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
British battleship HMS Iron Duke, built during the arms race prior to World War I. Wikimedia

6. The naval arms race between Germany and Great Britain

Between 1898 and 1912, the Imperial Navy of the German Kaiser and the Royal Navy of Great Britain engaged in an arms race which saw both fleets expand dramatically. At the time the most powerful weapon available to seagoing nations was the battleship. The Germans averaged three capital ships placed under construction per year until 1908, when they increased it to four. The British had little choice but to match their pace, keeping the Royal Navy as the largest in the world. British shipyards also built ships for the Japanese Navy, collecting some badly needed hard specie to maintain their own frantic pace of construction.

While the Kaiser and the King built up their fleets with the enthusiasm of two boys playing with toy boats, representatives of their governments tried to establish rules regarding their use. In 1909 they joined France, Italy, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the United States, and the Japanese Empire in signing the London Declaration Concerning the Laws of Naval Warfare.

How the Sinking of RMS Lusitania Changed World War I
The British equipped merchant vessels with guns to trap German submarines following the cruiser rules. Wikimedia

7. The outbreak of World War One

In August, 1914, World War I began in Europe, and the British Navy prepared to make war with its German enemy. The naval war was quickly complicated by the German use of the submarine to attack British shipping. The first submarine to sink a British merchant ship was U-17, which followed the cruiser rules by surfacing, allowing the crew of the merchantman to abandon ship, and then sinking the ship. More British ships followed quickly, and the rate of loss was soon felt in Great Britain. The Admiralty responded with a variety of ways, one of which was arming merchantmen – the Q Ship.

The British decision to arm merchant ships with concealed weapons, and then fire at a submarine which rose to the surface to issue a warning rendered the cruiser rules invalid, at least in the German estimation. It was simply too hazardous for the submarine to surface, not knowing if the ship was an unarmed merchantman or an armed Q Ship. The Germans soon had their own version of the Q Ship, but their existence did little to protect its submarines. The Germans declared the waters around Great Britain to be a war zone, and ships within it were liable to unrestricted submarine attack.

How the Sinking of RMS Lusitania Changed World War I
Lusitania alongside Cunard’s Pier 54 in New York. Wikimedia

8. The British Admiralty took over the Lusitania in 1914

With war declared, the Royal Navy assumed control of RMS Lusitania, designating it an Armed Merchant Cruiser, though no arms were installed. British merchant captains were also issued orders by the Admiralty to attempt to ram German submarines which surfaced to confront them, whenever possible. The Admiralty took steps to camouflage Lusitania, changing its paint scheme and modifying its appearance during the autumn and winter of 1914-15. The liner remained in service on the Liverpool – New York run during the period, though it seldom carried more than just over half its full complement of passengers.

In late winter, Lusitania’s peacetime appearance was restored, including its color scheme, and it continued its regularly scheduled transatlantic service. The German declaration of the waters around Great Britain as a war zone was issued in February. Neutral ships were not to be attacked if they could be identified as such. Ships which could not be identified as neutral would be attacked without warning. Lusitania was ordered by the Admiralty to cease flying any flags while in the German declared war zone. Lusitania arrived in Liverpool in early March, 1915, having crossed the German war zone safely for the first time.

How the Sinking of RMS Lusitania Changed World War I
The German Embassy printed this warning in over 50 newspapers in the United States. Library of Congress

9. The Germans issued warnings to passengers on British ships

The United States was officially neutral in 1915, though it maintained a brisk trade with Great Britain. Its ships entered the war zone flying the American flag, which the Germans respected. British ships in the war zone did not fly any flags, hoping the lack of recognition would allow them to slip past the Germans. False flags were recognized as a legitimate ruse of war, though not on armed ships, including the Q Ships. Lusitania’s famous profile meant that the use of a false flag would be of little value. The ship was too well-known and at best it might have been confused with Mauretania. Besides, the Germans knew Lusitania had been designated an armed merchant cruiser, making it an asset of the Royal Navy.

As Lusitania steamed westward, a warning appeared in American newspapers, placed by the German embassy in Washington. In as many cases as possible, it appeared on the shipping pages, alongside the advertisements or schedule announcements by Cunard Line. It reminded potential passengers of the war zone, and of the German intention to attack ships of Great Britain or its allies, “and that travelers sailing in the war zone on the ships of Great Britain or her allies do so at their own risk”. The warning had been issued on April 22, 1915. Lusitania arrived in New York on April 24, having completed its 201st crossing.

How the Sinking of RMS Lusitania Changed World War I
HMS Tamarisk, another armed merchant cruiser of the Royal Navy. Wikimedia

10. The Admiralty continued to list Lusitania as an Armed Merchant Cruiser

The large passenger liners offered the advantages of superior speed and cargo capacity, but those were attained through the extensive use of coal. The liners gobbled up coal at a prodigious rate, and the Admiralty needed to conserve as much as possible for the use of its capital ships should the German fleet sortie. It was decided not to arm Lusitania as originally planned, though it remained on the registry as an armed merchant cruiser. The ship was so listed in the 1914 edition of Jane’s Fighting Ships. Cunard continued to operate the ship, but it too was concerned about coal consumption. One of the ship’s boilers was shut down, which conserved coal but reduced the ship’s speed.

On its last crossing from Liverpool to New York, Lusitania was unable to exceed the speed of 22 knots using just the three remaining boilers. In New York, it took on passengers and cargo. Among the latter were several tons of munitions, including small arms ammunition. On May 1, 1915, Lusitania departed from Cunard’s Pier 54 in New York, bound for Liverpool, with 1,959 men, women, and children aboard, the majority of them British.

How the Sinking of RMS Lusitania Changed World War I
British codebreakers in Room 40 at work. Imperial War Museum

11. The British Admiralty knew the whereabouts of German submarines

In 1915, the British Admiralty had the ability to track German ships via radio transmissions, and they were tracking a German submarine as Lusitania departed New York. The ability of the British to track German submarines, and the information the ability developed, were both highly classified, only the most senior officers were aware of the fact. Among them was the First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill. In March 1915, British listeners learned that the Germans had cracked the code they were using to transmit submarine activity to ships at sea. Use of the code continued until after the loss of Lusitania. On May 3, the Admiralty sent a message in the clear (uncoded), warning of increased German submarine activity to all ships at sea.

The German submarine U-20 sank three ships on May 5-6 in the Irish Sea, and attempted attacks on two others without success. On May 7, shortly before noon, the Admiralty issued a warning which read, “U-boats active in southern part of Irish Channel. Last heard of twenty miles south of Coningbeg Light Vessel”. In response Lusitania turned towards the Irish coast, to pass between the submarine position reported and the light, but the submarine was much closer to the coast. Just after 1 PM, the U-20 sighted the liner and began closing it, submerged. The submarine commander, Walther Schwieger, maneuvered for about an hour before attaining a perfect firing position, from which he launched a single torpedo at Lusitania.

How the Sinking of RMS Lusitania Changed World War I
An artist’s conception of the Lusitania sinking. Wikimedia

12. The single torpedo caused multiple explosions

Schwieger recorded the attack in the log of the U-20, “Torpedo hits starboard side right behind the bridge. An unusually heavy detonation takes place with a very strong explosive cloud. The explosion of the torpedo must have been followed by a second one (boiler or coal or powder?)”. The ship took on a heavy list to starboard immediately. The crew raced to release the lifeboats but the angle at which the ship lay in the water made the task nearly impossible. Within five minutes of the torpedo’s impact, electrical power failed, steam pressure was all but gone, and Lusitania’s Captain ordered the ship abandoned.

The lifeboats on the starboard side swung out too far for them to be boarded, as the ship continued to lean over to starboard. Those of the port side had to slide down the hull, bouncing off protruding rivets. Many fell into the sea, overturned. In any event, there were not enough lifeboats to accommodate the number of passengers aboard, despite the ship leaving New York at less than half capacity. Lusitania slipped beneath the waves in 18 minutes, taking 1,195 lives with it.

How the Sinking of RMS Lusitania Changed World War I
Early reports of the sinking were disputed by the Admiralty as it tried to suppress some of the story. Wikimedia

13. The British took immediate steps to control investigations into the disaster

At a coroner’s inquest on May 8, the bodies of five dead victims were brought into the Irish town of Kinsale. Captain Turner testified Lusitania had been hit by a single torpedo, followed by a large secondary explosion, or explosions. He also stated that he had received instructions from the Admiralty prior to the sinking which he could not discuss without permission. A Board of Trade investigation was held in June at Westminster Central Hall. Members of the crew who claimed only one torpedo had struck the ship were interviewed, but were not allowed to testify. Captain Turner reversed his statement at the coroner’s inquest and testified that two torpedoes had struck his ship.

A quartermaster who had been on Lusitania’s bridge at the time of the attack and spotted the torpedo’s wake as it approached was pressured to change his story and report two torpedoes hit the ship. First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, was one of a cabal in the Admiralty who wanted to place the blame for the ship’s loss on Captain Turner, for failing to heed Admiralty’s warnings of submarine activity in the area. The Defence of the Realm Act was changed just before the hearings began, making it illegal to discuss whatever cargo Lusitania had been carrying at the time of the attack. The head of the investigation, Lord Mersey, resigned when the case was closed and refused to be paid for his work, calling the investigation, “a damned dirty business”.

How the Sinking of RMS Lusitania Changed World War I
The Admiralty deliberately falsified evidence during the Board of Trade investigation. Wikimedia

14. The Admiralty fabricated evidence presented during the Board of Trade investigation

The attempt to make Captain Turner the scapegoat during the Board of Trade investigation included the Admiralty introducing falsified evidence, in which the position of the ship at the time of the attack was altered. The Admiralty placed Lusitania five miles closer to shore than it had been. It reported the ship had been traveling much more slowly that it had been. It insisted there had been two torpedoes that struck the ship. It claimed the only munitions aboard had been cases of rifle ammunition stowed more than 150 feet from the area of the explosion. It altered the messages which had been sent to ships at sea preceding the disaster.

The Board of Trade investigation completely exonerated Captain Turner, as well as Cunard, placing the entire blame on the German Navy. It did not issue a finding on the number of torpedoes fired at the liner. Its full report was immediately classified by the government, and over a century after the sinking was still not released to the public.

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