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A Liner, A U-boat... And History

April 2024
14min read

Those who watched from the pier knew the emotions usual at sailings. They felt the initial pain of separation as the gangplanks dropped away and the first feet of clearing water divided them from those who were departing. Then, as the eye’s focus shifted from the waving figures at the railing and took in the majestic whole of the ship now pulling back into the river, with its graceful lines beneath the gay banners fluttering from its masts, those who had been left behind felt the sting of envy as they imagined the adventure, the gaiety, and the fun that awaited those aboard during the week of freedom ahead of them.

Envy and regret were the dominant emotions on May 1, 1915, as the Cunarder Lusitania set sail from New York. A new summer season was about to begin, and many of those who stood on the dock were themselves anticipating the coming joy of a tour, despite the ugly war in Europe. To the shouted farewells were frequently added the promises of meetings somewhere across the ocean.

There were no forebodings. Those who had found time to glance through the morning’s newspapers may have noticed an official German advertisement: Americans were warned that a war zone existed around the British Isles and that they sailed on Allied vessels at their own risk. But that grim announcement attracted little attention then.

Neither those who sailed nor those who stayed behind suffered the anxieties of the threat of danger. In a few months’ time the great war in Europe would be a year old; and Americans had already become accustomed to its costs in blood and money, to its fluctuating victories and defeats. That it might touch civilians embarked on a noncombatant ship was unimaginable—ungallant as well as illegal, in an age that still associated gallantry and legality with war.

The Lusitania never reached port. The shock of its sinking—the first outraged perception of what modern war meant—turned Americans onto a course that led them further through war to an unwilling new role in a wider world.

The great vessel had been then less than eight years in service. The pride of the British merchant fleet, it was a world removed from the grimy uncomfortable craft that only a generation earlier had ferried passengers across the Atlantic. Sea travel by now had been embellished with elegance and grace; the trim decks were made for the leisurely stroll of unworried vacationers, and the concern for comfort hid every evidence that it was still the business of ships to carry goods.


In the last decades of the Nineteenth Century the great powers, engaged in an obsessive naval race, discovered that it was in the national interest to build up the size of their merchant marine. Competition from the French and Germans and Italians compelled Great Britain to fight bitterly to retain its supremacy. Direct government subsidies were everywhere thrown into the battle and relieved shipbuilders and shipowners of the necessity of taking account of costs in the effort to attract passengers.

There followed golden years. The floating palaces grew steadily in size and added luxury after luxury to their accouterments. Borrowing the style of the flamboyant resorts of the period, the designers outdid themselves in the provisions for stylish public rooms and comfortable cabins.

Yet, magically, the subsidies kept the cost of travel relatively low. An ocean voyage, once undertaken only out of necessity or daring, now became part of the commonplace glamour of a European tour. The gaily jostling dancers who so often waltzed the whole journey across never troubled to think that the subsidies had a purpose, and that that purpose was war.

The Lusitania had been commissioned at the height of the naval race; the plans approved by the Admiralty, and the cost underwritten by the British treasury. The ship was intended once and for all to demonstrate the maritime superiority of the Union Jack. This was to be the largest, swiftest, most comfortable passenger vessel in commission. She had come down the ways at Clydebank in June, 1906, built by John Brown and Company. More than a year had then been spent in fitting her out. When she sailed in September, 1907, on her maiden voyage, she was endowed with every attribute for speed and safety that British engineering could devise. She carried off the blue ribbon with ease. She was 785 feet long and 85 feet wide and was registered at 40,000 tons. She could carry 2,000 passengers and a crew of 600, and did 25 knots without difficulty.

The Lusitania had been popular from the start. If she carried less than capacity on this trip, it was not so much because of the war, as because the season had hardly started and because on eastbound voyages the steerage space reserved for the immigrant trade was usually unoccupied. As it was, the ship’s passenger list ran to 1,250 names, 188 of them American citizens.

The trip was uneventful. Shipboard life ran its usual carefree course. The travelers enjoyed the relaxing sense of detachment, within their own closed world, from the old problems they had left behind and the new ones they were approaching. The war news hardly intruded, and the crew was studiously determined to carry on imperturbably as if nothing mattered but the self-contained life of the ship.

That determination stemmed from a decision of the ship’s commander, Captain W. H. Turner. At best, the role of such a man was difficult and ambiguous. His responsibilities were numerous and not always compatible with one another. He was charged with the supervision of the complex operations of the vessel and of its large crew. It was his duty to bring his craft safely to harbor. On the other hand, he was also obliged to make the voyage as pleasant as possible for the passengers. In his planning he had always to take account of the comfort and convenience of the thousand strangers on board who were, in a manner of speaking, his guests.

The war made the dilemma more difficult. Captain Turner himself bore a commission in the naval reserves and might be called to active service at any time. He had no illusions about the seriousness of the fighting. A sister ship, the Mauretania , had already been converted to a troop carrier; the Lusitania might soon have to answer a similar summons. Indeed, as he watched more than 4,000 cases of ammunition come aboard in New York, he might have reflected that the ship was already doing its part. More than half his cargo was involved in the war effort.

Captain Turner knew also that the war was not a remote land-bound affair, but one capable of washing up against the sides of his own vessel. He had read the decrees of the Imperial German Government, proclaiming a zone around the British Isles within which the merchantmen of belligerents would be attacked; and before him were instructions from the Admiralty as to how to minimize risks. He was directed to shun the usual route, to take a zigzag course, to be constantly alert, and to ram enemy submarines if he saw them.

The captain felt uneasy in the face of these directions. Orders were orders. But then, he had other obligations as well. He could envisage the subtle spread of panic among the passengers if the change of course became known, the piercing fears that would pervade the lounges if the ship started zigzagging. Delay might upset the ship’s schedule, and in any case the stimulated tension would spoil the journey. Was it really necessary? One way or another, the decision was made: the vessel followed its usual route and ignored the Admiralty instructions.

On the morning of May 7, the Irish coast loomed on the horizon. The trip had been uneventful and the risk, it seemed, had been worth taking.

Another captain approached a rendezvous at the same spot that day. Lieutenant Commander Schweiger of the Imperial German Navy had left his base in Emden in the middle of March. His instructions were to lurk unobserved in the Irish Sea and its channels, and to attack British shipping plying in and out of Liverpool. So far he had not had much luck in his two-month cruise.

Indeed, as he somewhat glumly contemplated his situation in early May, Schweiger concluded that he had very little luck in his military career. German naval men often thought of themselves with self-pity. In their own country they were distinctly the junior service; all the honor and the glory and the rewards went to the army. When they compared themselves with their British counterparts, there was always a trace of envy at the consciousness of the vast social esteem and power that the latter enjoyed, but which they did not.

Of all naval officers, Schweiger thought himself the least fortunate. He had not even a respectable vessel to command, not even a decent wardroom in which to serve. His ship, alas, was neither elegant nor commodious. The U-20 was a submarine, an untested newcomer among naval craft and no object of respect to those who, like himself, dreamed of berths on the battleships and cruisers that were the pride of the fleet.

As the weeks dragged by, Schweiger’s patience had worn thin, and his physical energy was running out. He had attacked a few small British vessels and sunk some of them, but they were nothing worth boasting about. Other than that there had been a great deal of hard labor in the narrow confines of the tiny boat. The men were tired, supplies were running low, and further continuation of the cruise seemed pointless.

Most of all the submarine’s crew worried about its vulnerability. Apart from the concern over a new device, the principle of which they barely understood, they could see for themselves that it was not much of a ship for a fight. Even if they could always rely on its coming up alter it had gone down, it was no match for any warship or even for any armed merchantman. It was painfully slow; fortunate, indeed, if it could get up to twelve knots. Its armor was paper thin. Attacked, it could not even withdraw to the safety of submersion, for it could operate only close to the surface of the water. A single hit from even a small gun was likely to be fatal; and a vessel of moderate size used as a ram could crush the submarine like an eggshell.

The state of jitters persisted. Early in May, as his fuel sank to the danger point, Schweiger determined to head for home. The trip was hazardous. The waters of the channel and the North Sea were strewn with mines, and English naval craft were everywhere. Constant vigilance was essential. Schweiger kept his eye glued to the periscope.


On May 7 the silhouette of a large ship loomed up suddenly before him in the lens.

The first part of May, 1915, was a time of concern in Europe, not so much for the public which everywhere still had the heart to accept the optimistic headlines of the press, but for the handful of men in each of the warring nations who understood that crucial decisions were in the making. On both sides the first crafty calculations of quick victory had been exploded. The overconfident blueprints of conquest had been laid aside as control passed into the hands of sober soldiers and politicians who understood that the war would be long and hard.

A somber mood hung over London. Nine months before Foreign Secretary Grey had seen the lights go out all over Europe and had marked it down as the beginning of the end of the world that he had known. There was no cause for greater optimism now. The first German thrusts had been repulsed. But the ultimate outcome was still unclear. Many an Englishman now thought the country’s best hope for the future lay in strengthening its understanding with the United States.

The longstanding enmity between the former colony and the mother country had begun to abate toward the end of the Nineteenth Century. Old grievances had been settled and English statesmen had gone out of their way to pay court to Americans. Now and then the hope was even expressed that some day the transatlantic breach would be healed and some form of union would draw together the two “Anglo-Saxon” powers.

The outbreak of war made the rapprochement crucial, for the United States was the most powerful neutral on earth. The British launched an intensive propaganda campaign to win over the Americans to an understanding of the Teutonic menace to civilization. American aid in the form of munitions and money began to flow across the Atlantic.

For the Germans the war had begun with a series of miscalculations. All their lives the members of the General Staff and the Kaiser’s elaborate corps of imperial advisers had labored to reduce the manifold possibilities of international politics to a scientific system, mathematically coherent enough to take account of every contingency. Assuming that power A acted, while B and C did not, and E remained indecisive, then we in conjunction with F must move into phase G, prepared to deploy, on day H at I hour, J men according to scheme K. So ran the elaborate plans they spun, abstract from any immediate human consideration.

Hemmed in by formulae, and bound by the cast-iron obligations of alliances, they seemed to have lost their freedom of diplomatic maneuver. In the complex pattern of the European balance of power every event had its necessary response. If the Russians mobilized, the Germans had to declare war. If the French came in in support of the Russians, the quick thrust through Belgium was inescapable. It had all been set down in logic so tight there was no crevice through which to wiggle to an alternative.

By the spring of 1915, however, it was sadly apparent that the elaborate plans had miscarried. The Prussian tradition had always looked toward short brisk wars; and in contemplating this one the General Staff had envisaged quick knockout blows to east and west that would create the conditions for a settlement. No one had foreseen the bloody stalemate that was to bog down great armies as they took to the trenches.

For the time being the German naval command limited its operations to the destruction of Allied commerce, hoping thus to counteract the influence of the blockade. It used toward that end whatever miscellaneous corsairs it could scrape together, including a few submarines, then regarded as little more than experimental toys. In February, 1915, a war zone had been proclaimed around the British Isles within which all Allied ships were to be sunk at sight.

In the next few months an occasional sinking brought protests; Germany had after all signed various international conventions, agreeing that passengers be warned and given the opportunity to leave the ships about to be sunk. The advertisement in the New York papers of May i had been the response. Travelers intending to embark on the Lusitania had had their warning, and their opportunity.

In Washington quite a different view prevailed.

The Democrats had come back to office after sixteen years out of power. None of the party chiefs had much experience with foreign affairs.

The first place in the cabinet had gone to William Jennings Bryan as a reward for his aid in securing Wilson the nomination. Given the circumstances, the appointment was far better than anticipated.

The central problem was peace. Bryan took office in a period of high hopes. A little earlier Andrew Carnegie, setting up the endowment for international peace, had worried over the disposition of his fund when wars had ceased to exist; so near to the desired goal did men then think they were! The new secretary launched upon a program designed to further international understanding by arbitration treaties and other measures. When the war came he was terribly disappointed; but he was resolved, like his chief, that American neutrality was the best means of quieting Europe in its feverish state.

In February, 1915, the German declaration of the war zone—an illegal act—had offended the President. Bryan, foreseeing the consequences, had urged the government to forbid its citizens to expose themselves to risks that were also risks for the whole nation. But Wilson would not yield. Americans had a perfect right to travel where they wished and on what ships they chose, including those of belligerents; and the United States would hold the Germans strictly accountable for any harm that might befall them.

By May 7 he had not in the least modified this rigid position.

That day Captain Schweiger watched the ship speed across his periscope. Its name was unclear. But it was certainly British and large. A fair prize.

The time was short. The tube was ready. He ordered a torpedo released.


As he watched the course of the speeding missile, Schweiger’s heart sank in disappointment. The torpedo was obviously wide of its mark.

He had not time, however, to move back from the eyepiece when he noticed the target unaccountably veer and head directly into the path of the approaching torpedo. The torpedo struck home, and the ship quivered from the impact. Slowly she began to sink.

The U-20 stood back to watch its victim’s boats being lowered and to see the passengers taken off. Schweiger could not make out the confusion aboard, the dismay and incomprehension among those who had thought themselves almost safely ashore. He only knew that the work went slowly. Eighteen minutes later a sharp explosion tore the vessel apart. She went down stern foremost. Just before the waters closed over her proud bow, the U-boat commander could at last make out her name. His prize had been the Lusitania .

Schweiger went home to a promotion and a medal; this had been the greatest victory of the German submarine campaign.

But the sinking of the Lusitania had another deeper significance. Including the 600 crewmen almost 1,200 people had perished. A shock of revulsion passed through neutral America. Civilians, it was believed, ought not to be spattered with the blood of the battlefields. Now all the faith in the gallantry of war began to fade; those battles were not limited to the men in arms, but reached out to embrace everyone. And the Germans had been responsible.

Among those who went down with the Lusitania were more than one hundred Americans. Their death was a direct challenge to the President who had said that he would hold the Germans strictly accountable for such loss of lives. For almost two years the government of the United States tried to get Berlin to accept responsibility and to make adequate reparations. The Germans would not yield.

For the President, however, still more was involved. A principle was at stake. The submarine campaign flouted international law. To him that was clear while all else was dark and confused. The seesaw of armies across Europe made the future of that continent uncertain. Menacing moves by the Japanese threatened the stability of Asia. At home there was a brief recession, and the American economy became ever more meshed in with the needs of the Allied war machines.

By the end of the month the German Government had rejected the first American note of protest, maintaining that the attack on the Lusitania was an act of “just self-defense” and rejecting entirely the President’s contention that it was responsible for the loss of lives.

The President himself set the terms of the American rejoinder. It was phrased in words so strong that Bryan refused to sign it. The note took a position from which the United States would not in the future be able to recede, one from which there could be no response to a German rebuff but war. The secretary of state feared the dangerous slope down which the nation was plunging and resigned rather than send off the message.

Wilson did not think that war would follow, and he was right. The Germans preferred to spin out the discussions over months, and finally, almost a year after the Lusitania went down, announced the suspension of the submarine campaign.

This turn of policy was not due, however, to acceptance of Wilson’s principle or to rejection of the submarine as a weapon. The Kaiser at that juncture wished to keep the Americans mollified while the summer campaigns, newly planned, brought him victory. The issue fell into temporary abeyance, and Wilson could in good earnest claim in the campaign of that year that he had kept us out of war. Nonetheless, he now and then expressed his uneasiness; he had not withdrawn from the advanced position of the Lusitania notes, and another shift in German policy might compel him to move on to action.

In the fall and winter of 1916 the memory of the Lusitania was vivid also in other minds. The German columns moving forward were everywhere at length stopped; the snow began to cover Europe with the war still unended. More than ever it was necessary to break out of the vise of the blockade and to cut the revivifying flow of supplies that kept the Allies strong. The naval command thought back to the achievement of the U-20 . How readily the tiny craft with its handful of men had destroyed the 40,000-ton pride of the British merchant marine!

The Kaiser’s government weighed the risk. More certainly than Wilson himself they realized that this would mean war with the United States. But the Americans were remote and not mobilized; they could hardly make ready in time to affect the course of events. And the decisive calculation was this: the Lusitania had shown that submarines could be built far more quickly than the ships they destroyed. At the end of January, 1917, the Imperial German Government gave notice that it was about to resume unrestricted submarine warfare.

For Wilson the long struggle for neutrality was ended. A man of peace, he had a hatred for war; and better than most of his contemporaries he could foresee what the costs of war would be. Yet as Bryan had predicted, the stand taken in the heat of indignation at the sinking of the Lusitania compelled the President now to treat the resumption of submarine operations as an aggressive act directed against the United States. Wilson could not withdraw without an unbearable sacrifice of principle. Diplomatic relations were cut at once, and shortly a formal declaration of war associated the United States with the Allied Powers.

For Wilson, who moved reluctantly toward it, and for many Americans who welcomed their involvement innocently, almost gaily, the destruction of the Lusitania had been a turning point. Had the ship made a safe landing and Captain Schweiger proceeded disconsolately home, millions of Americans might not then have recognized the horrifying face of modern war. And without the mood of revulsion that followed, the government might not then have committed itself to a course that in time led the nation unprepared into the midst of the fighting.


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