From the Monitor Archives: RMS Lusitania sunk by German U-boat
More than 1,100 people – including 120 Americans – died when the British oceanliner Lusitania was torpedoed off the coast of Ireland, 100 years ago today. The incident was a key event in eventually drawing the US into WWI.
These articles originally ran in The Christian Science Monitor on May 7 and 8, 1915. At that point, the United States was a neutral party in World War I. But it maintained close ties with Britain, one of its largest trading partners, to the frustration of Germany. In early 1915, Germany announced that it would conduct unrestricted submarine warfare around Britain, making any British-flagged vessel a potential target. (And even before that announcement, American vessels were at risk: in January 1915, a German U-boat stopped and sank the William P. Frye, a US merchant vessel, off the Brazilian coast.)
The RMS Lusitania, a British ocean liner, was a frequent traveler between New York City and Liverpool, England, and thus at obvious risk from German submarines – so much so that Germany published advertisements in US newspapers ahead of the ship's May 1 departure from New York, warning that Americans should not travel aboard the vessel.
Undaunted, the Lusitania set out for Liverpool, England, on May 1, with more than 1,900 people on board. But despite the warnings of German subs prowler, the Lusitania took few of the advised precautions, like zigzagging to make it difficult for U-boats to plot its course, or avoiding known U-boat hunting grounds.
On May 7, off the southern coast of Ireland, the Lusitania sailed into the path of a German submarine, which fired one torpedo at the liner, causing a secondary explosion. The Lusitania sank in under 20 minutes, and of the 1,900-plus on board, only some 760 people survived.
Around 120 Americans were killed in the sinking, which many in the US saw as a war crime. Germany argued that the Lusitania was carrying arms and thus was a fair target under the rules of war. (The Lusitania was indeed carrying several million rounds of rifle shells.) Nonetheless, Germany officially apologized to the US and promised to end unrestricted submarine warfare.
Even so, the Lusitania's sinking was a key stepping stone for the American transition from neutral party to participant in World War I. In February 1917, when Germany reversed its policy and began unrestricted submarine warfare in the Atlantic again, the US officially broke ties with Germany. Two months later, it formally entered the war.
– Arthur Bright / Staff writer
May 7, 1915
WIRE LUSITANIA IS SUNK OFF THE IRISH COAST
Boston Office of the Cunard Line Says the Steamship Was Torpedoed on Approach to Queenstown
BOATS SENT TO AID
Twenty Small Craft From the Great Vessel Stand By and Other Assistance Said to Be at Hand
At the Boston office of the Cunard line it was stated this afternoon that the steamship Lusitania was torpedoed and sunk off the Irish coast today, according to cable received from the Liverpool office.
No loss of life is reported.
Immediately the liner was struck 20 boats were lowered and filled with passengers.
According to the report, boats put out at once from Queenstown in the direction of Old Head of Kinsale, off which the attack is said to have taken place. At this point the vessel would normally have been within sight of land.
An unconfirmed report had it that the Lusitania was turned toward the shore and beached.
A cable timed 4:23 p. m. says that several boats, apparently containing survivors have been sighted to the southeast, and that a Greek steamer is proceeding to assistance.
Information given out at the Heston office of the Cunard line was to effect that the Lusitania which left New York last Saturday had 290 saloon [first class] passengers, 602 second cabin and 361 steerage, all of whom were booked by the Cunard line, besides other passengers who were transferred from the Anchor liner Cameronia which was cancelled just before its sailing time.
The wireless message sent out from the Lusitania, as reported here by cable, read as follows: “Come at once. Big list. Ten miles south of Kinsale.”
Among others [known to be on board the ship] are Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt, Elbert Hubbard and Charles Frohman. Just before the steamer sailed many of the passengers received telegrams advising them not to make the voyage as something was going to happen to the big liner.
These telegrams followed on the publication in the newspapers of an advertisement authorized by the German embassy, warning all Americans that travel to and from England was dangerous.
The Lusitania is commanded by Capt. W. T. Turner, royal naval reserve, and Staff Capt. J. C. Anderson is his assistant. On board were a number of British reservists going to join the colors and representatives of many American and Canadian firms who deal in war materials.
May 8, 1915
DETAILS AS TO LUSITANIA LOSS NOW AVAILABLE
Queenstown Reports Arrival of Nearly All Boats and Trawlers
HERON STILL TO COME
Kinsale Fishing Boats Believed May Have Few Passengers
Special Cable to The Christian Science Monitor from its European Bureau
LONDON, May 7 – The Cunard Steamship Company confirm the [ ] that the steamer Lusitania was torpedoed and sunk off the head of Kinsale.
An earlier report said the Lusitania was sunk today off the Old Head of Kinsale.
Saturday—The admiral at Queenstown reports through the press bureau that the torpedo boats and armed trawlers from Queenstown are all in except the Heron. From these 595 survivors landed.
From the steam trawlers 52 survivors landed.
Landed at Kinsale there are 11 survivors, total number of survivors 638, Numbers are to be verified later. Kinsale fishing boats may possibly have a few more passengers.
Only a few first-class passengers were saved. It is understood they thought the ship would float but she sank in from 15 to 25 minutes and is reported to have been struck by two torpedoes.
Cunard agent gives the total number on board as 2180.
In addition to above, it has just been signaled that one armed trawler and two fishing trawlers have arrived.
On inquiry in official quarters The Christian Science Monitor learns that very strong views are held in regard to the sinking of the Lusitania.
It is pointed out that Germany’s action represents the crowning example of a set determination entirely to disregard the most elementary rights of non-combatants and neutrals.
The action of the German embassy in Washington in issuing a warning to American passengers that they traveled at their own risk showed clearly that the sinking of the Lusitania was deliberately planned and premeditated and therefore comes under the simple category of a deliberate crime.
It is further pointed out, once again, that Germany can claim no rights under her supposed blockade. The blockade, so far, has had no effect on shipping, 1500 ships a week still going and coming to and from British ports.
Germany's right to stop the Lusitania to make prisoners of all belligerent passengers and capture the ship is admitted, but to sink the ship without warning with all of the passengers is regarded as an act of lawless barbarism which it is useless to discuss.
Great Britain, it is pointed out, has never desired or asked for active intervention on the part of the United States.
It is difficult, however, it is pointed out, not to refer at this juncture to Mr. Churchill's warning in the early stages of the war that if Germany beat England it would be America's turn next.
Great Britain today, it is urged, neither desires nor asks for intervention by the United States but in justification of her struggles points to the sinking of the Lusitania and says in effect to the United States, “this is what we are fighting."
REPORT IS ASKED OF GERMANY ON THE LUSITANIA
Special to The Christian Science Monitor from its Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON — "We are informing ourselves as rapidly as possible of the facts anti doing all we can for the injured,” said Secretary [of State William Jennings] Bryan this morning. This is all that officials at the state department or White House would say for publication, but it is not unlikely that some statement may be issued conseling [sic] the American people to remain calm, as was done in the Frye case.
Berlin has been asked by this government, through Ambassador Gerard, for Germany’s report of the sinking of the Lusitania and the consul at Queenstown and Ambassador Page at London have been instructed to get all the information they can.
It has not been determined officially whether the ship was torpedoed by a German submarine.
To get away and collect his thoughts President [Woodrow] Wilson went for a motor drive this morning and may play some golf. Secretaries Bryan and Redfield [William C. Redfield, Secretary of Commerce] gave up plans for a trip down the Potomac today and Secretary [of War Lindley Miller] Garrison canceled a trip to Alabama.
It is certain that the administration will proceed with extreme deliberation and prove their ground before they proceed on any line of action.