German Embassy in the United States placed notices in prominent American newspapers saying that ships “are liable to destruction in those waters and that travelers sailing in the war zone on ships of Great Britain or her allies do so at their own risk.”
Regardless of the threat, it was not thought that passenger ships were very vulnerable. Transatlantic liners had been competing since the era of steam-powered passenger ships began in 1838 to be the fastest. Unlike cargo ships, crack liners such as the Lusitania could make more than 25 knots, while a submarine could make no more than 12 knots on the surface and half that submerged.
So unless the submarine was very lucky, it was highly unlikely to be in a position to attack a passenger liner.
The U-20 was very lucky. Given the opportunity, the captain had to make a split-second decision, and he decided to launch the torpedo. It was a fateful decision.
Ten months before Lusitania sank, on the cusp of war, the United States had immediately declared neutrality, and most Americans supported this. There was still lingering anti-British sentiment left over from the Revolutionary War and a very large population of German immigrants and their descendants naturally favored their ancestral country.
But the British were masters of propaganda, and the British campaign to portray the Germans as “Huns,” who had “raped” neutral Belgium at the start of the war, in violation of its treaty obligations, moved public opinion sharply in favor of the Allies.
The sinking of the Lusitania moved it still further. President Woodrow Wilson managed to resist calls for a declaration of war against Germany, but American anger was so intense that Germany felt obliged to declare that it would not attack neutral ships, regardless of where they were, and would not attack passenger ships at all.
But then, in early 1917, as the British blockade was slowly strangling Germany by causing near-starvation on the home front, Germany decided to gamble. It knew it had to win the war then or lose it from a collapse of morale at home. It reinstituted unrestricted submarine warfare. It knew this would likely bring America into the war (which it did), but it hoped that it could starve Britain into submission before the Americans could mobilize and bring overwhelming power to bear.
The Germans lost that gamble.
This Ken Marshall painting shows Lusitania making her final plunge into the sea.