Sinking of the Lusitania
On May 7, 1915, a German U-boat torpedoed and sunk the Lusitania.
The British built the RMS Lusitania to be the fastest ocean liner afloat. Completed in 1906, it was the world’s largest passenger ship for a brief time as well. The Lusitania set out on its maiden voyage in September 1907, with a crowd of 200,000 there to see it off. Nicknamed the “Greyhound of the Seas,” the Lusitania earned the Blue Riband for the fastest Atlantic crossing that October.
Two years later, in 1909, the Lusitania joined in the Hudson-Fulton Celebration in New York City. The celebration marked the 300th anniversary of Henry Hudson’s trip up the river named in his honor, as well as the 100th anniversary of Robert Fulton’s steamboat, the Clermont. The Lusitania stood as the shining example of modern steamship technology.
After the world went to war five years later, the Lusitania was converted into an armed merchant cruiser. It had gun mounts and carried ammunition below the deck. At first many feared that the ship would be a target. The Lusitania was painted a drab gray to hide its identity and make it harder to see. When it appeared that the Royal Navy was sufficiently keeping the German Navy in check, concerns were relieved and the Lusitania continued booking passenger cruises.
In late April 1915, the German embassy in Washington warned that Americans traveling on Allied ships in war zones did so at their own risk. Several New York newspapers published the warning, which you can see here. In one paper, the announcement was placed on the same page as an advertisement for an upcoming sailing of the British-owned Lusitania ocean liner, which was scheduled to travel from New York to Liverpool.
On May 1, 1915, the Lusitania departed New York, destined for Liverpool as advertised. Scheduled to pass through a war zone, the ship was only at half its capacity – 1,962 passengers and crew. On May 7, at 2:10 p.m. near Ireland, a torpedo from a German submarine struck the Lusitania. Another explosion from within the hull followed shortly after. The crew hurried to prepare lifeboats, but the ship ripped apart.
Of the 48 lifeboats aboard, only six launched successfully. Within 18 minutes, the Lusitania disappeared into the sea and only 764 of its passengers survived the wreck. Americans, who had lost 128 of their own in the attack, were outraged.
Britain expected the U.S. to join the war immediately, but President Woodrow Wilson believed that would be an overreaction. He claimed that, “There is such a thing as a man being too proud to fight. There is such a thing as a nation being so right that it does not need to convince others by force that it is right.”
Although it was revealed that the ship was carrying some 173 tons of war munitions for Great Britain, the U.S. protested the attack and Germany pledged to end its unrestricted submarine warfare. However, that November the Germans torpedoed the Italian liner SS Ancona without warning. Then, in early 1917, Germany announced it would resume unrestricted submarine warfare, promising to attack all neutral ships sailing into a German warzone without warning, whether armed or not. That February, Wilson broke off diplomatic ties with Germany, and declared war two months later.
Click here to see photos of the Lusitania.
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