On the afternoon of 7 May 1915, the British luxury liner, Lusitania was torpedoed by a German U-Boat, 11 mi off the southern coast of Ireland and inside the declared "zone of war". A second internal explosion sent her to the bottom in 18 minutes. Nearly 1,200 people died. Of these, 128 were Americans. There were just over 760 survivors.
She was a beauty of a ship. Nicknamed "The Greyhound of the Sea" she was most likely the fastest ship of her day.
But the times were difficult. The War in Europe, World War I, was well underway and the German Navy was becoming expert at using submarines, U-Boats. They were patrolling the waters around Great Britain looking for targets.
Erik Larson, a wonderful non-fiction author of a number of excellent histories, has given us a new look at the sinking of the Lusitania. His current best-seller, Dead Wake, recounts in great detail the people involved in this tragedy.
The Germans made no attempt at hiding what they were up to. Their U-Boats were known to be patrolling the waters. They were clearly prowling for opportunities and let the world know.
As the Lusitania was preparing to leave New York on May 1, 1915, the Imperial German Embassy placed a notice in the ocean sailings section of the news. Right under the Lusitania's announcement was a clear warning- any ship, ANY ship flying a British flag is at risk.
No one believed it possible that the Lusitania, or any other passenger ship, would be attacked. Civilians were aboard.
The British Admiralty, which had a captured German code book, knew of the presence of the U-Boats and even of the general location of U-20. But they did not understand the unfolding horror of total warfare. They were, in some ways, like the American consul in Ireland who knew of the particulars, but later recalled
it never entered my mind for a moment that the Germans would actually perpetrate an attack upon her. The culpability of such an act seemed too blatant and raw for an intelligent people to take upon themselves. (Dead Wake, p. 156)When the Germans attacked an American tanker at the time the Lusitania was at sea, any warnings were discounted. On U-20 was a cold, calculating hunter- Capt. Schweiger. Larson does a very good job describing life on U-Boats, the work of U-20 and Capt. Schweiger. He was on the prowl and, up to the point of May 7, this trip had been an embarrassment to him.
On board the Lusitania, the passengers and crew all believed that the British Navy would accompany and protect the ship when it neared the British Isles. The Admiralty, some think, would have loved to see an American ship or American lives lost in order to bring the United States into the war to support Britain.
It was a quick death for the Lusitania.
It took two more years before the United States did enter the war.
There's far more to the story, of course, and Larson's narrative is his usual quality. An intriguing read.
It may be too much to say that the sinking of the Lusitania marked the beginning of a new way of doing warfare. Civilians have always been collateral damage [isn't that an awful phrase??!!]. World War I was already so awful in 1915 with the trench warfare and incredible amount of death and carnage that it was becoming the "war to end all wars." Little did anyone realize that it was but a relatively small example of what would happen over the next 30 years.
Then, as perhaps now to some extent, the flesh and blood reality of war was not generally reported. Larson tells us that even aboard the Lusitania, the Daily Bulletin kept the passengers abreast of the war. But, he writes
like its counterparts on land, [the Bulletin] reported only broad movements of forces, as if war were a game played with tiles and dice, not flesh-and-blood men. These reports did not begin to capture the reality of the fighting then unfolding on the ground...It is quite a story and worth the read. The horrors of war are all too real.