Was the Lusitania a passenger ship

First World War: Calculated disaster?


Read on one side

In the archives of the famous Harvard University there is a - so far unnoticed - letter from US Senator Henry Cabot Lodge to a businessman friend in Boston. Lodge was the leader of the Republican majority in the Senate in Washington at the beginning of the 20th century and was an early advocate for the United States to join the First World War. He tirelessly attacked the local pacifists, including President Woodrow Wilson, as unpatriotic and un-American. On February 23, 1915, Lodge wrote to his friend: "If an American liner should be sunk, or an English one like that Lusitania, with three or four hundred American passengers on board, that would trigger a tremendous storm of indignation. "Lodge's mind game would not have mattered much - if the scenario he outlined hadn't played out in almost exactly the same way two and a half months later.

Exactly 100 years ago, on May 7, 1915, a British steamer turned into the St. George’s Channel between Ireland and Wales. The luxury liner had left the port of New York six days earlier and set course for England, for Liverpool. About 2,000 people were on board, 1,200 passengers, including 128 Americans. The ship was part of the Cunard Line; it was considered to be particularly fast and particularly safe than "perfectly safe". His name: Lusitania.

Safety was an important issue in those times. England and Germany had been at war for over nine months. In February 1915, in response to the British naval blockade, Germany declared the waters around the British Isles a war zone in which all ships - regardless of whether they were neutral, armed or unarmed - could be attacked by German submarines. What's more, despite her civil status, she was Lusitania a highly endangered ship. Because it belonged to a contingent of passenger steamers that the British government had constructed in cooperation with the Cunard Line. These ships could travel up to 24 knots, withstand enemy attacks better than ordinary steamers, take up to twelve heavy sea guns on board and activate them - and they could also be used by the British Navy for war purposes at any time.



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The German embassy in Washington had placed a warning next to the Cunard advertisements in the morning newspapers of May 1st that all ships flying the British flag that sail through a war zone could be destroyed by German submarines. Those who travel on these steamers do so "at their own risk".

After this information, a handful of passengers had decided to transfer to another American ship, the much simpler one New York. Most, however, contented themselves with the official insurance from Cunard, the Lusitania be "too fast" for submarines: "No German war vessel can get her or near her."

Lusitania captain, Lieutenant William T. Turner, had received an order from the Admiralty in London to zigzag off the Irish coast and drive in the middle of St. George’s Channel in order to avoid any collision with German submarines. As the ship approaches the coast, Turner from the naval center in nearby Queenstown is also warned about submarines on the southern tip of Ireland. Because of the thick fog, Turner made a different decision: he chose a straight course near the coast and drove with greatly reduced power.

At noon, shortly after 1 p.m., a German submarine spotted the ship. The day before, the U 20 torpedoed two British ships and had already received the order to return to Wilhelmshaven. Like Turner, the young commander of the submarine, Lieutenant Walther Schwieger, defies the orders of his superiors and takes up the pursuit.

An hour later, shortly after 2 p.m., a torpedo shoots through the water and hits the hull of the Lusitania from a distance of 700 meters. Captain Turner can no longer initiate a turning maneuver. The hardly trained team is not prepared for this case. Life jackets are not distributed in good time, and many passengers cannot find the emergency exits. Panic breaks out, only half of the lifeboats are lowered into the water, many of them capsize immediately. The captain is still trying to save the ship in shallower waters, but in vain. The luxury liner sinks to the seabed within 18 minutes. Around 1,200 people are killed, including all 128 Americans on board.

Since that unlucky day in May 1915, the Lusitania Contemporaries, political observers, historians and authors are preoccupied with two questions above all else. The first concerns the ship: was it loaded with weapons and ammunition, and if so, with how much and for what? In 1972, the British historian Colin Simpson uncovered secret agreements between the Royal Navy and the Cunard shipping company for a highly controversial study, along with forged shipping documents, plans to arm the ship, suppressed testimony and the traces of a precisely "planned disaster". The Lusitania, so was Simpson's conclusion, was ready to go to war; it carried artillery pieces as well as over four million cartridges for Remington rifles and almost 1,250 boxes of grenades. Other authors such as Thomas Bailey and Paul Ryan have questioned these theses: How could guns, weapons and ammunition get on board if they were not listed on the shipping papers and no one wanted to witness them later?