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The sinking of the Lusitania (1915)

Some facts about the Lusitania

     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.

Case studies


An ad for the steamship company Cunard and a notice to travelers published by the German embassy in the New York newspapers in 1915.
Source: educational website

HD download

What criticism was Germany trying to avoid with the publishing of this warning?

A 1915 Irish propaganda poster
Source: Imperial War Museum website
Drawn by W E T, printed by John Shuley and Co, Dublin, published by the Central Council for the Organization of recruiting in Ireland
HD download

What was the political situation of Ireland in 1915?
Why was it a special challenge to convince Irishmen to enlist in the British army?

A 1915 British propaganda poster

Source: Imperial War Museum website
Probable author: the Parliamentary Recruiting Committee

HD download

Does it sound like an historically accurate story?
What is the point of this poster?

The Sinking of the Lusitania, the animated film

The Sinking of the Lusitania, released in 1918, is a  short animated film by American artist Winsor McCay.
Source: US archive website
Download the video

Télécharger : CDL/anglais/Lusitania.mp4

Is the movie historically accurate?

Completing the task

Characters you could decide to choose:
Captain Turner, Captain Schweiger, a passenger on the Lusitania, the artist who signed his poster W. E. T., a member of the Parliamentary Recruiting Committee who supervised the making of the propaganda poster, an Irish civilian who is shocked but doesn’t know if he wants to enlist, Winsor McCay, an American who is shocked but doesn’t know if the USA should enter the war, etc. It could be interesting to have the two captains argue over whether the sinking was justified or not.
Mise à jour le 11 novembre 2013
Créé le 11 juillet 2013
ISSN 2107-7029
DGESCO Clé des Langues