The Lusitania was a British passenger and cargo ship used on transatlantic routes. It was famous for being a very luxurious floating palace with an incredible speed.
On May 1, 1915 the Lusitania, under the command of Captain William Turner, set sail from New York to Liverpool. On May 7, it crossed paths with the German U-boat off the coasts of Southern Ireland. At around 2:10 pm, the German U-boat, under the command of Captain Walther Schweiger, fired a single torpedo, without warning. This caused a large explosion, which set off a violent secondary blast coming from the bottom of the ship. The Lusitania tilted to its right side and sank after 18 minutes.
The losses were high: 1,195 of the 1,959 on board died, including a little more than 120 Americans. Because the Lusitania tilted as she sunk, the lifeboats on the left hand side could not be launched. And because of the threat created by the German submarine activity, nearby ships were slow to come to the Lusitania’s rescue. Captain Turner himself was washed clear off the bridge as the ship sank, and survived after spending more than three hours in the water.
Captain Turner’s decisions came under scrutiny after the sinking. He did stay close to shore, in spite of the repeated warnings he had received of German submarine activity. He also decided not to zigzag, a classic tactic against the threat of submarines. Finally, he reduced the speed of the ship as he was worried by the fog.
The sinking of the Lusitania caused a great deal of controversy. Was Germany justified to sink the Lusitania? The laws of war said that passenger ships could not be sunk. But merchant ships could, after their crews and passengers had been given time to find a safe place. Germany felt justified because it thought the Lusitania was ferrying Canadian soldiers and heavy military equipment, which British authorities denied.
And was it justifiable to attack without a warning? On the one hand, submarines were at that time fragile and slow. For them to give a warning would imply running a major risk to see their target flee. On the other hand, the laws of war demanded that a warning be sent before an attack against a merchant ship. But Germany did warn of its intentions when it published a notice in the US newspapers…
The public opinion swung in favor of Britain. Fierce anti-German riots occurred in many countries. The United States in particular was very critical of the sinking and the loss of American lives.