100 years since the sinking of the RMS Lusitania
This month will mark the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Lusitania, which resulted in the loss of 1,198 passengers and crew. The RMS Lusitania was travelling to Liverpool from New York when it was torpedoed approximately 18km off the Old Head of Kinsale. The Cunard liner was taken out by the German submarine U20 and the ship rapidly sank to the bottom of the ocean in only 18 minutes. 761 of the people on board managed to survive but nearly 2000 people perished in the sinking.
Of those who died that day 128 were American citizens. The sinking of the Lusitania actually had a significant and wider impact on America’s decision to enter the World War. Following the sinking by the German submarine, public opinion in the U.S shifted dramatically leading to President Woodrow Wilson to join the side of the allied forces in 1917.
The RMS Lusitania was a luxury liner built for the famed Cunard Line in 1906 by John Brown & Co. Ltd of Clydebank. The ship itself was both impressive in its size and power and it gained a reputation for speed and won the Blue Riband for the fastest eastbound crossing in October 1907. Like so many ships around that time the Lusitania was partially funded by a government subsidy scheme which called for the ship to be converted for use as an armed cruiser should war ever be declared.
While the structural requirements for such a conversion were actually taken into consideration in the original design of the Lusitania, gun mounts were added to the ship’s bow during an overhaul in 1913. In order to disguise these from the travelling passengers, the gun mounts were hidden from view under coils of heavy docking lines during its journeys.
When World War 1 broke out in August 1914, Cunard was actually allowed to keep the ship in commercial use. This was due to the fact that the Royal Navy had actually decided that large liners consumed too much coal and required crews that were far too large to be effective raider ships.
Cunard did have to allow other ships including the Mauritania and Aquitania to be drafted into military service during the war. Though it remained in passenger service, the Lusitania underwent several wartime modifications including the addition of several compass platforms and cranes, as well as the painting black of its distinctive red funnels.
In an effort to reduce costs, the ship operated on a monthly sailing schedule and one of the boiler rooms was closed down. By closing one of the boiler rooms it reduced the Lusitania’s top speed to approximately 21 knots. This still meant that the ship was the fastest liner operating in the Atlantic and the move also allowed it to be ten knots faster than German u-boats.
On February 4th, 1915, the German government declared the seas around the British Isles to be a war zone and that from February 18th, Allied ships in the area would be sunk without any hesitation or prior warning. As the Lusitania was scheduled to reach Liverpool on March 6th, the Admiralty provided Captain Daniel Dow with instructions on how to avoid submarines. With the liner approaching, two destroyers were dispatched to escort Lusitania into port. Unsure whether the approaching warships were British or German, Dow eluded them and reached Liverpool on his own.
A month later, the Lusitania departed for New York on April 17th, with Captain William Thomas Turner in command. Turner was an experienced mariner and reached New York on the 24th. During this time, several concerned German- American citizens approached the German embassy in an effort to avoid controversy should the liner be attacked by a u-boat. Taking their concerns to heart, the embassy placed ads in fifty American newspapers on April 22nd warning that neutral travelers aboard British-flagged vessels en route to the war zone sailed at their own risk.
The warning from the German’s caused some agitation in the press and concern among the passengers on the ship. Believing that the Lusitania’s speed alone made it almost invulnerable to attack, Captain Turner and his officers managed to allay the fears of the passengers on board. On the 1st of May the Lusitania began its return voyage from Pier 54. As the ship was crossing the Atlantic, the German submarine U-20, commanded by Captain Lieutenant Walther Schwieger, was operating off the west and south coasts of Ireland. The German submarine had sank three merchant vessels between the 5th and 6th of May.
This activity was reported to Captain Turner onboard the Lusitania. He received two warnings on the 6th of May which lead to him taking several safety precautions including closing watertight doors, swinging out the lifeboats, doubling the lookouts, and blacking out the ship. Due to the fact that Turner trusted in the speed of the ship he did not begin following a zigzag course as recommended to him. When he received another warning around 11:00 AM on the 7th of May he turned northeast towards the coast, incorrectly believing that submarines would likely keep to the open sea.
With on three remaining torpedoes and low on fuel, Schwieger had decided to return to the German base when a vessel was spotted around 1:00 PM. Diving, U-20 moved to investigate. Encountering fog, Turner slowed to 18 knots as the liner steered for Cobh. As the Lusitania crossed his bow, Schwieger ordered that the submarine open fire at 2:10 PM. A torpedo hit the liner below the bridge on the starboard side. It was quickly followed by a second explosion in the starboard bow. The second explosion was believed to have been caused by an internal steam explosion.
Turner instantly sent out a distress signal and tried steering the Lusitania towards the coast, but the steering failed to respond. The ships engines pushed the ship forward, driving more water into the hull. Six minutes after the initial hit from the torpedo, the bow slipped under the water, which majorly hindered the desperate efforts to launch the ships lifeboats. As panic and mayhem spread across the liner’s decks, many of the lifeboats were lost due to the ship’s speed or dumped out the passengers as they were being lowered into the ocean.
At approximately 2:28 PM, around eighteen minutes after the torpedo hit the boat, the Lusitania plunged beneath the waves approximately eight miles off the Old Head of Kinsale. The sinking of the Lusitania sparked immediate outrage internationally and the sinking quickly turned public opinion against the German’s and their allies. The German government did attempt to justify the sinking by stating that Lusitania was classified as an auxiliary cruiser and was carrying military cargo. They were technically correct due to the fact that the ship was under orders to ram u-boats and its cargo included a shipment of bullets, 3-inch shells, and fuses.
The deaths of the American citizens onboard absolutely outraged the general public in the United States. There were persistent calls for President Wilson to declare war on Germany. While encouraged by the British, Wilson refused and urged restraint. Issuing three diplomatic notes in May, June, and July, Wilson affirmed the rights of US citizens to travel safely at sea and warned that future sinking’s would be viewed as “deliberately unfriendly.” Following the sinking of the liner SS Arabic in August, American pressure bore fruit as the Germans offered an indemnity and issued orders prohibiting their commanders from surprise attacks on merchant vessels. That September, the Germans halted their campaign of unrestricted submarine warfare. Its resumption, along with other provocative acts such as the Zimmermann Telegram, would ultimately pull the United States into the World War.
To mark the 100th anniversary of the ships sinking, there has been commemorative events organised in Co Cork. On May 7th, President Higgins will attend a commemoration in the town which will include a parade of ships with white lights representing the rescue boats coming home. Meanwhile, 1,198 white flowers will be placed in the sea to represent all those who died.
Kinsale, The Old Head, Cobh, and Courtmacsherry in County Cork, in association with Cork County Council, will pay tribute to all those who lost their lives and remember the efforts of their ancestors who responded with great courage and compassion to rescue survivors and recover the dead in ordinary fishing boats and lifeboats. These communities witnessed first-hand the trauma and heartbreak of the disaster.
Cobh is also hosting an exhibition of old photographs in the former Cunard Ticket Office. It will receive a visit from the Cunard liner Queen Victoria, which is embarking on a Lusitania Remembered voyage for interested persons. The stamps have been issued to mark the centenary of the sinking of the RMS Lusitania. The commemorations in Cork will include wreath-laying ceremonies with President Michael D. Higgins in Cobh, and Minister Simon Coveney at the Lusitania Monument on the Old Head, both at 2.10 pm on May 7th, the time the German torpedo struck the ship’s hull.
A number of re-enactments of the tragedy will also take place. Courtmacsherry will recreate the call to service of the RNLI lifeboat, while Cobh will remember their rescue efforts with a night time flotilla of work boats, fishing boats and pleasure craft, each illuminated with white lights. Cobh will also re-enact the mass funeral procession, and Kinsale town is recreating the aftermath inquest with descendants of the 1915 jury.
Picture(left): William Thomas Turner was in command when the Lusitania sank.