Torpedo attack rocked Ireland and the world

The RMS Lusitania on one of its earlier visits to Cork Harbour, taken from the Irish Examiner's photo archive. Ref. 44

When the Lusitania first went into service in September 1907 it was the biggest ocean liner ever built. It sailed from Liverpool to New York and back with a stop at Queenstown (now Cobh) on each voyage.

On its maiden voyage, it carried 2,300 passengers and made the initial journey from Queenstown to New York in five days and 54 minutes, just 30 minutes outside the record time, despite being twice delayed by fog. Within a year it had won the Blue Riband for the fastest transatlantic crossing. During her eight years in service she crossed the Atlantic between New York and Liverpool over 200 times. Dubbed “Greyhound of the Seas,” the Lusitania traded the record for the fastest crossing between Queenstown and New York with the Mauritania on a number of occasions. Thus it remained not only one of the biggest, but also one of the fastest ocean liners in service.

Although most passengers may not have known, the Germans were aware that the British Admiralty had subsidised construction of the Lusitania, which was built to Admiralty specifications on the understanding that she could be consigned to government service in wartime. Gun mounts and ammunition magazines were concealed on her decks and were ready for the addition of the guns when needed.

The ship had not added those guns, but it was carrying contraband, including small arms, over four million cartridges, and 50 tons of artillery shells. The cargo manifest included 90 tons of lard, butter and cheese for delivery to the Royal Navy’s Weapons Testing Establishment. The “creativity” of this listing was betrayed by the fact that none of this material was stored in refrigeration.

For days before the Lusitania left on its final voyage from New York, the German embassy in the United States inserted advertisments in prominent New York newspapers warning “that travelers sailing in the war zone on ships of Great Britain and her allies do so at their own risk.” The warnings were often placed beside advertisements for the Lusitania sailing.

Passengers who might otherwise have been uneasy about the u-boat danger would have been reassured by the presence of such famous rich people as the multi-millionaire Alfred Vanderbilt, along with the famous wine merchant George “Champagne King” Kessler. With their wealth and contacts they presumably had access to well-placed sources that would have warned them of any real dangers.

Maybe those who sailed on the ship believed the propaganda that the liner could outrun any submarine, but the liner’s total of 1,255 passengers on the fatal voyage was well down on the 2,300 who had sailed on her maiden voyage.

The published warnings had apparently made little impression on those who actually traveled on the ship.

The U-20 had not planned in advance to sink the Lusitania; it seems it just seized the opportunity.

But the published warnings in the United States lent credence to subsequent suspicions that the Germans had deliberately set out to sink the liner. This was to have a profound international impact.

Prior to May 1915, “the Great War” had been very remote from Ireland, but all this was shattered on the afternoon of May 7.

The deaths of 1,198 non-combatants — men, women and children — generated a degree of consternation on the southern coast.

Torpedo attack rocked Ireland and the world

German Embassy advises passengers

not to enter war zones.

For days afterwards bodies were being washed ashore around the Cork and Kerry coasts. The Germans were roundly condemned for their part in the disaster.

The fact that the German Embassy at Washington had warned of the danger of traveling on the Lusitania, aroused “the most intense feeling of anger in the United States as well as amongst all civilized people,” the Cork Examiner stated in its editorial the next day. “American citizens, if they cross the Atlantic in a vessel flying the flag of Great Britain, or that of any of her Allies, run the risk of being murdered in cold blood by Germany, though the US has observed a strict neutrality since the commencement of the war. International law and the customs of civilised warfare are discarded with an airy jauntiness by Germany”.

The sinking of the Lusitainia had a great impact on public opinion, especially against Germany. There were anti-German riots on Merseyside, especially in Liverpool, where many of crew had been recruited, but there were also intense feelings in Scotland, where the ship was built.

“RIOTS ALL OVER ENGLAND,” a New York Times front-page headline proclaimed on May 13, six days after the sinking. Extensive damage was done to businesses owned by people of German extraction, or those with German sounding names, especially around London, where an estimated 20,000 people of German extraction lived. (King George V actually changed his family name from Saxe-Coburg and Gotha to Windsor in July 1917).

There were similar riots in South Africa and across Canada —in Montreal, Winnipeg, and Victoria. While there were few German businesses in Ireland, a backlash directed against Sinn Feiners for their associations with the Germans.

There was a brief increase in recruitment for the British armed services around Ireland. Agnes Newman, Roger Casement’s sister complained that a soldier in uniform had insulted her on a railway platform in Newry. The soldier admitted to making some choice remarks about her appearance and the sinking of the Lusitania, but he said he was responding to her sneering at his British Army uniform.

Although a northern protestant, she was an outspoken Irish Nationalist. Her brother was in Germany trying to enlist German help for Irish nationalism, but she was making no apologies. “Sir Edward Carson himself took a trip to Berlin to interview the Kaiser,” Mrs Newman wrote to the Cork Examiner on January 11, 1915. “Both he and his disloyalists threatened civil war against their own countrymen, and the utmost brutality was shown to unfortunate Catholic Nationalists.”

Ironically when Roger Casement tried to return to Ireland in April 1916, he left Wilhlemshaven on the U-20, the submarine that sank the Lusitania. It was still under the command of Walther Schwieger, but it developed rudder trouble and had to return to base three days later. Casement and his two colleagues transferred to the U-19, which was under the command of Raimund Weisbach, who had been the torpedo officer on the U-20 back on that fateful day in May 1915.

Ultimately the most significant anti-German backlash over the sinking of the Lusitania was in the United States. It is frequently suggested that the sinking, with the loss of at least 128 American lives — led to United States involvement in the First World War.

The United States did not enter the war until almost two years later, but there was a degree of veracity to the argument. To placate President Woodrow Wilson in the wake of the Lusitania disaster, the Germans gave an assurance in September 1915 that there would be no repeat of the “sink on sight” policy adopted in sinking the ocean liner.

Henceforth submarines were supposed to give warnings before sinking ships. Of course, surprise was a U-boat’s great advantage, and the Germans were surrendering that advantage.

On February 1, 1917 Germany reintroduced the “sink on sight” policy, and this prompted President Wilson to ask the United States Congress to declare war on Germany. Other factors such as the infamous Zimmermann telegram played a part, but the sinking of the Lusitania was ultimately the most important reason.

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

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