THE SINKING OF THE LUSITANIA
In the June edition of my old Aberystwyth school newsletter, The Ardwynian, I read the story of Frederick Robert Jones, a former pupil. He had trained as an engineer at Greens Foundry in Aberystwyth, but left for Canada to work on the Canadian North and the Canadian Pacific Railways. In 1915 he decided that as an engineer he should return home to support the War effort. He booked a cabin on the first available sailing from New York to Liverpool, The RMS Lusitania.
On 10th May it was reported in The Western Mail that his parents had received a telegram from The Cunard Company stating that their son was one of those on Lusitania and that his name did not appear on the list of survivors. It was feared that he was amongst those who had perished. No trace of his body was ever found and he is commemorated on three war memorials in Aberystwyth.
The RMS Lusitania had been launched in June 1906 at the John Brown Shipyard on the Clyde. She was built as a result of negotiations between the British Government and Cunard to build two superliners capable of taking back the Blue Riband for the fastest Atlantic crossing. This was achieved on her second crossing in 1907, a record which was held for 22 years.
At the outbreak of war she was not requisitioned by The Admiralty, but continued to sail for Cunard once a month to New York. She completed four successful round trips before the last fateful voyage in May 1915.
In February 1915 the Germans had introduced a policy of unrestricted submarine warfare. The practice until then on all sides was that U Boats had been expected to stop merchant ships, and carry out a search for war contraband before sinking them. The policy change was probably due to the food and fuel shortage the Germans were experiencing due to the Allied blockade while Britain was importing vast amounts of a cargo from America and elsewhere. It might also be seen as an extension of the total war policy being waged across Europe.
The German policy was clearly spelt out in an official warning published in American Newspapers from April 1915:
Travellers intending to embark on the Atlantic Voyage are reminded that a state of war Exists between Germany and her allies and Great Britain and her allies; that the zone of war includes the waters adjacent to the British Isles; that in accordance with formal notice given by the Imperial German Government, vessels flying the flag of Great Britain or any of her allies are liable to destruction in those waters and that travellers sailing in the war zone or ships of Great Britain or her allies do so at their own risk.
Imperial German Embassy, Washington DC April 22nd 1915.
Passengers did not appear to take the threat that the ship would be sunk seriously, and there were some very well connected Americans on board. A survivor Parry Jones speaking in a BBC interview in 1962 said ‘ I don’t think anyone took much notice of this because they thought no nation would dare to go to the point of sinking a passenger liner, especially a liner so famous as RMS Lusitania ‘
At least one passenger had thought about it but was confident that if they were hit by a torpedo or mine, as the Titanic had taken three hours to sink, they might have as long as five hours to get into lifeboats on the Lusitania.
After sailing from New York on May 1st with 1,266 passengers and 696 crew, on May 7th she was approaching the coast of Ireland. There had been lots of evidence of U Boat activity in the area. On May 5th the U20 had sunk by gunfire, a schooner, The Earl of Lathom and on May 6th had fired a torpedo at, but missed the Cayo Romano, but sunk the steamer Candidate. It failed to attack the liner Arabic as it was moving too fast, but sank the cargo ship Centurion. On May 6th following radio messages Captain Turner on Lusitania did take some precautions. He posted more lookouts and closed all watertight doors. He continued to sail straight, making no attempt to zig-zag which would have made a torpedo attack more difficult. Even with reduced power he was still capable of 21knots, a U Boat could do a maximum of 12knots.
As the Lusitania sailed about twelve miles off the Old Head of Kinsale, she was spotted by the U20 who fired one torpedo which hit the ship on the starboard side. This was followed by another huge explosion, and it was this which caused the ship to sink in less than 20 minutes. A lookout, Leslie Morton, had claimed to have seen a second torpedo, but this was not the case. The second explosion could have been one of the boilers, but more likely the ignition of coal dust in the coal bunkers which were located close to the point where the torpedo hit. This is a theory supported by Robert Ballard who explored the wreck in 1993. The Germans claimed the explosion was caused by the munitions the ship was carrying.
Whatever the cause, the explosion caused the ship to list severely, and although there were enough lifeboats for all passengers, 48, only six appear to have been launched safely. One gets some idea of the panic and chaos that ensued from the stories of survivors. Mrs Jane Lewis and her husband felt they would not have survived had they not been sitting by the door in the dining room. There was a huge crush of people, with some being trampled on as people tried to make their way through the dining room to the decks. Avis Dolphin, with two nurses, got into a lifeboat which capsized when two men attempted to jump into it. Avis was rescued from the sea, but the two nurses drowned. Three stowaways, all German, had been locked in a cell below deck. They went down with the ship, as did the American multi-millionaire Alfred Vanderbilt and his valet. Amy Lea Pearce was one of many in the water who was pulled aboard an upturned lifeboat. Alice Page was more fortunate as she was in a lifeboat, a baby in her arms, and all those on board sang hymns while awaiting rescue. An American Paul Crompton was a director of the Booth Steamship Company and was travelling with his wife Gladys and their six children and their nurse. All went down with the ship.
The total number of those lost was 1,191, with 786 passengers and 405 crew. There was a huge sense of shock and there was widespread condemnation on both sides of the Atlantic, with a shift of opinion in favour of the Allies.
Some claim it was why there was no attempt at fraternization in 1915 as had happened at Christmas 1914, but I have seen no evidence for this. The anger felt was certainly a spur to recruitment on both sides of the Atlantic. An American poster by Fred Spear recalls the drowning of an American mother and child and the word Enlist. There was also much mocking on posters of the German claim to be a cultured nation.
There was discussion as to whether as the cargo on board contained ‘rifle/machine gun ammunition, shrapnel artillery shells without powder charges and artillery fuses’ made her a legitimate target. The public had no time for such claims and regarded the sinking as yet another example of German ‘frightfulness’.
America’s President Wilson sent the German Government a number of notes warning of strict accountability for any further actions. The Germans abandoned unrestricted U Boat warfare in September 1915, and when it was re- introduced in February 1917, America broke off diplomatic ties and declared war on Germany in April 1917.
The American Journalist Phillip Gibbs wrote in 1918 that American troops went into battle with the cry of ‘Lusitania’.
Kapitanleutnant Walter Schweiger of the U20 was on the U88 when it hit a mine and was lost with all hands in September 1917.