The sinking of the Lusitania: A century-old "maritime grassy knoll"


A century-old mystery beneath the waves remains unsolved as we enter this New Year. It involves the sinking of the ocean liner Lusitania during the First World War. Martha Teichner takes us back:

Before air travel, the departure of a great liner was considered news … and Cunard’s Lusitania was the greatest, the fastest, the most luxurious liner afloat on May 1, 1915 as she prepared to leave New York City for Liverpool.

It was news that the glamorous and rich Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt was aboard, a member of the “Just Missed It Club” (people who had booked on the Titanic, but cancelled at the last minute).

And it was news that in the morning papers that day, Germany – at war with Great Britain – published a warning, that vessels flying the British flag, or the flag of any of her allies, were subject to attack as they passed through the waters off the British Isles.
“Even though it made no mention of the Lusitania, it was widely interpreted to be aimed at the ship,” said Erik Larson, the author of the New York Times bestseller, “Dead Wake,” about the Lusitania.

“The prevailing view was that the Lusitania was too big, too fast to ever be caught by a German submarine,” he told Teichner. “Also, there was this other idea that no German commander would try to sink it in the first place, because it was a passenger liner.”


What mystery? The Lusitania was sunk by a German U-boat.


There are unanswered questions as to whether the ship was carrying ammunitions or materials which could have contributed directly to the war effort when it was sunk. The fact the British have several times attempted to destroy the wreck with depth charges has led to those questions been raised again and again. They can no longer do so as the Lusitania is now in Irish waters but the ports were not returned to Ireland in the area of the Irish Free State till well after the Anglo-Irish treaty. However in recent years divers on the wreck (or rather what’s left of it as it’s rather like Swiss cheese by all accounts) have recovered bullets and munitions of types used by the British military of the day. The Germans claimed that was why the ship was targeted. There’s also been arguments put forward that it was carrying a a large ammount of bauxite which was used in the product of munitions.

The Irish Navy in their early years when they were a tiny force (well they still are really) reported) having to ask Royal Navy ships to leave the area and suspected that more depth charges were been thrown down on the wreck. It’s noteable that when there was an underwater survey done and the results appeared in a documentary at least one depth charge was found unexploded on the wreck. Also some of the entries in the ships cargo log are rather bizarre, you have a well known explosives make listed as shipping a large consignment of furs and you have other oddities like that.


Now that five generations and another world war have intervened, what is there about that tragic ship that would be worth keeping secret?

It is time for all sides just to admit that hideous things are not just a result of war, they are inherently a part of waging one.



If the ship was carrying munitions or war materials then although it cannot alter past history it would shed doubts on British claims that this was not the case. Put it this way considering how often the wreck has been used for target practice and had depth charges etc.dropped on her the implications are that the British knew she was carrying such items and deliberately put civilians in danger and covered that up after the sinking.


I think it’s fairly well established that the Lusitania was carrying arms. It was even referenced in a BBC production from 1965, “The Great War” (available on youtube).


Indeed. Of course, there was no way at the time that the Germans could prove it unless they had evidence through espionage. Still, they could have forced her to return to port instead of torpedoing a ship that would result in hundreds if not thousands of innocent lives being lost. The Germans were in the wrong.


Agreed! I am a big fan of Erk Larson so I plan to read this book. I believe the Germans were very much in the wrong!


Arguably, the Brits may have been partially in the wrong, if as some assert, it was sent into the submarine belt with a bad engine, which kept it from outrunning the U-boats; or the idea of sending munitions on a passenger liner to begin with. Munitions on board a ship arguably made it a valid target of war.

It has even been suggested by some that GB deliberately risked the ship in the expectation that numerous Americans drowning in a U-boat attack would force the USA into the war on the Allied side.



There are other issues that fuel “conspiracy” (on the part of the British) theories: Captain Turner did not have all his boilers lit as he approached British waters; he was going significantly slower than Lusitania was capable of. British escort ships weren’t sent out to accompany Lusitania. A couple of new books came out last year on the 100th anniversary of the sinking, well worthwhile. Not that Great Britain would have deliberately endangered all those lives - exactly - but some think that to the degree the ship’s sinking aided in bringing the U.S. into WWI, the loss of Lusitania wasn’t entirely unwelcome. The munitions don’t seem to have been the huge secret that most think - they were apparently listed on the ship’s manifest filed in New York.




Germany knew that America was sending stuff to Great Britain, Lusitania was not the first ship with “illegal cargo”.


Everybody knows she was carrying munitions.

Also, the impact of the Lusitania on the US entry into the war is overblown. She went down in 1915, the US didn’t enter the war until 1917. And she wasn’t the only passanger ship sunk by the Germans.

And the US entered the war only after Germany repoened unrestrcited submarine warfare. Had the Germans not done that, the US probably wouldn’t have entered the war.


As others have said, I think it’s almost universally believed that the Lusitania was carrying munitions. The BBC News aired a centenary documentary a few months back that explicitly stated this.


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