How the Sinking of RMS Lusitania Changed World War I
How the Sinking of RMS Lusitania Changed World War I

How the Sinking of RMS Lusitania Changed World War I

Larry Holzwarth - December 19, 2019

How the Sinking of RMS Lusitania Changed World War I
A painting inaccurately shows a second torpedo striking aft of a gaping hole left by the first. US Navy

15. The Germans claimed Lusitania was a legitimate target of war

On May 8 in Cleveland, Ohio, a senior representative of the German government in the United States announced the Germans had been justified in attacking Lusitania. In the German view, the ship was a registered armed merchant cruiser which had “carried contraband of war”. A day later the Germans announced Lusitania had been armed, a statement which was denied by the Port of New York, which had inspected the vessel before it left on its last voyage. American reaction to the sinking, in which 128 Americans lost their lives, was widespread condemnation of the Germans. They were not alone.

In Austria-Hungary, which was Germany’s ally and which also operated a U-Boat fleet, the sinking was heavily criticized. The Turks condemned the sinking as well. In the United States, President Wilson issued a series of notes to the German government which demanded an apology for the act, reparations paid for the loss of American lives, and informed the German government that any further sinkings would be considered a provocation by the United States. The British had hoped the Lusitania disaster would provoke the United States into entering the war, and when they did not the British press was contemptuous of Wilson’s stance.

How the Sinking of RMS Lusitania Changed World War I
The White Star liner Arabic was missed by U-20, but sunk in August by U-24. Wikimedia

16. The Germans suspended the U-Boat campaign after sinking another liner

Following the international reaction to the sinking of a passenger liner, which the British propaganda machinery managed skillfully, the Germans suspended the U-Boat war, though not until after several more ships were sunk that summer. Since British vessels could fly the flags of neutral countries at will, their vessels were effectively shielded. The Germans also announced that passenger liners would not be attacked under any flags, including British. U-Boat operations were reduced to patrols in the North Sea and attacks on British warships. The situation would remain until 1917, when the U-Boat war returned.

The Admiralty had long circumvented the cruiser rules by arming merchant ships and by instructing merchant captains to attempt to ram surfaced submarines rather than tamely submitting to search or surrender. The several ships captured by the Germans gave then copies of the same orders. Had U-20 surfaced and attempted to halt Lusitania on the high seas it would have been in extreme danger from the much faster and extremely larger ship. Some have cited the flaunting of the cruiser rules by the British as the real reason the submarine fired at Lusitania without first issuing a warning.

How the Sinking of RMS Lusitania Changed World War I
The Cunard Building in Liverpool. Wikimedia

17. Several accusations of contraband cargo were levied against Cunard and the Admiralty

The German claims that Cunard carried munitions at the behest of the Admiralty gave rise to many theories, which were further advanced by the latter’s attempts to alter the official records of the liner’s sinking. Over the years several theories were advanced over what was being carried and how. It was postulated that explosives were hidden in barrels labeled as beef or cheese. The British government denied any such accusations, always blaming the sinking on German savagery. The truth was the ship was indeed carrying munitions, beyond what was listed on Lusitania’s released manifest, and the government lied to cover it up for a century.

The reasons for the initial lie were obvious, public sympathy in the United States was with the British following the sinking, and they hoped it could be parlayed into an American declaration of war against Germany. Subsequent British governments maintained the deception in order to save face and to avoid the possibility of lawsuits by survivors and the descendants of those killed in the sinking. For many years, during World War I and in the interwar period, the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force bombed the wreck, and bombarded it with depth charges, leaving the after portion of the hull riddled with holes, and creating damage which concealed the true nature of that caused by the torpedoing in 1915.

How the Sinking of RMS Lusitania Changed World War I
The speed with which the ship sank trapped hundreds below decks, with the ship in sight of land. Wikimedia

18. Parts of the Lusitania’s manifest were kept secret for decades

A copy of the manifest for Lusitania’s final voyage – the list of everything carried aboard as cargo – is held at the Franklin Delano Roosevelt Presidential Library and Museum, at Hyde Park in New York. Roosevelt was Assistant Secretary of the Navy at the time of the investigation into the sinking held in the United States. According to the manifest, 148 tubs of butter were being carried in the hold near the point where the torpedo struck, and where the second explosion occurred. The butter wasn’t provided by Borden, or by any other American dairy. It was provided by Remington Arms, which also shipped the small arms ammunition at the same time.

Remington shipped the “butter” (unrefrigerated) on behalf of its parent, E. I. duPont de Nemours, which was not in the business of making and shipping butter. But they did manufacture guncotton, which when exposed to seawater becomes extremely volatile. Guncotton still present in the wreck explains why in 1982 the British government warned salvage divers the ship could “literally blow up on us”.

How the Sinking of RMS Lusitania Changed World War I
Post card image of RMS Lusitania circa 1908. Wikimedia

19. The United States supported Great Britain while remaining officially neutral in 1915

The United States declared itself neutral in 1914, and remained so until it entered the war in 1917. Neutrality meant, under international law, the United States could continue to trade with all the belligerent nations. It was a violation of the rules of war to carry munitions on a neutral ship. Great Britain established a naval blockade of German ports which restricted trade. It was in response to the British blockade that the Germans declared a war zone in the waters surrounding Great Britain in 1915. The war zone applied to ships of neutral countries. Lusitania, though steaming unflagged, was easily recognizable as a British liner, it was one of the most famous and recognizable ships in the world.

The Germans, through their intelligence network in the United States and Great Britain, knew that Lusitania was carrying munitions, and that it had done so on previous voyages during the war. At the time of Lusitania’s sinking, no British ship had yet been hit by a torpedo when steaming at a speed exceeding 15 knots. Lusitania’s ability to exceed that speed throughout a voyage made the ship ideal for carrying cargo critical to Britain’s war effort. British purchasing of war material from the United States was perfectly legal, as was shipping it in the hull of a ship which was registered to the Royal Navy. It was a British decision not to inform the passengers of the nature of the cargo.

How the Sinking of RMS Lusitania Changed World War I
Admiral Jackie Fisher was the senior officer of the British Navy at the time of Lusitania’s destruction. Wikimedia

20. The Admiralty did little to protect Lusitania as it approached the Irish Sea

The presence of German submarine U-20, as well as other U-Boats, were known to the British Admiralty as Lusitania drew near the British Isles. U-20 had attacked several ships, some successfully, in the general area where Lusitania was to traverse. Yet the Admiralty did nothing to protect the liner as it approached. The ship could have been ordered to alter course to the north, going around the top of Ireland on its way to Liverpool. No such orders were given. Several destroyers were available in the channel ports, which could have been dispatched to escort the liner through the danger zone. No escort was offered. The ship was left to its own devices in waters where known submarine activity had recently occurred.

The First Lord of the Admiralty, the man who ran the Royal Navy at the time, was Winston Churchill. It was Churchill who pushed to place the blame for the loss of the ship on Captain Turner at the subsequent investigations, supported by the First Sea Lord, Admiral Jackie Fisher. Both Churchill and Fisher were informed of the submarine activity; they ordered an increase in escorts for the battleship Orion, but none for Lusitania. The inaction by the leaders of the British navy led to speculation among historians that Churchill’s actions were deliberate, leading to the major disaster which he had previously remarked would be necessary for America to enter the war.

How the Sinking of RMS Lusitania Changed World War I
Looking aft along Lusitania’s boat deck, with the ship in port. Wikimedia

21. The troop movement rumors may have contributed to the sinking

In late April, 1917, as Lusitania took on its cargo in New York and prepared for its final crossing, German intelligence in Berlin began receiving information regarding movement of troops from Canada and Ireland to Great Britain. The troops were to be assembled, equipped, and transferred to the Western Front in Flanders and France. U-Boats were dispatched by the Imperial Navy, U-20 being one of them. The submarines were to watch the Irish ports, Liverpool, and the approaches from the west, specifically for troopships. Lusitania had not been used for transporting troops, but other liners had, and would again later in the war.

The rumors were just that, and whether they were part of a deliberate disinformation campaign has never been proven. The U-Boats were dispatched. U-20 actually attacked, or rather attempted to attack, another liner, White Star’s Arabic, before the attack on Lusitania (Arabic was sunk by U-24 in August, 1915, causing another diplomatic incident). What is known is that after U-20 sailed, it received transmissions which changed its orders.

How the Sinking of RMS Lusitania Changed World War I
First class passengers were enjoying this lounge as the U-Boat maneuvered into position. Wikimedia

22. U-20 was ordered to reposition after it left port

U-20, under Walther Schwieger, departed on patrol with specific orders to proceed up the North Sea, around Scotland, and down to the Mersey bar, a sandbank which restricted access to the estuary and the Port of Liverpool. When ships arrived at Liverpool they had to wait until high tide to enter the port, and many Captains altered their speed accordingly as they entered the approaches, to ensure they arrived at a time they could enter the Mersey without having to wait. SM U-20 was to sit outside the bar, where as ships slowed to begin their journey up the river he would have easy pickings with his torpedoes.

After he was underway, he received orders directing him to the south across the Irish Sea to the southern approaches of the British Channel. The radio messages sent to U-20 were intercepted and decoded by the Admiralty, in an area which Churchill had dubbed Room 40. The British were aware of the original mission of the submarine and the German decision to reposition to an area which would be traversed by the liners, including Arabic and Lusitania, but the warnings sent to the ships were limited to vague reports of submarine activity. Why more specific warnings were not sent, nor escorts provided, remains a mystery.

How the Sinking of RMS Lusitania Changed World War I
The Bryce Report gave propaganda about atrocities an offical government air. Wikimedia

23. The Bryce Report followed the Lusitania disaster by a few days

The Committee on Alleged German Outrages issued its report, generally known as the Bryce Report, on May 12, 1915, less than a week after the Lusitania sinking. It displaced the latter from the front pages of newspapers in the United States. The Bryce report was allegedly based on depositions which were first-hand accounts from witnesses to German atrocities in Belgium and France. One finding was, “That there were in many parts of Belgium deliberate and systematically organized massacres of the civil population, accompanied by many isolated murders and other outrages.” It accused the Germans of using civilians as human shields, systematic looting and pillaging, and the officers of the German Army of being complicit.

By the end of May, every newspaper in New York had reprinted the report. The British Propaganda Bureau shipped over 40,000 copies to the United States for distribution. Following the war, the depositions upon which the report had been based could not be found. The authors of the report, the committee, had based it (allegedly) entirely on the depositions, it had not actually questioned any of the supposed witnesses. In 1942 the depositions were located, but before they could be examined independently, they were destroyed, allegedly by a German rocket. The Bryce Report is now broadly dismissed as a piece of wartime propaganda, without basis of fact.

How the Sinking of RMS Lusitania Changed World War I
British propaganda was used to generate support for the war in the United States. Wikimedia

24. The Germans returned to unrestricted submarine warfare in 1917

Britain’s naval blockade continued after the sinking of Lusitania, and among the items, it listed as contraband were foodstuffs. International law did not support the British view, but neutral nations – including the United States – were prevented from shipping food to Germany and its allies. Protests over the British position were drowned out in the United States by those desirous of war with Germany and the British propaganda, which grew in intensity following the loss of Lusitania and the Bryce Report. The voices calling for peace negotiations in Europe, and denouncing British violations of international law, were not heard over the cries for war.

When the Germans returned to the policy of unrestricted submarine warfare in February 1917, the event combined with the Zimmerman telegram caused America to enter the war on the side of the Allies. American destroyers joined with the Royal Navy to suppress the U-Boat campaign for the rest of the war. By then most of the public had all but forgotten Lusitania and Arabic, and their sinking by the Germans. It was necessary to remind them, as Americans went to war to end all wars, of the inhumanity of the enemy they would encounter over there. American propaganda throughout the war followed the example of the British.


Where do we find this stuff? Here are our sources:

“Last Voyage of the Lusitania”. Adolph A. Hoehling, Mary Duprey Hoehling. 1956

“Lusitania: Saga and Myth”. David Ramsay. 2002

“Lusitania: An Illustrated Biography”. J. Kent Layton. 2010

“The Only Way to Cross”. John Maxtone-Graham. 1972

“Castles of Steel: Britain, Germany, and the Winning of the Great War at Sea”. Robert K. Massie. 2004

“Lusitania”. Colin Simpson. 1972

“Room 40: British Naval Intelligence, 1914-1918”. Patrick Beesly. 1982

“Willful Murder: The Sinking of the Lusitania”. Diana Preston. 2002

“The Conning of America: The Great War and American Popular Literature”. Patrick J. Quinn. 2001

“The Sinking of the Lusitania”. Thomas A. Bailey, American Historical Review. October, 1935

Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania”. Erik Larsen. 2015

“A Liner, a U-boat…and history”. Oscar Handlin, American Heritage Magazine. June, 1955

“Was There a Cover Up After the Sinking of the Lusitania?” Simon Worrall, National Geographic. March 15, 2015

“Ignored Warnings, Conspiracy Theories Define Lusitania’s Legacy 100 Years After Sinking”. Ryan Chatelain, CBS News. May 6, 2015. Online

“The Lusitania: Unraveling the Mysteries”. Patrick O’Sullivan. 2002

“The Historian Who Sold Out (The Bryce Report)”. Thomas Fleming, History News Network. Online