Today is not just the day of the latest British general election, but the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the RMS Lusitania, one of the best known shipwrecks after the Titanic.
The Lusitania, along with her sister ship Mauretania, was commissioned by the Cunard Line using a government loan. One of the conditions of this loan was that the two ships could be used as armed merchant cruisers in war; however, when war actually did break out, this proved impractical as both ships used too much coal. The Lusitania made her maiden voyage in September 1907 and proved a successful ship, not only large and luxurious – at over 31,500 tons, she was the largest ship in the world when she entered service – but also fast, with a service speed of 25 knots. Lusitania held the Blue Riband for the fastest Atlantic crossing for a time until it was taken away by Mauretania.
In the First World War, the Lusitania remained in trans-Atlantic passenger service, while the Mauretania was eventually utilised as a troopship. On 1st May 1915, Lusitania left New York on her 202nd crossing of the Atlantic. It was well known that German submarines – U-boats – could be found patrolling around the British Isles where she would be sailing; the German Embassy had even put a warning about it in the papers for trans-Atlantic passengers. But it was considered unlikely that a U-boat would attack an unarmed passenger liner, and the Lusitania was considered too fast for any submarine to catch.
By 7th May, the Lusitania was nearing the end of the voyage, having reached the southern coast of Ireland. Then, in the afternoon, by unfortunate chance, it was spotted by the U-boat U-20, which was preparing to head home having already sunk three ships on its latest patrol. While taking a bearing on the coast, the Lusitania crossed U-20‘s path in just the right position – and at around 2:10pm, its captain chose to attack, firing a single torpedo.
A few moments after the torpedo hit, there was a second explosion, the exact cause of which has never been determined for certain – at the time, some reckoned that a cargo of munitions the ship was carrying had exploded, but other theories such as a coal dust or steam explosion are now considered more likely. With this additional damage, the Lusitania listed and sank very quickly, in just 18 minutes; in comparison, it took the Titanic 2 hours and 40 minutes to sink after its iceberg collision. Unlike the Titanic, the Lusitania carried enough lifeboats for everyone on board – but with the speed of sinking, the heavy list, and the sheer panic on deck, only six could be successfully launched at all.
The result was that of the 1,962 people onboard, 1,198 were lost. The fact that many of the victims were American increased tensions between the U.S. and Germany; more subsequent attacks on ships carrying Americans by German submarines was one of the factors that eventually led the U.S. to join the war, two years after the destruction of Lusitania.
If you would like to learn more, I strongly recommend the book Dead Wake by Eric Larson. Robert Ballard’s Lusitania is also a good one: it has some excellent illustrations by Ken Marschall, who is best known for his Titanic artwork. The BBC also aired a docu-drama, Lusitania: Murder on the Atlantic, in 2007.