The Lusitania Incident 

By the end of April 1915, approximately 100 British, Allied and neutral merchant vessels had been sunk by U-boat action, but it took the sinking of the 30,396 gross ton RMS Lusitania on 7th May 1915, with the loss of over 1,200 civilian lives including about 100 children, to bring home to the world the devastating and destructive nature of the submarine, which only a few years earlier had generally been regarded as a novelty.

Regardless of the intensity of the international outcry, the Imperial German Government obstinately refused to accept that the sinking of the Lusitania was a violation of international law, for had they done so at the time, any future unrestricted submarine warfare would have been difficult, if not impossible. On 11th May 1915, a communication from the Imperial German Government on the sinking of the Lusitania was sent to the neutral powers, including the United States. The note ‘deplored sincerely’ the loss of life caused by the sinking, but disclaimed all responsibility for it, and referred to the degree of blame that the British Government must bear for the deplorably serious outcome. 

The note went on to accuse Great Britain of trying to starve Germany into submission thus compelling the latter to take corresponding measures of reprisal. It further accused British merchant vessels of being habitually armed and repeatedly trying to ram German submarines, making stop and search impossible, and therefore they could not be treated as ordinary merchant vessels. With regard to the Lusitania, they maintained that as the liner, along with other Cunarders, was being used to carry munitions it was an auxiliary transport vessel and a legitimate target for attack.

The German Embassy in Washington had gone so far as to run advertisements in the New York newspapers, on the same page as Cunard’s advertisement announcing the Lusitania’s departure, to the effect that vessels flying the flag of Great Britain or any of its Allies were liable to destruction in the War Zone adjacent to the British Isles, and that travellers sailing in the War Zone on ships of Great Britain or her Allies did so at their own risk. On 13th May 1915, the President of the United States, Woodrow Wilson (1856–1924), sent the first of three Lusitania notes to Berlin. He began by saying that, in view of the recent violations of American rights on the high seas by the German authorities, culminating in the loss of lives in the Lusitania incident, it would be wise and desirable for the two Governments to come to a clear understanding as to the gravity of the situation. He continued by stating that these violations constituted a series of events which his Government observed ‘with growing concern, distress and amazement’. The note called the Imperial German Government’s attention to the fact that America’s objection to the present method of attack against the trade of their enemies lay ‘in the practical impossibility of employing submarines in the destruction of commerce without disregarding those rules of fairness, reason, justice and humanity, which all modern opinion regards as imperative …’. The President went on to say that the Government and the people of the United States looked for just, prompt and enlightened action in this matter. The note concluded:

Expressions of regret and offers of reparation in case of the destruction of neutral ships sunk by mistake, while they may satisfy international obligations, if no loss of life results, cannot justify or excuse a practice, the natural and necessary effect of which is to subject neutral nations and neutral persons to new and immeasurable risks.

It was difficult for the President to do much more than protest against the loss of American lives because the liner had been carrying a cargo of munitions destined for Germany’s enemies (a fact carefully concealed from the American people) and the cargo manifest had been altered to disguise this. The legal opinion given to the State Department at the time was that, in terms of international law, there appeared to have been a breach of the Passenger Act of the Navigation Laws of the United States.

President Wilson’s second Lusitania note, sent to Berlin on 9th June, was far more forceful and uncompromising. His attitude towards Germany’s prosecution of its submarine campaign against commerce had hardened and, reflecting the opinions of many Americans in the wake of the Lusitania outrage which resulted in the loss of 128 American citizens, he wrote on 2nd June, ‘England’s violation of neutral rights is different from Germany’s violation of the right of humanity’.

Wilson’s Secretary of State, William J. Bryan, had been, along with the President, a staunch advocate for keeping America out of the War. He now feared that the President’s demands in the draft note and its provocative tone would lead to war with Germany and he tried hard to have the language and tone moderated. In Bryan’s opinion, the President was treating the British and German maritime blockades unequally. Having become increasingly marginalised within the administration, Bryan resigned the day before the note was sent. His place was immediately taken by Robert Lansing, an international lawyer and anglophile with pro-Allied sympathies.

The Lusitania incident, much to Great Britain’s advantage, was the most publicised maritime tragedy of the First World War, and was probably the single event in the course of the War that most outraged and horrified the world. In America, the feelings of intense indignation and revulsion unleashed by the atrocity were exploited to the full by the anglophile Eastern States’ press to whip up anti-German feeling. But although the incident greatly helped to win support in America for the Allied cause, it was, contrary to a belief that is still widespread, not directly responsible for America’s entry into the War. Credit for that over the years has gone to the timely disclosure by the British of the Zimmermann telegram (see Chapter Two of Shape a course for Fastnet), almost two years later, which brought about a furious reaction and was the catalyst that swung public opinion in America, thus clearing the way for congressional approval for the War.

Before the sinking of the Lusitania, Washington was already exerting diplomatic pressure on Berlin following the sinking of the 4,806 gross ton British passenger steamer Falaba on 28th March 1915 by the U-28 off the Wexford coast close to the Coningbeg Lightvessel with the loss of 104 lives, including one American passenger, and the attack on the 5,189 gross ton American tanker Gulflight by the U-30 off the Scillies on 1st May 1915, with the loss of two American citizens. The sinking of the Lusitania greatly intensified this pressure and was the principal reason for the change of character in the U-boat campaigns from June 1915 until the beginning of the unrestricted campaign that began in February 1917. This resulted in Great Britain gaining long periods of respite from an unrestricted U-boat campaign which, had it been unleashed in 1915 or early 1916, even with the limited number of boats available, may very well have changed the course of the War.

The British naval blockade against Germany had been a challenge to Anglo-American relations since the beginning of the War when neutral vessels were stopped and searched for contraband. American merchantmen were often taken into British ports and detained for long periods while their cargoes underwent thorough inspection and their consignments of US mail were scrutinised by British Intelligence. Many in America believed that the British were using their wartime powers as a cover for taking unfair advantage over American commercial interests. Another source of irritation for the Americans was the broadening of the meaning of contraband in March 1915 to include anything bound for Germany or her neighbours. The sinking of the Lusitania had the effect of tempering America’s protests to the British Government over its contraband regulations and blockade of the German ports. Moreover, it was to influence, more than any other single factor, Washington’s hardening attitude towards the loss of American lives and vessels as a consequence of U-boat attacks.

From the outset, there was controversy concerning the exact circumstances surrounding the loss of the Lusitania, and questions were soon being asked about the Admiralty’s response to the threat to the liner and the known presence of a U-boat operating within 20 miles of Queenstown, days before Lusitania made her landfall off the Old Head of Kinsale. More than 80 years later, the debate over the fate of the Lusitania continues, with theories little changed over the years and ranging from Admiralty bungling to a sinister Machiavellian conspiracy on the part of individuals at the Admiralty who deliberately sent the great liner into an area, at reduced speed and with her escorts withdrawn, where a U-boat was known to be operating and through which she would have to pass on her way to Liverpool.

This, allegedly, was done in the hope that the Lusitania would fall victim to Germany’s well-publicised threat. If an attack occurred, it would test the legality of Germany’s U-boat offensive in the court of international public opinion. But, more important to Britain’s immediate situation, it would help to swing public opinion in America towards the Allied cause and prepare for her eventual entry into the War—for without America’s involvement in the War, Great Britain would surely face defeat.

Regardless of the facts that surrounded the atrocity, the immediate—convenient—scapegoat was the unfortunate Captain William Turner, Master of the Lusitania on her last fatal voyage. Fortunately for posterity, and central to the ongoing debate surrounding the fate of the Lusitania, the day after the sinking, a Coroner’s inquest was opened at the old courthouse in the small fishing village of Kinsale into the deaths of five victims who had been brought ashore on the steamship Heron, before the authorities began redirecting the other rescue boats to Queenstown.

When Captain Turner, as the key witness, took his place in the witness box on 10th May he was asked by the Coroner, John J. Horgan, whether he had received ‘any special instructions as to the voyage’, to which he replied he had, but was not at liberty to tell what they were and referred the matter to the Admiralty. Asked if they were carried out, he replied, ‘Yes, to the best of my ability’. During his questioning by Horgan, he said that wireless messages had been received that submarines were off the Irish coast and on entering the Danger Zone he gave orders to swing out the lifeboats and close watertight bulkhead doors. He also said, rather tellingly, that the vessel had been hit by a torpedo, followed immediately by another report, which may possibly have been internal. After the Coroner’s summing up, the jury returned the following verdict: 

That the deceased died from prolonged immersion and exhaustion in the sea eight miles south south-west of the Old Head of Kinsale on Friday, 7th May, 1915, owing to the sinking of R.M.S. Lusitania by torpedoes fired without warning by a German submarine. We find that this appalling crime was contrary to international law and the conventions of all civilised nations and we therefore charge the officers of the said submarine and the Emperor and Government of Germany, under whose orders they acted, with the crime of wilful and wholesale murder before the tribunal of the civilised world.

Circles in Whitehall had been taken completely by surprise and were alarmed when it became known that the Cork County Coroner had opened his inquest in such haste and that Captain Turner would be called to give evidence that could contradict the Admiralty’s version of events or, far worse, compromise British Naval Intelligence. As Horgan was leaving the courtroom, half an hour after the inquest concluded, he was met by the Crown Solicitor for Cork who handed him an urgent message from the Admiralty instructing him to stop the inquest and prevent Captain Turner from giving evidence. Horgan later wrote: ‘That august body were however as belated on this occasion as they had been in protecting the Lusitania against attack.’

The State was already conspiring against Turner and although in their eyes it was regrettable, to say the least, that he had given evidence in public, he was now obliged to remain silent until called to testify before a formal inquiry into the Lusitania’s demise—in circumstances and surroundings where the proceedings could be stage-managed to the State’s advantage. The Board of Trade inquiry into the sinking of the Lusitania opened in London on 15th June 1915. There was little regard for the truth as the Government’s intention was to deflect any suspicion of negligence or incompetence away from Whitehall and onto Captain Turner, but at the same time without lessening in any way Germany’s responsibility for the atrocity.

In this they were successful as the still-traumatised Turner was easy prey to the aggressive and intimidating cross-examination and put-downs of those appearing for the State: the two most senior lawyers in the country–the Attorney General (Dublin-born Sir Edward Carson) and the Solicitor General (Sir Frederick E. Smith, later Lord Birkenhead)–both of whom were formidable personalities in and outside the courtroom, and reputed to be the foremost legal minds of the British legal system of the day. Equally important for the State was the suppression of evidence that could point to an inboard detonation of contraband explosive materials. To that end, witnesses and statements were carefully selected so as to perpetuate the story of the second explosion being caused by another torpedo strike.

Interestingly, contrary to evidence he gave at the Kinsale inquest, Captain Turner was now of the opinion that two torpedoes, not one, had struck the ship. It is now universally accepted that only one torpedo was fired from the U-20. Indeed, from decoded messages by Room 40 at the Admiralty, it was known at the time that only one torpedo had been fired. And although there is still controversy over the nature of the second explosion, there can be little doubt that, whatever the cause, it hastened the liner’s demise.

When Lord Mersey, Chairman of the Commission of Inquiry, gave his judgement a month later, Captain Turner and Cunard were cleared of any wrongdoing and, in the full glare of international attention, all blame for the incident and the resulting loss of life was put squarely onto the U-20’s Commander and his superiors. However, despite Lord Mersey’s judgement, Captain Turner left the proceedings vilified in the eyes of the public and with his good reputation irreparably tarnished.

Image: The RMS Lusitania passing the Old Head of Kinsale Lighthouse outward bound for New York in 1913, close to where she was torpedoed and sunk two years later. Courtesy State Library of Victoria