Top Nav

LusitaniaThe Tragedy of the Lusitania

Over 15 million people died during the Great War. As is always the case, the deaths of some resonated with the public more than others. In May 7, 1915, the sinking of the Lusitania would underscore just how brutal the conflict was and galvanize the Allied public to win it.

On May 1, one week prior to being sunk, the Lusitania prepared to set sail from New York. Many had read a warning issued by the German Embassy directed at ships traveling through the war zone printed in several newspapers, though few took notice—the danger seemed unreal. Captain William Turner, captain of the Lusitania, told the press, “It’s the best joke I’ve heard in many days, this talk of torpedoing the Lusitania.”

According to an official list, the Lusitania was carrying 1,257 passengers—the most on an eastbound voyage since the start of the war. The majority of passengers were British and Canadian, but nearly 200 of them were American. With officers and crew, the ship carried a total of 1,959 people. One passenger noted the unusually large number of children onboard.

The Lusitania had been searched days prior by the U.S. Neutrality Squad for contraband. However, a 24-page supplement manifest was submitted to customs four days after the Lusitania left New York that showed that, in monetary terms, over half of her cargo consisted of material being shipped for the Allies’ war effort, including Remington rifle cartridges and shrapnel shells.

Passengers were putting their faith in the ship’s speed, great size, and special construction, especially her honeycomb of watertight compartments. Many naval experts believed that if she were hit, these compartments would keep her afloat long enough for the lifeboats to be launched. Her speed, which in good conditions could exceed twenty-five knots, was thanks to her four direct-acting steam turbine engines. But as a cost saving measure, Captain Turner closed down one boiler room, meaning the ship would only average eighteen knots.

After what happened to those on the Titanic when it sank on April 14, 1912, safety measures had been increased, including the doubling of lifeboats and the existence of nearly 1,300 extra life jackets onboard. However, there were no lifeboat drills or instructions on how to properly put on one’s life jacket, despite the urging of several passengers for the Captain to do so. Captain Turner was confident in the Lusitania’s inability to sink and the remoteness of the German threat.

As the Lusitania approached her destination, the U-20 was active in the Irish channel. During the six days the Lusitania was at sea, twenty-three merchant ships had been torpedoed in the waters the ship was now entering. Captain Turner informed his passengers of the submarine warning but told them not to worry, but to little avail. Many passengers spent the night dressed and in public rooms.

At 8am the next morning, May 7, Turner telegraphed the engine room to reduce speed from 21 knots to 18 knots, then later 15 knots—the same speed a U-boat could travel on the surface in a calm sea. The ship was soon surrounded by a thick fog, which prompted Turner to order the foghorn to sound every minute. This, some passengers felt, was calling for trouble and giving their whereabouts away to the enemy.

At 10am the sun had burned off the fog and the captain brought the speed back up to 18 knots. He continued to receive updated warnings and coded messages throughout the morning and into the afternoon about the likely whereabouts of U-boats. What he did not know was that the U-20 had been watching the Lusitania’s latest maneuvers and gaining on her. At 2:10pm on May 7, the U-20 fired a single torpedo.

The passengers onboard the Lusitania heard a loud crash and felt the ship shake. The torpedo caused an unusually large explosion resulting in major damage. Minutes after impact the steering mechanism had locked up and the engine was out of commission. Panic set in and passengers began to scramble to the upper deck. Within minutes the ship began to list and it became increasingly difficult to move about normally.

Four minutes after the torpedo hit, the ship’s electricity failed completely. Because the only way out was via elevator, the crew feeding coal to the engines on the bottom deck were completely trapped with no hope of escape. Passengers caught in elevators were also “trapped like rats” as one horrified fellow passenger described. On the upper deck the over-confident captain told passengers and crew not to lower the boats—the ship could not sink. Once it was obvious that she could and was, passengers desperately clamored into the lifeboats, but the ship’s list, the lack of seamen attending the boats, and the obvious panic prevented the lifeboats from being lowered safely. Many decided intelligently to swim away rather than get into a lifeboat, as most of the boats were either smashing into the side of the ship or capsizing and dragging helpless passengers underwater to their deaths. At 2:28, just eighteen minutes after she was hit, the Lusitania was gone. Men and women were desperately trying to stay afloat or climb into the few lifeboats that had not capsized. Almost none of the children onboard survived—if they did not drown they died of exposure in the 52°F water of the Irish channel. Many parents tried desperately to hold their children out of the water but as one woman observed, the waters around her “were full of dead children floating like drowned dolls.”

Of the 1,959 people aboard, 1,198 died, leaving only 761 survivors— 72 of them American.

Rescuers were shocked by what they saw in the Irish channel, describing the many “mothers with their babies still clasped in their arms in death.” This powerful imagery was seized by the Allies as a weapon in the propaganda war. The blazing, sinking ship became a staple of recruitment posters that encouraged men to “avenge the Lusitania.” After these posters were issued, recruitment offices reported a surge in applicants.

A news report from Cork, Ireland received wide circulation in the United States when it reported, “On the Cunard wharf lies a mother with a three-month-old child clasped tightly in her arms. Her face wears a half smile. Her baby’s head rests against her breast. No one has tried to separate them…” This tragic image was the inspiration for one of America’s first WWI posters, done in Boston by Fred Spear in 1915, who added simply the word “Enlist” to his work. This poster (not contained in this collection) is perhaps the most valuable World War I poster of all, listed currently at $17,900.

Another relic that came out of the Lusitania tragedy is a medal by a German man celebrating the ship’s sinking. One side displays a German inscription reading “No Contraband” above a scene depicting the Lusitania’s decks crammed with airplanes and weaponry. At the bottom the inscription reads “The liner Lusitania sunk by a German submarine. May 5, 1915.” The other side shows a line of male passengers waiting to buy tickets from a Cunard agent, depicted as a skeleton representing Death, with an inscription at the top reading “Business Above All.” One passenger in the scene is reading a newspaper warning of the risk of submarine attack. There is also a bearded German official trying to warn another passenger not to sail.

The British denounced the medal as another example of German “frightfulness” and “the Hun’s heartless gloating over death and destruction.” After learning the embarrassing news of the medal in the foreign press, the German government carried out an investigation and learned that a Munich metalworker, Karl Götz, had created about 100 of these “commemorative” medals. Götz explained that “he was a satirist and that the medals, which he had cast for the first time in August 1915, were intended to be allegorical. He was not celebrating the sinking but condemning the cynicism of Cunard in enticing innocent people on board an armed ship carrying contraband.” But since the medal’s meaning was so open to interpretation, the Bavarian government was asked to prevent their distribution. This did little to contain them, as the British commissioned a quarter-million replicas that were distributed worldwide, each sold in a presentation box that cost a shilling and included a powerful message inside that read,

An exact replica of the medal which was designed in Germany and distributed to commemorate the sinking… This indicates the true feeling the War Lords endeavor to stimulate and is proof positive that such crimes are not only regarded favourably but are given every encouragement in the land of Kultur.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Ballard, Robert. Robert Ballard’s Lusitania: Probing the Mysteries of the Ship That Changed History. Toronto: Madison Press Books, 1995.

Preston, Diana. Lusitania: An Epic Tragedy. New York: Walker & Company, 2002.

Ramsay, David. Lusitania: Saga and Myth. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2001.

Rawls, Walton. Wake Up America! World War I and the American Poster. New York: Abbeville Press, 1988.

RMS Lusitania. “Mme Antoine Depage.” Accessed August 9, 2011. http://rmslusitania.info/pages/saloon_class/depage_marie.html.

IN THE COLLECTION

Posters:

203A- “Irishmen Avenge the Lusitania,” Irish Recruiting poster, signed W. E. J.

222KK- “The Sword of Justice,” British Recruiting poster

Books:

Preston, Diana. Lusitania: An Epic Tragedy. New York: Walker & Company, 2002.

Ramsay, David. Lusitania: Saga and Myth. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2001.

Rawls, Walton. Wake Up America! World War I and the American Poster. New York: Abbeville Press, 1988.

Artifacts:

A commemorative Lusitania medal by Karl Götz, likely one of the commissioned British medals by Gordon Selfridge

A medallion commemorating Edith Cavell and Marie Depage with their profiles one the front and “1915 Remember!” on the back, by A. Bonnetain 1919

Article about the sinking of the Lusitania in the Los Angeles Times

Arts of the Great War Collection