Next week, May 7, is the 100th anniversary of the tragic sinking of the luxury liner Lusitania. Today, however, May 1, is the anniversary of the ship leaving New York on its final doomed voyage, at the end of which it would be callously torpedoed by a German submarine and sunk, killing 1,198 innocent civilians in an outrageous act of war. This article is only tangentially about that subject. (I did a previous article, more directly on-point, on last year’s anniversary). Rather, I’d like to talk about the psychology surrounding the Lusitania, and why it was really a very tragic case of chutzpah on the part of the Germans colliding with naivete on the side of the British. That subject may sound arcane, but I think it’s an interesting glimpse into why World War I was so traumatic, and why the Lusitania disaster is viewed as such a turning point in history.
First, the facts. At the end of April 1915, Great Britain and Germany were about to enter the tenth month of the destructive First World War, whose major front in France had bogged down in muddy trenches the previous September. The British fleet blockaded the German coast, effectively bottling up Germany’s navy, except for one specific kind of ship: submarines. By early 1915 Germany had only just begun to use submarines with any regularity. It was such a new weapon and nobody really understood how they might work tactically or strategically. Were subs best used as a defensive weapon? Or could/should they be used to target supplies and food coming into British ports? The Germans seemed to want to at least give that a try, but they were curiously half-hearted about it in the early months of the war.
World War I was still very much a trial period for submarines as a strategic weapon. U-20, the sub that sank Lusitania, is second from left in this photo.
For their part, the British weren’t that concerned about German U-boats, and not only because they also didn’t really understand how they might be used. The British feared raids on their commercial ships by Germany, but they expected these raids would be done by surface ships. Prior to April 1915, with only a few pretty minor exceptions German submarines had tried to attack only naval vessels. Cunard, Britain’s biggest passenger line, had one of the few big ships still left on the North Atlantic that hadn’t been pressed into duty for the Royal Navy. That was Lusitania. America wasn’t at war in 1915 and people still needed to get back and forth between England an the U.S. Although bookings were naturally down due to the war situation, Cunard decided to keep Lusitania sailing. After all, even if the Germans had the capability to attack a huge passenger liner, it wasn’t very likely they would elect to do so–and even if they did Lusitania, which had once won a speed record, was far faster than the fastest clunky U-boat, and could easily outrun a pursuer. The risk seemed minimal.
On February 4, 1915, Germany announced that it was declaring the seas around the British Isles to be a war zone, and that its submarines would try to sink any ships belonging to Allied nations (principally British or French). Honestly this was more bluff than anything else. Standard procedure for sinking enemy ships in 1915 was a sort of Chinese fire drill procedure where the aggressor would come alongside, declare its intent to sink the ship, allow the target ship time to offload its people into lifeboats and get a safe distance away, and then fire torpedoes. Germany recognized this procedure was pretty unrealistic in the age of modern warfare, but tough talk of ignoring it was one thing, where actually doing it was quite another. If you were a German U-boat captain, would you give the order to torpedo a defenseless passenger ship filled with women and children? The British simply didn’t think the Germans would do it.
This is the “warning” the German Embassy published in the New York Times 100 years ago today. Would you still go?
Herein lies the deadly game of poker that both nations were playing, perhaps without realizing its full import. Germany’s naval capability was pretty weak. But they couldn’t very well back away from the table. Throwing down a card saying, “You better be careful, we’ll sink your ships,” seemed like bluff, and at first it may have been. Britain responded by calling Germany’s bluff. “Oh yeah? You just try it, you bastards!” No one really thought they would.
Was that a reasonable assumption, especially when the chips on the table were the lives of hundreds of innocent people? Seen from the standpoint of 1915, it probably was. Nothing like the Lusitania disaster had ever happened before. The war in France was horrible and ugly, but aside from the civilians who lived there–most of whom fled, or tried to–those horrors were being faced by trained military men, not innocent non-combatants. A few months previously, at Christmas 1914, the British and Germans on the Western Front held an unofficial cease-fire and played soccer between the lines. There was still a sense of decency and fair play in war. Most of the commanders on both sides came up through the ranks in the late 19th century, when Victorian morals held war as a sort of sporting contest, not all-out slaughter. They were, on both sides, tragically naive.
So that was how things stood when the Lusitania left Pier 54 in New York on May 1, 1915. The German Embassy had even tried to underscore the danger by running an ad in the New York Times warning passengers going on the voyage that they were sailing into a war zone. If they saw it, certainly not very many were swayed by it enough to cancel. Lusitania was not a warship. Conspiracy theories about what might have been in her hold aside, it was a huge stretch to claim that the world’s largest passenger liner still in service was a military target.
The aftermath of the Lusitania disaster. The ship went down in 18 minutes.
A week later off the Irish coast Kapitanleutnant Walther Schweiger, the commander of the submarine U-20, just happened to get lucky. Everything went wrong for Lusitania: her Royal Navy escort stood her up, her captain made the wrong decision about zigzagging, and weather conditions were perfect for the ship to be spotted from a periscope. Furthermore, unbeknownst to no one, coal dust was floating around in Lusitania‘s almost-empty coal bunkers, which could easily ignite from a spark and blow the whole bottom of the ship out. When Schweiger and his men saw the unmistakable profile of the ship approaching, and at a speed and course that made a shot feasible, the sub captain was now handed the high card that the German nation was probably unsure it really wanted to play, at least not in these circumstances. After all, thousands of people could die, and there were almost certainly neutrals–Americans, specifically–among them. The whole course of world history might be altered. And the true nature of war in the 20th century might never be the same.
We can’t know, but I suspect when he had to make that decision, Schweiger peered through the periscope, broke out in a cold sweat and asked himself, “Crap. Do I really want to do this?”
Whether he wanted to or not, he did.