By Iain Martin
This month marks the anniversary of one of the most tragic events of the twentieth century, the sinking of the British passenger steamer RMS Lusitania on May 7, 1915, by a German U-boat off the coast of Ireland. She had left New York on May 1 bound for Liverpool, ignoring German warnings that the seas around the United Kingdom had been declared a zone of unrestricted submarine warfare. Although international law prohibited the firing on a non-military ship without warning, the Lusitania was carrying war munitions, which the Germans claimed made her a legitimate target.
A single torpedo hit the Lusitania on the starboard side, causing a secondary explosion within the hull. It sank in eighteen minutes, killing 1,191 people, including 128 Americans. The international outcry against Germany’s attack was keenly felt in the United States, still a neutral country in 1915, and moved public opinion closer towards supporting the Allied nations against Germany. In 1917, when Germany once again launched a campaign of unrestricted submarine warfare to try and starve England into defeat, the United States declared war on Germany.
Much controversy still surrounds the sinking of the Lusitania. A succession of British governments since World War I have always denied that munitions were being transported, but in a recent declassification of documents it was shown that in 1982 the British government warned salvage divers of the presence of explosives on board. A number of British documents regarding the Lusitania remain classified.
You can learn more about this story in Lusitania: Triumph, Tragedy, and the End of the Edwardian Age by Greg King and Penny Wilson read by Johnny Heller.