When Walther Schweiger slammed his last remaining, famously unreliable torpedo into the glistening black flank of RMS Lusitania on the afternoon of May 7th, 1915, he could never have foreseen what would follow.
One relatively tiny ‘fish’ was not expected to fell such a graceful, gigantic beast. Ships half her size- and much less well constructed- had survived torpedo strikes in the past.
But the torpedo exploded in the middle of a volatile brew of low grade American coal dust that hovered in the liner’s depleted fuel bunkers like a poisonous cloud. And, for the world famous Cunard liner, the result was catastrophic.
It was this second, far bigger explosion that sank the Lusitania in just eighteen minutes. Passengers were literally trapped in elevators between decks. Lifeboats splintered like matchwood. Almost two thousand people found themselves thrashing, gasping and flailing for their lives on the sun dappled waters off the coast of southern Ireland.
The horror of the scene was indescribable; some 1,201 passengers and crew were lost that day. Bodies were still being washed up on Irish beaches a full three weeks later.
Almost inevitably, the Lusitania became wrapped in the same kind of rosy, grisly aura of dreadful fascination as the Titanic before her. And there they remain to this day; the two most famous pieces on the chess board of maritime tragedies.
Of the two, it was the Titanic that had the greater death toll, by a little over three hundred. And yet, in so many ways, the sinking of the Lusitania seems infinitely more horrific, at least to my mind.
At the end of the day, what happened to the Titanic was an accident. A ghastly one to be sure, but an accident all the same.
The sinking of the Lusitania, and the death of the helpless souls lost with her, was deliberate. Cool, pre-meditated, and carried through with single minded determination by a master submariner who knew exactly what he was attempting to do.
Consider the sheer violence of her brief, bloody end. Walther Schweiger no doubt believed that the Lusitania was carrying a certain amount of contraband war munitions. And, from examination of the shattered wreck, we now know that assumption to be correct. And we can also safely assume that he thought it unlikely that his last torpedo would bring down such a giant prize as the Lusitania– a ship he knew full well to have all the built in safeguards and watertight subdivision of a Royal Navy cruiser.
But- those points made- when the young captain of U20 fired at the Lusitania, he must have known that, without doubt, some civilians would be killed. And it was the fact that a submarine could target what was essentially an unarmed passenger liner that lent the Lusitania disaster an immediate air of world wide outrage; a loss of innocence. After all, what kind of barbarian would deliberately target a large passenger liner, simply going about its usual business?
And there is no doubt that those on board the Cunarder on her last, fateful crossing had been lulled into something of a pampered stupour by their stately, six day progress across a calm, sunny ocean. At a time when most of war torn Europe existed on starvation rations or worse, the Lusitania was provisioned like the Ritz.
Those passengers also knew that the Lusitania was faster than any German warship, and much more so than any U-boat. It never seemed to occur to them that she could not outrun a torpedo.
When Schweiger made his strike on that sunny May afternoon, that fondly imagined pretty balloon exploded with an almighty bang. Quite literally. And nobody on board was in any doubt about the impending catastrophe from that first, awful moment of impact.
By contrast, the Titanic was a ship that had come quietly to a halt on a beautifully lit, glass calm sea. Her side had been ripped open by a gigantic, half concealed salt water assassin with deceptive, gentle ease, and most people never even felt the impact. Most of the passengers were in bed, and had to be woken by stewards. There was no panic at the beginning because, quite simply, there was no awareness. And, faced with a nightmare situation that no amount of experience could parry, Captain Smith decided to try and keep it that way for as long as possible.
The ghastly black comedy that was the sinking of the Titanic unfolded slowly, but with awful certainty. But throughout it all there was a sense of stillness, of disbelief. Survivors later said that they felt as if they were witnessing some great, dramatic story unfold from a distance, rather than actually being part of it.
There was time to uncover and lower all the lifeboats, however ineptly it was done. Time, too, for Jack Phillips and Harold Bride to send out their desperate calls for assistance from the wireless room. Time for many people to absorb the enormity of what was happening, to take in the ghastly, mortal peril that they were suddenly in. Time, at least, to maybe say goodbye to loved ones.
Those on the Lusitania were denied most of these things. The jolt from U20’s torpedo was the first, warning shot that ushered in the age of ‘total war’. Nothing would ever be quite the same again afterwards.