|Its all about ships
RICHARD H. WAGNER
(Originally published in The Log,
Navy League of the United States,
New York Council, Spring 2005)
No ships tie-up at Manhattan's Pier 54 these days. However, on 1 May, 1915, it was
teaming with activity as the most famous ocean liner in the world prepared to embark
for England. The ship was the LUSITANIA and she was commencing a voyage that
would change the history of the world. On the ninetieth anniversary of her sinking it is
appropriate to examine three issues. First, was LUSITANIA a military ship? Second,
how did her sinking come about? Third, did the sinking cause America to enter the
First World War?
To address the first issue, one has to understand why LUSITANIA was built. At
the beginning of the 20th century, Germany was luring away transatlantic passenger
business from the British with larger, faster and more luxurious liners. Meanwhile,
American financier J. Pierpont Morgan had purchased control of all of the British
passenger ship companies except Cunard Line. For an island nation dependent upon
the sea, the loss of dominance was not merely an injury to national pride but also a
threat to national security. "It was therefore [a] matter for keen satisfaction when Mr.
Balfour's Government, in 1903, after long consideration and negotiation entered into an
agreement with the Cunard Company in order that the latter should be maintained as a
British institution, with fast ships available at all times for war services," a
contemporary magazine wrote.
Cunard agreed to build two large steamships with an average speed of not less than
24 knots. In return, the government would loan Cunard £2.5 million at 2.5% interest
and give Cunard a £150,000 annual subsidy for 20 years. However, this was not
merely a government bail-out of a beleaguered industry. The British Admiralty
obtained substantial power over the company. Cunard had to guarantee that it would
remain British and that no director, or principal officer would be "a foreigner." During
the agreement, all of the ships in the Cunard fleet - - not just the two new ships- -
would be at the disposal of the Admiralty. Moreover, the masters, chief engineers,
watch officers and 75% of the crews had to be British. Preference in hiring was to go
to members of the Royal Naval Reserve and the Royal Fleet Reserve.
With regard to the new ships, the plans and specifications were subject to Admiralty
approval and an Admiralty inspector would oversee their construction. The Admiralty
would have storage space on the new ships and Cunard would "afford every facility to
the Admiralty for placing fittings on board in the event of the vessels being taken up for
use as armed cruisers."
When war between Britain and Germany broke out in August 1914, the two ships
built under the agreement, LUSITANIA and MAURETANIA, were requisitioned.
However, the Admiralty quickly decided that the ships consumed too much coal to
justify their use as cruisers. Consequently, while MAURETANIA was retained for use
as a troop ship, LUSITANIA was returned to Cunard. Thus, at the time of the sinking,
LUSITANIA was back with her civilian owner and was crewed by civilian officers and
After the sinking, the Germans claimed that LUSITANIA had been armed. The
United States Department of Justice investigated and found the charge to be false.
Fittings for four six inch guns were installed during a refit in 1912 or 1913 (depending
upon the source) but the guns themselves were never installed. Indeed, no guns were
found during a United States Customs inspection prior to sailing and none were seen by
the passengers on the final voyage. Although the wreck is in very poor condition, no
guns have been found by those who have explored it.
The Germans also charged that LUSITANIA was transporting a detachment of
Canadian troops. Once again, this charge appears to be baseless as it is contrary to the
testimony given by U.S. Customs officials and by the survivors at the various inquests.
The charge that LUSITANIA was carrying munitions, however, is true. Her cargo
included rifle bullets, shrapnel shells, and percussion fuses. This is not surprising as the
United States was supplying a large portion of Britain's armament needs at the time.
Furthermore, under contemporary international law, the fact that LUSITANIA was
carrying contraband would only have justified the Germans in seizing the cargo, not
sinking the ship without warning.
In sum, LUSITANIA clearly had Admiralty connections and was being used to aid
the war effort. However, at the time of her sinking, she was not a Royal Navy ship and
not a legitimate target.
Tuning to the second issue, life onboard LUSITANIA did not return to normal
after the Admiralty returned her to trade. In November 1914, her schedule was
reduced to a monthly trip from Liverpool to New York and back. To save coal, one
boiler room was closed, reducing her maximum speed to 21 knots. Also, her forward
hold was enlarged to carry war supplies home from New York.
If all had gone as the war planners had envisioned, LUSITANIA's release back to
trade would have placed her out of harm's way. Both the British and the Germans had
thought that the war at sea would consist of a series of clashes between opposing lines
of battleships. No one anticipated the major role the submarine would play.
Upon the commencement of hostilities, the British declared a blockade of
Germany. However, Germany evaded the blockade by trading through the ports of its
neutral neighbors. Seeing this, Britain expanded its blockade so as to close off the Baltic
and North Sea to any trade ultimately bound for Germany. This proved very effective.
The German High Seas fleet was smaller than the British Grand Fleet, and thus the
Germans were reluctant to try to use their battleships to break the blockade. Instead,
the Germans decided to use submarines to cut off Britain from her sources of supply.
Accordingly, on 4 February 1915, Germany announced that the area surrounding the
British Isles was a war zone and that Allied merchant ships would be subject to attack
On 1 May 1915, the Germans printed a warning in the New York newspapers --
often next to the advertisement for LUSITANIA's next voyage -- reminding the
American public of their new policy. However, as the New York Times reported a few
days later: "The feeling among officials and others appeared to be that the Germans
would not go to the extreme of sinking a passenger vessel with women and children and
many American citizens aboard. Even the advertisement inserted in American
newspapers . . . by the Germans . . . did not cause alarm here with particular reference
to the LUSITANIA, although it produced a feeling of irritation." Indeed, Cunard
received only one cancellation and a few requests to transfer to other ships.
The technological limitations of early submarine warfare also made many people
think that submarines posed little threat. Even with one boiler room closed,
LUSITANIA could easily outrun a U-boat, which had a maximum underwater speed of
less than ten knots. Indeed, with contemporary torpedoes' limited range, LUSITANIA
would almost have to run directly into the path of a U-boat in order for her to have a
chance of a shot. Even then, some 60% of German torpedoes failed to explode.
On the morning of 7 May, U-20, 210 feet long with a submerged displacement of
837 tons, was off the southern coast of Ireland. She had three of her seven torpedoes
left after a successful cruise attacking merchant vessels. Since standing orders called
for submarines to hold two torpedoes in reserve in case enemy warships were
encountered on the voyage home, there could be only one more attack. At 11:50,
Kaptain-Lieutenant Walter Schwieger spotted a large ship and attempted to give chase.
However, the obsolete British cruiser JUNO outran the Germans.
The British had known U-20's general whereabouts since the night of 5 May and
had been broadcasting warnings to all ships that U-boats were active off southern
Ireland. Onboard LUSITANIA, Captain William Turner ordered the lifeboats run out
to facilitate quick launching. All portholes and watertight doors not necessary for the
operation of the ship were closed. The lookouts were doubled and two quartermasters
were stationed on the bridge wings to look out for U-boats. The engine room was
instructed to be ready to give full speed. The atmosphere on the bridge and amongst
the passengers became tense as additional warnings were received. However, Turner
disregarded an Admiralty directive to zigzag because he did not believe in its
Fog on the morning of 7 May caused Turner to worry about his position and he
reduced speed to 15 knots. As the fog lifted and the Irish coast came in sight, Turner
ordered speed increased to 18 knots. Because the most recent submarine warnings
placed the danger further west than where he thought his position was, Turner decided
to ignore an Admiralty directive to stay as far out to sea as possible and ordered
LUSITANIA closer to shore in order to determine his precise location.
Turner's change of course headed LUSITANIA directly for U-20. Schwieger had
watched the liner come over the horizon but had thought that it was unlikely he could
get close enough to attack. Nonetheless, he had prepared his boat, ordering the forward
torpedo room to load one G-type torpedo. He also confirmed with his pilot that the
new target was either LUSITANIA or MAURETANIA, both of which were listed in
the boat's copy of Brassey's Naval Annual as armed merchant cruisers. Ignoring one
crewman's protest that the target was a passenger ship carrying women and children,
Schwieger fired at about two p.m. with the target less than 300 feet away.
The LUSITANIA's lookouts and some passengers spotted the torpedo but nothing
could be done before it struck. A few seconds later, a second large explosion occurred.
(Writers have speculated that this was an explosion of the munitions that LUSITANIA
was carrying. However, explorer Robert Ballard concluded after an examination of the
wreck that it was most likely an explosion of coal dust in an empty bunker near where
the torpedo struck.) The ship took on a 25 degree list to starboard.
Following the TITANIC disaster three years earlier, LUSITANIA had been
re-equipped so that she had 48 lifeboats in her davits, 26 collapsible lifeboats, 35 life
buoys, and 2,325 lifejackets. Notices regarding how to use the lifejackets were posted
around the ship and, on this voyage, a committee of passengers had given
demonstrations on how to use the lifejackets. However, circumstances did not permit
the well-ordered disembarkation contemplated in today's cruise ship life boat drills.
LUSITANIA sank in 18 minutes. Because of the severe list, it was impossible to
launch the port side lifeboats. Moreover, the list caused the starboard side boats to
hang so far away from the ship that passengers had to leap for them. Furthermore, the
ship continued to plow through the water at 18 knots causing most of the lifeboats that
were launched to capsize when they hit the water. Only eight boats got away.
Meanwhile, panic gripped many passengers and crew. Fights broke out, lifejackets
were stolen, and people jumped into the water wearing their lifejackets in an unsafe
manner. Of the 1,959 souls onboard, 1,198 died including 95 children.
There, thus, appears to have been no causal connection between the events in
New York and the sinking. Although the German newspaper warnings give the
impression that the sinking was part of a well-coordinated plan, the submarine that sunk
LUSITANIA was not hunting her. Rather, it was just a matter of luck that
LUSITANIA encountered her. Furthermore, the justifications offered for her sinking
are clearly post-hoc rationalizations. Even assuming arguendo that there was a basis for
the German charges and that German agents had reported this information home, there
is nothing to show that Schweiger had any such knowledge or that it was why he
decided to attack. Instead, the evidence indicates that he attacked because he thought
that LUSITANIA was an armed merchant cruiser.
Turning to the final issue, when Germany announced that it was commencing
unrestricted submarine warfare, it put itself on a collision course with the United States.
President Woodrow Wilson termed the German policy "unprecedented in naval
warfare." International law required that a warship attacking a merchant ship first signal
the merchant ship, board her, make sure of her identity, and assist the passengers and
crew to safety before sinking her. Since the early submarines were small, slow, fragile
craft, they would be vulnerable to being rammed or to fatal fire from hidden deck guns
if they attempted to conform to these rules. Nonetheless, Wilson sent a note to the
Germans warning that Germany would be held "strictly accountable" not only if an
American ship were sunk but also if any Americans were killed or injured during a
submarine attack on an Allied merchant ship.
Not all Americans, however, were upset by the German policy. For example, in
April 1915, the German government informed Secretary of State William Jennings
Bryan it was going to place warnings in American newspapers saying that ships entering
the war zone could be sunk without warning. Bryan acquiesced because in his view any
American traveling on an Allied ship was taking the same chance as if he or she decided
to walk across a battlefield
Yet, when LUSITANIA was sunk, few people had time for legalistic intellectual
debate. To understand the public reaction it is necessary to understand the place
LUSITANIA held in the public view. When LUSITANIA was launched in June 1906,
all of the first-class tonnage on the Atlantic became obsolete. She was the first liner of
more than 30,000 gross tons and the first to cross the Atlantic in less than five days.
LUSITANIA was not only a technological marvel. As the Washington Post wrote:
"Her cabins were designed to look more like a hotel than a ship. There were fireplaces,
windows shaped and curtained as in a private house, elaborate suites and a series of
tapestried reception rooms, smoking rooms and cafes." Even the steerage passengers
had luxuries not found on other liners including electric lights and heat. As a result,
New York greeted LUSITANIA when she entered New York for the first time in 1907
with the same excitement that surrounded the premiere of the QUEEN MARY 2 last
year. In addition, people could not believe that such an unthinkable act could occur.
Regardless of the various German justifications, the fact remained that the ship was
known to be carrying innocent civilians including many neutral Americans.
Former Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft called upon
Wilson to declare war immediately. "In God's name how could any nation calling itself
civilized [do] so horrible a thing." Wilson told his private secretary. However, Wilson
realized that the country was not ready for war. Even with this outrage, much of the
country, particularly the far west, wanted to have nothing to do with Europe.
Moreover, the United States Army was then smaller than the standing army of Portugal
and the fleet was in no condition to sail.
Accordingly, Wilson embarked upon a series of diplomatic exchanges that
eventually led to the Germans promising, in effect, to renounce unrestricted submarine
warfare. As proof that he had correctly judged the mood of the country, Wilson was
re-elected by a narrow margin in 1916 based upon the slogan: "He kept us out of war."
When, in 1917, the Germans decided that America posed no real threat, they resumed
their submarine campaign. After several American ships followed the LUSITANIA to
the bottom, Wilson reluctantly took a still largely unprepared nation to war.
While the sinking of the LUSITANIA did not immediately lead to America's entry
into the war, it did set the wheels in motion. Because of the sinking, the United States
took the position that attacks on passenger ships were intolerable. Because, as became
especially apparent after the inconclusive Battle of Jutland, Germany had no means of
breaking the British stranglehold other than to engage in unrestricted submarine warfare,
conflict with America became inevitable. Since the arrival of large numbers of
Americans in France in 1918 is generally credited with bringing the war to an end, the
sinking of the LUSITANIA can also be seen as a first step in Germany's defeat.
DISPLACEMENT 31,550 gross tons (44,000 tons full load)
LENGTH: 787 feet
BEAM: 87 feet
SPEED: 25 knots (service): 26.7 (maximum)
POWER PLANT: Steam turbine
PASSENGERS: 563 first class, 464 second class, 1138 third class
LAUNCHED; 7 June 1906
SUNK: 7 May 1915
BUILDER: John Brown & Co., Clydebank, Scotland
Historic passenger ships - - Cunard - - Lusitania