by Colin Simpson
Does anybody now still care about the 1915 sinking of the Lusitania? In this centennial year of the beginning of World War I, as distinctions between civilians and combatants become ever more blurred, the death of a fabled luxury liner deserves another look.
Australian journalist Colin Simpson subtitled his 1972 study, The Lusitania, “The Startling Truth about one of the Most Fateful of all Disasters of the Sea.” The wreck of the Cunard line’s star cruise ship turned armed auxiliary of Great Britain’s Royal Navy was one of the earliest victims of the unrestricted submarine warfare of World War I. Its dead numbered nearly 1,200, close to the 1,500 who died in the sinking of Titanic.
But while the Titanic was struck by a force of nature, the reasons behind the Lusitania’s sinking are murkier.
Yes, it was hit by a torpedo fired from a German U-boat that lovely spring day off southwestern Ireland. But was it a case of mistaken identity? Or of a plot to draw the United States, 123 of whose citizens died in the disaster, into the war? Simpson saw it as an accident looking for a place to happen.
The Lusitania disaster signaled the end of an era, “the final shove that sent our world into a moral abyss from which it has still not extricated itself,” Robert D. Ballard writes in the story of his 1993 expedition to the sunken ship, Exploring the Lusitania. “Many would say that the fabric of our society has been steadily unraveling ever since that May day off the Irish coast.”
When launched in 1906, the Lusitania was the largest and fastest ship of her kind. But for nearly a century before her building, the British Admiralty had been indirectly subsidizing major passenger ship companies in return for the right to use their vessels as naval auxiliaries. As world war loomed, the Admiralty took advantage of this subsidy to outfit some forty merchant vessels, including the Lusitania, for war.
The alterations would make such ships look more like military than civilian vessels in the eyes of German U-boat commanders.
Still, the Lusitania continued regular round trips between New York and Liverpool, secure in the thought that no “civilized nation” would fire on a ship carrying civilian passengers, including passengers from a neutral country like the United States.
As the Lusitania neared Ireland, homeward bound, German submarine U-20 was also making its way into the Irish Sea. Shortly after noon local time, the U-20’s commander spotted a ship with the four funnels belonging only to the largest ships. He gave the order to dive, to chase, to fire. Startlingly, after a single torpedo hit, the Lusitania suffered a second explosion. Within minutes, she was gone.
Since such rapid sinking from a single hit seems unlikely, what was it that actually sank the Lusitania? Multiple torpedo hits (although only one was logged by U-20)? An explosion of the onboard munitions? Ballard’s verdict, after examining the ship and conferring with a British explosives expert, was¾ coal dust. Coal dust from the Lusitania’s boilers made combustible by the torpedo’s detonation, then ignited by a spark or flame.
If there really was a conspiracy to use the Lusitania’s loss to draw the U.S. into war, it misfired. Congress would wait nearly two more years, until April 6, 1917, before at last declaring war on Germany.
(Next Wednesday, Adventure classics concludes an August of adventures at sea with Jules Verne’s The Mysterious Island.)