The Sinking of the Lusitania - 1916

The Great Liner, "Lusitania," Which Was Torpedoed by a German Submarine U-20, Not Far from Old Kinsale Head, Ireland, 7 May 1915.

The Great Liner, "Lusitania," Which Was Torpedoed by a German Submarine U-20, Not Far from Old Kinsale Head, Ireland, 7 May 1915. Photograph © Underwood & Underwood. The Story of the Great War, Volume 3, 1916. GGA Image ID # 18548a6a4a


Here was another matter that opened up diplomatic exchanges between Germany and the United States and between the United States and England. It suffices here to give the controversy or the points involved and the record of events.

The first use of the flag of a neutral country by a ship belonging to one of the belligerents in the Great War occurred on 31 January 1915, when the Cunard liner Orduña carried the American flag forepeak in journeying from Liverpool to Queenstown (Cobh).

She again did so on 1 February 1915, when she left the latter port for New York. And another notable instance was on 11 February 1915, when the Lusitania, another Cunard liner, arrived at Liverpool flying the American flag in obedience to orders issued by the British admiralty.

It was only the prominence of these vessels that gave them notoriety in this regard; the same practice was indulged in by many smaller ships.

The first American ship to be struck by a torpedo in the war zone established by the German admiralty's proclamation of 5 February 1915 was the Gulflight. This tank steamer was hit by a torpedo fired by a German submarine off the Scilly Islands on 1 May 1915.

But of more importance, because of the number of American lives lost, the standing of the matter in international law, and the vessel's prominence, the Cunard liner Lusitania sinking on 7 May 1915. This is fully described in the chapter on submarines and the diplomatic developments discussed in the chapter on the United States and the War.

The Lusitania had left New York for Liverpool on 1 May 1915. She was one of the fastest ships plying between the Eastern and Western Hemispheres. More extensive than any warship afloat at the time, she could make the trip from Liverpool to New York in a little under five days.

On her last crossing, she carried 2,160 persons, including passengers and crew, many former being Americans, some of them of great prominence. While off Old Head of Kinsale with a calm sea and no wind, on the southeastern end of Ireland, at about half-past two, she was hit by one or more torpedoes on the afternoon of 7 May 1915 from a German submarine without warning.

The Sinking of the Cunard Liner Lusitania

ON 7 May 1915 came the most sensational act committed by German submarines since the war had started—the Cunard liner Lusitania's sinking. The vessel which did this was one of the U-30 class.

The giant liner was nearing Queenstown on a sunny day in a calm sea in her last hours above water. When about five miles offshore, near Old Head of Kinsale, on the southeastern coast of Ireland, a few minutes after two o'clock, while many of the passengers were at lunch and a few of them on deck, there came a violent shock.

Five or six persons who had been on deck had noticed, a few moments before, the wake of something that was racing toward the ship. The moving object was a torpedo, which struck the hull to the forward on the starboard side and passed clean through the ship's engine room. She began to settle by the bows immediately, and the passengers, though cool, made rushes for lifebelts and the small boats. The list of the ship made the launching of some of these impossible.

The scenes on the decks of the sinking liner were heartrending. Members of families had become separated and ran wildly about seeking their relatives. The women and children were put into the lifeboats—being given preference.

"I was on the deck about two o'clock," narrated one of the survivors, "the weather was fine and bright and the sea calm. Suddenly I heard a terrific explosion, followed by another, and the cry went up that the ship had been torpedoed. She began to list at once, and her angle was so great that many of the boats on the port side could not be launched.

"A lot of people made a rush for the boats, but I went down to my cabin, took off my coat and vest and donned a lifebelt. On getting up again I found the decks awash and the boat going down fast by the head.

"I slipped down a rope into the sea and was picked up by one of the lifeboats. Some of the boats, owing to the position of the vessel, got swamped, and I saw one turn over no less than three times, but eventually it was righted."

Not all of the women and children got off the liner into the small boats. "Women and children, under the protection of men, had clustered in lines on the port side of the ship," reported another survivor.

"As the ship made her plunge down by the head, she finally took an angle of ninety degrees, and I saw this little army slide down toward the starboard side, dashing themselves against each other as they went, until they were engulfed."

Even under the stress of avoiding death, the sight of the sinking hull held the attention of those in the water. One of the sailors said afterward:

"Her great hull rose into the air and neared the perpendicular. As the form of the vessel rose, she seemed to shorten, and just as a duck dives so she disappeared. She went almost noiselessly. Fortunately her propellers had stopped, for had these been going, the vortex of her four screws would have dragged down many of those whose lives were saved. She seemed to divide the water as smoothly as a knife would do it."

Twenty minutes after the torpedo had struck the ship, she had disappeared beneath the surface of the sea. "Above the spot where she had gone down," said one of the men who escaped death, "there was nothing but a nondescript mass of floating wreckage.

Survivors of the Torpedoed Lusitania

Everywhere one looked there was a sea of waving hands and arms, belonging to the struggling men and frantic women and children in agonizing efforts to keep afloat. That was the most horrible memory and sight of all."

Fishing boats and coasting steamers picked up many of the survivors some hours after the disaster. The frightened people in the small boats pulled for the shore after picking up as many persons as they dared without swamping their boats. Some floated about in the waters for three and four hours, kept up by their lifebelts. Some, who were good swimmers, managed to keep above water till help came; others became exhausted and sank.

Probably the best story, covering the entire period from the time the ship was hit till the survivors were landed at Queenstown, was told by Dr. Daniel V. Moore, an American physician: "After the explosion," said Dr. Moore, "quiet and order were soon accomplished by assurances from the stewards.

"I proceeded to the deck promenade for observation and saw only that the ship was fast leaning to the starboard. I hurried toward my cabin below for a lifebelt and turned back because of the difficulty in keeping upright. I struggled to D deck and forward to the first-class cabin, where I saw a Catholic priest.

"I could find no belts and returned again toward E deck and saw a stewardess struggling to dislodge a belt. I helped her with hers and secured one for myself. I then rushed to D deck and noticed one woman perched on the gunwale, watching a lowering lifeboat ten feet away. I pushed her down and into the boat, then I jumped in.

"The stern of the lifeboat continued to lower, but the bow stuck fast. A stoker cut the bow ropes with a hatchet, and we dropped in a vertical position.

"A girl whom we had heard sing at a concert was struggling, and I caught her by the ankle and pulled her in. A man I grasped by the shoulders, and I landed him safe. He was the barber of the first-class cabin and a more manly man I never met.

"We pushed away hard to avoid the suck, but our boat was fast filling, and we bailed fast with one bucket and the women's hats. The man with the bucket became exhausted, and I relieved him.

"In a few minutes, she was filled level full. Then a keg floated up, and I pitched it about ten feet away and followed it. After reaching the keg, I turned to see what the fate of our boat had been. She had capsized.

"Now a young steward, Freeman, approached me, clinging to a deck chair. I urged him to grab the other side of the keg several times. He grew faint, but harsh speaking roused him. Once he said: T am going to go.' But I ridiculed this, and it gave him strength.

"The good boat Brock and her splendid officers and men took us aboard.

"At the scene of the catastrophe the surface of the water seemed dotted with bodies. Only a few of the lifeboats seemed to be doing any good. The cries of 'My God!' 'Save us!' and 'Help!' gradually grew weaker from all sides, and finally a low weeping, wailing, inarticulate sound, mingled with coughing and gargling, made me heartsick. I saw many men die. Some appeared to be sleepy and worn out just before they went down."

Submarine Commander Well Informed

Officials of the Cunard Line claimed afterward that three submarines had been engaged in the attack on the liner, but, after all, evidence had been sifted, the Germans' claim that only one had been present was found to be true. The submarine commander had been well informed as to just what route the liner would take.

Trouble with her engines, which developed after she had left New York, had brought her speed down to 18 knots, a circumstance which was in favor of the attacking vessel, for it could not have done much damage with a torpedo had she been going at her highest speed; it would have given her a chance to cross the path of the torpedo as it approached.

No sign of the submarine was noticed by the lookout or by any of the passengers on the Lusitania until it was too late to maneuver her to a position of safety. A few moments before the white wake of the approaching torpedo were espied, the periscope had been seen as it came to the surface of the water. From that moment onward, the liner was doomed.

The German Admiralty Report

The German admiralty report of the ship's actual sinking, which was issued on 14 May 1916, was brief. It read: "A submarine sighted the steamship Lusitania, which showed no flag, 7 May, 2:20 Central European time, afternoon, on the southeast coast of Ireland, in fine, clear weather.

"At 3:10 o'clock, U-20 fired one torpedo at the Lusitania, which hit her starboard side below the captain's bridge. The detonation of the torpedo was followed immediately by a further explosion of powerful effect. The ship quickly listed to starboard and began to sink.

"The second explosion must be traced back to the ignition of quantities of ammunition inside the ship."

The sinking of the Lusitania was one of the most horrible and unjustifiable deeds of the war. However, the German people struck a medal to commemorate the event Attacks by submarines on neutral ships did not abate. However, on 15 May 1915, the Danish steamer Martha was torpedoed in broad daylight and in view of crowds ashore off the coast of Aberdeen Bay.

The German Submarine War Zone.

The German Submarine War Zone. The Shaded Portion Indicates the War Zone Proclaimed by German 18 February 1915. The Rectangles on the Left (Top to Bottom) Show the Locations of the Sinking of the Lusitania, Sunk 7 May 1915; Palaba, Sunk 28 March 1915; and the Gulflight, Torpedoed 1 May 1915. The Story of the Great War, Volume 3, 1916. GGA Image ID # 1854783a5b

The sinking of ships in the "war zone" continued despite rumors that the German admiralty was expected to discontinue the submarines' operations against merchantmen on account of the unfriendly feeling aroused in neutral nations, particularly the United States.

British Steamer Dumcree Torpedoed

On 19 May 1915 came the news that the British steamship Dumcree had been torpedoed off a point in the English Channel. A torpedo fired into her hull failed to sink her immediately, and a Norwegian ship came to her aid, passing her a cable and attempting to tow her to port. But the submarine returned and fearing an attack.

The Norwegian ship made off. A second torpedo fired at the Dumcree had a better effect than the first one, and she began to settle. When the submarine left the scene, the Norwegian steamship returned to the Dumcree and managed to take off all of her crew and passengers. Three trawlers, one of them French, were sunk in the same neighborhood during the next forty-eight hours.

As soon as Italy entered the war, an attempt was made by the Teutonic Powers to establish the same sort of submarine blockade in the Adriatic, which obtained in the waters around Great Britain.

This was displayed when the captain of the Italian steamship Marsala reported on 21 May 1915 that his ship had been stopped by an Austrian submarine. Still, the latter, not wishing to disclose its location to the Italian navy, allowed his ship to proceed unharmed.

The suspicion that the German admiralty maintained bases for their submarines right on the coasts of Great Britain where the submersible craft could obtain oil for driving their engines, as well as supplies of compressed air and food for the crew, was confirmed on 14 May 1915, when Agents of the British Admiralty reported discovering caches of the kind at various points in the Orkney Islands, in the Bay of Biscay, and on the north and west coasts of Ireland.

Attack on Fastnet

An attack was made by a German submarine on the lighthouse at Fastnet to damage shipping in the "war zone" by having ships go through having no guiding lights, on the southern coast of Ireland, on the night of 25 May 1915.

Shortly after nine in the evening, the submarine was sighted in the waters near the lighthouse by persons on shore. She was about ten miles from Fastnet, near Barley Cove.

When she came near enough to the lighthouse to use her deck guns, men on shore opened fire on her with rifles, and she submerged, not to reappear in that neighborhood again.

But this same submarine managed to do other damage. The American steamship Nebraskan was in the neighborhood on its way to New York.

The sea was calm, and the ship was traveling at 12 knots when some time near nine o'clock in the evening, a shock was felt aboard.

A second later, there came a terrific explosion, and a subsequent investigation showed that a large hole, 20 feet square, had been torn in her starboard bow, not far from the waterline.

When she began to settle, the captain ordered all hands into the small boats. They stayed near the damaged ship for an hour and saw that she was not going to sink.

When they got aboard again, they found that a bulkhead was keeping out the water sufficiently to allow her to proceed under her own steam. In crippled condition, she made for port, being convoyed later by two British warships which answered her calls for help.

Despite the sharp diplomatic representations that were passing back and forth between Germany and the United States over the matter of the German submarine warfare, the craft kept up as active a campaign against merchant ships as they did before the issues became pointed.

Three More Ships Sunk by U-Boats

On 28 May 1915, there came the news that German U-Boats had sent three more ships to the bottom. The Spennymoor, a new ship, was chased and torpedoed off Start Point, near the Orkney Islands. Some of her crew were drowned when the lifeboat in which they were getting away capsized, carrying them down.

On the same day, the large liner Argyllshire was chased and fired upon by a hostile submarine's deck guns, but she managed to get away. Not so fortunate, however, was the steamship Cadesby.

While off the Scilly Islands on the afternoon of 28 May 1915, a German submarine hailed her, firing a shot from a deck gun across her bows as a signal to halt.

The captain of the submarine gave the crew and passengers time to get into small boats, and when these were at a distance from the ship, the deck guns of the submarine were again brought into action, and after firing thirty shots into her hull, they sank her.

The third victim was the Swedish ship Roosvall. She was stopped and boarded off Malmoe by the crew of a German submarine. After examining her papers, they permitted her to proceed but later sent a torpedo into her, sinking her.

A new raider, the V-2, made its appearance in the English Channel during the last week in May 1915. On the twenty-eighth of the month, this submarine sank the liner Ethiope.

The captain of the steamship attempted some clever maneuvering, which did not accomplish its object. He paid no attention to a shot from the submarine's deck guns which passed across his bow.

The hostile craft then began to circle around the liner, while the latter's rudder was put at a wide-angle to keep either stern or bow of the ship toward the submarine, thus making a poor target for a torpedo.

But the commander of the submarine saw through the movement and ordered fire with his deck guns. After shells had taken away the ship's bridge and had punctured her hull near the stern, the crew and passengers were ordered into the small boats.

They had hardly gotten twenty feet from their ship when she was sent by an explosion and went down.

The transatlantic liner Megantic had better luck, for she managed to escape a pursuing submarine on 29 May 1915, as she was nearing Queenstown, Ireland, homeward bound.

Change in Methods Adopted by Commanders of U-Boats

A notable change in the methods adopted by the commanders of submarines as a result of orders issued by the German admiralty in answer to the protests throughout the neutral nations' press after the Lusitania's sinking was the giving of warning to intended victims.

By the end of May 1915, in almost every instance where a German submarine stopped and sank a merchantman, the crew was given time to get off their ship, and the submarine did not hesitate to show itself.

A warning to stop was generally given when the submarine's deck was above water, and the gun mounted there had the victim "covered."

This was done in the case of the British steamship Tullochmoor, which was torpedoed off Ushant near the most westerly islands of Brittany, France.

On 1 June 1915, there came the news of the sinking of the British ship Dixiana, near Ushant, by a German submarine which approached with the aid of a brilliant disguise.

The crew managed to get off the ship in time; when they landed on shore, they reported that the submarine had been seen and on account of sails which she carried was thought to be an innocent fishing boat. The disguise was penetrated too late for the Dixiana to make its escape.

More German Submarine Activity During June 1915

The clear and calm weather, which came with June 1915, made more significant German submarine activity possible. On 4 June 1915, it was reported by the British admiralty that six more ships had been made victims, three of them being those of neutral countries. In the next twenty-four hours, the number was increased by eleven, and eight more were added by 9 June 1915.

On that date, Mr. Balfour, Secretary of the British admiralty, announced that a German submarine had been sunk, though he did not state what had been the scene of the action. At the same time, he said that Great Britain would treat the captured crew of submarines in the same manner as other war prisoners. The British would abandon the policy of separating these men from the others and giving them harsher treatment.

On 20 June 1915, the day's reports of losses due to German submarines' operations, issued by the British Government, contained the news of the sinking of the two British torpedo boats, the No. 10 and the No. 20. No details were made public concerning just how they went down.

On the same day, the Italian admiralty announced that a cache maintained to supply submarines belonging to the Teutonic Powers and operating in the Mediterranean had been discovered on a lonely part of the coast near Kalimno, an island off the southwest coast of Asia Minor. Ninety-six barrels of benzine and fifteen hundred barrels of other fuel were found and destroyed.

It was believed that this supply had been shipped as kerosene from Saloniki to Piraeus. How submarines belonging to Germany had reached the southern theatre of naval warfare had been a matter of speculation for the outside world.

Submarine Commander Otto Hersing

But on 6 June 1915, Captain Otto Hersing made public how he took the 17-51 on a 3,000-mile trip from Wilhelmshaven on the North Sea to Constantinople. He was the commander who managed to torpedo the British battleships Triumph and Majestic.

He received his orders to sail on 25 April 1915 and immediately began to stock his ship with extra amounts of fuel and provisions, allowing only his first officer and chief engineer to know their craft's destination. He traveled on the surface of the water as soon as he had passed the guard of British warships near the German coast; traveling "light" allowed him to make six or seven knots more in speed.

As he passed through the "war zone," he kept watch for merchantmen that might be made victims of his torpedo tubes. His craft was sighted by a British destroyer, however, off the English coast, and he had to submerge to escape the fire of the destroyer's guns.

He then proceeded cautiously down the coast of France, encountering no hostile ships. When within one hundred miles of Gibraltar, British destroyers again discovered he again managed to escape by submerging his craft.

Passage through the Strait of Gibraltar was made in the early morning hours, while a mist hung near the water's surface and permitted no one at the fort to see the wake of the U-51's periscope.

Once inside the Mediterranean, he headed for the south of Greece, escaping an attack from a French destroyer and proceeding through the Ægean Sea to the Dardanelles. The journey ended on 25 May, just one month after leaving Wilhelmshaven.

The British ships Triumph and Majestic were sighted early in the morning, but an attack upon them was brutal because the destroyers circled about them; one of the destroyers passed right over the U-51 while she was submerged. Captain Hersing brought her to the surface soon afterward and let go the torpedo which sank the Triumph.

For the next two days, the submarine stayed submerged but came up on the following day and found itself right amid the allied fleet. This time the Majestic was taken as the target for a torpedo, and she went down.

Again submerging his vessel Captain Hersing kept it down for another day, and when he surfaced again, he saw that the fleets had moved away. He then returned to Constantinople.

On 23 June 1915, the British cruiser Roxborough, an older ship, was hit by a torpedo fired by a German submarine in the North Sea, but the damage inflicted was not enough to prevent her making port under her own steam.

Leyland Steamship Armenian

Many Americans' deaths occurred on 28 June 1916, when the Leyland liner Armenian, carrying horses for the allied armies, was torpedoed by the U-38, twenty miles west by north of Trevose Head in Cornwall.

According to the captain of the vessel's story, the submarine fired two shots to signal him to stop when he put on all speed in an attempt to get away from the raider. Her guns opened on his ship with shrapnel, badly riddling it.

She had caught fire and was burning in three places before he signaled that he would surrender. The shrapnel had meanwhile killed thirteen men.

Some of the lifeboats had also been riddled by the firing from the submarine's deck guns, making it more difficult for the crew to leave the ship. The German commander gave him ample time to get his boats off.

American Submarines Assembled in Canada

To offset the Germans' advantage with their submarines, the British admiralty commissioned ten such craft during the week of 28 June 1915. These vessels were of American build and design and were assembled in Canada.

During the week mentioned, they were manned by men sent for the purpose from England. Four officers and eighteen men operated each to take them across the Atlantic.

Never before in history had so many submarines undertaken a voyage as significant. They got underway from Quebec on 2 July 1915 and proceeded in column two abreast, a big auxiliary cruiser, which acted as their escort steaming in the center.

The next large liner which had an encounter with the German submarine U-39 was the Anglo-Californian. She came into Queenstown on the morning of 5 July 1915, with nine dead sailors lying on the deck, nine wounded men in their bunks and holes in her Bide made by shot and shell. She had withstood an attack from a German submarine for four hours.

The liner accomplished her escape from destruction through only the captain and his crew's spirit, combined with the fact that patrol vessels came to her aid forcing the submarine to submerge.

A variety in the methods used by the commanders of German submarines was revealed in the stopping of the Norwegian ship Vega, which was stopped on 15 July while voyaging from Bergen to Newcastle.

The sub came alongside the steamship at night. The submarine commander supervised the jettisoning of her cargo of 200 tons of salmon, 800 cases of butter, and 4,000 cases of sardines were done at his command under threat of sinking his victim.

The week of 15 July 1915 was unique in that not one British vessel was made the victim of a German submarine during that vessel was made the victim of a German submarine during that period, though two Russian ships had been sunk.

Attacks on Merchant Ships in the German Prolaimed "War Zone"

Figures compiled by the British admiralty and issued on 22 July 1915 gave out the following information concerning the attacks on merchantmen by German submarines since the German admiralty's proclamation of a "war zone" around Great Britain went into effect on 18 February 1915.

The official figures were as follows:

Official Figures of Vessels and Lives Lost for the Weeks Ended 25 February 1915 Through 22 July 1915.

The first year of the Great War came to an end with the German submarines as active in the "war zone" as they had been during any part of it. On 28 July 1915, the anniversary of the war's commencement, there was reported the sinking of nine vessels. The Swedish steamer Emma, the three Danish schooners Maria, Neptunis, and Lena, the British steamer Mangara, the trawlers Iceni and Salaeia, the Westward Ho, and the Swedish bark Sagnadalen. No lives were lost with any of these vessels.

The first year of the war closed with a cloud gathered over the heads of the German admiralty members raised by the irritation the submarine attacks in the "war zone" had caused.

Germany's enemies protested against these attacks' illegality; neutral nations protested because they held that their rights had been overridden.

But the German press showed the German public's feeling on the matter—at the end of July 1915, it was as anxious as ever to have the attacks continued. Conflicting claims were issued in Germany and England.

In the former country, Germany claimed that the attacks had seriously damaged commerce; in the latter, England claimed that the damage was of little account.

Based on Chapter XXXIV: Sinking of the Lusitania," in The Story of the Great War: History of the European War from Official Sources, Volume III, New York: P. F. Collier & Son, 1916, 222-234

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