This week in history the sinking of the RMS Lusitania

13 May 2015

By Pan Macmillan

7 May 1915: the sinking of the RMS Lusitania

On 22 April 1915, the Imperial German Embassy in Washington DC had issued a notice reminding anyone intending to embark on an Atlantic voyage that a state of war existed ‘between Germany and its allies and Great Britain and its allies and that ‘the zone of the war’ included ‘the waters adjacent to the British Isles’. Any vessels flying ‘the flag of Great Britain, or any of her allies’, were ‘liable to destruction in those waters and that travellers sailing in the war zone on ships of Great Britain or her allies’ did ‘so at their own risk’.

Despite this warning, nine days later, the Cunard liner the RMS Lusitania left New York for Liverpool. Built on the Clyde and capable of an average speed of 25 knots, the Lusitania was the fastest ship then afloat and known as the ‘Greyhound of the Seas’, having already captured the Blue Ribbon for crossing the Atlantic in record-breaking time. Carrying 1,257 passengers and a crew of 702 when it sailed, it was also secretly (or not so secretly) stowing munitions and other supplies to aid the British war effort in its hold.

The ship reached the coast of Ireland on 7 May, where a little after 1.30 pm it ran into the German U-boat, U20. Its commander, Walter Schwieger, under orders to destroy any allied vessels that came in its path, fired on the Lusitania, his torpedoes scoring a direct hit, which was reportedly followed by a second explosion in the bowels of the ship. In less than twenty minutes, it had sunk, taking some 1,118 men, women and children with it. Of the 197 Americans on board, 128 perished.

Regarded by the British and Americans as unprovoked attack on a civilian vessel, it turned stateside public opinion against Germany, quite probably paving the way for America’s entry into the war two years later.