The Lusitania is perhaps the most famous ocean liner to be sunk during World War I. At the start of the war, the liner was less than a decade old.
Built by Cunard, the vessel, for a time, was the world’s largest ship. It also won the coveted Blue Riband award for crossing the Atlantic at the fastest speed.
Propaganda and patriotic fervor after the sinking nearly brought the United States into the war.
Let’s take a look at the facts surrounding the sinking.
War Breaks Out
At the start of the war, some ships were requisitioned by the military for use as transport and supply vessels. Later, others became hospital ships. Lusitania was considered for military use, but a ship of its size used too much fuel to be practical, so it remained a civilian vessel.
During first few months of the war, the British Navy prevented the German Navy from becoming a threat. Passenger service across the Atlantic was not disrupted and was considered safe.
In 1915, however, the situation changed. German U-boats began attacking vessels in a restricted war zone it had declared in the waters surrounding the islands of Great Britain and Ireland. While neutral vessels would be spared, those flying the flags of Allied nations would be sunk without warning.
With the exception of painting its funnels and not flying any flags, Lusitania continued to operate as before.
The Final Voyage
In late April, the German Embassy placed ads in U.S. newspapers warning Americans that travel on the Lusitania did so at their own risk. Few heeded the warning. Passengers believed the ship could outrun any U-Boat and that it was unsinkable.
On May 1, Lusitania disembarked from New York with nearly 2,000 on board. The majority of the passengers were British and Canadians along with several dozen Americans, and most were booked in second class. Four Germans also are known to have been onboard.
Five days later, the ship received warning messages about submarine activity. Precautions were put into place. However, one of the boilers had been shut down to conserve coal, and the ship was considerably slower than it otherwise would have been.
The ship neared the coast of Ireland on May 7 in a thick fog. An U-Boat saw its opportunity and fired. Lusitania was struck by a torpedo.
The captain ordered abandon ship. Lusitania was listing heavily to the right, making it difficult to launch lifeboats on that side. It also made launching on the left a challenge. After the Titanic sinking, disaster rules were created stating that ships must have enough lifeboats for all passengers and crew. Although this was the case with Lusitania, the list of the ship meant only eight lifeboats could be launched safely.
Within 18 minutes the ship sank; 1,195 people were killed. The 761 survivors were taken to Ireland.
The sinking was condemned in the press on both sides of the Atlantic, viewed as an example of German aggression against innocent civilians.
To learn more about the sinking of the Lusitania, read my book A Tale of Two Nations: Canada, U.S. and WW1.
Updated: 26 October 2020