May 7, 1915: The Sinking of Lusitania

The RMS Lusitania was a luxury ocean liner that sank off the coast of Ireland after being torpedoed by a German U-boat on the afternoon of May 7, 1915. The ship carrying 1,959 passengers and crew went down in 18 minutes, claiming the lives of nearly 1,200 people, including 123 Americans. The tragedy swayed public opinion and indirectly led to the United States entering WWI.

Democrat and Chronicle: May 8, 1915

The Lusitania was launched in 1906 by the Cunard Line. It made regular trips between Liverpool and New York and was, for a brief time, the largest ship in the world. Her real claim to fame, however, was speed. In a time when the only way to travel across the Atlantic was by ship, the Lusitania won the Blue Riband for the fastest Atlantic crossing.

After the start of WWI in Europe in August 1914, transatlantic travel became dangerous as ships dodged German U-boats. The U-boat attacks were Germany’s retaliation for a British blockade of German supply lines through the North Sea and the English Channel.

Daily Examiner: May 4, 1915

On May 1, 1915, as the Lusitania prepared to set sail from New York, at least 50 prominent passengers received anonymous telegrams warning them that the liner would be torpedoed. The German embassy also warned that Americans should travel at their own risk. Cunard officials stepped up security, screening passenger baggage for explosives, but the threats were largely ignored. One Cunard official commented, “The Lusitania is the safest boat on the sea…and too fast for any submarine.” Notable passengers who chose to board the ship were businessman Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt, New York fashion designer Caroline Hickson Kennedy, and Lothrop Withington, a well-known historian and genealogist. The Lusitania set sail as planned.

To avoid an attack, the British Admiralty advised Lusitania captain William Thomas Turner to adopt evasive tactics and sail in a zigzag pattern. The voyage went without incident until the afternoon of May 7. The day was clear, and the ship was about 11 miles off the southern coast of Ireland when both lookouts and passengers on deck noticed something moving through the water at great speed. It was a torpedo launched by German submarine U-20. The torpedo found its mark and exploded on impact. Seconds later, a secondary explosion caused the ship to break apart, and the Lusitania sank in 18 minutes.

The ship carried 48 lifeboats, but only six were successfully lowered. Most of those who died succumbed to exposure and drowning. Among the casualties were 123 Americans, including Alfred G. Vanderbilt, Caroline H. Kennedy, and Lothrop Withington.

Captain Turner described the Lusitania sinking: The Argus-Farmer – May 13, 1915

Captain Turner went down with the ship but survived and was rescued. He was criticized for not sailing in a zigzag pattern and defended his actions for the rest of his life. Anger over the Lusitania swayed public opinion, and two years later, the United States entered WWI.

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19 thoughts on “May 7, 1915: The Sinking of Lusitania

  1. I guess the Cunard line learned nothing from the white star line’s sinking of the titanic in 1912. The issue being not enough lifeboats.

    1. I believe that wasn’t the issue here, they were unable to launch many of the lifeboats due to the damage, the speed with which it sank and the boat listing. The lifeboats on one side would not have been able to be launched due to them being too far from the water.

    2. You might want to read the article. She carried 48 lifeboats but only managed to launch 6 before the ship went down. It wasn’t a lack of lifeboats.

  2. The book “Dead Wake” by Erik Larson relates the interesting story about the events leading up to the sinking of the Lusitania. German submarines, powered by recently invented Diesel engines, could stealthily travel long distances from the homeland, but they were slow. Their speed was only about 6 knots, whereas the Lusitania could move 4 times faster. The design of Lusitania’s deck enabled it to mount large deck guns in case they were needed during wartime. Germany maintained that the sinking was justified on the basis that she carried military cargo destined for British troops fighting in WW1. To this day, there still remains controversy about whether Lusitania was transporting a significant amount of armaments.

    1. From the bit of research that I’ve done, new documents have come to light. There appears to be no question now that they were carrying armaments.

  3. We have a relative that died aboard the ship Lusitania..he was a mechanist, oiler on the crew. his name was James Walsh. I recently found my cousin….James’s grandaughter Selina in Louisiana. We have alot to catch up on. This was a very sad day in our history……

  4. Popular American writer and philosopher, Elbert Green Hubbard, and his wife Alice were among those who perished. One of the survivors, Ernest C. Cowper, wrote this to the Hubbard’s eldest son:

    “I cannot say specifically where your father and Mrs. Hubbard were when the torpedoes hit, but I can tell you just what happened after that. They emerged from their room, which was on the port side of the vessel, and came on to the boat-deck.
    Neither appeared perturbed in the least. Your father and Mrs. Hubbard linked arms—the fashion in which they always walked the deck—and stood apparently wondering what to do. I passed him with a baby which I was taking to a lifeboat when he said, ‘Well, Jack, they have got us. They are a damn sight worse than I ever thought they were.’
    They did not move very far away from where they originally stood. As I moved to the other side of the ship, in preparation for a jump when the right moment came, I called to him, ‘What are you going to do?’ and he just shook his head, while Mrs. Hubbard smiled and said, ‘There does not seem to be anything to do.’
    The expression seemed to produce action on the part of your father, for then he did one of the most dramatic things I ever saw done. He simply turned with Mrs. Hubbard and entered a room on the top deck, the door of which was open, and closed it behind him.
    It was apparent that his idea was that they should die together, and not risk being parted on going into the water.”

  5. One of the things not noted in this story is that the Lusitania was targeted because it was carrying ammunition and shells for Britain. The United States was supposed to be neutral, but moneyed interests chose to ignore that neutrality, thus Germany posted several warnings in newspapers to dissuade American citizens, and indeed any noncombatants, from traveling on the Lusitania.

    Had the United States remained neutral in fact as well as in stated policy, or if Britain hadn’t relied on carrying passengers to deflect German attacks, the disaster wouldn’t have happened.

    1. If my aunt had been a boy she would have been my uncle. You don’t know for sure that it would not have happened.

      1. The ship line was criticized for carrying munitions on vessels that carried passengers, both before and after the disaster. One prominent British politician posited that there should be a law against putting passengers at risk by carrying them.

        “This past September, Bemis’s team used a remotely operated vehicle to penetrate the wreck. They were able to clearly identify a vast amount of ammunition in an area of Lusitania not believed to have carried cargo. The Remington .303 caliber bullets the team discovered on the ship had been used by the British military during World War I. Ten of the bullets were brought to the surface….
        “The charge that the Lusitania was carrying war materiel is valid,” says Bemis. “She was a legitimate target for the German submarine.”

        1. Were any charges filed against the captain of the Lusitania for apparently not following an evasive, zig zag pattern, as ordered? And the verdict?

          1. He came under a lot of criticism but I didn’t read about any charges being filed.

  6. Captain Turner went down with the ship but survived and was rescued. He was criticized for not sailing in a zigzag pattern and defended his actions for the rest of his life.

    The Admiralty brought charges against Captain Turner but he was
    exonorated by the Mersey Inquiry (LORD MERSEY, Wreck Commissioner) and the Mayer hearings.
    1 Fatalities on the port side of the ship could have been avoided if the crew had been better trained in handling lifeboats.
    2 Failure to avoid headlands (was too close to land)
    3.Failure to steer a mid-channel course
    4.Failure to steam at full speed (at only 19 knots instead of full speed at 24-25 knots Two boilers were not working)
    5.Failure to zigzag. The message from the Admiralty “it sounds very different from when I read it.”. So he continued sailing in a straight line.
    *Also it was discovered that portholes on the port side were not closed as instructed and the crew did not have sufficient training for lifeboats.

  7. Torpedoing a Liner carrying civilians who are unaware there is munitions on board is seen as legitimate target ? Yet burning farms supply /hiding weapons that harboured guerillas in the South Africa war of 1899-1902 is seen as brutal , yet burning farms of the Zulu, Kgatla ,Ndebele by the Voortrekkers acceptable as was burning the villages of the Viet Cong by the US ?

  8. I never understood how or why but at the World Trade Center ,New York City ,at the Top of Towers Restaurant, there was a golden framed photo of the Lusitania on the wall next to to the elevators. I viewed this rendering many times as a pushed the button for the elevator or stood in line for the express ride down to the ground floor. I can recall telling clients about the Lusitania voyage and its sinking by Germans. I joked that no torpedoes would hit the elevator but that quite possibly a German could be on board. All the humor then, is lost today given the horrible results of 9-11. I miss the WTC, those lost in the attack, that photo ,and what those towers signaled to the rest of the world. I can only assume that the photo was lost in the events of that fateful day. (Also, I never seen it in the WTC museum a few years ago.)

  9. This post and the commentary made me curious: ‘Was there anyone who survived both the Titanic and Lusitania disasters?’ The answer is “yes.” English seaman, George Beauchamp. He was a stoker in the engine room of the Titanic when it struck the iceberg. He was ordered to to evacuate the engine room and go to the top deck and help load lifeboats. After helping several women into boats, he was ordered to board a lifeboat and man one of its oars. He was also a stoker on the Lusitania and was one of those rescued from the water. After that he reportedly told his family, “I’ve had enough of large ships.” He died in 1965 at the age of 77. The family of another Brit, seaman William Chapman Peters, claims he too survived both sinkings, although, apparently, there was no record of him serving on the crew of the Lusitania. I was also curious if anyone (passenger or crew) survived the Titanic but died on the Lusitania. The results of that search were “no.” However, there were survivors of the Titanic that later fought and died in World War I.

  10. In order to understand the events leading to the sinking of the Lusiania I recommend G. Edward Griffin´s book: The Creature from Jekyll Island: A Second Look at the Federal Reserve – Section III. The New Alchemy, Chapter 12: Sink the Lusitania!

  11. Excellent book! I didn’t remember the chapter about the Lusitania, but the book is very dense, yet hard to put down. I’ll have to go grab my copy and reread that chapter.

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