Ninety-nine years ago today, on May 7, 1915, a passenger ship called the Lusitania sank off the coast of Ireland. Most people have heard of this event, often in history class. The words that traditionally swirl around it–submarine, attack, World War I, warning, contraband, civilians, Wilson, diplomacy–have had the effect of reducing the disaster to little more than a historical buzzword itself, something you see in a book sandwiched between the assassination of Archduke Francis Ferdinand and the Treaty of Versailles. But what happened aboard the Lusitania was a real disaster, involving real people, most of whom didn’t know or care about the broader forces that ultimately killed them and tore apart their families. So, for a change, this article isn’t going to talk about “unrestricted submarine warfare” or debate the question of whether the Lusitania was a legitimate target of war. Let’s not forget what happened.
It happened at 2:10 that afternoon, as the ship was about 10 miles off the Irish coast. People walking along the Old Head of Kinsale could see the ship far out at sea. Friday, May 7 was the toward the end of the Lusitania‘s voyage from New York, which began May 1. The ship, briefly the largest and fastest passenger liner in the world upon its introduction in 1907, was the last big commercial ship still running from the U.S. to Britain during the First World War. Had the German submarine U-20 not come along that day Lusitania would have docked at Liverpool the next morning. The ship’s British owners and operators knew they were taking a risk by continuing to run her in commercial service, but they felt it was a risk worth taking. A submarine had never before attacked such a large ship. Subs were slow and clunky; Lusitania was lightning-fast by nautical standards. Plus there was the political issue of not letting Germany bully the British out of their badly-needed commerce with America.
This 1915 painting of the disaster is not entirely accurate. The ship was painted white and her funnels were black at the time.
Walther Schweiger, the captain of the U-20, got very lucky. Lusitania was traveling slower than she should have been due to some of the boilers being shut down to save fuel costs, and she wasn’t zigzagging or being escorted through the war zone by a British warship, which was protocol. He made the decision to fire. U-20 clocked Lusitania in a single shot. There was, however, a mysterious second explosion, much more catastrophic than the first one, which doomed the giant liner instantly. (Undersea explorer Robert Ballard, who visited the wreck in 1993, argued this second explosion was ignited by coal dust).
What happened next was a horror that beggars the imagination. Hundreds of panicked passengers (and crew) ran pell-mell through the ship, trying to get to lifeboats or find something that would float. Four minutes after the torpedo hit electricity failed throughout the ship. Passengers who had mobbed the elevators trying to get to a higher deck were now trapped inside them–immobile, pitch-black coffins of panic and death. The watertight bulkhead doors couldn’t be opened either to let out crewmen who were trapped in compartments below decks, flooding rapidly. The Lusitania was sinking at a severe angle which meant most of its lifeboats couldn’t be launched properly. People fought for life jackets as others were trampled in stampedes in corridors and stairwells. The ship was going down so fast there was no hope of help arriving in time, even given the relatively short distance to shore.
Its final plunge was even more catastrophic. There was no time to shut down the engines before the bridge lost communication with the engine room, so the engines were still running and the boilers still red-hot. The moment the rushing cold seawater came into contact with them the boilers exploded. Its bow already touching the muddy bottom of the Irish Sea, the Lusitania‘s stern sank under the water at 2:28 PM. The disaster had taken just eighteen minutes. Even the crew of the U-20, watching through their periscope, was dumbstruck by the speed and magnitude of Lusitania‘s destruction. Nothing like this had ever happened before.
For the survivors the horror was far from over. Most were now floundering about in 50-degree water, desperately clinging to floating debris to try to stay alive until help arrived from the Irish coast. There’s a perfectly awful tale of a woman who supposedly went into labor right before the disaster, who gave birth to a stillborn child while floating amidst the junk and corpses; I’m not sure if this is true and has the ring of wartime atrocity propaganda, but it’s certainly possible. Many succumbed to hypothermia or drowned before boats arrived. In total 764 were saved out of 1,959 people aboard. Of the 1,195 who died, the bodies of the majority of them were never recovered. Over 800 of them went to the bottom with the great liner.
One of the Lusitania’s propellers has been salvaged and is still on display, though I’m not sure where.
Unlike the Titanic, the more famous of the high-casualty marine disasters of the 1910s, Lusitania‘s story is so awful because it was not an accident. It was a deliberate act of war, an order given by a man who believed he was serving his country. We will never know how Walther Schweiger might have wrestled with his conscience over the act; he was killed in action in 1917, age 32. The dead in the disaster included authors, fashion designers, corporate executives, an actress, a noted feminist, the Broadway producer who introduced Peter Pan to the world, and the publisher who created House Beautiful magazine. The last of the survivors, Audrey Warren Lossen-Johnston, a three-month old baby at the time of the disaster, survived into this century, dying in 2011.
Though vastly overshadowed by far greater acts of savagery in the wars of the 20th and 21st centuries, something about the Lusitania disaster still has the ability to shock and horrify us today. It’s a sad reminder of the long reach of war.