Professor Frank Dutton
20 July 2001
The Sinking of the RMS Lusitania
It is the spring of 1915, the first world war is taking place in Europe. To you it is nothing more than several European countries in just another war. You hear that American ships traveling to Europe might be attacked regardless of diplomatic relationships. One of your close relatives is going on the Lusitania in May. Your relative mentioned that there was a notice about this. He did not take the note seriously.
On May 7th 1915, the Lusitania was sunk by a German U-boat in the Irish Channel (RMS Lusitania). The sinking of the Lusitania is considered the main reason for the United States joining the war. In this paper you will read about why the Lusitania was built, the Lusitania itself, the fateful sinking of the Lusitania, why Germans targeted ships like the Lusitania, and why it caused the United States to enter the war.
By the end of the nineteenth century, Germany had replaced France as Britain's main economic rival. This rivalry resulted in a competition where each country tried to keep itself superior to the other by building better and faster means of transporting goods and services, so other countries would choose their country's services over the other's. This was especially evident in the manufacturing of warships and weapons for use against possible future enemies, during this time England and Germany developed faster ships and better weapons (RMS Lusitania).
In the 19th century, an award called the "Blue Riband," was created and awarded to the ship that could cross the Atlantic ocean in the least amount of time. Britain's largest shipping line, Cunard Line, repeatedly got this award. In 1897, Britain's supremacy was challenged by a German liner, the Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse. The Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse captured the Blue Riband from Britain, crossing the ocean at an average speed of 21.39 knots (39.57 kilometers per hour). The threat worsened when another German ship, the Kaiser Wilhelm II captured the Blue Riband with an average speed of 22.6 knots (RMS Lusitania).
Britain planned to use the Cunard Line to build a faster ship and recapture the Blue Riband. The Cunard Line was Britain’s largest shipping company. At this time John Pierpont Morgan, an American millionaire, was forming an international trust of shipping companies and bought up many shipping companies. Great Britain had to act before Cunard Line would be bought up and with it Britain’s hope of building the fastest ship became extinguished. For these two main reasons the construction of the RMS Lusitania and the RMS Mauretania was carried out (RMS Lusitania).
The Lusitania was a passenger liner but was built for war. Great Britain requested the liners, the Lusitania and the Mauretania, to be able to resist enemy gunfire and have special places on deck where guns could easily be mounted if Great Britain needed the ships for war purposes. They designed the Lusitania so that it could easily travel 25 knots (RMS Lusitania). This was so it could win back the Blue Riband and regain foreign trade lost to Germany.
On September 7th, 1907, the RMS Lusitania sailed on its maiden voyage to New York. Although the Lusitania did not set any records the first voyage, she captured the Blue Riband on the very next trip. The Lusitania crossed the Atlantic ocean at 23.1 knots. That same year, the Mauretania broke the record with an average speed of 23.69 knots. In 1908, the Lusitania won the Blue Ribband again at 25.01 knots. No ship other than the Lusitania and the Mauretania would capture the Blue Riband until 1929. For this reason, the Cunard project was a success. In 1909 the Lusitania's three-blade propellers were replaced with four-blade propellers to enhance performance and speed further (RMS Lusitania).
Ironically, the U-boat was originally intended for defensive purposes to protect munitions routes. It was only mobilized offensively to counter the British blockade of German ships. The Germans most effective weapon was the submarine, which although still primitive, took the British by surprise. The Germans started on British ship bringing in munitions first, just blocking British and her allies’ ships, not attacking neutral or passenger ships. The Germans had a few problems early on with the U-boats, but once the problems were solved, the U-boats were very effective (Compton-Hall 27).
But why did the Germans attack passenger liners? In 1909, an international law was agreed upon to determine what the difference between "contraband" and "non-contraband" goods were. Contraband goods included all weapons and other materials used in military manufacturing, all of these contraband materials could be controlled and blockaded during a war. Non-contraband shipments such as food, cloth, and other raw goods, all of these could not be regulated through a blockade. Countries could still import and trade these items during war without the threat of being sunk (Compton-Hall 28).
This regulation was a response by Europe mainly against England. At the time England had the most powerful navy and could strangle the economy of any country in Europe with a naval blockade of all goods. By 1915, England blockaded Germany with the support of France. Like many international laws, the law banning the blockade of non-contraband goods was useless to stop Great Britain, so Great Britain disregarded the regulation as it felt fit (Compton-Hall 55).
Since the British were not playing fair anymore, the Germans ignored the regulation as well. The British were loosing to much to the German U-boats, they needed a plan fast. So the British started using other tactics to smuggle munitions into the country. The British loaded neutral ships and passenger liners with munitions. One of these ships was the Lusitania. Great Britain never told passengers that they were on board a ship transporting munitions (Compton-Hall 58).
Needless to say, the German intelligence was wise to this plan soon after it was begun. In 1915 the Germans declared British waters a war zone. This meant that all allied ships in those waters would be torpedoed by German subs. The Germans had placed numerous newspaper ads warning Americans not to travel aboard the Lusitania, which was carrying munitions but masquerading as an ocean liner. Americans believed that as citizens of a neutral country they would not be targeted by the German subs (Compton-Hall 60).
On April 30th 1915, the Lusitania was at New York, being loaded with meat, medical supplies, copper, cheese, oil and machinery. The Lusitania was also secretly being loaded with munitions for Britain for the war. Next to ads in papers for the Lusitania was a notice from the German embassy. It Read:
“NOTICE! Travelers 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 travelers sailing in the war zone on ships of Great Britain or her allies do so at their own risk. IMPERIAL GERMAN EMBASSY WASHINGTON, D.C., APRIL 22, 1915.“ (RMS Lusitania).
And the Lusitania was destroyed. The news of the disaster was sent wireless across the Atlantic Ocean to New York. There were riots in many countries over the incident. On May 13, 1915 the President of the United States sent a note to Germany about the sinking of the Lusitania. This note was due mainly to public outcry over the whole situation (RMS Lusitania).
The note informed the German government that these actions were intolerable. ”The Government of the United States, therefore, desires to call the attention of the Imperial German Government with the utmost earnestness to the fact that the objection to their present method of attack against the trade of their enemies lies in the practical impossibility of employing submarines in the destruction of commerce without disregarding those rules of fairness, reason, justice, and humanity, which all modern opinion regards as imperative.... " (Bryan).
In this note, the President lists a number of such attacks. The letter mentions an attack on the British passenger steamer Falaba on March 28. On the Falaba one American was killed, Leon C. Thrasher. Another such attack on April 28, was aimed on the American vessel Cushing by a German airplane. Two or more Americans were killed in the torpedoing of the American vessel Gulflight on May 1 (Bryan).
Finally, the torpedoing and sinking of the steamship Lusitania was listed. The president stated that all of these attacks constitute the protest of Germany by the United States. The sinking of the Lusitania caused the greatest distress because of the magnitude of the incident. Over one thousand people were killed, one hundred twenty-eight were Americans (Bryan).
At the end of the document, the president states that ships sunk by mistake are still not an excuse for what the Germans were doing. “Expressions of regret and offers of reparation in case of the destruction of neutral ships sunk by mistake, while they may satisfy international obligations, if no loss of life results, cannot justify or excuse a practice, the natural and necessary effect of which is to subject neutral nations and neutral persons to new and immeasurable risks.” (Bryan).
Germany tried to find ways to defend itself against these attacks and protests. Germany claimed that the Lusitania was armed and that it was carrying munitions for the war against Germany. The British denied the claims. Although, the Lusitania was not armed, it was carrying munitions for the destruction of German soldiers. It was not until many years later that it was discovered in secret British documents that the Lusitania was carrying munitions (RMS Lusitania).
In my personal opinion, Britain was jealous of the U-boat. They were using Americans as human shields for their munitions. If the whole truth had come out about munitions being on board, the Untied States may have sided with the Germans. Also, if the British had developed a submarine, they might have been more inclined to allow the unrestricted submarine warfare to continue without hiding munitions on passenger liners. It is unclear to me if what the Germans were doing was a wise move in war, if the munitions were allowed through the British would have the advantage. But targeting passenger liners is unethical and what is more important to the Germans, very unpopular especially with neutral countries such as the United States thus causing the United States to enter the war.
In Conclusion, the Lusitania incident was not an isolated incident, but was the final blow that made the United States snap. The British may have helped public opinion in the States to make the Germans seem more treacherous that they truly were. If not the Lusitania, there would have been some other occurrence that would cause the United States to enter the war. But since history cannot be changed the fact remains that the sinking of the RMS Lusitania was the reason the United States entered the war on the Allies side.
Bryan, William Jennings. "American Protest Over the Sinking of the Lusitania"
<http://www.mtholyoke.edu/acad/intrel/bryan2.htm> downloaded 15 July 2001.
Compton-Hall, Richard. “Submarines and the War at Sea” London: Macmillan, 1991.
”RMS Lusitania” <http://members.home.net/vincebjs/Lusitania/lusi.html> downloaded
15 July 2001.