The Lusitania at War 

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 second 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 arriving in New York in 1907

Lusitania arriving in New York in 1907

The seeds of Lusitania’s destruction were sewn when older notions of naval warfare gave way to new weapons, tactics, and rules of total war. Ocean liners were not only ships of state: they were part of a merchant marine, and could be transformed into naval vessels. The competition on the North Atlantic was as political as economic. When the war began in 1914, Lusitania and other liners were caught unawares. Most were either in a visiting port or at sea. While liners made anxious runs for safety, Great Britain immediately dispatched cruisers to intercept any German vessel. Ten of the largest German liners were tied to their piers in Hoboken, New Jersey. Among these was the newest liner, the Vaterland. Sailings were canceled, crews waited in limbo and pier-side security was heightened.[1] Meanwhile, the German Navy began laying mines in the North Sea and other shipping lanes around the British Isles. The war of blockades had begun.[2]

At the outbreak of the war, the Germany possessed a modern navy smaller than Britain’s. However, unlike the British, the Germans invested in submarines (Unterseebooten, or U-Boats), with the idea that they could patrol and engage in smaller nuisance attacks. Initially, German naval planners derided submarines for their limited range and faulty torpedoes, and saw them in merely a supporting or recognizance role. This changed on September 22, 1914, when a single submarine sank three British warships in one day. Quickly, the German naval command reconsidered the offensive potential of the U-Boat.

The codes of conduct governing naval warfare were rooted in centuries-old traditions. Captains who spotted suspicious merchant vessels were expected to signal the ship to stop and heave to. A boarding party would then check the ship’s papers and search it for contraband. If contraband was found or it was an enemy vessel, it could be be commandeered and taken home to be reviewed by a prize court. Vessels resisting the stop and search, were liable to attack. This practice, known as “cruiser rules,” had been suited to the Age of Sail, but did not stand up to modern warfare for two key reasons. First, twentieth-century ships could radio for help. If friendly warships were in the area, the pursuer would become the perused. Second, cruisers and particularly U-Boats, did not have the manpower to crew both their own and the captured vessel. Rather than take the ship, captains frequently allowed crews to abandon it before it was sunk.[3]

In the early months of the war, U-Boat commanders complied with official orders to follow cruiser rules. But it was increasingly dangerous to do so. In one instance, the U-9 stopped a trawler. While they waited for its crew to abandon ship, a British destroyer was bearing down on them. The U-Boat barely escaped the scene.[4] U-Boat commanders knew that British captains were encouraged to ram and sink U-Boats on sight. Therefore, as the war progressed, German skippers were reluctant to stop and warn their targets. At the start of the unrestricted submarine campaign, some flotilla commanders encouraged initiative on the part of U-Boat commanders despite conflicting orders from the top.[5]

Side view of the Lusitania, a hard vessel to disguise

Side view of the Lusitania, a hard vessel to disguise

In 1914-1915, the Germans and the British devised ruses to disguise their ships’ identities. They painted merchant vessels drab grey and obscured names and registries. The German Liner Kronprinzeesin Cecilie was repainted at sea to look like the Olympic and anchored off Bar Harbor, Maine to hide from the British.[6] British captains flew neutral flags to dissuade German attackers.

On one occasion in February of 1915, Lusitania captain Captain Dow, worried about possible attack, flew the American flag while entering the Irish Sea. When the U. S. censured him, Dow claimed he had done it to signal that he carried the US mail and to calm nervous Americans on board. That same month, Germany declared the waters around Great Britain and Ireland a war zone and warned that any belligerent ship could be attacked without warning: it advised U. S. officials that “neutral vessels will not in most cases be recognizable as such in the war zone.”[7]

Bridge of the Lusitania with "naval" design in light of planned role as armed merchant cruiser

Bridge of the Lusitania with “naval” design in light of planned role as armed merchant cruiser

It was reasonable for the Germans to worry about the potential military use of the Lusitania and Mauretania. Both had been designed to be Armed Merchant Cruisers (AMCs) and it was within the Admiralty’s rights to employ them. Yet, by 1915, experience had revealed that the big liners were actually unsuitable for most military purposes because they were expensive to operate, too large for small harbors, and used a tremendous amount of coal.[8] Most of the large liners were released from Admiralty service and kept in port.[9] The Admiralty allowed Lusitania to remain in Cunard service. And Cunard was having troubles of its own: passenger travel had dropped substantially; the most experienced officers and seamen were serving in the Royal Navy, leaving less competent crews to operate the ship; it was also hard to fill menial positions; and coal was expensive. Cunard reduced Lusitania’s maximum service speed to 21 knots and closed down one boiler room. This was a respectable speed which would still allow her easily to outrun a U-Boat. When she departed on May 1, officials were confident of a safe passage: no vessel sailing faster than fourteen knots had been sunk.[10]

Not only was the Lusitania the largest and fastest liner in service: she was carrying neutral American citizens. The Wilson government did little to dissuade Americans from traveling on belligerent vessels. Americans asserted this right to travel despite the fact that the international law of the day held that the flag of the vessel applied to all on board. In effect Wilson’s stance that American lives were sacrosanct meant that her citizens were in effect “human shields,” as the Germans would claim.

RMS Falaba

RMS Falaba

In March 1915, a small British cargo-passenger vessel, the Falaba was sunk, with warning, by U-28. American Leon Thresher was among the hundred dead. On May 1, an American oil tanker, Gulflight, was attacked (but did not sink). Diplomatic notes were exchanged, but neither incident prompted reprisals from the Wilson government.[11] Despite the increasing danger to merchant vessels and civilians, no one seriously believed an attack on the Lusitania would occur.



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] One liner, the Kronprinz Wilhelm, dashed past the British in the dark of night and escaped. The liner had a brief, but eventful career as an AMC. See Alfred von Niezychowski, The Cruise of the Kronprinz Wilhelm (New York, 1929). The others were seized when the United States entered the war.

[2] The best discussion of the naval strategy early in the war as it pertains to the Lusitania tragedy is Thomas A. Bailey and Paul B. Ryan, The Lusitania Disaster: An Episode in Modern Warfare and Diplomacy (New York, 1975). For a full analysis of the blockades, see John Coogan, The End of Neutrality (Ithaca, NY, 1981).

[3] The first cruiser rules were devised by Henry VIII in 1512. See Bailey and Ryan, The Lusitania Disaster, for a thorough discussion of the Lusitania case.

[4] U-9 Commander Johann Speiss’s diary quoted in L. Thomas, Raiders of the Deep (London, 1929), 39.

[5] Diana Preston, Lusitania: An Epic Tragedy (New York, 2015), 149.

[6] William H. Miller, The First Great Ocean Liners in Photographs (New York, 1984), 81. The Lusitania flag incident, as related to naval war is discussed in Bailey and Ryan, The Lusitania Disaster and Preston, Lusitania: An Epic Tragedy.

[7] Preston, Lusitania: An Epic Tragedy, 68. Bailey and Ryan, The Lusitania Disaster. Halpern, A Naval History of World War I (Annapolis, 2012); Lawrence Soundhaus, The Great War at Sea: A Naval History of the First World War (Cambridge, UK, 2014).

[8] Initially the Admiralty armed Cunard’s Carmania and Aquitania and assigned them to cruiser squadrons. Among the German AMCs was the Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse, and Cap Trafalgar. All of these ships were excellent passenger liners (truly “floating palaces”) but proved terrible warships. The Carmania was severely damaged in a duel that sank the Cap Trafalgar. The Kaiser was caught unawares while taking on coal from a captured cargo vessel and sunk. Even at moderate speeds, Aquitania consumed too much coal ambling about a patrol route.

[9]Olympic and Mauretania became the largest troopships and Aquitania and Britannic were transformed into hospital ships. The fear that American-owned shipping companies would prevent British military use of their vessels proved unfounded: White Star Line and other IMM vessels with British registry were readily requisitioned by the Admiralty.

[10] U-Boats were capable of 15 knots on the surface running on diesel engines, and 9 knots on battery power underwater.

[11] Preston, Lusitania: An Epic Tragedy, 410. This notion stretched back to the Trent incident during the Civil War, when a Union warship stopped a British vessel carrying Confederate diplomats. The Lincoln administration relented to the British view that the British flag protected the men.