May 7, 1915 – The sinking of the RMS Lusitania

Aside from the 1912 sinking of the RMS Titanic, the 1915 demise of the RMS Lusitania is arguably the most famous maritime disaster of the Edwardian era. A passenger ship carrying almost 2,000 occupants from New York City to Liverpool during the early part of World War I, the Lusitania was sunk by a German submarine. While it may not have spawned the same amount of media as the Titanic disaster, the Lusitania is still one of the most influential events of the previous century.

Undertaking its maiden voyage from Liverpool to New York City in 1907, the Lusitania was one of the largest passenger ships in the world, able to carry over 2,000 occupants. Built for speed and comfort, the Lusitania was one of the fastest passenger ships in operation.

By the early 1910s, international conflict would trouble the Lusitania’s waters. In 1914, the Great War erupted with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, pulling several European nations into the hostilities due to pre-existing treaties. As a result, two of the countries who found themselves at odds were the United Kingdom and Imperial Germany.

The Atlantic Ocean was not free of this strife. German submarines had sunk a number of British merchant vessels. British passenger ships were not immune from the threat of being torpedoed either. In fact, the Lusitania was a particularly vulnerable target. It was designed so that it could be equipped with naval artillery if need be. The hull was made to resemble a battleship’s. During its final voyage, it was carrying 170 tons of Remington rifle ammunition.

On the morning the Lusitania was set to sail from New York to Liverpool, the Imperial German Embassy in Washington DC put out a newspaper notice that the Lusitania’s itinerary took it into a war zone. The Lusitania was also a British ship and therefore considered an enemy vessel by the Germans. Therefore, the embassy claimed anyone going on the ship would be doing so at their own risk.

The Lusitania’s journey went smoothly until it neared the coast of Ireland. A German submarine called the U-20 fired a torpedo that struck the ship on its starboard side. A second explosion within the ship followed the impact, though to this day scholars do not agree on what caused it.

Initially, it was believed the Lusitania was too well-constructed to sink, but the power on the ship failed quickly and soon it became clear she would not remain afloat. Efforts to launch lifeboats were hampered by the severe list of the ship. Some attempts at launch resulted in injuries and deaths. Some of the lifeboats were dragged with the ship beneath the waves. The ship sank in eighteen minutes.

After the Lusitania's encounter with the submarine, over 1,100 of the 1,959 people onboard died. One hundred and twenty-eight of the dead were Americans, a fact which would become significant once news of the sinking reached the American press.

Until that point, Americans were steadfast in their reluctance to get involved with the overseas war. President Woodrow Wilson famously ran his second presidential campaign with boasts that he had kept the country out of the conflict. However, the Lusitania incident stirred up anti-German sentiment among the American public. Those feelings would only grow stronger in time, unfortunately manifesting in prejudice against German-American immigrants. While it would take another two years for the country to officially join the war, the Lusitania’s sinking made the distant conflict more immediate to the United States.

The Sinking of the Lusitania

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On April 7, 1915, a British passenger ship called the Lusitania was sunk by a German submarine. The event became one of the defining moments of World War I. Below are some resources about the sinking of the Lusitania.

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