The tragedy of the RMS Lusitania is one of the turning points in World War I. Sunk by a German U-boat as it travelled from the United States to Ireland with a horrifying loss of life, her destruction was a direct cause of the United States entering the war.
There is no doubt that the loss of the Lusitania was shocking, but as with many key moments in history there are secrets beneath the surface: the story is never as straightforward as it might seem. Almost 100 years later, the mystery around the sinking of RMS Lusitania and its role in fueling World War I continues to inspire debate.
For the German Navy, in targeting the Lusitania, were not hell-bent on wanton destruction. In fact they believed that, owing to her cargo, she was a legitimate target and it was the other side in the war who were at fault.
Did the Germans have cause? Who, ultimately, was to blame for the 1,200 passengers who died only 11 miles (18 km) from the Irish coast in the 7th May, 1915?
The Fateful Journey of RMS Lusitania
Before diving into the implications of Lusitania’s sinking in World War I, it is important to take note of what exactly happened with the ship. To fully understand the implications we need to go back to the original circumstances under which the RMS Lusitania was constructed, in 1904.
The ship was built on the grounds of an agreement in which the shipbuilder Cunard received a loan and annual subsidies for operations from the British Government. The only thing the British Government asked in return was that the Lusitania should be designed for use as an auxiliary cruiser during wartime, if required.
Auxiliary cruisers were meant to carry ammunition and war supplies. However, there could be no doubt that the Lusitania was first and foremost a transatlantic liner, and by all accounts she was a beauty to behold.
At the time of her construction, war in Europe was only the remotest of possibilities. The British Government, in providing the loans for her construction, was simply acting with prudence in strengthening her supply lines in the event of any future conflict.
Flash forward a decade, and the situation was decidedly different. In November 1914 following the declaration of war against Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the British Government declared the North Sea a war zone.
In response, the Imperial German Government also marked the seas around United Kingdom and Ireland as war zones. Germany also announced that any Allied ships in the war zone would be destroyed without warning.
Disaster struck the Lusitania on 7 May 1915 as it was returning to Liverpool from New York. The ocean liner encountered a lurking German U-boat when she was within sight of the southern coast of Ireland, and the commander of the U-boat ordered a torpedo to be launched at the liner.
However, the torpedo attack only managed to strike the starboard bow of the liner. The real damage occurred a few moments later due to a secondary explosion in the liner’s hull, causing it to sink faster. The speed at which the ship foundered made it difficult to use lifeboats, subsequently exacerbating the loss of life in the fateful incident.
It was clear that the U-boat captain considered Lusitania a legitimate target. But was she?
The public outrage around the sinking of the RMS Lusitania was instantaneous, with the British and United States governments condemning the act as barbarous. 129 Americans had lost their lives in the sinking of Lusitania, and their deaths played a crucial role in bringing the United States into the First World War.
The Lusitania also served as a major focus of war propaganda in both Britain and America. The sinking of Lusitania was propagated as stark evidence of German atrocities by the Allied forces. Were the Germans really at fault here?
The British felt that Lusitania was not a legitimate target because of the “Cruiser Rules” agreed between the two sides in World war I. Under these rules the Lusitania was considered a civilian ship and she should not be targeted. It was under this assumption that she had sailed from the United States to Europe in the first place.
The German argument, however, was that Lusitania violated those very rules of war as they applied to passenger ocean liners and merchant ships. Lusitania was carrying 173 tons (157 tonnes) of ammunitions and weapons on board when she sank, ammunition which was to be used directly for the war effort against Germany.
The Germans felt that the British had never adhered to the Cruiser Rules, and further argued that since Lusitania was an auxiliary naval vessel she was an active participant in the war. The German argument was that the Allies were using the passengers on Lusitania as a human shield to bring combat supplies into the European theater.
Interestingly, the supplies on board may also have been a factor in how quickly the Lusitania sank. The second explosion in the hull is considered the primary cause for sinking of the ship. Was the second explosion due to the ammunition onboard? Did the Allies actually cause her sinking through asking her to transport dangerous cargo?
Uncovering the Mystery
The Allies certainly never openly admitted responsibility for the sinking of the RMS Lusitania. The British Government has been staunch ever since in its claims about the Germans being responsible for the incident.
However, in the years since her loss the efforts of divers and researchers have uncovered many of the mysteries behind the sinking of RMS Lusitania. Some historians suggest that the explosion in the hull might have been the result of explosive cargo being detonated by the torpedo hit, others that the impact of frigid water on steam lines of the ship was what caused the explosion.
The accusations and counter-accusations of the British and German governments at that time created further confusion regarding the viability of their claims. However, the cargo manifesto of Lusitania clearly showed that it carried light ammunition, including 1,250 cases of fuses and shrapnel shells and almost 4,200 Remington rifle cartridge cases.
Gregg Bemis, the owner of the Lusitania’s wreck, has been trying to unravel the possibilities behind the ominous incident in world history. He has recovered live ammunition from the wreck. The Head of the Foreign Office of the British Government in North America, Noel Marshall, added further suggestions as to the guilt of the British Government.
A series of government documents from 1982 have shown the Foreign Office concern that investigations by salvage teams could cause the wreck to explode. It is practically one of the first affirmations or proof of the fact that the RMS Lusitania did carry weapons.
Who is at Fault?
The miseries of war can never fade away from the pages of history, and incidents like the sinking of Lusitania show how we have a lot to learn about the past. Some of the secrets buried deep in the world’s oceans have a lot to say about the immoral actions of leaders on both sides.
On the other hand, they also highlight the glorious futility of war, which in the case of World War I wiped out a generation in Europe. Were the Germans legitimately allowed to target the liner? The cargo manifest suggests that they were.
Does that mean they should have sunk her without warning, killing 1,200 people? That is far less clear.
Top Image: Was the Lusitania a legitimate target? Source: Unknown Author / Public Domain.
By Bipin Dimri
More, M, 2014. The Fateful Journey of RMS Lusitania. Available at: https://www.vam.ac.uk/dundee/articles/lusitania-first-world-war
Stack, L, 2017. Reactions to the Sinking of RMS Lusitania. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/03/world/europe/lusitania-telegraph.html
Siggins, L, 2015. Uncovering the Mystery. Available at: https://www.irishtimes.com/culture/heritage/no-smoking-guns-the-100-year-controversy-about-what-the-lusitania-was-carrying-1.2197203