Once upon a time, just over a hundred years ago, there was an ocean liner. Known for its size, luxury, and speed – indeed, it was the biggest ship in the world when it was launched – this ocean liner was towards the end of an Atlantic crossing with many rich and famous passengers when disaster struck. There were not enough lifeboats aboard. To the shock and horror of the whole world, the ship sank, killing well over half of the passengers and crew aboard. This incident had worldwide repercussions.
I am, of course, talking about… the RMS Lusitania. Surprise!
The RMS Lusitania coming into port; photographer George Grantham Bain. Taken between 1907 and 1913.
The similarities between the RMS Titanic (sank April 15, 1912; roughly 1500 dead) and the RMS Lusitania (sank May 7, 1915; 1,198 dead) are striking; however, since most of us know the former story much better than the latter, let’s focus on the latter. And yes, that does mean that I’m going to talk about World War I again.
The Lusitania was launched in 1906, and over the next nine years, it made 202 successful crossings of the Atlantic Ocean. It came to be known as one of the Transatlantic Greyhounds: sleek, quick, and reliable. While, at almost 800 feet long, the Cunard liner was smaller than the White Star Line’s Olympic-class ships (the Titanic, the Olympic, and the Britannic), it was also faster, with a top speed of approximately 30 miles/hour as compared to the Titanic’s 28 miles/hour. The Lusitania continued on its merry way, successfully completing crossing after crossing after crossing with nary a problem in sight until the outbreak of World War I.
Knowing that sinking a ship as grand as the Lusitania would be a feather in any German commander’s hat, the British immediately repainted her a drab grey to attempt to disguise the ship, and also to make it less immediately visible to the German foe. However, as 1914 came to a close and it seemed that the British navy was keeping the German navy well in check, the Lusitania was repainted her original colors. During this time, she never stopped making ocean crossings.
With 1915 came the scourge of the U-Boat. I’ve already written a bit about the German U-Boats of WWI (for a refresher, read this post), so I’m sure that you recall that U-Boats were an attempt to change the naval power status quo. Britain had the strongest navy in the world, and Germany knew that, if it was to gain the upper hand, it needed to find a way to stop the unstoppable juggernaut of British shipping. And so the U-Boats took to the seas, harassing and sinking ships from underwater. At first, they stuck to sinking naval vessels, but quickly began attacking merchant vessels, though still mostly keeping to the Cruiser Rules. Early in February of 1915, Germany declared the waters around the British Isles to be a warzone, and cautioned that its U-Boats would sink any vessels they encountered in that region without warning. The German government went so far as to run this warning in the newspaper below an ad for the Lusitania.
The newspaper warning issued by the Imperial German Embassy in advance of the voyage.
Many people ignored this admonition when booking passage on the Lusitania for what would prove to be its final voyage (departing New York for Liverpool on May 1, 1915). The crossing was mostly uneventful until the ship neared its destination, hoving into view of the U-Boat SM U-20, commanded by Kapitänleutnant Walter Schwieger, off the southern coast of Ireland. The U-Boat fired a single fatal torpedo, which struck the Lusitania on its starboard side.
We’ve all seen Titanic (and if you haven’t, then you need to go watch it right now; I promise this post will still be here in 3 hours and 15 minutes), so when we imagine a passenger liner sinking, we probably imagine the panic and the drama playing out as the ship gradually lists, then sinks over a matter of nearly two and a half hours. Imagine, then, the shock, the terror, and the chaos that ensues when the ship beneath your feet disappears in only 18 minutes. The enormous Lusitania sank in less time than it takes to clean your kitchen. There was only time to launch six out of the 48 lifeboats aboard, and only 764 of the 1,962 survived the immediate sinking (three more died of their injuries later). Most of those who died either drowned or froze to death.
There was immediate worldwide outrage. How dare the Germans purposefully sink a passenger liner! And not just any passenger liner, but the famed Lusitania! Germany defended itself by pointing out that the warning it had issued, as well as the fact that the Lusitania had, in fact, been carrying munitions, greatly mitigated any responsibility that Germany might bear for the deaths of American passengers (remember, America was still neutral at this point). While Woodrow Wilson refused to declare war over the sinking (and indeed, would be re-elected to office in 1916 under the slogan, “He kept us out of the war”), many Americans were incensed at the seeming inhumanity of the Germans. The British were only too happy (well, “happy,” anyway) to turn the tragedy to propaganda purposes. From that point on, though America would not enter the war until the spring of 1917, it was clear to all that if America were to eventually enter the war, it would not, could not be on Germany’s side.
One of the many propaganda posters issued by the British following the sinking.
Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania, by Eric Larsen, recounts in fascinating detail the final days of the grand ship, including biographical sketches of the most well-known and important of those aboard, a glimpse inside British military intelligence, life aboard U-20, the aftermath of the sinking (from the macro to the micro), and the budding romance between the widower Woodrow Wilson and his second-wife-to-be, Edith Bolling. Larsen has a knack for making even the most mundane details interesting, so every moment of this book is a fascinating – and occasionally morbid – read. As so many of the best authors do, Larsen incorporates all manner of primary source documents into his work: letters, diaries, the U-Boat’s log, and transcriptions from the inquiry after the sinking. The book is meticulously researched, and well-organized, but still wholly human and touching.
Dead Wake is available for purchase here. Highly recommended!