"We're All Mad Here…."
100 years ago today, an event occurred that was reviled as one of the grossest acts of cowardice of the First World War, when a German U-Boat torpedoed and sank the British Cunard passenger liner “Lusitania” with the loss of 1,198 lives as she was returning to Liverpool from New York on her 202nd crossing.
Dismissively known by some as “The Forgotten Titanic”, today the sinking hardly generates the same headlines or emotional impact as the foundering of the famous White Star liner three years previously. But the story is far more complex than a simple case of the vile Hun sinking an unarmed vessel, and many mysteries remain. Did the sinking expedite the US entry into the Great War? Was the ship carrying an illegal supply of weapons on board? Why did the ship sink so fast?
These and many other fascinating facts are explored in this list…
10 The Mysterious Second Explosion
On May 7th, 1915, the U-20’s Captain Schwieger sighted the “Lusitania” off the southern coast of Ireland and he ordered a torpedo launched. Seconds after it found its target, the ship was rocked by a much larger explosion from within. The source of this explosion is still debated today. Dr.Robert Ballard, who investigated the wreck in 1993 suggests that a coal dust explosion caused this second explosion. A TV documentary team in 2013 proposed that a boiler had exploded, but some suspect that the ship was carrying a cache of illegal weapons which had been detonated by the torpedo (see later). The 1915 British Inquiry decided that a second torpedo had been fired, but Schwieger’s log disputes this.
Whatever the cause, the effect on the “Lusitania” was devastating. She rapidly devloped a list so great that lifeboats on one side hung away from the ship, while those on the other scraped down the hull. The ship sank in just 18 minutes, and only about 6 boats were successfully launched. Due to the ship’s proximity to land, help was relatively quick in arriving but many died of exposure in the frigid water.
The casualty list was immense: 1,198 had died, with 761 survivors, comparable to the “Titanic’s” (1498 lost; 712 saved).
Of the 109 children on board, only 35 were saved. A reward of £1 was offered for each body found, with the Americans paying a bonus of another £1 for each one of their citizens retrieved. The biggest reward was for the body of multimillionaire Alfred Vanderbilt, where a £200 bounty was offered by his family. His body, and those of 900 others were never found.
“Exploring the Lusitania” by Robert D.Ballard with Spencer Dunmore
“RMS Lusitania” by Eric Sauder
9 The Medal
The sinking was a huge benefit to Allied propaganda and they produced posters encouraging people to “Enlist” and to “Take up the sword of justice”.
But the Germans saw it differently. Their Government declared that the “Lusitania” was far from “innocent” and was a legitimate target because they claimed it had been carrying illegal cargo intended to assist the Allies (see later). Prompted by his Government’s statements, medal maker Karl Goetz produced a small number of “satirical” medallions showing the ship sinking, her decks covered with cannons and war planes, and a skeleton selling tickets at the Cunard office. “No contraband goods!” and “Business Above All” screamed the slogans on the medal. The initial batch of medals had the incorrect date of “5 Mai” on them.
The British were incensed; they claimed that the medals were actually endorsed by the German Government to glorify the deed and that the use of the earlier date proved that the “Lusitania’s” sinking had been pre-planned. The British produced 300,000 copies of the “5 May [sic]” medal to reinforce the perception of German brutality. Proceeds from the sales went to a hospital caring for blinded servicemen.
8 American Entry Into The First World War
Of the 139 Americans on board, 128 perished, and the United States were very quick to voice their anger. Many sources cite the unprovoked attack on U.S. citizens as the reason why America entered the war. But the US didn’t do so for another two years.
Immediately after the sinking, President Wilson condemned the German attack. He rejected their suggestion that the ship was carrying contraband, and that the crippling British blockade of Germany was illegal. The Germans feared US entry into the war and in 1916, after a French ferry was torpedoed resulting in more American casualties, they eventually agreed to a hiatus on attacking passenger ships and adopted a protocol to allow the crews of merchant ships to escape prior to their vessel being sunk if a search found weapons on board.
The matter remained stable until February 1917 when Germany’s policy changed. Any ship in designated war zones were liable to be sunk. They believed that Britain could be defeated within 5 months if the island was isolated and that the United States could not be considered neutral after they had provided aid for the Allied war machine. The United States and Germany severed diplomatic ties. A few weeks later, British intelligence revealed that a coded telegram from German Foreign Minister Arthur Zimmerman had been intercepeted and deciphered; the note had been sent to the ambassador in Mexico to try and coerce their government into joining Germany in the war. In return Germany would help Mexico to reclaim land it had lost to the United States.
The note also asked Mexico to broker an alliance between Germany and Japan. Mexico ultimately rejected the proposal. These two incidents were enough for the United States to declare war on Germany.
In addition to the house flags flying from the mast, one way to identify what company a ship belonged to was to look at the colour of her funnel. For Cunard, this meant an orange body with a black top. This was an obvious give-away to any submarine commander intent on sinking British ships. Recent research indicates that the funnels had been repainted black for the “Lusitania’s” final voyage; the colour change may have occurred during the voyage. This “black funnel” trick had been used in the past, and there are reports of the ship even flying the Stars and Stripes in British waters to deter attacks on previous trips (a tactic that elicited a minor diplomatic skirmish).
The benefit of trying to disguise a ship’s identity in such a way has long been debated. There weren’t many ships with four funnels on the high seas that weren’t German and the “Lusitania’s” configuration was a distinctive give-away.
6 Premonitions of Disaster
Like all catastrophes, the sinking of the “Lusitania” elicited a large number of premonitions.
The ship’s cat, Dowie, seems to have been one who had an inkling of disaster; twice before it tried to jump ship before the fateful departure. On the third attempt Dowie was finally successful.
But one case of foreboding is intriguing. Blanche Marshall, her husband and daughter had been booked to travel on the final voyage of the “Lusitania,” then about four weeks away. Blanche became hysterical and demanded that their trip be re-arranged. This was duly done, but the only arrangement that could be made at such short notice was in decidely less spacious and considerably inferior accommodation on a ship called … the “Lusitania”, which was due to leave in only a few days. Blanche replied, “Oh thats all right. The Lusitania is not going to sink until the voyage we were going on. I suppose she will be torpedoed as it is too warm for icebergs. Poor things, I feel so sorry for them! However there is nothing we can do about it in wartime…”
Incredibly, there is a precedent because three years previously, Blanche and friends were watching the “Titanic” steam by the Isle of Wight. She became hysterical and yelled “That ship is going to sink before it reaches America.” When her guests did nothing, she yelled, “Don’t stand there staring at me! Do something. I can see hundreds of people struggling in the icy water. Are you all so blind that you are going to let them drown?”
Sadly, Blanche Marshall’s predictions were proved right on both occasions.
“Lost At Sea” by Michael Goss and George Behe
“Titanic – Psychic Forewarnings of a tragedy” by George Behe
The wreck of the “Lusitania” has unfortunately not been treated with much respect. In 1982, high explosives were used to rip three of her four propellers from the hull, one of which was melted down to produce 3500 sets of commemorative golf clubs. In the salvage process, the stern of the wreck was considerably damaged. Many of the other recovered items have been sold at auction after many legal difficulties but the remainder have been tragically “disposed of.”
Since 1995, a change in the law has protected the wreck but there are rumours that priceless artefacts still remain trapped within the hull. Sir Hugh Lane was reported to have been transporting paintings by Monet and Rubens which were safely sealed in lead tubes, and these may have been seen during dives in the early 1990s.
One treasure that has been retrieved was one reel of a five reel 1915 film called “The Carpet From Baghdad.” Despite water damage, some of the frames are intact. No other copy of the film is known to exist, making the few fragments recovered from the wreck unique.
Rumours that the “Lusitania” was carrying weaponry to assist in Britain’s war effort were rife in 1915 and have persisted since. As a neutral party, the United States was forbidden from supplying such material. Cunard said that that the ship did carry “cases of cartridges…for small arms, packed in separate cases…they certainly [did] not come under the classification of ammunition” and indeed, it was legal to carry these items. The US Customs Official noted that ammunition without a fuse would be classed as “non explosive” and could be legally carried as long as they appeared on the manifest. But as subsequent research has revealed, these “ammunition” cases on the manifest were actually complete, filled rounds. The ship’s inventory also lists large quantities of lard, butter and cheese that were strangely destined for the Royal Navy’s Weapons Testing Establishment; critics point out that the quantities cited would not have fitted in the “Lusitania’s” refrigeration holds and some suspect that these items were actually explosives.
Curiously, just before the 1915 investigation into the sinking, alterations were made to British law which stymied discussions on what the ship was actually carrying.
The 1982 exploration of the wreck revealed the “first hard evidence” that the ship had been carrying illegal munitions, when several hundred military fuses were found. In 2008, further evidence of weaponry was found on board, with a suspected 4 million rounds of Remington bullets, listed as “cartridges” in the manifest.
Today some people suspect that the second explosion was due to the presence of explosives on board. The poor condition of the wreck has hampered investigation to verify this contention. There are stories that the wreck has been deliberately peppered with explosives to try and destroy any evidence that she was carrying an illegal cargo.
“RMS Lusitania” by Eric Sauder
3 The Dubious Lifebelt
In 1920, a curious relic was dragged from the Delaware River. Once the encrusted barnacles had been removed, it proved to be a lifebelt, with the name “Lusitania” stamped on it. While it is possible that it could have drifted from Ireland to the United States via the “North Atlantic Gyre” (a huge circulatory current), many people are dubious. The practise on White Star Line ships was never to stamp the ship’s name on any item, so that they could be easily moved from vessel to vessel, and it is believed that this practise was used by Cunard and other companies. It makes little sense to have the name on the lifebelt unless it is a hoax.
2 German Warnings
The day the “Lusitania” sailed, a warning issued by the German Embassy appeared in American newspapers advising that passengers who took ships flying the enemy flag did so at their own risk.
The warning was dated over a week earlier. It was too late for many people to change their bookings and of those who knew of the warning many scoffed at it, including the ship’s Captain, William Turner, who said, “I wonder what the Germans will do next. Well, it doesn’t seem as if they had scared many people from going on the ship…” He dismissed talk of a submarine attack as “a joke.” The Cunard agent also found it difficult to believe that the German Embassy had issued the warning, and said that steps were taken to prevent any suspicious person from getting on board, and that packages and cases had to be opened for inspection (at least one passenger denied this, though). The agent had no fear of submarines at all.
Unfortunately the German warning turned out to be true.
1 Overlap with the Titanic disaster.
There are a few connections between the “Lusitania” and the “Titanic.” The creation of the “Titanic” and her sisters was prompted by rival Cunard’s introduction of “Mauretania” and “Lusitania” in their attempt to dominate the North Atlantic passenger trade with their speed and opulence.
Post-disaster, the same man – Lord Mersey (John Charles Bigham) – presided over the British Inquiries into the loss of the two ships; indeed, he had also headed the inquiry into the loss of “The Empress of Ireland” in 1914.
Most ironically, the day before he sailed, Captain Turner appeared as a witness over passenger claims of negligence regarding the sinking of the “Titanic.” In his testimony he described how he had treated ice with more respect than the “Titanic’s” crew. When asked if anything had been learned from the “Titanic” disaster, Turner replied, “Not the slightest; it will happen again.”
A week later, his own ship slipped beneath the waves. Turner was one of the fortunate few to survive.
More of his wonderfully detailed and informative work can be enjoyed at his website ‘Paullee.com’