Thursday, May 25, 2023

Lusitania: the maritime disaster that changed World War I

The Lusitania was launched by the Cunard Line in 1906 and was one of the largest ocean liners of its time.
It undertook its first voyage in 1907 and went on to win the Blue Riband, the unofficial award for the fastest transatlantic crossing.
The outbreak of the First World War saw Britain impose a blockade on German ports, which prompted the German Navy to attempt the same on the British Isles.
However, the Royal Navy limited the impact of Germany’s blockade so the Lusitania was able to continue its journeys between Liverpool and New York City.
On 4 February 1915 the commander of the German High Seas Fleet announced that German submarines would begin unrestricted warfare and sink allied ships in the waters around the British Isles. Prior to the Lusitania’s scheduled voyage from the USA on 1 May, the German Embassy in Washington took out newspaper adverts warning that passengers undertook the voyage at their own risk. 1,962 people and around 173 tons of war munitions were on board the Lusitania when it left New York under Captain William Thomas Turner.
Having crossed the Atlantic, the ship was hit on its starboard side at 2.10pm by a torpedo fired by U-20. The Lusitania sank in just 18 minutes and 1,198 people lost their lives.
The German government attempted to justify the sinking, but it was met with outrage in the Allied countries.
Despite the deaths of American civilians, President Wilson chose to remain neutral in the war.
Germany abandoned unrestricted submarine warfare in August, but resumed it in early 1917.
This, and the discovery of the Zimmermann Telegram, led to Wilson’s decision to declare war.

From Safety4Sea

Three years after the Titanic sinking, the maritime route between UK and US was shaken by another major tragedy; the sinking of RMS Lusitania which took lives of almost 1,200 people.
Despite the high death toll, the casualty is less known for the fatalities and mostly known for its contribution to the fueling of the anti-German sentiment that set off a chain of events leading to World War I.

Accident details: At a glance
Type of accident: Sinking
Vessel(s) involved: RMS Lusitania (ocean liner)
Date: 7 May 1915
Place: Atlantic Ocean, off Ireland
Fatalities: 1,198
Pollution: No

The incident

On 7 May 1915, the 240-meter-long ocean liner Lusitania was en route from New York, US, to Liverpool, UK, with a total of 1,962 people onboard, including 1,266 passengers and 696 crew members.
The British ship was popular for its speed and luxury and claimed the title of the world’s second-largest ship, surpassed only by its sister ship Mauritania.

While nearing the end of its 202nd journey on the afternoon of 7 May 1915, a torpedo launched by a German U-boat submarine without warning struck and exploded amidships on its starboard side.
Almost immediately, the crew attempted to launch lifeboats, but the ship’s severe list made it impossible.
Only six out of 48 lifeboats were launched successfully.
Shortly after, a heavier explosion occurred, possibly caused by damage to the ship’s steam engines and pipes.
This took the ship down within 20 minutes.


Of the 1,962 passengers and crew aboard Lusitania at the time of the sinking, 1,198 lost their lives.
Shortly following the sinking, several survivors and search and rescue forces from Ireland managed to rescue 764 people, three of whom later died from injuries sustained during the sinking.

Did you know?

The largest death toll ever reported at sea by a torpedo was at the sinking of Wilhelm Gustloff, in January 1945, which killed over 9,000 people.
This also claims the title of the largest ever death toll by a sinking ship.

Probable causes

In contrast to safety mishaps that are to blame in most maritime tragedies, this incident is purely attributed to diplomatic causes.
In the spring of 1915, Germany had declared the seas around the United Kingdom a war zone, in response to the UK declaring the North Sea a war zone some months earlier.
This gave Germany the opportunity to stop following the “prize law”, under which a ship should be warned of submarine presence.

After the incident, Germany supported that it had the right to destroy the ship, regardless of any passengers aboard, because the ship was carrying war munitions onboard and it operated under the control of the Admiralty, so it could be converted into an armed auxiliary cruiser to join the war at any time.
This means the Lusitania was a non-neutral vessel in a declared war zone.

On the other hand, the ship was not armed for battle and was carrying hundreds of civilian passengers, which made the ground for the British government to accuse the Germans of breaching the cruiser rules, which indicate that an unarmed vessel should not be attacked without warning.

In addition, when the ship departed New York on 1st May, the German embassy in the United States placed newspaper advertisements warning people of the dangers of sailing on Lusitania.
The cautions were ignored as it was assumed Germany would still allow passengers to get into lifeboats prior to an attack.
After the incident, the British argued that threatening to torpedo all ships indiscriminately was wrong, whether it was announced in advance or not.

According to Britannica, reports of submarine activity off Ireland prompted the British Admiralty to warn the Lusitania to avoid the area and to recommend adopting the evasive tactic of zigzagging, changing course every few minutes at irregular intervals to confuse any attempt by U-boats to plot its course for torpedoing.
However, the ship’s captain ignored these recommendations.

The aftermath

The sinking caused a storm of protest in the United States because 128 American citizens were among the dead.
The Lusitania disaster was not the single reason why the US entered the war, but it certainly solidified the public perception of the US against Germany, so it is considered one of the factors in the declaration of war nearly two years later.

The fact that Germany took a stance on the attack after the tragedy, arguing that it was fair, boosted the anti-German sentiment also in London, where riots broke out.
The tip of the iceberg was the disclosure of the Zimmerman telegram, under which a potential alliance between Germany and Mexico was discussed in case the US entered the war.
Overall, the sinking of Lusitania negatively affected the image of Germany, signaling to the US that neutrality was not an option.
Links :

No comments:

Post a Comment