Most people who remember the Lusitania to any degree recall the passenger ship as the footnote catalyst for the United States to enter World War I. Germany sank the British ship off the coast of Ireland in 1915, killing 123 Americans and prodding President Woodrow Wilson and the nation to abandon their devotion to neutrality.
So goes the high school history lesson. Most of which is true, but lacking in context, detail, and color. And one part is most certainly untrue: Wilson and the United States didn’t take up the cause of war in the immediate aftermath of the Lusitania. Much to the consternation of Winston Churchill, then the head of the navy in Britain, Wilson and the Americans dithered nearly two more years before finally declaring war on Germany and helping the Triple Entente of Britain, France and Russia.
As the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Lusitania approaches, Erik Larson has published an account filled with the near-misses, fateful mistakes, and heroics of the ship’s last voyage. The what-ifs are many, starting with the captain of the German U-boat, Walter Schwieger, who landed a direct hit on the hull of the Lusitania despite miscalculating the ship’s speed by 5 miles per hour, or 4 knots.
Then, too, Schwieger never would have even glimpsed the British passenger ship had a heavy fog along the Irish coast not cleared after five hours on the morning of May 7, 1915, just as the German U-boat commander was embarking on a return to his launch point. He surfaced in the early afternoon and took a look around, spotting the Lusitania, a ship so big that, in the distance, Schweiger thought he had come upon several boats.
The German commander decided to make a pass in the direction of the Lusitania despite long odds of catching the ship. Luckily for Schwieger and unluckily for the Lusitania, the ship’s maneuvers put it in a vulnerable, target-rich position.
In the previous couple of days patrolling the seas, Schwieger had encountered and attacked a merchant ship and a schooner and missed with a torpedo shot upon encountering another boat. Though his assignment called for the U-boat to go to Liverpool – the destination of the Lusitania on its weeklong voyage from New York – Schwieger had just three torpedoes left (German sub captains were instructed to keep two in reserve to defend themselves) and had decided to turn around. His return path led to the Lusitania.
Six days earlier, Turner and his ship were scheduled to leave New York at 10 a.m. They were delayed two hours when the British Admiralty, per wartime law, declared a smaller Liverpool-bound passenger ship in New York necessary for military use. That decision, in turn, forced 40 passengers and five crew to transfer to the Lusitania, which, with two additional hours on the water, would likely have avoided Schwieger and his U-boat on May 7.
Germany had been hunting merchant ships, including some flying neutral flags in an attempt to shield the British boats, for months. World War I began in the summer of 1914, nearly a year before the May 1, 1915 launch of the Lusitania. Early in the war, German codebooks obtained by the Russians and shared with the British allowed them to decipher the Germans’ encrypted wireless messages about maritime patrols and movements.
“Room 40,” the especially secretive spy operation in Britain tracking German U-boat patterns, knew about increased activity and danger along the route the Lusitania would travel, but did nothing to warn the ship or its parent company of greater risk.
If they had, it might or might not have helped. In the days leading to the departure, the German Embassy placed notices in New York newspapers warning of the war zone in the waters surrounding England. Though the notice stirred anxiety among some passengers, only two canceled their trips on the Lusitania because of the threat.
Many passengers failed to see the German warnings at all, distracted instead by preparations for their trip. The Cunard Line, parent company of the Lusitania, and the ship’s crew scoffed at the danger.
These doubters included the captain, William Thomas Turner. The Lusitania was known as a greyhound, one of the fastest, largest and most glamorous ships in the world. It sailed at a top speed of 25 knots, much faster than the crude submarines of the era, fueled by 1,000 tons of coal per day at sea. The Lusitania boasted an enviable track record with 201 crossings of the Atlantic through April 1915.
As Larson writes, “Even those [passengers] who had seen the warning paid little attention. The idea that Germany would dare attempt to sink a fully loaded civilian passenger ship seemed beyond rational consideration. And even if a U-boat did try, common wisdom held that it would inevitably fail.”
Still others expected the British Royal Navy would be summoned to escort the Lusitania as it passed through the Irish Sea and on to Liverpool. The Admiralty opted not to send an escort.
Other factors came into play. To save coal, the Lusitania had taken to using three of its four boilers, adding a day to Atlantic crossings but conserving 1,600 tons of coal over the course of each voyage. Yet another if: If Turner’s ship traveled at peak speed, Schwieger and the U-20 would never have had a shot at the ship. Beyond those circumstances, Larson notes the “safer North Channel route” could have been suggested by the British Admiralty and again headed off the tragic torpedo attack.
These occurrences have led at least one naval historian, the late Patrick Beesly, to conclude “there was indeed a plot, however imperfect, to endanger the Lusitania in order to involve the United States in the war.” Beesly, who died in 1986, shared his theory late in his life during an interview with the Imperial War Museum in London. Larson seems to agree with Beesly’s conclusion.
Comments by King George V (he told Wilson’s unofficial emissary, “Suppose they should sink the Lusitania with American passengers aboard?”) and Churchill bolster the theory. A letter from Churchill to the head of England’s Board of Trade stated: “For our part, we want the traffic [from America] — the more the better; and if some of it gets into trouble, better still.”
The Lusitania did, of course, find trouble and Wilson, after additional German aggression against the still-neutral Americans in international waters, declared war in April 1917. When the U-boat torpedo struck the hull, Lusitania listed so far and so fast that the lifeboats on the port side couldn’t be used.
Drawing on letters and diaries from passengers and crew, Larson paints a vivid and grim picture of the sinking and its aftermath. The ship was 12 miles off the Irish coast when Schwieger attacked. Of the 1,959 passengers and crew, plus three stowaways, 1,195 died and 764 survived. The dead included 123 of the 189 Americans aboard. More than 600 passengers’ bodies were lost in the ocean. Twenty-seven of the 33 infants aboard the ship died. Of 400 crew members killed in the attack, close to 90 percent of their bodies went unrecovered.
Armed with 350 pounds of TNT and other explosives, the torpedo gashed the hull with a hole 15 feet tall by 40 feet wide. Water flooded in “at a rate estimated at 100 tons a second,” Larson writes.
Devastation and panic proved followed in rapid succession. Schwieger, the U-boat captain responsible for the sinking, described the scene as “too horrible to watch” and “gave orders to dive to twenty meters, and away.”
Passengers died from hypothermia and shock in the water. Others failed to properly secure their lifejackets and lost their lives because of fatigue and drowning. One survivor recalled looking our from a lifeboat upon a sea “strewn with bodies floating about, some with lifebelts on, some holding on to pieces of rafts, all dead.” Turner, the captain, survived and later remembered seagulls that “swooped from the sky and pecked at the eyes of floating corpses.”
Larson, whose previous best-selling titles include "In the Garden of Beasts" and "The Devil in the White City," long ago mastered the art of finding overlooked and faded curiosities and converting them into page-turning popular histories. Here, again, he manages the same trick, digressing into Wilson as widower, Churchill atop the navy, and subjects ranging from morgue photos of the passengers killed in the sinking to the 15-minute rupture that took down the massive ship.
Among those lost in the sinking: Alfred Vanderbilt, heir to the fortune built by his father, Cornelius. Vanderbilt narrowly avoided the same fate three years earlier, when he was booked on the Titanic but never boarded because of a last-minute circumstance. On the Lusitania, just before leaving New York, Vanderbilt told Jack Lawrence of the New York Evening Mail, “Lots of talk about submarines, torpedoes and sudden death. I don’t take much stock in it myself. What would they gain by sinking the Lusitania?”