Above: A note found two months later on an English beach.
Drowning more than 1,100 people, German subs earned a badge
of disnonor as American blood is shed and the first brick in the path to U.S. entry into
the war is laid
| Passengers boarding the British liner R.M.S. Lusitania
in New York on May 1, 1915, for the voyage to Liverpool, England, knew of Germany's threat
to sink ships bound for the British Isles. England and Germany had been fighting for nine
months. Still, few passengers imagined that a civilized nation would attack an unarmed
passenger steamer without warning. Built eight years earlier, the Lusitania was described
as a "floating palace." German authorities, however, saw her as a threat. They
accused the British government of using the Lusitania to carry ammunition and other war
materials across the Atlantic.
With her four towering funnels, the liner looked invincible as she left New
York on her last voyage. Six days later, at 2:10 pm on May 7, 1915, Walther Schwieger, the
30-year-old commander of the German submarine U-20, fired a single torpedo at the
Lusitania from a range of about 750 yards. Captain William Turner of the Lusitania saw the
torpedo's wake from the navigation bridge just before impact. It sounded like a
"million-ton hammer hitting a steam boiler a hundred feet high," one passenger
said. A second, more powerful explosion followed, sending geysers of water, coal, and
debris high above the deck.
Listing to starboard, the liner began to sink rapidly at the bow sending
passengers tumbling down her slanted decks. Lifeboats on the port side were hanging too
far inboard to be readily launched, while those on the starboard side were too far out to
be easily boarded. Several overfilled lifeboats spilled into the sea. The great liner
disappeared under the waves in 18 minutes, leaving behind a jumble of swimmers, corpses,
deck chairs and wreckage. Looking back upon the scene from his submarine, even German
commander Schwieger was shocked. He later called it the most horrible sight he had ever
seen. News of the disaster raced across the Atlantic: Of the 1,959 people aboard, only 764
were saved. The dead included 94 children and infants.
Questions were immediately: Did the British Admiralty give the Lusitania adequate
warning?: How could one torpedo have sunk her? Why did she go down so fast? Was there any
truth to the German claim that the Lusitania had been armed? From the moment the Lusitania
sank, she was surrounded by controversy. Americans were outraged by the attack, which
claimed the lives of 128 U.S. citizens. Newspapers called the attack "deliberate
murder" and a "foul deed," and former President Theodore Roosevelt demanded
revenge against Germany. The attack on the Lusitania is often credited with drawing the
United States into World War I. President Woodrow Wilson - though he had vowed to hold
Germany responsible for its submarine attack - knew that the American people were not
ready to go to war. It was almost two more years before the United States joined the
conflict in Europe.
A British judge laid full blame on the German submarine commander, while the German
government claimed that the British had deliberately made her a military target.
Tragically, inquiries following the sinking of the Lusitania revealed that Captain Turner
had received warnings by wireless from the British Admiralty, but took only limited
precautions as he approached the area where U-20 was waiting. Rumors of diamonds, gold,
and valuables locked away in Lusitania's safes have prompted salvage attempts over the
years. To date, no treasure has ever been reported.
Perhaps the biggest guzzle has been the hardest to solve: Why did the liner sink so fast?
Newspapers speculated that the torpedo had struck ammunition in a cargo hold, causing the
strong secondary explosion. Divers later reported a huge hole in the port side of the bow,
opposite where munitions would have been stored.
Hoping to settle the issue, a team from the Woods Hole Oceanographic
Institution, sponsored by the National Geographic Society, sent their robot vehicle Jason
down to photograph the damage. Fitted with cameras and powerful lights, the robot sent
video images of the wreck by fiber-optic cable to a control room on the surface ship,
Northern Horizon. A pilot maneuvered Jason with a joystick, while an engineer relayed
instructions to the robot's computers. Other team members watched for recognizable objects
on the monitors. In addition to using Jason to make a visual survey of the Lusitania, the
team of researchers and scientists also used sonar to create a computerized,
three-dimensional diagram of how the wreck looks today.
From this data, it was discovered that the Lusitania's hull had been flattened -- in part
by the force of gravity -- to half its original width. When Jason's cameras swept across
the hold, looking for the hole reported by divers shortly after the sinking, there was
none to be found. Indeed, no evidence was found that would indicate that the torpedo had
detonated an explosion in a cargo hold, undermining one theory of why the liner sank.
Questions about her cargo have haunted the Lusitania since the day she went
down. Was she carrying illegal munitions as the Germans have always claimed. In fact, she
was. The manifest for her last voyage included wartime essentials such as motorcycle
parts, metals, cotton goods, and food, as well as 4,200 cases of rifle ammunition, 1,250
cases of shrapnel (not explosive), and 18 boxes of percussion fuses. The investigation
conducted by the Woods Hole team and Jason suggested that these munitions did not cause
the secondary blast that sent the Lusitania to the bottom. So what did?
One likely possibility was a coal-dust explosion. The German torpedo struck
the liner's starboard side about ten feet below the waterline, rupturing one of the long
coal bunkers that stretched along both sides. If that bunker, mostly empty by the end of
the voyage, contained explosive coal dust, the torpedo might have ignited it. That would
explain all the coal found scattered on the sea floor near the wreck. The Lusitania's
giant funnels have long since turned to rust, an eerie marine growth covers her hull, and
her superstructure is ghostly wreckage. Yet the horror and fascination surrounding the
sinking of the great liner live on.
Answer on a separate sheet of paper.
1. Why did the Germans target the R.M.S. Lusitania?
2. Explain the reaction of the German sub commander to his shot.
3. How did President Wilson react to the sinking?
4. Does knowing the cargo on board the Lusitania change your opinion of the German attack?
Why or why not?
5. Compare the sinking of the Lusitania and the sinking of the U.S.S. Maine in 1898.
What similarities or differences can you find?