In Harm's Way

Monday, July 2, 2012

In 1915, Great Britain and her European allies were at war with Germany. The United States was a declared neutral, although its sympathies were with the British. When a German submarine sank the Lusitania on May 7, this country's official position didn't change.* But the intensity of its feelings did.

The Lusitania sank before the other two ships covered in this blog series, but I saved it until now because of its patriotic implications. With July 4 coming up, this is a good time to look back on how a shipwreck inflamed America and moved it closer to war.

The Lusitania left New York on May 1, 1915 and was due to arrive in Liverpool on May 8.** Its passengers were traveling to England for various reasons, some connected with the war and some not. Oliver Bernard was hoping to enlist. Dorothy Connor was a Red Cross volunteer heading for France. Alfred Vanderbilt (son of Cornelius) was on his way to attend a London board meeting of the International Horse Show Association. Stewart and Lesley Mason were on their honeymoon. Third-class passenger Elizabeth Duckworth was simply homesick.

A number of passengers were aware of a notice that had appeared in the New York City newspapers that morning, but others were not. The notice, which had been placed by the German embassy, warned potential passengers that "vessels flying the flag of Great Britain, or any of her allies, are liable to destruction in [waters adjacent to the British Isles] and that travellers sailing in the war zone on ships of Great Britain or her allies do so at their own risk." With or without knowledge of the notice, many passengers were worried about German submarines, but others were sure the Lusitania could outrun them.

That may have been true, but first it had to know the submarine was there. The initial sightings of the U-20's periscope coincided with the launching of the torpedo. By then it was too late.

The torpedo blew a hole in the ship's side, taking out the electrical system and steering controls. With the Lusitania continuing at a high rate of speed (a body in motion stays in motion) and no way to stop it, lowering the life boats into the water became a dangerous endeavor even when they were lowered correctly. But many were not. When untrained sailors used the outdated launching equipment, one end of the boat frequently dropped faster than the other and spilled its inhabitants into the water--often while they were still many feet above it.

Then there were the non-existent demonstrations on how to wear life jackets. The instructions were posted prominently in each cabin, but few passengers read them. Many deaths resulted from putting on life jackets backwards or upside down, both of which forced the wearer's face into the water.

The Lusitania sank about 12 miles off the coast of Ireland, but it was impossible for other boats to reach it in time. About a half hour passed from the torpedo's impact to the ship's last sigh before slipping under the surface. When the rescuers arrived, they found some life boats, but they also saw people clinging to wooden deck chairs and storage boxes and other debris. Of the almost 2,000 people on board, less than 800 survived.

For those of you interested in the people mentioned earlier, Oliver Bernard, Dorothy Connor, and Elizabeth Duckworth were among the survivors. Alfred Vanderbilt and Steward and Lesley Mason were not.

Subsequent inquiries blamed the disaster solely on the German torpedo. The Germans claimed that the Lusitania was armed and carrying Canadian troops, but those claims have been debunked. Then there is the conspiracy theory that Winston Churchill (First Lord of the Admiralty at the time) set the passenger ship up for destruction as a way to force the United States into the war, but that doesn't seem to fit the facts, either.

The Lusitania was a British ship, so why did her sinking create such an outcry in America?

There were 159 Americans on board, and 124 of them perished. And regardless of the victims' nationalities, many people were outraged at the large number of innocent civilians killed, including dozens of babies.

Contrary to popular belief, the sinking of the Lusitania did not propel the United States into World War I. That would not happen for another two years. Still, it was clearly a contributing factor--a strong link in a chain of events that convinced the United States to join the conflict.

And Germany would discover--as the Japanese did after Pearl Harbor--that it isn't safe to anger the United States.


* I recommend The Last Voyage of the Lusitania, by A.A. Hoehling and Mary Hoehling, which is a quick and easy read. For those who want the broader historical context, I suggest Lusitania: An Epic Tragedy, by Diana Preston.

** The photo of the Lusitania is part of a panoramic picture taken by N.W. Penfield in 1907.

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