Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Remembering the Lusitania

It was on this day in 1915 that the RMS Lusitania was sunk by a single torpedo hit fired by U-Boat 20 (commanded by Kaptlt. Walther Schwieger) off the coast of Ireland with the loss of about 1,200 lives. A sad event, no doubt, which caused considerable outrage in the United States due to the presence of several hundred Americans on board. The loss of innocent lives, many women and children, is heartbreaking which everyone can agree on. More controversial though, is assigning blame for the tragedy and putting the event in context. It is a fact that peoples across central Europe (not just Germany) were being starved due to the British blockade (children and the elderly being the first to die) and this slow death does not elicit the same degree of sympathy as the losses caused by something so dramatic as a passenger liner being torpedoed by a German submarine. It is also a fact that the Lusitania had been built as a reserve heavy cruiser, it is a fact that it was carrying war materials (not many but they were there) which made the ship a legitimate target in German eyes and also meant that the passengers were, in a way, being used as "human shields". It is also a fact that the Germans warned people not to sail on the ship but the Allies encouraged it. It is a fact that the captain of the ship had been warned of a submarine in the area but took no precautions against a possible attack. It is also a fact that the British were desperate to get America into the war and First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill said that Britain should do everything it could to encourage ships to run the blockade saying, "for our part, we need the shipping, the more the better and if some of it gets into trouble, better still". That should be kept in mind before joining in any anti-German hysteria over the attack. And, just in case some still believe the old lies, the German Kaiser did not decorate Kaptlt. Schwieger for sinking the Lusitania. He was decorated some time later for sinking the requisite tonnage of Allied shipping and later died in action at sea (at the time some put it about that he had killed himself out of guilt). It was a tragic affair, no doubt about it, but the disregard for human life was not limited to those on the German side.


  1. Agreed, these things should be kept in perspective. Unfortunately, it was a disastrous from a public relations perspective - prior to the sinking, there were about as many people in the United States that were openly supportive of Germany as there were backing the UK (the rows of laid up German ocean liners in Hoboken being used for frequent fundraising galas in support of the German cause between 1914 and 1915) - after the sinking, the pro-German cause died out or went underground and it became inevitable that if the US entered the war, it would only be on the side of the British.

    The heavy cruiser part is a bit overblown though. Lusitania and other big ocean liners were theoretically designed to be converted to "auxiliary cruisers" in the event of war, but it was really nothing more than a scheme to make them eligible for government construction subsidies. They were far too large, fuel thirsty, labor intensive, unwieldy, and lightly armored to ever be really practical as combatant vessels. The few that were converted that way early in the war were quickly re-converted into troop transports or hospital ships, once it was discovered how useless they really were at that role. Germany made the same mistake with several of their bigger liners, which were built under the same sort of financing schemes.

  2. A sad anniversary. I agree that in the end no one had clean hands. Lord Bingley (1st Viscount Mersey) who presided over the "official" whitewash... er investigation, said it well when he refused his usual fees for services and resigned from office saying that the "The Lusitania case was a damned, dirty business!"

    By coincidence I commemorated the anniversary on my own blog under the same title. Though my post was more of nostalgic remembrance of the ship rather than her tragic end. The loss of life was truly appalling.

    Memory eternal!


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