Remembering the Lusitania

Today, 7 May, is the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Cunard liner RMS Lusitania during World War One. She is not as famous a shipwreck as the Titanic, in fact her sinking during the war was really just a blip in the casualty numbers, and yet almost 1200 people lost their lives.


Her loss really meant that her sister, the Mauretania, would become famous and she would slip quietly into obscurity, just like the Olympic and Britannic which were overshadowed by the Titanic for all the wrong reasons.  The ship, torpedoed by U-20, sank in less than 20 minutes and within sight of the old Head of Kinsale. It was a sunny day, and not the sort of day for seeing a passenger liner dieing within sight of land. 

Controversy has always surrounded the ship and her sinking. For some reason it is always thought that her sinking brought America into the war, but that is not true. And, there have always been theories about a second explosion that ended the ship, supposedly set off by the munitions that she was carrying.  
The truth is, that when the wreck was explored by Dr Robert Ballard in 1993 it did not show any signs of a massive internal explosion, however, the wreck is resting on the side that was damaged by the torpedo. Many theories have been put forward for the speed which she sank, however, the location of the torpedo damage, the construction of the ship, and the forward motion of the vessel all contributed to her sinking so quickly. Unlike Titanic which had bulkheads that ran from beam to beam, Lusitania (and Mauretania) were both designed with extensive watertight compartmentation because of their possible role as armed merchant cruisers, that meant that localised flooding on one side would cause the ship to list excessively. Titanic went down on a relatively even keel. Lusitania started listing almost immediately, making lifeboat launching extremely difficult. 

Lusitania Life Preserver, Imperial War Museum

There is also the conspiracy that Winston Churchill deliberately “set her up” to be sunk, and that Captain Turner was negligent. The official enquiry   did not find him guilty of negligence, but neither did it provide satisfactory answers about the sinking. There are still too many questions about the Lusitania that were left unanswered, and even today some of the files are classified. 

Propeller from the Lusitania (Liverpool)

The important questions from the enquiry are as follows:
17. Was any loss of life due to any neglect by the master of the “Lusitania” to take proper precautions or give proper orders with regard to swinging out of boats, or getting them ready for use, clearing away the portable skids from the pontoon-decked lifeboats, releasing the gripes of such boats, closing of watertight bulkheads or portholes, or otherwise before of after the “Lusitania” was attacked?
Answer:  No. 
20. Was the loss of the ” Lusitania ” and/or the loss of life caused by the wrongful act or default of the master of the ” Lusitania ” or does any blame attach to him for such loss?
Answer:  No. 
21. Does any blame attach to the owners of the steamship ” Lusitania “?
Answer: No. 
What is certain is the human element in the disaster, and the terrible loss of life. 18 Minutes is not a lot of time to evacuate a large ship, and there was definitely an element of chaos on board, as well as ill discipline and a lack of command guidance. But given the circumstances I expect that the best had been done, but that too many other factors played a role in the sinking.
Lusitania sank 100 years ago, but her story still interests maritime historians because it is still a mystery. And will remain so long after the wreck has finally disintegrated. 

Lusitania Peace Memorial

In the days following the disaster, efforts were made to recover bodies floating in the Irish Sea and washed up on the coast. The dead – both passengers and crew – may be found in several cemeteries and churchyards in Ireland and the United Kingdom. Killed by enemy action, the crew of Lusitania are considered war dead and therefore commemorated by the CWGC.
The bodies of 49 of her merchant marine personnel were recovered from the sea or the shore. The largest group, 34 men and women, are buried in Old Church Cemetery in Cobh.
Those Lusitania crew members missing at sea – some 353 people – are commemorated by name on the Tower Hill Memorial in London.

There are a number of books about the Lusitania, and of course the usual crop of documentaries and TV specials. These are all beyond the scope of this blogpost, and once again the old adage applies, if all the hot air spouted about the Lusitania could be utilised to raise her, she would have been bobbing like a cork already.

1/1250 Lusitania Model (Atlas Editions)


Image of the Lusitania Memorial in the old church cemetery in Cobh by Bjørn Christian Tørrissen – Own work by uploader, Used under license CC BY-SA 3.0
Postcard images from own collection. 
© DRW 2015-2018. Created 07/05/2015, images migrated 30/04/2016, some images added 11/09/2018
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