The Torpedoing and Sinking of the RMS Lusitania. 103 years later.

It’s been 103 years since the torpedoing and sinking of the RMS Lusitania, the pride of the Cunard Line. It was major story back in 1915. The ship was torpedoed and sunk by a German u-boat off the Old Head of Kinsale, Ireland during World War I. Germany got the brunt of it. While it is true that a German u-boat sank the Lusitania and that about or over 1,200 people died, including somewhere between 123 to 128 U.S. citizens. There was a lot blame to go around. The British Admiralty did have the Lusitania listed as an armed auxiliary cruiser on the navy list. Even though she was never used by the British Navy, she still remained as an armed auxiliary cruiser. Because she was still listed as an armed auxiliary cruiser in the eyes of the Imperial German Navy, she was a legitimate target. In November 1914, the British Navy blockaded the ports of Germany and bottled up all shipping. It also declared those waters as a war zone. As a result of the blockade, many of Germany’s citizens did not have food and supplies. On February 18,1915, Imperial Germany declared the waters around Great Britain and Ireland, a war zone and that ships would be sunk without warning. This was known as unrestricted submarine warfare. Despite the warning, the United States which was neutral did protest. Many U.S. citizens still traveled on ships in the war zone, including the RMS Lusitania. The first strike came on March 28,1915, that the U-28 torpedoed and sank the SS Falaba off the coast of St. Ann’s Head. 104 people died, including U.S. citizen Leon Thrasher from Massachusetts. The attack caused American outrage, however President Wilson did not want the U.S. involved in the European conflict. President Wilson has been portrayed as a pacifist, however, it is believed that this was not true. Wilson was up for re-election in 1916 and at the time the U.S. and many Americans did not want to get involved in a European conflict. If President Wilson would have gotten involved it might have damaged his chances for re-election if the war turned negative for America. On April 17,1915, the RMS Lusitania left Liverpool, England bound for New York City. What many people did not know at the time, this would be the last time she left Liverpool. On April 24, the liner arrived in New York harbor. Among it most famous passenger was Guglielmo Marconi, the Italian inventor and engineer who was known for the creation of the wireless telegraphy and shared the 1909 Nobel Prize in Physics with Karl Ferdinand Braun. The Lusitania was being prepared for her 202nd crossing from New York to Liverpool. She was scheduled to depart on May 1 at 10 am and there were 1,265 bookings for the voyage. Among the 1,265 bookings were 197 U.S. citizens. Oddly enough, the ship’s black cat, Dowie left the ship when it was docked and was never seen again. It’s possible the cat sensed something might happen. Also, Count Johann Heinrich von Bernstorff, the German Ambassador to the U.S. since 1908 was concerned that if the Lusitania was torpedoed by a German u-boat it could possibly be a major American outrage and a backlash against the Fatherland. Count Bernstorff and the Imperial German Embassy in Washington, D.C. decided to place a warning in many American newspapers, including New York. The warning as follows:

TRAVELLERS intending to embark on the Atlantic voyage are reminded that a state of war exists between Germany and her allies and Great Britain and her allies; that the zone of war includes the waters adjacent to the British Isles; that, in accordance with formal notice given by the Imperial German Government, vessels flying the flag of Great Britain, or any of her allies, are liable to destruction in those waters and that travellers sailing in the war zone on the ships of Great Britain or her allies do so at their own risk.
Washington, D.C. 22 April 1915

Despite the date of April 22,1915. The warning was not published until May 1,1915, the day the RMS Lusitania was to depart. This caused some agitation among the American press and worried Lusitania’s passengers and crew. Many Americans felt they had the right to travel on the RMS Lusitania, because of President Wilson basically felt Americans had a right and the RMS Lusitania was known to be a fast ship. It had won the Blue Riband in 1907 for breaking the record of arrival on her 2nd voyage. The warning was mostly ignored and on May 1,1915, passengers began to arrive at Pier 54. Cameramen were there to film the passengers arriving at the pier and on foot. Also, in the footage it shows Chicago businessman Charles A. Plamondon and his wife, exiting a taxi at the pier and it also showed Charles paying for the cab fare. Among her famous passengers travelling on what would be her final and fatal voyage were 37 year old, Alfred Vanderbilt, an American multi-millionaire and a member of the prominent Vanderbilt family. Vanderbilt was on his way to England for business and was travelling with his valet, Ronald Denyer. That same morning, Alfred and his wife Margaret received a written warning for Alfred which read, “”THE LUSITANIA IS DOOMED.  DO NOT SAIL ON HER.” When he was asked by the press, Alfred  said it was just “somebody trying to have a little fun at my expense”. Charles Frohman, a 58 year old American theatre producer on Broadway also book passage on the liner. He was travelling with his valet, William Stainton to see the newest crop of plays in England. He was warned by many friends not to sail on the RMS Lusitania. He had a rheumatic knee from a fall in 1912 and was walking with a cane. Justus Miles Forman, a 39 year old American novelist and playwright was travelling on the liner as well. He also received a warning as well. Forman’s butler recalled before he departed on the Lusitania that Justus received a phone call from an unidentified man with a German accent who warned that if he sailed on the Lusitania, he would be blown up.  The German promptly hung up and Forman said to his butler, “Can you beat that? Probably one of the boys, a practical joker!” On his way to the pier, his chauffeur on the way to the ship was also concerned, saying, “Look here Mr. Forman, don’t you think you are taking a lot of chances sailing when that bunch of Germans is waiting to blow ‘er up?” Forman only shrugged the comment off, saying, “What chance have they of catching Justus Miles Forman? I should worry!” Reaching the pier, Forman discovered that Charles Frohman and several others had received similar warnings. Elbert Hubbard, a 58 year old American essayist and publisher and his wife, 53 year old, Alice also boarded the liner. They were from East Aurora, New York, a suburb of Buffalo, New York. He and his wife were travelling for Elbert was to interview German Emperor, Kaiser Wilhelm II. Hubbard was instrumental in the Arts and Crafts movement and in 1895, he established Roycroft, a reformist community of craft workers and artists in East Aurora, New York. Charles Klein, a 48 year old American playwright who was travelling with colleagues, Charles Frohman and Justus Miles Forman. In 1909, he filed to become a U.S. Citizen and in 1912, he was due to travel aboard the ill-fated RMS Titanic, but cancelled. Charles Plamondon, a 58 year old American businessman who was President of the Plamondon Manufacturing Company in Chicago, Illinois was travelling to London, Manchester, and Dublin. He feared prohibition was imminent and decided to travel to find European markets for his brewing equipment and hopeful of making a deal with Guinness in Dublin. Charles was a devout Catholic and of French-Canadian and Irish descent. His wife, Mary did not want him to travel alone and accompanied him. They were married since May 6,1879 and had five children.
Albert Lloyd Hopkins, a 43 year old American businessman who was President of Newport News Drydock Company who was travelling to negotiate contracts for the manufacture of armor plates for battleships, a product his company had been licensed to manufacture since 1900. He was travelling with Fred Gauntlett and Samuel Knox, who were also ship and arms contractors. Charles T. Jeffery, a 38 year old American automobile manufacturer who was travelling to France to negotiate a contract for the sale Jeffery Armored Cars. Jeffery was President and Manager of the Thomas B. Jeffery Company. He was a friend of Charles and Mary Plamondon. George Kessler, a 52 year old American wine manufacturer who was known as the Champagne King. He was travelling as well. Charles Hill, a 39 year old American who worked for the American Tobacco Company and lived in England with his family. Sir Hugh Lane, a 39 year old Irish art collector and philanthropist was also travelling and it was rumored that his paintings of Monet, Rembrandt, Rubens, and Titian was aboard. Father Basil Maturin, a 68 year old Irish Roman Catholic priest and preacher who was returning aboard the Lusitania after a successful preaching tour in the United States. Rita Jolivet, a 30 year old English actress was also travelling. These were many of the famous aboard the Lusitania. What many of Lusitania’s passengers did not know was that the liner was being loaded with munitions. 750 tons of rifle/machine-gun ammunition, 1250 cases of shrapnel artillery shells with the explosive burster charges loaded but no fuses or propellant charges, and the artillery fuses for those shells stored separately as well 46 tons of aluminium powder,  50 barrels and 94 cases of aluminium powder, as well as 50 cases of bronze powder,  and a a large quantity of nitrocellulose (gun cotton). Some of the cargo was not listed on the manifest and basically secretly loaded. The captain who would guide the RMS Lusitania on her last voyage was 58 year old William Turner. The liner was to depart New York Harbor at 10 am, however it would be delayed due to passenger transfers to the Lusitania. Because of the transfers, it took 2 and a half hours. At 12:30 pm, the Lusitania left New York for the last time. As she was being backed out, it was being filmed by cameramen. Also, people and relatives of many of the passengers on the dock waved goodbye as the Lusitania was being pulled by tugboats. Also, the day before, the U-20 left its port in Emden, Germany. The u-boat was commanded by 30 year old Kapitanleutnant Walther Schwieger, who came from a respected Berlin family. He was to patrol the waters of Great Britain and Ireland, the same waters that the RMS Lusitania would later meet its fate. The Lusitania sailed through graceful waters during this period of May 1 to May 7. On May 5,1915, off the Old Head of Kinsale, U-20 spotted the Earl of Lathom, a British schooner sometime after 2 am. Seeing that the schooner was no threat to him, Schwieger ordered the crew of 5 to surrender their flag and papers. The 5 crew members of the schooner managed to escape in a lifeboat. The U-20 fired 12 grenades at the schooner before she heeled over and sank. The next day on May 6, the U-20 sank the SS Candidate, a British steamer and the SS Centurion, in both cases the people aboard and it seemed Schwieger allowed them to escape safely, the Centurion was shelled first and then later sunk. In the case of the Candidate, one torpedo struck the ship and another torpedo was fired and finally sank her. During this time, the Lusitania was nearing the Irish sea. Also, many passengers on the ship chief among them George Kessler and Professor Ian Holbourn were wondering why no lifeboats drills were being done in case of an attack and also why no drills to show passengers how to put their lifebelts. However, despite their protests, Captain Turner ignored requests. On May 6, the ship’s lifeboats were swung out ready for lowering that morning. The day was calm, Charles Frohman threw a party in his cabin that afternoon which was attended by Charles Klein, Rita Jolivet, Justus Miles Forman, and Josephine Brandell. Alfred Vanderbilt, Captian Turner, and Staff Captain Anderson made an appearance.
At the same time, George Kessler also had party with Dr. Fred Pearson and his wife, Mabel, Theodate Pope, Professor Edwin Friend, Charles Lauriat, Goldiana Morell (the oldest passenger on the Lusitania), Fred Gauntlett, Albert Lloyd Hopkins, and Samuel Knox. Staff Captain Anderson made an appearance and was asked by Kessler why there was no lifeboat drills. That evening, Charles Plamondon and his wife celebrated their 36th Wedding anniversary. Also that evening, the Lusitania received messages, about the sinkings of the Centurion and Candidate, as well as u-boat activity. That night,  a Seamen’s Charities fund concert took place in the Saloon (First Class) lounge and Captain Turner was obliged to attend. He told the ship’s passengers about the Lusitania was entering the war zone, and that passengers should not smoke on deck, lest their burning cigars be visible to any lurking submarines. He also said that the Lusitania would get to Liverpool by high tide. Also, that same night, Marion Holbourn, the wife of Professor Ian Holbourn, had had a premonition in what she called a “waking vision” of the Lusitania being torpedoed before she went to bed. On the morning of May 7, the Lusitania was off the Irish coast and travelling since May 1 at 21 knots. Because of thick fog, the captain had extra lookouts posted and the speed was first dropped to 18 knots and later 15 knots with the foghorn blaring. By 10 am, the fog lifted and the Lusitania’s speed was increased to only 18 knots instead of 21 knots for reasons unknown. The day was calm and clear with a bright, sunny sky. At 11:25 am, Captain Turner received a message from the Admiralty that U-boats were active 20 miles south of Coningbeg Light Vessel. Captain Turner believed that this message meant that submarines were active farther from the coast, guided Lusitania closer to Ireland. Also Captain Turner had guidelines from the Admiralty when in the war zone:

  • To avoid headlands.
  • To steer a mid-channel course.
  • To maintain top speed
  • Zigzag

Despite instructions from the Admiralty, Captain failed to do any of them. Captain Turner received one last message at 1 pm, which erroneous in content, gave the impression that the Lusitania was had safely passed a submarine when passing Cape Clear. At 1:20 pm, which was 2:20 pm in German time, the U-20 spotted the Lusitania and Schwieger ordered the u-boat to submerge five minutes later to a depth of 11 meters. At 1:40 pm, the Lusitania was off the Old Head of Kinsale. Schwieger looked through his periscope and at first did not think that the u-boat and the Lusitania would be in a suitable line for attack. At 1:45 pm, Captain Turner turned the liner to a course of 87 degrees east. By doing this it was basically present for Schwieger. At around 2:10 pm, Schwieger gave the order to fire a torpedo at the Lusitania. It was probably decision he would later regret and cause friction between the U.S. and Imperial Germany. As the torpedo was racing toward the liner, a lookout, 18 year old Leslie Morton saw the stream of bubbles and shouted through a megaphone, “Torpedoes coming on the starboard side!”. At the time, Morton believed it was two torpedoes when in fact it was one. The torpedo struck the Lusitania beneath the bridge. The torpedo struck Lusitania under the bridge, sending a plume of debris, steel plating and water upward and knocking lifeboat number five off its davits. “It sounded like a million-ton hammer hitting a steam boiler a hundred feet high,” one passenger said. A second, more powerful explosion followed, sending a geyser of water, coal, dust and debris high above the deck. After the second explosion, the Lusitania lurched violently and began to list to starboard. Immediately there was panic aboard her. At 2:12 pm, Captain Turner told his quartermaster Hugh Johnston stationed at the ship’s wheel to steer ‘hard-a-starboard’ towards the Irish coast, which Johnston confirmed, but the ship could not be steadied on the course and rapidly ceased to respond to the wheel. Turner signalled for the engines to be reversed to halt the ship, but although the signal was received in the engine room, nothing could be done. Steam pressure had collapsed from 195 psi before the explosion, to 50 psi and falling afterwards. Lusitania’s wireless operator, Robert Leith sent out an immediate SOS, which was acknowledged by a coastal wireless station. In the SOS, Leith told that the ship’s position was 10 miles south of the Old Head of Kinsale. At 2:14 pm, 4 minutes after the torpedo struck, the ship’s electricity failed. It trapped many people below decks in darkness. It was believed that people were trapped in between floors in the liner’s 1st class lifts, it was later proven to be untrue since both lift attendants survived. At 2:15 pm, five minutes after the torpedo struck and 1 minute after the power went out, Captain Turner gave the order to abandon ship. The upperdecks of the Lusitania were scenes of terror as men, women, and children scurried to the boat deck to what they feel that the lifeboats would be their salvation. Due to the list of the ship, the lifeboats on the starboard side swung out too far that people had to jump the gap to get in. On the port side, the lifeboats swung in too inward. The Lusitania had 48 lifeboats enough to save everyone. When the crew attempted to lower the lifeboats on the port side, many lifeboats came crashing on deck injuring people and when they were lowered they scraped alongside the ship which caused many of the lifeboats to either tip over or break. One lifeboat from the port side no. 14 was lowered safely, however, because the plug was not in it later submerged. On the starboard side it was more better that the port but there were many problems. Many of the lifeboats tipped over spilling the people in the water, some came crashing on top of others, and some could not be launched. In toll, only 6 lifeboats, all from the starboard side, were lowered safely. The order was that only “women and children” were to board. However, unlike the Titanic sinking in 1912, many wives would not leave their husbands and preferred to die with them than living without them. Because of this, the order was changed to “married men, women, and children.” During the sinking there were many heroes, millionaire Alfred Vanderbilt with the help of his valet helped give lifebelts to many women and children. Vanderbilt was unable to swim and stayed aboard the liner which would later make him a hero. Father Maturin, performed his priestly duties, he helped calm many of the passengers, gave absolution to many, and also the Last Rites. He gave a baby to the last lifeboat and said, “Find its mother.” He refused to board a lifeboat and continued to comfort many passengers to the very end. When it became apparent that many of the remaining lifeboats could not be launched, many people began jumping of the liner’s decks into the water. Mothers held onto the children when they made the jump. Also, a 6 year old Irish child George Henderson saw the ship sinking while he was standing on land in Ireland. At 2:28 pm, the Lusitania slid beneath the waves after 18 minutes of terror. The survivors were later taken to nearby lodging in Queenstown, Ireland (now Cobh). Of the nearly 2,000 people aboard, about 1,201 people drowned. Among those who drowned were 128 U.S. citizens, 3 German spies, and 94 of 129 children aboard. Among the 39 infants aboard, only 4 survived. In Germany, the sinking was celebrated as a victory for the Fatherland. However, it was different elsewhere. There was anger in the American press over the deaths of 128 American citizens. The court of public opinion blamed Germany for the deaths of 1,201 people. They also blamed the u-boat captain, Walther Schwieger. He would later be called “The Baby Killer” and was later put on a list for future war criminals. It seemed to many that Germany committed an unforgivable sin. Also, Pope Benedict XV condemned the sinking as well. As the dead were being laid to rest, in Great Britain, Canada, South Africa, and Australia, many people took revenge by attacking German owned shops. Windows were smashed, furniture destroyed, and property stolen. Many Germans who lived in Great Britain, Canada, South Africa, and Australia, were upright and good citizens who were being attacked for a crime they did not commit. To the mob, there crime was of being of German descent. What the mob seemed to forget that there were many passengers on the Lusitania, who were of German descent were killed in the sinking. The police in Great Britain in most cases refused to intervene. It got so bad in Victoria, British Columbia, angry mob marched and caused damaged to the Kaiserhof Hotel after rumors were swirling that Germans were celebrating the sinking of the Lusitania. Also damaged were many German owned businesses and the German consulate. The riots got so bad that the Mayor of Victoria, Alexander Stewart ordered the Riot Act and ordered the police and soldiers to crush the riots. The wife of the Lieutenant General of British Columbia was even under protection because of her German background. Many newspapers in neutral countries were also angered by the sinking. The Kaiser was very upset of the news of how he was being portrayed. Schwieger was reported to go to Berlin and was “treated ungraciously” according to admiral Alfred von Tirpitz. Germany began to realize that the sinking of the Lusitania did harm than good. However, all the blame must not go to Germany, there were other actors there were to be blamed as well. The British government in 1915, was to blame also due to the fact that they cut off Germany’s shipping in 1914 by blockading German ports, which caused many of Germany’s citizens who were starving. Because of this, Germany declared the waters around Britain and Ireland, a war zone. Also, Because English merchant ships were breaking the rules of war by attacking German u-boats, it caused u-boat captains to fire first and ask questions later. Also, the British were very sneaky when managed to sneak munitions on passenger steamers and tried to use innocent passengers as shields. Also, President Wilson should have warned Americans not to travel in a known war zone. Also, Schwieger knew that by firing a torpedo that he would have the blood of innocent people on his hands. The final blow came when the British revealed in February 1917 to U.S. Ambassador Walter Hines Page, the infamous Zimmerman Telegram in which Germany promised to give Mexico the states of Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico if they kept America out of the European conflict. When this was shown to President Wilson, he now could go to war against Germany after he had won his re-election bid in 1916. On April 2,1917, he went before the U.S. Congress to ask for a declaration of war against Imperial Germany. On Good Friday, April 6,1917, the United States declared war on Imperial Germany. Also, in a way the 1,201 victims exacted justice against Walther Schwieger from the grave. On September 5,1917, while he was commanding his u-boat, U-88. It struck a British mine and he and his entire crew were killed. It look like in the end justice was served. The last survivor of this terrible tragedy, Audrey Lawson-Johnston (formerly Pearl) passed away on January 11,2011, at age 95.


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