Lusitania: A voyage of the damned

One hundred years ago, the RMS Lusitania sank in less than 18 minutes off the coast of Cork. Richard Fitzpatrick delves into two new books which examine the actions that led to the unnecessary death of 1,198 men, women and children.

1. Lusitania

“Lucy”, as she was known, was making her 202nd crossing of the Atlantic when she departed from New York, May 1, 1915. She was owned by the Cunard Line, which had an impeccable safety record, insofar as not a single passenger death could be blamed upon the company.

This was not to say, however, that the Lusitania’s passengers didn’t complain. Some were irritated because typewriters were too loud; another passenger felt the ship’s decks “should not be made a marketplace for the sale of Irish shawls, etc.”

The ship was fitted with extraordinary splendour. “They used King Louis XIV’s palace, in Versailles, for their blueprint for the grand saloon and various public rooms, which were a vision in white and gold, lots of gilding, mirrors and rich carpets,” says Patrick O’Sullivan, author of The Sinking of the Lusitania.

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“It easily captured the speed record in 1907, and it took Germany 21 years to outpace the performance of the Lusitania. It was the first liner to have telephones and air-conditioning. It had running hot and cold water. It had two regal suites for royalty and the fare was the equivalent of 19 years’ wages for a captain.”

Find more content related to the sinking of RMS Lusitania in our special report

2. Submarine U-20

Lusitania: A voyage of the damned

What was surprising about Germany’s notorious U-boats was that there were so few of them. At any one time, there were only seven at sea, little drops in the ocean. “The crews on U-boats were regarded as a lower form of life,” says O’Sullivan.

“They were the bacteria of the German navy. It took months of the war for Germany to find out how effective they were, because, once they were beneath the waves, they were totally concealed — this was prior to the days of echo sounding.”

Life was abhorrent for crew on U-boats. Space was so scarce food had to be stored in every location, including the latrine. No-one bathed. If a sailor wanted to shave, he used the remains of the morning tea. The captain of Unterseeboot-20 — who had the authority to decide when, and whether, to attack — was a 32-year-old called Walther Schwieger.

“If anybody is at fault in the saga, it’s the German submarine commander,” says Erik Larson, author of Dead Wake. “There is no question. He sank the ship. There was no justification for it, whether the ship was carrying munitions or not, you just don’t sink a passenger liner and kill that many civilians. Going into the book, I was hoping for a guy with a scar and a monocle, but that wasn’t the case. It turned out that Captain Schwieger was a young guy, good-looking, well-liked by his crew. He kept dogs aboard the submarine. One of the guys in the service said, ‘He couldn’t hurt a fly’.”

RELATED: Torpedo attack rocked Ireland and the world

3. Sinking

Lusitania: A voyage of the damned

Schwieger’s U-boat launched a torpedo at the Lusitania early Friday afternoon, May 7, 1915. A telegram was dispatched: “S.O.S. FROM ‘LUSITANIA.’ WE THINK WE ARE OFF KINSALE. LATE POSITION 10 MILES OFF KINSALE COME AT ONCE BIG LIST LATER PLEASE COME WITH ALL HASTE.”

A second explosion ensured the ship went down in 17 minutes. It took the Titanic over two hours to sink. The rescue effort was hampered by a lack of wind, as most of the trawlers were sailing ships without engines. It took many of the rescue boats five hours — the men rowing frantically with oars — to reach the site of the Lusitania.

“If you look at that lovely monument in Casement Square, in Cobh,” says O’Sullivan, “at the base of the monument it depicts two exhausted fishermen, and that was to symbolise all the fishermen that sacrificed sleep and work to go out and help with the rescue, despite the fact that they had no way of knowing that they might be heading into submarine-infested waters and be blown sky-high.

Prior to the sinking of the Lusitania, the war was far away. It was Belgium, Flanders and France, but, all of a sudden, it was landed at our front door step. You had bodies being washed up along the coast, as far north as Co Mayo. Lots of people died of hypothermia.

Some were still living, but very badly wounded, crushed in lifeboats and with broken bones. Some scalded by steam from bursting pipes. Some who made it ashore died within a few hours from their injuries.”

RELATED: Photo Archive: Iconic images and reports from Cobh

4. Scapegoat

Lusitania: A voyage of the damned

Of the 1,960 aboard, only 767 survived. The survivors included the Lusitania’s captain, William Thomas Turner. He was made a scapegoat for the disaster by British high command, and accused of disobeying orders he never got.

“The publicity value to Britain of laying the disaster on the German commander was really great,” says Larson.

“It was completely illogical, at least on the superficial level, that the Admiralty would try to lay blame on Captain Turner. It made no sense. Luckily, Lord Mersey, in the inquiry, didn’t go for it, but the reason was quite simple — the British wanted to maintain secrets, particularly the secret of Room 40. There is no other explanation for why Turner was hung out to dry.”

RELATED: Turner seals verdict of wilful murder

5. Room 40

Lusitania: A voyage of the damned

The Admiralty, following a brainwave by its chief, Winston Churchill, established a code-breaking division in a group of offices centred on Room 40, which was known as ‘the Holy of Holies’. Every day, its watchkeepers received hundreds of messages intercepted by wireless stations on Britain’s coasts.

Using codebooks, the messages were translated into King’s English, so Churchill could, in his phrase, “penetrate the German mind”.

“The code-breakers were able to say that Schwieger was in such-and-such a position,” says O’Sullivan. “If that information had been passed onto Captain Turner, he would have known in advance that he was sailing into a trap. He could have changed course.

“Unfortunately, that valuable information was watered down by one single man — Admiral Oliver; he withheld information and diluted it down to a point that was meaningless and late, 20 hours late, in arriving to Captain Turner.”

RELATED: US holds fire as the war twists and turns

Patrick O’Sullivan’s The Sinking of the Lusitania: Unravelling the Mysteries is published by The Collins Press, €12.99. Erik Larson’s Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania is published by Doubleday, €15.99.

The background to the sinking of the Lusitania

September 7, 1907: Lusitania sets sail, as the world’s largest ocean liner, on maiden voyage from Liverpool.

November 3, 1914: Great Britain begins laying mines in the North Sea as part of a blockade of Germany.

Feb 4, 1915: Germany proclaims a “war zone” around the British Isles, advising merchant ships it must expect attacks without warning

April 22, 1915: Imperial Germany embassy places a warning advertisement in 50 American newspapers about the perils of a transatlantic crossing: “NOTICE! 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 … travellers sailing in the war zone on the ships of Great Britain or her allies do so at their own risk.”

May 1, 1915: Lusitania departs New York, bound for Liverpool.

May 7, 1915: Lusitania is torpedoed by German submarine U-20 and sinks with the loss of 1,198 lives.

February 4, 1916: Germany agrees to make reparations for sinking Lusitania but refrains from apologising or acknowledging illegality.

April 6, 1917: US Congress officially declares war on Germany and enters First World War.

Find more content related to the sinking of RMS Lusitania in our special report

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