Trivia 019: The Grave of the Lusitania

This week’s trivia is something that I have been waiting on ever since I started this newsletter. It’s one of my favorite pieces of trivia, but I had to save it for 19 whole posts.

This past week marked the 107th anniversary of the sinking of the RMS Lusitania. The Lusitania was a British cruiser which plied the transatlantic routes in the early 1900’s. When she was built, she was the world’s largest passenger ship, though she only held that title until the completion of her sister ship, the Mauretania. However, she went to her watery grave on May 7th, 1915.

With the outbreak of World War 1 in 1914, the contest for control of the seas began between Britain and Germany. Britain very quickly instituted a blockade of German ports, hoping to starve Germany of the vital supplies it needed. In response, German U-boats began sinking British military ships across the Atlantic Ocean. At the time, international naval laws dictated that a submarine had to surface and issue a warning to civilian ships before attacking them. However, in 1915, Britain began arming civilian ships with hidden guns, and using both passenger and merchant ships to transport weaponry from the United States to Europe. This posed a huge threat to German U-boats, as if they surfaced to issue a warning they might end up being the ones sunk. As a result, Germany declared that they would stop following these laws, and began a campaign of unrestricted submarine warfare.

On May 1, 1915, the Lusitania left port in New York for Liverpool. Despite German warnings that they might fire upon any “vessels flying the flag of Great Britain”, over 100 Americans ignored the warning and boarded the ship. They assumed that German submarines would still surface and allow passengers to get into lifeboats. However, just six days after they left port, a German U-boat attacked the Lusitania without issuing a warning, and the ship sank within 20 minutes. 1,198 passengers and crew lost their lives, including 128 American citizens.

The sinking came as a shock to many, and caused huge outrage. Germany stated that the attack was justified, as the Lusitania had been transported weaponry to Britain. The British government, however, stated that the Lusitania had only been a civilian passenger ship, and that no military supplies were on board.

This sinking greatly shifted public opinion in the United States against Germany. While this alone was not seen as justification for the US to enter the war, it did cause the US to pressure Germany into stopping their unrestricted submarine warfare campaign. However, when the Zimmerman Telegram became public knowledge two years later, the scales were tipped enough to bring the US into the war.

In the years following World War 1, several efforts to salvage the ship have been attempted. The wreck was located in 1935, and a few expeditions were mounted, without much success. These efforts were put to a halt with the beginning of World War 2. During the war, the Royal Navy fired depth charges at the wreck, perhaps because it appeared to be a U-boat near the sea floor. After the war, serious salvage efforts begain in 1982. However, the British Foreign Office stated that “Successive British governments have always maintained that there was no munitions on board the Lusitania (and that the Germans were therefore wrong to claim to the contrary as an excuse for sinking the ship). The facts are that there is a large amount of ammunition in the wreck, some of which is highly dangerous.” Divers in 2008 confirmed the presence of huge amounts of munitions “in unrefrigerated cargo holds that were dubiously marked cheese, butter and oysters”. Some have speculated that the British bombing of the wreck could have been to prevent this from being found out.

Some historians have hypothesized that one of the reasons the Lusitania sunk so quickly is because the U-boat torpedo caused some of the onboard ammunition to explode, tearing a larger hole in the ship. This, combined with the captain’s decision not to head directly for Liverpool, but instead sneak around the Irish coast, could have been what really doomed the Lusitania.

In high school, many of us learned about the sinking of the unarmed, civilian Lusitania as being one of the triggers which brought the US into World War 1. This is something that seems so cut and dry in the textbooks. I think that it’s really fascinating to learn that the story is not quite as simple as that, and that even these centuries-old history stories might still have unexplored facets. Britain really was secretly attempting to carry weaponry in civilian ships. Even after the war, they did not want to reveal the truth. And they would have gotten away with it too, if not for those meddling divers.

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