Historian Gabriel Doherty outlines impacts of the Lusitania sinking, due to be analysed at a seminar in UCC; the following pages feature articles by other conference speakers
Following (but perhaps not solely as a result of) a successful torpedo strike by the u-boat U20, the RMS Lusitania sank off the Old Head of Kinsale on May 7, 1915, with the loss of 1,198 passengers and crew — the precise figure is sometimes disputed, but this number represents a broad consensus.
It was not the first passenger ship to be lost at sea, for memories of the sinking of the Titanic, a smidgen over three years before, were surely still fresh in the minds of many of those who were part of, saw, or later heard of, the catastrophe that played itself out a few miles off the coast of Cork that spring morning.
It was, sadly, not the last such loss — only three more months were to pass before the sinking by another u-boat of passenger steamer Arabic, only 48km from the site of the loss of the Lusitania (albeit this occasioned the loss of only 40 lives).
Taking this issue of casualties a little further, though, the loss of life on board the Lusitania was, of course, very high, this figure was in turn dwarfed by losses aboard several ships during the Second World War, most notably the c. 9,500 deaths resulting from the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff in the Baltic in January 1945.
Finally the ratio of deaths to total ship’s complement, though high at 63%, was by no means the highest on record — at the Battle of Jutland in May 1916, for example, 99.8% of the crew (1,026 men) were lost on board HMS Indefatigable when it exploded following numerous direct hits from a German battlecruiser. Two survived.
And yet, and yet, and yet — the name Lusitania continues to resonate to this day, as much for the meaning of its loss as for its details. The 18 minutes that passed between the torpedo strike and the disappearance of the ship under the waves seemed (at least to the US and to the Allies) to usher in a new age of barbarism, an unprecedented low in human behaviour following the ‘long march’ of scientific and economic progress in the 19th century.
Mankind seemed to have entered a nightmare realm, where civilians were deemed fair game by belligerents, and in the process the concept of warfare, and more importantly humanity itself, was changed, and debased. However, propaganda had its part to play in propagating such an interpretation; like all good propaganda it was grounded in some recognisable truth.
There was also some discernible truth in the German assessment, even if, like the Allied viewpoint, this was rendered subservient to the overriding demands of the war. From this perspective the ship had been deliberately put in harm’s way by desperate Allied governments (notably the British), who were quite prepared to countenance, connive at, even engineer, large scale civilian losses in order to further their war aims (in the case of Britain, to oil the slipway of the US entry into the war).
In the eyes (literally speaking) of this author, probably the most shocking aspect of the aftermath of the sinking was the widespread exploitation of photographs of the dead babies and children whose bodies were subsequently rescued from the sea — photographs that, a century later, still have the capacity to induce a nauseous reaction.
For those, like myself, who have been reared on the notion that children, and childhood, deserves protection from the evil that men do, the disturbing thought occurs that the deaths of such children were, for both sides, positively to be welcomed, for the strong ‘message’ that they conveyed to the other. Such is the pity of war.
Of course, the meanings and controversies embedded in the loss of the ship went wider than its propaganda value or diplomatic significance. There were many of these, but we shall take just two, both of which have a ‘Cork dimension’. The first concerns the death on board of the art collector, and arts benefactor, Hugh Lane.
The Cork-born Sir Hugh had, during his short life of less than 40. years, both championed the cause of Irish artists and sought to inspire such artists, and raise the level of public sensibilities in Ireland by acquiring and displaying a magnificent collection of works by the best continental painters, including Manet, Degas, and Renoir.
After his death a legal dispute emerged as to where this collection (some of which it is rumoured was lost along with its owner when the Lusitania sank) should be housed, with Dublin and London vying for the honour — a disagreement that has, even to this day, not been entirely resolved to everybody’s satisfaction.
Secondly, we have the on-going dispute regarding access to the wreck of the ship, where the contending, and legitimate, claims of both its legal owner, Greg Bemis, and the relevant regulatory body, the Department of Arts, Heritage, and the Gaeltacht, have shown little signs of being harmonised. Whether the limitations placed on public access to the site are a good or a bad thing — and there are sound arguments for both positions — the mere fact such arguments are ongoing is just one more sign that (to paraphrase William Faulkner), as far as the Lusitania is concerned, the past is not history, it’s not even the past.
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