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The Lusitania Sets Sail in Rough Seas

On a bright and sunny spring day, the RMS Lusitania set sail from New York, bound for Liverpool, England. While many of the passengers onboard the luxury cruise liner were looking forward to the voyage, many others felt a sense of foreboding, as Germany, which was at war with much of Europe, had just issued a warning to vessels traveling the Atlantic Ocean.

A memorial to those who perished in the sinking of the Lusitania. The memorial is located near Cork, Ireland.

The United States under President Woodrow Wilson had declared itself neutral in World War I. Many Americans at the time sided with the president, as they believed it was better for America to stay out of the war, and let the nations of Europe fight their own battle. However, in early May of 1915, several New York newspapers published a warning from the German Embassy in Washington DC. This warning stated that any Americans who were traveling on British or other Allied ships in the warzone would do so at their own risk, meaning that the German U-Boats would not hesitate to attack just because there might be Americans on board these ships. This announcement was placed on the same page as an announcement of the imminent sailing of the Lusitania.

Prior to the Lusitania setting sail from New York, there had been several other attacks against ships in the area of the Lusitania’s route. Several British merchant ships had been sunk off the coast of Ireland only recently, while several other U.S. merchant ships bound for England from the U.S. had either been sunk or damaged by German mines. The danger of this area prompted the British Admiralty to warn the captain of the Lusitania to avoid the area or to take evasive action, such as zig-zagging, in order to avoid being torpedoed by German U-Boats.

The Lusitania Goes Down

The Captain of the Lusitania decided to ignore the British Admiralty’s recommendation, deciding instead to stay the course. At 2:12 p.m. a torpedo burst into the starboard side of the 32,000 ton ship, tearing a hole in that side. Several minutes later, an even larger explosion was heard. This explosion was most likely one of the ship’s broilers. 20 minutes later, the Lusitania sank off the south coast of Ireland. Of the 1,900 people who were on board the ship, more than 1,100 of them perished. Of those who died, roughly 120 were Americans.

A WWI era German U-Boat, similar to the one that sunk the Lusitania.

Later, it was discovered that the Lusitania had been carrying more than 170 tons of war munitions for Britain. Germany used this fact to justify sinking the ship but the United States still protested the action. Germany eventually apologized and promised to end unrestricted warfare in the area. However, in November, just six months after sinking the Lusitania, a German U-Boat sunk an Italian cruise ship, killing more than 270 people, including 25 Americans. The American people, who had been staunchly in favor of neutrality, now began to favor war with Germany.

On April 4th, 2017, the United States Senate voted to declare war with Germany and the House of Representatives quickly endorsed this declaration. The United States soon found itself immersed in a war it had tried to avoid.

Lusitania Fun Facts

  • The Lusitania was built by John Brown & Company, the same firm that built the RMS Queen Mary and the Titanic.
  • The Lusitania had made her maiden voyage in 1907. When she was sunk in 1915, she was on her 101st voyage.
  • When it was built in 1906, the Lusitania was the world’s largest passenger ship.
  • When World War I broke out in 1914, the Lusitania was re-painted in a gray color to make it harder for German U-Boats to see.
  • After the Lusitania went down, local Irish fishermen set out to rescuer as many passengers as they could.