On this day in 1915, RMS Lusitania leaves New York, bound for Liverpool. It should have been a routine Atlantic crossing. Instead, a German torpedo would soon plow into the ship, killing nearly 1,200 American, British, and Canadian passengers.
A civilian vessel made into a target of war? Americans were outraged! The tragedy helped push our country into World War I.
If only German warnings had been taken more seriously. “[V]essels flying the flag of Great Britain . . . are liable to destruction,” Germany had warned. Yet no one took the threat seriously enough. Indeed, women, children, and babies would be among those who boarded Lusitania on May 1.
British authorities soon began receiving warnings of German U-boats near Ireland. They rerouted battleships, but not the civilian liner. Unfortunately, German submarine Captain Walther Schwieger spotted the passenger ship as it was nearing the end of its voyage.
No one really expected what came next.
At 2:10 p.m. on May 7, one passenger observed a “streak of froth” coming across the placid ocean water. “I did not think that anybody,” he later said, “even women and children, were so much terrified as they were astounded and stunned . . . .” As the German torpedo slammed into Lusitania, the force of the explosion sent seawater and debris spewing into the air. The ship had been moving forward at a speed of 18 knots. Now the quick pace ensured that water would be forced into the ship more quickly.
No one knew what to do. Some people went for their life jackets. Some strolled on the deck, smoking cigarettes, still not believing they were in danger. Others ran for lifeboats, but those boats couldn’t be launched while the ship was moving so fast.
One woman, Norah Bretherton, was pregnant and traveling alone with two young children. When the torpedo hit, her daughter was upstairs in the “play yard.” Her son was in the cabin, taking a nap. Which child should she retrieve first? She ran for her daughter, who was younger. After rescuing her, she passed the toddler off to a stranger so she could run for her son.
Meanwhile, the list in the ship complicated efforts to launch lifeboats. Perhaps it was safer to jump into the sea? One passenger stood on the side of the ship with his two children, waiting for the best moment to jump. As the ship went down, only 18 minutes after it had been hit, the three jumped together. George Hook and his daughter, Elsie, surfaced. His son, Frank, did not.
For hours, survivors floated in the ocean. Too few lifeboats had been launched. The water was freezing, and hypothermia claimed victims. Yet the British Admiralty was afraid to send help. What if German subs were still in the area? Help finally arrived three hours later.
Needless to say, the days that followed were difficult.
George and Elsie Hook, for example, spent days looking through rows of dead bodies before finally finding Frank in a hospital. He’d survived with only a broken leg. Bretherton, the mother who’d passed her daughter off to a stranger, was less fortunate. She’d found a spot in a lifeboat with her son, but she’d been unable to find her little girl again before escaping the sinking ship. Her little Betty was Body No. 156 pulled out of the water.
Germany justified its actions, claiming that Lusitania had been carrying munitions. But 1,195 of nearly 2,000 civilians had been killed.
If Germany had been trying to provoke America into war, it couldn’t have done better.
Colin Simpson, The Lusitania (1972)
Des Hickey & Gus Smith, Seven Days to Disaster: The Sinking of the Lusitania (1982)
Erik Larson, Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania (2015)
George Will, A Century Later, a New Look at the Sinking of the Lusitania (May 3, 2015)
The Lusitania Sank in 18 Minutes, But its Passengers Suffered for Longer (Smithsonian YouTube Channel)