Sinking of the Lusitania 

by Nicholas McCormick

The new SHGAPE.org website provides an accessible venue for the circulation of more material than can feasibly fit into the pages of the printed Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era. This is the third of three essays marking the one-hundredth anniversary of the sinking of the Lusitania, commissioned and edited by the editors of the Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era and SHGAPE.org.


Lusitania departs New York City on final voyage in May 1915

Lusitania departs New York City on final voyage in May 1915

The Lusitania departed New York for the last time on May 1, 1915. This was her 202nd crossing since her maiden voyage in 1907. Foreboding was in the air. A few passengers had received anonymous telegrams warning them not to sail, and a notice warning passengers not to sail on British ships had been published next to the passenger line schedules in several New York newspapers, placed by German-American business men in the name of “The Imperial German Embassy.” Many readers thought it was aimed at Lusitania. Although some passengers were nervous, there were few last minute cancellations. Prompted by the German warning, a newsreel crew filmed the ship’s departure and street vendors hawked photo postcards marked “Lusitania’s last voyage.” (See below for newsreel footage of the Lusitania before the last voyage.)[1]

The Admiralty, Cunard officials, and Captain William Turner were confident as well, although they knew something passengers and press did not: that there was a cargo of munitions and other war supplies on board, including ammunition, fuses, and unloaded shrapnel shells.[2] And it was impractical to provide an escort: the only vessels available as escorts were old cruisers significantly slower than the Lusitania; waiting to rendezvous was itself dangerous; and sailing in a convoy with a warship would make the Lusitania legally part of a flotilla, and therefore a legitimate target. Even so, the Lusitania appeared secure from attack. Few believed the Germans would sink an apparently unarmed liner carrying civilians. In the unlikely event of an attack, Lusitania could outrun any U-Boat. No ship had been sunk going faster than 14 knots, and even with one boiler room shut down, she could obtain 21. With her advanced safety systems and watertight subdivision, she was considered unsinkable. Furthermore, Turner would follow Admiralty safety guidelines: the Lusitania would be blacked out a much as possible, maintain radio silence, post extra lookouts, and keep its ample lifeboats at the ready. All of this was in vain. At the time of U-20’s attack, Lusitania was travelling at 18 knots but passing directly in front of the invisible submarine.


Imperial German Embassy in Washington D.C. Issues Traveller Notice in April 1915

Imperial German Embassy in Washington D.C. Issues Traveller Notice in April 1915

The Admiralty’s key miscalculation was its assumption that a commander would not be willing to attack the ship. There is no evidence of a long-term plan to sink the ship: the U-20 encountered Lusitania off Old Head of Kinsale by chance. However, she was arguably a legal target: there is evidence to suggest that the German naval command suspected Lusitania was armed. She was a blockade-runner and listed in naval publications (such as Jane’s) as a Royal Navy auxiliary cruiser. And German commanders were likely aware that British captains were ordered to ram submarines if sighted. The thin hull of a U-Boat is no match for the bulk of a liner and such a maneuver would mean certain death for submariners.

Basic path of the Lusitania on final voyage

Basic path of the Lusitania on final voyage

Many have suggested that the British deliberately put the Lusitania in harm’s way in order to bring the United States into the war. Conspiracy theorists point to a statement in letter from Winston Churchill to Walter Runciman, president of the Board of Trade: “It is most important to attract neutral shipping to our shores, in the hope of especially embroiling the U.S. with Germany.”[3] But the Lusitania was not neutral, and the violation of the rules of war not self-evident. Furthermore, Britain needed supplies, not soldiers. If Americans took up arms, the supplies would be used to prepare American troops. It made little sense for the Admiralty to provoke the sinking of a ship they potentially needed for transport.[4]

Despite an enduring popular myth, the sinking of the Lusitania did not cause the United States to declare war upon Germany. American public opinion remained committed to staying out of the war though anti-German sentiment began to grow. The attack highlighted the fact that despite legal claims of American neutrality, the U.S. government was less forceful in protesting Britain’s blockade than Germany’s submarine campaign. American businessmen sold foodstuff and war materials to Britain and some of this “contraband” was loaded into the Lusitania’s cargo hold.

It has also been argued that it was the explosion of the war materials the ship was carrying that caused it to sink before passengers could be evacuated. But the war materials known to be on board were not explosive. The current consensus is that a single torpedo struck the ship at vulnerable place near the forward bulkhead of Boiler Room Number One. The force of the explosion, combined with sudden changes in temperature caused the main steam pipe to fracture.[5] This explosion also shifted bulkheads out of alignment and prevented watertight doors from closing. The flooding caused the ship to list severely to starboard and prevented the use of the port side lifeboats. She was gone in eighteen minutes with 1,191 souls.

Lusitania Sunk by a Submarine, New York Times, May 4, 1915

Lusitania Sunk by a Submarine, New York Times, May 4, 1915

The fog of war surrounds this disaster: time and again, in total war, concern for humanity and the rights of civilians fall to the wayside. It is perhaps unfair to render the obvious twenty-first century judgment: it was foolish to allow the Lusitania to continue commercial sailings during the war. She was a victim of circumstances that all involved—the Wilson Administration, the British Admiralty, Cunard, Captain Turner, and Walther Schweiger, unwittingly created.


About the author:

Nicholas McCormick is a PhD candidate at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Advised by Chicago historian Perry Duis, his dissertation examines the role of natural history museums and progressive reform in Chicago and the changes in museum exposition from the late nineteenth century to mid twentieth century. Mr. McCormick has a life long interest in ocean liners and is also passionate about photography and his art is an important part of his life and another way to tell stories.



[1] A. A. Hoehling and Mary Hoehling, The Last Voyage of the Lusitania (New York, 1956); Eric Larson, Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania (New York, 2015).

[2] Some believe there were also disguised high-explosives and false manifests. Mitch Peeke, Kevin Walsh-Johnson and Steven Jones, The Lusitania Story (Annapolis, 2002); Patrick O’Sullivan, The Lusitania: Unravelling the Mysteries (Kent, 2000); Colin Simpson, The Lusitania. (Boston,1972).

[3] Quoted in Martin Gilbert, Winston S. Churchill, Companion, Vol. III, (New York, 1973), p. 501.

[4] Thomas A. Bailey and Paul B. Ryan, The Lusitania Disaster: An Episode in Modern Warfare and Diplomacy (The Free Press, 1975); O’Sullivan, The Lusitania; Diana Preston, Lusitania: An Epic Tragedy (New York: Walker & Company, 2002).

[5] For varying theories about sinking see Robert D. Ballard and Spencer Dunmore, Exploring the Lusitania: Probing the Mysteries of the Sinking that Changed History (New York, 1995); Bailey and Ryan, The Lusitania Disaster; O’Sullivan, The Lusitania; Peeke, Walsh-Johnson and Jones, The Lusitania Story; Diana Preston, Lusitania: An Epic Tragedy (New York, 2015); David Ramsay, Lusitania: Saga and Myth (New York, 2002).



Newsreel film of the Lusitania departing New York, May 1915