It was the original ‘shot that was heard around the world’…
When the stately bulk of RMS Lusitania loomed against the cross hairs of U-20’s periscope on the afternoon of May 7th, 1915, Walther Schweiger did not hesitate for one second. He slammed his last available torpedo into the glistening black flank of the liner. The rest is history, and no more relevant than today, the centenary of the sinking.
She went down in just eighteen minutes, leaving almost two thousand people gasping and thrashing for their lives in the frigid, sunlit waters off the coast of southern Ireland. 1,201 men, women and children were lost altogether. Bodies were still being found draped across Irish beaches some three weeks later.
The story was a sensation across the world. How could anyone torpedo an unarmed passenger liner, full of women and children, and leave them to such a ghastly fate? The media hyped the sinking into the ultimate act of barbarism; the despicable work of a dastardly enemy that would sink to any depths- in this case quite literally- to impose his cruel world view on humanity.
But, truth be told, the gloves were off from the first days of World War One. Any notion that the contest would be fought in a gentlemanly style between two rival power blocs, one that would do it’s utmost to spare civilians, was shot to pieces when the German army trampled all over the neutral status of petrified little Belgium.
That was followed by the British blockade of German ports, which soon resulted in severe rationing for women and children across Germany proper. In return, Germany introduced unrestricted submarine warfare against British merchant shipping, and announced that foreign nationals should not travel on passenger ships sailing under the British flag, which would now be liable to attack.
By this time, the German navy had already carried out coastal bombardments of towns such as Hartlepool and Scarborough, inflicting civilian casualties in all of them. And in towns across both France and Belgium, hordes of terrified civilians had already discovered for themselves that this would be anything but a ‘gentleman’s war’. No, the cat was out of the bag long before the Lusitania swung clear of New York’s Pier 54 for the last time on May 1st, 1915. It was total war in all but title.
And the Lusitania herself was no innocent party in all this. She was carrying a large amount of small arms munitions and stores, bound for the British army on the western front. The carriage of such stores in a liner loaded with passengers was blatantly illegal, and both the British and the Germans knew it. And it was also true that both sides knew that supposedly impartial US customs officials were turning a blind eye to these illegal shipments. For a nation fighting on two fronts, this was all like a red rag to an already enraged and careless bull.
For this last, fateful crossing, the Lusitania had 1,266 passengers embarked, plus a crew of 696. The biggest passenger load she had carried since the outbreak of hostilities. And, although the weather was fine and sunny as the liner romped across the springtime Atlantic towards Europe, everything else was actually working slowly, yet inexorably, against her.
Not long before the liner reached the coast of Ireland, her intended escort, the old, armoured cruiser Juno, was ordered back into port in Queenstown- for fear of submarines known to be lurking in the area. And, despite this laudable care for navy lives, no message ordering the Lusitania into Queenstown was ever sent. And, by now, the liner was looming massively into the danger zone.
I suspect someone at the Admiralty dropped the ball here; with the disastrous onset of the Gallipoli campaign just two weeks earlier, the navy was now adrift in a nightmare situation of it’s own making, and perhaps more effort was being concentrated there than elsewhere. But it is strange that the Lusitania was deemed safe to proceed where a ship of war like the Juno patently was not.
In the ghastly aftermath, the navy did what any huge public body under adverse public scrutiny does; it kicked the blame down the field, and attempted to make a villain of Captain Turner, the man in command of the lost liner. He had, they said, blatantly disobeyed Admiralty standing instructions about sailing in a war zone.
These stated that ships such as the Lusitania were to steer well clear of headlands, and zig zag at maximum speed, so as to throw any submarine off a good aiming point.
But Turner and the Lusitania spent most of the fateful morning of May 7th, 1915, enveloped in a fog so thick that visibility was almost nil. Lusitania was coming up to the coast of Ireland at a smart clip and, in these pre radar days, Turner was effectively blind in the fog. So, when the weather did mercifully clear, he did what seemed perfectly sensible to him and many others; he brought the Lusitania closer in to the now visible shore in order to get an exact bearing on his position. And this put him on a course towards the lurking U-20.
But Turner did not zig zag, and kept the Lusitania romping along at a steady eighteen knots. Even with one of his four boiler rooms closed down as an economy measure, he could still have powered the Lusitania up to twenty-one. Perhaps he planned to do just that once he was satisfied with his bearings. We will never, ever know.
Once Walther Schweiger fired his torpedo into the path of the oncoming Lusitania, the die was effectively cast. The young U-boat captain knew exactly what he was doing, and he followed his orders with ruthless, tenacious efficiency.
He would have known that he was about to torpedo a very large passenger liner, one carrying many, many, women and children. But he also knew that the same ship was carrying arms and munitions to the British army on the western front, at a time when the British blockade was bringing hardship and even starvation to the streets of Germany. That knowledge probably steeled his determination to hit such a prize target.
Not that he expected this one puny, unreliable torpedo to sink such a huge ship; one built with all the strength and watertight sub division of a Royal Navy cruiser. Ships less than half the size of Lusitania had survived torpedo strikes before. At most, he expected to cripple and delay the liner.
Of course, that’s not how things played out.
Despite his determination to hurt this prestige enemy target, Schweiger was unable to watch the horrific events that unfolded as a result of his strike. It was simply too ghastly, too overwhelming, for any man to actually watch, let alone enjoy.
Such was the loss of the Lusitania, one of the ‘unholy trinity’ of great maritime tragedies on the Atlantic. It is sobering to reflect that the Titanic, the Empress Of Ireland and the Lusitania were all lost in the four years, between 1912 and 1915.
But those first two tragedies were accidents; the sinking of the Lusitania was a deliberate act of war. And it is that stark, simple fact that lends it the particularly grisly cachet that it still has to this day.
And, of course, other Cunarders would sink in the service of their country. In 1940, the Lancastria would take more than six thousand British soldiers down with her when she was dive bombed off the port of Saint Nazaire- a death total that exceeds all three of the above named liners by a mile. But, by then, we had become so immured by the concept of ‘total war’ that the loss of yet another troopship would not have registered so resoundingly as, say, the sinking of a ship that took down half of the New York stock exchange with her in mid Atlantic. Blood has always been a currency of wildly fluctuating value when the fate of nations is at stake.
Still, it is totally apt that, today of all days, we remember the Lusitania and her human cargo of sad, lost souls. They did not ask to be pitched, shuddering and terrified, into the freezing Atlantic on a fine spring afternoon. Certainly, they did not expect it.
They deserved much better, of course. As did the Tommies, the Poilous and the Landsers, cringeing and terrified as they cowered in the trenches of Flanders. You can say the same for the shell shocked civilians of Amiens, Ypres and Brussels and yes, even the scared, twitchy crew of U-20, crouching fearfully in their claustrophobic little tin bolt hole as it beetled along under a sea dominated by its foes.