On May 7th, 1915 the passenger liner Lusitania was sunk by the German U-boat, U-20. This event, more than any other, led to the U.S. entering the war, ensuring an ultimate German defeat.
This episode will delve into the facts and controversies surrounding the sinking of the Lusitania, in an attempt to explore the question: If the U.S. public had known then what we know today, would the U.S. have entered the war?
The Lusitania was proceeding along along the usual trade route without zigzagging at little more than three-quarter speed when, at 2.10 P.M. on May 7th (1915), she was torpedoed eight miles off the Old Head of Kinsdale by Commander Schwieger in the German submarine U.20… In twenty minutes she foundered by the head, carrying with her 1,195 persons, of whom 291 were women and 94 infants or small children. This crowning outrage of the U-boat war resounded through the world. The United States, whose citizens had perished in large numbers, was convulsed with indignation, and in all parts of the great Republic the signal for armed intervention was awaited by the strongest elements of the American people. It was not given, and the war continued in its destructive equipoise. But henceforward the friends of the Allies in the United States were armed with a weapon against which German influence was powerless, and before which after a lamentable interval cold-hearted policy was destined to succumb.
Even in the first moments of realizing the tragedy and horror, I understood the significance of the event.
Churchill, The World Crisis Volume II, page 255.
Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty, on the sinking of the Lusitania as described in the second volume of his seminal work on the first World War: “The World Crisis”.
I’m Greg Campbell, and you’re listening to the pivotal history podcast episode one: The Lusitania.
What does it take to bring a country, one which prides itself on neutrality, into a war which, on the surface, doesn’t directly impact it, and there’s nothing obvious that should motivate it to get involved?
Take the United States in 1914 at the outbreak of WWI. Of the 92 million people in the United States, 8.8 million were first of second generation Germans. That’s basically 10% of the population being German. And even amongst the non-Germans, the public opinion at that time was overwhelmingly against any involvement in the war. Americans wanted no part in another one of Europe’s wars, and they had little interest in fighting on behalf of their former colonial master.
And yet, in just a few short years popular opinion will shift 180 degrees and the United States will be sending more than a million men to fight and die in European trenches. This infusion of men and supplies into the European theatre was pivotal in forcing the armistice on the Germans. Equally vital was that American supplies, both military and non-military, continued to pour into the Allies (namely Britain and France), despite them being essentially bankrupt in the final years of the war. In just the last 18 months of the war, loans from the U.S. to Allies totalled more than $7 billion. It is quite probable that had the U.S. not entered the war, the Allies would have been forced to a negotiated peace by that economic reality alone.
So how did the shift in American public opinion happen? There isn’t a single answer, but of all the contributing factors, the sinking of the Lusitania is usually cited as the watershed moment.
So that’s what I want to unpack in this episode. I want to use the hindsight of history to peer back into the context, the circumstances and events, that lead to the sinking of the Lusitania. 100+ years removed from the event we are privy to many important details that people at the time simply didn’t know. The more I researched the sinking the more I kept being struck by the key question: If people at the time had know the whole truth, would America have still entered the war?
It’s an important question. Without the U.S. coming into the war, without the massive financial aid that America provided to the Allies, without the diplomatic pressure the U.S. placed on Germany which influenced the way Germany fought the war, I believe it is likely that Germany would not have capitulated, and there would instead have been a negotiated peace, possibly even a peace that left Germany in a stronger position than Britain and France. We can’t know what line that alternate history would have taken, but we can say that without Germany being forced into a humiliating and crippling armistice at the end of the war certain key events of our history would not have occurred. Most likely Adolf Hitler never taps into the resentment and anger of the German people. Most likely there is no World War II. Most likely there is no Bolshevik revolution in Russia, or at least not in 1917.
This episode is about the Lusitania and her story, but in order to tell that story I’ll spend a good part of the episode setting the context and describing the geo-political state of affairs that set the stage for her sinking. Because, you see, in many ways the Lusitania’s sinking was almost inevitable as a result of that geo-political situation.
German Naval Arms Buildup
Let’s dive in and start our story by talking about the naval arms race the occurred between Britain and Germany before World War One. This serves as a good starting point because it is precisely this naval arms race that results in the construction of the Lusitania.
Germany, one must remember was, in the late 1800s, still an infant nation. Throughout most of the 1800s, the region we now know as Germany consisted to Prussia and many small independent German States, with part of the eventual landmass of Germany still incorporated into the Austrian Empire. Starting in 1834 Prussia started seeking to expand its influence into the northern German states with a series of treaties and agreements, and then in 1864 she fights a war with Denmark, followed by a way with Austria in 1866. The victory of Prussia in these two wars greatly expands her influence with the German states, thus increasing her strength. France watches the Prussian expansion with growing concern. France was traditionally the dominant land power in Europe, and, determined to maintain this position, declares war on Prussia in 1870. This is known today as the Franco-Prussian War or the War of 1870.
Prussia was able to quickly defeat France and the conflict had two major long-term consequences for the French. First, the French lost the regions of Alsace and Lorraine to the Prussians. And second, the conflict had the effect of bringing the German states ever closer to Prussia culminating in the proclamation of the German Empire in January of 1871.
Overnight the dominant land power in Europe, starting in 1897, Germany sets it sights on challenging British naval dominance kicking off what has become know to history as the Anglo-German naval arms race. Under Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz the Germans launch an ambitious ship building campaign, and throughout the early 1900s drastically increase their naval strength. In a few years their navy, having started from being the sixth largest, is now a strong second only to Britain. This is a time period of rapid technological change, especially as it relates to state of the art warships. It is during this period the massive dreadnaught class battleships are being build, and older ships are quickly made obsolete.
In addition to the German naval arms buildup, there were other dynamics unfolding on the realm of commercial shipping during the pre-war period that were also causing concern at the British Admiralty.
In the early nineteen hundreds the Atlantic shipping routes were dominated by the British, French and Germans, and the competition amongst the various shipping companies was so fierce that the companies were making little profit for their shareholders. Into this situation entered JP Morgan, the famed American banker with a knack for creating monopolies in various industries. It was JP Morgan that consolidated the steel industry under U.S. Steel, created General Electric, was one of the key players owing and controlled the American railroad system. The process he used to gain such control of entire industries bears his name to this day: Morganization. Morganization refers to the process of identifying an industry with low margins, consolidating all the various companies in that industry into one conglomerate, and then using the resultant monopoly to raise prices.
Well, in 1900 JP Morgan set his eyes on the trans-Atlantic passenger and shipping business creating a new company International Mercantile Marine or IMM, which bought up many of the existing shipping companies British and Germany alike. Those companies it didn’t buy were convinced to enter into cartel like arrangements by [[JP Morgan]] who leveraging his control of railway shipping prices: Join JP Morgan’s IMM and get rail shipping at a good rate; resist and rail shipping becomes prohibitively expensive. In addition, International Mercantile Marine started blacklisting any travel agents who booked business on any ship not part of the new cartel.
The British Admiralty watched this consolidation with growing concern and against the backdrop of the German naval arms buildup which is at this point in full swing. They were wary of JP Morgan whom they feared had German sympathies. Morgan had bought or entered agreement with most of German shipping companies, as well as a British shipping company called The White Star Line, which was one of the two largest shipping companies in Britain. The White Star Line is probably best remembered to history as the company that owned the Titanic. In the midst of all these acquisitions and consolidations JP Morgan attended at least two private dinners with the German Kaiser.
In addition, the German Navy made arrangements with the two dominate German shipping companies Hamburg-Amerika and Nord Deutscher Lloyd to requisition their liners in times of war. The idea was that if Germany went to war, these ships would become part of the German Navy overnight, and used as troop transports, or fitted with guns to be used as armed criusers. Many of the liners were fitted with gun platforms in advance so as to make the transition to armed cruiser as quick as possible. And these German liners were quite capable of being effective naval platforms. During this time there was something called the blue ribbon awarded to the ship that had the fastest time crossing the Atlantic. The speculation is that it was the pursuit of the blue ribbon on her maidan voyage that cause the Titanic disaster. Well, during the late 18 and early 19 hundreds, the largest German vessels jockeyed back and forth for the blue ribbon, and they were leaving the British liners, quite literally, in their wake. Not only that, but the the German liners were known for being smoother and more luxurious than their British competition.
The idea of requisitioning civilian ships for use during wartime was not something the Germans invented. For many years the British Admiralty had subsidized the British shipping companies in exchange for the right to requisition their ships during times of war. During both the Crimean and Boer wars, the Admiralty had exercised this right and used civilian liners as troop transports.
The British Move to Ensure Continued Naval Dominance
And so this is the situation as the British saw it in 1902: The German Navy has exploded in size. It has plans to grow itself much larger in the coming years. It has the ability to quickly convert many of the marque civilian vessels of the day into armed cruisers. Add to this an American banker, who appears to have German sympathies, has consolidated almost the entire trans-Atlantic shipping industry into a single conglomerate.
Just a quick side note: During the war JP Morgan actually turned out to be pro-Allies, raising loans of more than $2 billion in 1914 dollars, but in 1902 the British considered him suspect and so their response in 1902 is in light of that concern.
Anyways, the British respond in a couple of ways.
First, legislation was passed in British parliament to forbid the transfer of any of the ships that had fallen into the control of JP Morgan’s conglomerate off the British registry. This is a significant move. International law requires that each ship be registered in a country, and the ships are then subject to the laws of the country they get registered in, which is know as it’s flag state. The flag state has the right to certify and inspect a registered ship at any time, and may prevent it from sailing or otherwise compel it to perform certain actions. So, by blocking the transfer of British registered ships to the registry of other countries, Britain was able to maintain a level of control over the ships that had fallen into the hands of Morgan.
The second response the British made in 1902 is more relevant to our story: The Admiralty approached the largest British shipping company not yet under the control of Morgan, a company called Cunard. As it turns out, Cunard and Morgan were actually already in negotiations to add Cunard to Morgan’s cartel. The British blocked this acquisition by essentially making Cunard an offer they couldn’t refuse. At the time Cunard was already falling behind its rivals in the Trans-Atlantic shipping competition and was finalizing the design of two massive liners they hoped would bring them back into competitiveness. The British government proposed to pay for the entire construction of these two ships in the form of a loan with very favourable repayment terms, and also provide Cunard with a large annual operating allowance for running the two ships.
It sounds like a great deal for Cunard, and it was, but there was a catch. As described by Colin Simpson in his book “The Lusitania”:
The Admiralty stipulated that Cunard should defer on all questions of design and construction; that the ships were to be built to Admiralty specifications and under Admiralty survey; that in the threat of hostilities they were to be withdrawn immediately from service so as to be fully converted to armed cruisers, and that on the outbreak of war they were to be placed under Admiralty command. Cunard was required to guarantee that control of the company would never pass outside British hands, that in time of war it would place its entire fleet at the Admiralty’s disposal, and that at all times the crews of the two liners would have a proportion of their officers and men drawn from the Royal Naval Reserve.
– Simpson, The Lusitania, page 18.
These two ships became the Lusitania and her sister ship the Maurentania, and on September 7th 1907 Lusitania entered service. At the time she was the largest ship afloat, and she also promptly became the fastest, capturing the Blue Riband on her second crossing of the Atlantic. She also proved to be an incredible tough ship. In January 1910 she took a direct hit from a ship-killing 80 foot rogue wave that came clear over the ship. The force of the wave pushed the bridge back several inches, but Lusitania otherwise escaped any serious damage.
From 1907 until outbreak of hostilities in 1914 the Lusitania proved to be a remarkably profitable ship for Cunard, and was preferred by regular trans-Atlantic passengers for her speed and luxury.
Britain Wins the Naval Arms Race
There was a third action taken by Britain in response to the German naval arms buildup at the start of the century: Britain embarked upon a massive naval arms buildup of her own, fielding large numbers of new advanced battleships and heavy cruisers.
By the start of 1914, just before the war, the Germans realize that they’ve effectively lost the naval arms race. Britain remained the world’s dominate naval power ruling the seas with a force including 29 large battleships and heavy cruisers to Germany’s 17. Britain also maintained a secure dominance in its quantity of smaller warships, including light cruisers and destroyers.
With the realization that they would not be able to win the naval arms race with Britain, the Germans quietly switch tactics and decided to focus production on a new kind of naval weapon, one that could circumvent the surface dominance of the British: The Germans start building U-boats. The British are initially not aware of this new build-up, and even once they become aware they are slow to appreciate the emerging threat of this new kind of weapon.
Start of the War
In June of 1914, the assassination of the Austrian arch-duke Franz Ferdinand starts the dominos rolling on the conflict that will become WWI. By the end of July interlocking treaties have resulted in Germany declaring war on France, and in accordance with the Von Schlieffen plan, Germany invades neutral Belgium on their way around the French defences. This violation of Belgium neutrality triggers the British to declare war on Germany.
I want to sidetrack into the laws and customs surrounding blockades and the interdiction of merchant ships by armed vessels. The goals here are first, to understand the legitimacy of the British blockade, and second, to understand the legal framework which exists when Germany decides to unleash its U-boat fleet against Allied merchant shipping.
Since the 17th century the so-called “Cruiser Rules” had governed the interactions between armed ships the merchant vessels. From the Wikipedia article on the topic:
The essence of cruiser rules is that an unarmed vessel should not be attacked without warning. It can be fired on only if it repeatedly fails to stop when ordered to do so or resists being boarded by the attacking ship. The armed ship may only intend to search for contraband (such as war materials) when stopping a merchantman. If so, the ship may be allowed on its way, as it must be if it is flying the flag of a non-belligerent, after removal of any contraband. However, if it is intended to take the captured ship as a prize of war, or to destroy it, then adequate steps must be taken to ensure the safety of the crew. This would usually mean taking the crew on board and transporting them to a safe port. It is not usually acceptable to leave the crew in lifeboats. This can only be done if they can be expected to reach safety by themselves and have sufficient supplies and navigational equipment to do so.
So these Cruiser Rules seem like a fairly common sense and humane approach to dealing with armed vessels preventing goods from reaching an enemy. Importantly note the importance of the flag being flown when it comes to Cruiser Rules. Even if the merchant ship is found to be carrying contraband, it must be allowed to go on its way unharmed if it flies the flag of a non-belligerent nation. Only if the ship flies the flag of a belligerent nation can she be sunk, and then only if the crew are not harmed.
Declaration of London
Just a few years before the war, in 1909, the international community, as an outcome of a series of meetings held in Britain over the course of a year, issued a document called the Declaration of London, which was really a refinement and formalization of the Cruiser Rules into a legal document. Included as signatories on the Declaration of London were most European powers (including Germany), as well as the United States. The Declaration laid out in detail a set of international rules intended to govern naval warfare in future conflicts and specifically the rules around blockades, contraband, and prize. Those most relevant for our purposes are:
- First, any blockade must be limited to the ports belonging to the enemy. You can’t just go blockading entire regions, neutral countries, nor can your blockades be far from the coasts of the enemy.
- Second, you must possess the naval superiority required to effectively impose the blockade.
- Any ship which intentionally breaches the blockade is subject to seizure.
- Blockades must still allow ships through, the blockade just establishes the list of items considered contraband, which are subject to seizure. The idea is that the blockading force has the absolute right to inspect all ships for contraband.
- The list of what can be considered contraband under the Declaration is pretty much everything. Article 22 of the Declaration lays out a long list of obvious war materials that are contraband, by Article 24 vastly expands this list:
Art. 24. The following articles and materials susceptible of use in war as well as for purposes of peace are, without notice, regarded as contraband of war, under the name of conditional contraband:
(2) Forage and grain suitable for feeding animals.
(3) Clothing and fabrics for clothing, boots and shoes, suitable for military use.
(4) Gold and silver in coin or bullion; paper money.
(5) Vehicles of all kinds available for use in war, and their unassembled parts.
(6) Vessels, craft, and boats of all kinds, floating docks, parts of docks, as also their unassembled parts.
- Article 25 goes on to provide provisions for the state imposing the blockage to essentially add anything they want to the list of contraband. All they have to do is issue a proclamation to that effect.
Art. 25. Articles and materials susceptible of use in war as well as for purposes of peace, and other than those enumerated in articles 22 and 24, may be added to the list of conditional contraband by means of a declaration.
So, as you can see, the Declaration of London is extremely permissive when it comes to the legalization of the blockade, even a total blockade including food to feed the civilian population, provided it is contained to just the enemy coasts.
Towards the end of the Declaration, several articles deal with sinking of merchant ships during war:
Art. 48. A captured neutral vessel is not to be destroyed by the captor, but must be taken into such port as is proper in order to determine there the rights as regards the validity of the capture.
Art. 49. As an exception, a neutral vessel captured by a belligerent ship, and which would be liable to condemnation, may be destroyed if the observance of article 48 would involve danger to the ship of war or to the success of the operations in which she is at the time engaged.
Art.50. Before the destruction, the persons onboard must be placed in safety, and all the ship’s papers and other documents which those interested consider relevant for the decision as to the validity of the capture must be taken on board the ship of war.
The idea here is that a ship that is caught with contraband and subject to seizure under the blockade rules cannot be sunk under normal circumstances. Only in exceptional situations where taking the seized ship to port would endanger the blockading ship or cause the blockade itself to be compromised can the captured ship to sunk, and then only if everyone is first evacuated from the condemned ship.
So, here we have the rough rules of naval warfare heading into World War I: Blockades targeting specific enemy coasts are legal, and those blockades can even target food. But, blockading navies can’t just go around sinking ships found with contraband in violation of the blockade; those ships must be taken to port as a prize, or in exceptional cases sunk only after everyone on aboard has been evacuated.
U.S. Presses for Adherence to Declaration of London
Getting back to our story, as war broke out, a flurry of diplomatic cables were sent by the United States in an attempt to ensure all combatant nations would abide by the principles laid out in the Declaration of London.
On the side of the Central Powers, such assurances were quickly received via telegrams:
Telegram: From the U.S. ambassador in Austria-Hungary to the U.S. Secretary of State, August 13th, 1914:
Austria-Hungarian Government have instructed their forces to observe stipulations of Declaration of London as applied to naval as well as land warfare during present conflict conditional on like observance on part of the enemy.
Telegram. From the U.S. ambassador in Germany to the U.S. Secretary of State, August 22nd, 1914:
The German Government will apply the Declaration of London, provided its provisions are not disregarded by other belligerents.
So far so good. The major Central Powers have provided very concise and positive responses and they’ve committed to the principals of the Declaration. But what about the British?
Telegram. From the U.S. State Department to the U.S. ambassador in Britain, August 6th, 1914.
Mr. Bryan (that’s the U.S. Secretary of State) instructs Mr. Page (that’s the U.S. ambassador to Britain) to inquire whether the British Government is willing to agree that the laws of naval warfare as laid down by the Declaration of London of 1909 shall be applicable to naval warfare during the present conflict in Europe provided that the Governments with whom Great Britain is or may be at war also agree to such application. Mr. Bryan further instructs Mr. Page to state that the Government of the United States believes that an acceptance of these laws by the belligerents would prevent grave misunderstandings which may arise as to the relations between neutral powers and the belligerents. Mr. Bryan adds that it is earnestly hoped that this inquiry may receive favorable consideration.
Telegram. From British Minister of Foreign Affairs to U.S. Ambassador to Britain, August 22nd, 1914.
I have the honor to inform your excellency that His Majesty’s Government, who attach great importance to the views expressed in your excellency’s note and are animated by a keen desire to consult so far as possible the interests of neutral countries, have given this matter their most careful consideration and have pleasure in stating that they have decided to adopt generally the rules of the declaration in question, subject to certain modifications and additions which they judge indispensable to the efficient conduct of their naval operations. A detailed explanation of these additions and modifications is contained in the inclosed memorandum.
The memorandum essentially went on to add items to the the list of contraband, expand the zone of the blockade beyond the specific coastal waters of Germany, and expand the rights of the British to later capture ships which had eluded the blockade. The other major Allied powers, Russia and France, agreed to adhere to the Declaration subject to the same modifications as the British.
Effectiveness of blockade
The British blockade proved highly effective, and indeed may have been a key factor in the ultimate Allied victory. The Nationalarchives.uk.gov puts it as follows:
…most historians still maintain that the ‘hunger blockade’ contributed hugely to the outcome of the First World War. By 1915, German imports had fallen by 55% from pre-war levels. Aside from causing shortages in important raw materials such as coal and various non-ferrous metals, the blockade cut off fertiliser supplies that were vital to German agriculture.
Staple foodstuffs such as grain, potatoes, meat and dairy products became so scarce by the winter of 1916 that many people subsisted on a diet of ersatz products that ranged from so-called ‘war bread’ (Kriegsbrot) to powdered milk. The shortages caused looting and food riots, not only in Germany, but also in the Habsburg cities of Vienna and Budapest, where wartime privations were felt equally acutely.
And later in the same document and speaking of the German attempts to impose rationing to avoid widespread starvation:
Such schemes, however, enjoyed only limited success. The average daily diet of 1,000 calories was insufficient even for small children. Disorders related to malnutrition – scurvy, tuberculosis and dysentery – were common by 1917.
Official statistics attributed nearly 763,000 wartime deaths in Germany to starvation caused by the Allied blockade. This figure excluded the further 150,000 German victims of the 1918 influenza pandemic, which inevitably caused disproportionate suffering among those already weakened by malnutrition and related diseases.
Churchill’s Controversial Orders
The German navy, as much as it had grown during the naval arms race at the start of the 20th century, was in no position to directly challenge the British blockage. So, they turned to the one weapon that they had: The U-boat. Initially the U-boats adhered to Cruiser Rules and the Declaration of London. German U-boats would surface, order the intercepted merchant ship to halt, and usually proceed to search and then sink the merchantman once all crew were evacuated.
But, the British quickly adapt their tactics to make it impossible for the U-boats to operate under Cruiser Rules.
From Simpson’s “The Lusitania”:
From October 1914 onward a steady stream of inflammatory orders were issued to the masters of British merchant ships. It was made an offense to obey a U-boat’s order to halt. Instead masters must immediately engage the enemy, either with their armament if they possessed it, or by ramming if they did not. Any master who surrendered his ship was to be prosecuted, and several were. The World Crisis (that’s Churchhill’s book on WWI) again identifies both the strategy and the responsibility (now quoting from Churchill):
The first British countermove, made on my responsibility ... was to deter the Germans from surface attack. The submerged U-boat had to rely increasingly on underwater attack and thus ran the greater risk of mistaking neutral for British ships and of downing neutral crews and thus embroiling Germany with other Great Powers.
(Simpson now continues) In order to assist the making of such a mistake, the Admiralty issued an instruction ordering all British ships to paint out their names and ports of registry, and when in British waters to fly the flag of a neutral power. These orders were distributed from the Admiralty to all shipping companies, and on the copy sent to Cunard (remember that’s the shipping company which owns Lusitania) is the manuscript annotation, “Pass the word around that the flag to use is the American”.
– Simpson, The Lusitania, page 36.
Let’s unpack this a little. First of all, I’m sure most of you listening know who Winston Churchill was, at least as it relates to World War II. During World War one, Churchill was the Lord of the Admiralty, or the head of the British navy, which was an incredible position for one as young Churchill was at the time. As Lord of the Admiralty, Churchill had ultimate authority of the British navy and it was he who put in place the policies described above.
I probably don’t need to belabour the point here about how provocative these orders were. Clearly it is going to get the attention of U-boat commanders when, in accordance with Cruiser Rules, they surface to confront a merchant ship, only to have the merchant ship turn on them and attempt to ram. And this is exactly what started happening, since the alternative to merchant captains was to disobey Churchill’s order and be prosecuted.
Now I think we can look at Churchill’s orders with two different lenses:
First, I think we need to pragmatically acknowledge that these orders were absolutely effective in complicating U-boat operations in the Atlantic. From this viewpoint, the orders are effective as a tactic of war. Churchill is on a fight for the survival of Britain. Part of winning that fight will require other neutral countries turn away from Germany and in favour of Britain. The propaganda battle, the manipulation of opinion, the creation of incidents which will reflect poorly on the Germans is absolutely a part of the battle. You know it’s easy to sit back when you are not a leader in a nation under existential threat, and judge the morality of various actions. But I think, given the circumstances we can at least understand how such orders would be given.
But even in light of that, I think we have to also acknowledge, and Churchill himself is absolutely explicit here, that one of the goals is indeed to cause other great nations to be drawn into the war on the side of the Allies. There can be no mistake here: Churchill is attempting to manufacture conditions which will lead to the sinking of neutral vessels, the death of innocents, in order to draw other great nations into the war. His orders are in contravention most every long established custom of naval warfare, and they guarantee that the war at sea must devolve into a new level of immorality which will result in many deaths. Churchill is playing a game of dispassionate chess, and he aims to shift public opinion by any means necessary:
From Churchill’s book “The World Crisis”:
The distinction between politics and strategy diminishes as the point of view is raised. At the summit true politics and strategy are one. The maneuver which brings an ally into the field is as serviceable as that which wins a great battle.
- Churchill, The World Crisis.
To make matters more complicated for U-boat captains, not only did the British start arming many of the merchant ships, but the British also started fielding the so-called Q-boats into the normal U-boat hunting grounds around Ireland. You’ll also hear these ships referred to as the mystery ships or as Churchill calls them the decoy ships.
These Q-boats were heavily armed naval ships designed to look like unarmed merchant vessels, with all the guns carefully hidden. The crews of Q-boats would be naval, but would dress as civilians. They would intentionally act incompetent and even drunk. The intent was to lure German U-boats into surfacing for what they thought would be an easy kill, only to have the Q-boat attack.
As a side note, the Captain of the U-boat which sinks the Lusitania later in our story will himself be killed when his U-boat is sunk by one of these Q-boats in 1917.
Churchill himself personally drafted the operating orders for these Q-boats. These orders included:
- “Survivors, should be taken prisoner or shot – whichever is the most convenient”
- “In all action, white flags should be fired upon with promptitude”./- Simpson, The Lusitania, page 37.
By the beginning of February 1915 the Germans had had enough. At the end of January they had finally confirmed that the attempted ramming of U-boats by merchant-ships was official policy. From Simpson’s “The Lusitania”:
On January 30, 1915, the U-21 appeared off Liverpool and in one afternoon sank three unarmed merchant ships. No lives were lost, as in each case the U-21 followed the Cruiser Rules. She surfaced, challenged the ships, gave the crew ample time to take to their boats, and then destroyed her captives by placing bombs on board. On board her first victim, the 3,000-ton Ben Crauchan of the Ben Line of Edinburgh, she captured a complete set of Churchill’s inflammatory orders, including the instructions to ram and fly a neutral flag.
– Simpson, The Lusitania, page 68-69.
Germany Declares a War Zone
Given the vulnerability of the U-boats when surfaced, and the proof now possessed as to the designs of the British to thwart any attempt by the Germans to follow Cruiser Rules, in February of 1915 Germany declares the war zone for the coastal waters of Britain and Ireland. The declaration read as follows: From German Admiralty:
All the waters surrounding Great Britain and Ireland, including the whole of the English Channel, are hereby declared to be a war zone. From February 18 onwards every enemy merchant vessel found within this war zone will be destroyed without it always being possible to avoid danger to the crews and passengers.
Neutral ships will also be exposed to danger in the war zone, as, in view of the misuse of neutral flags ordered on January 31 by the British Government, and owing to unforeseen incidents to which naval warfare is liable, it is impossible to avoid attacks being made on neutral ships in mistake for those of the enemy.
Navigation to the north of the Shetlands, in the eastern parts of the North Sea and through a zone at least thirty nautical miles wide along the Dutch coast is not exposed to danger.
Attached to this declaration was a memorial which provided the detailed German justification for the war zone, as well as photos of the captured British orders for merchant vessels to fly false colours and to ram U-boats.
From the German perspective, the case was simple:
First, any armed merchant ship was no longer a merchant ship but a vessel of war, and because the British had started arming some of the merchantman, the Germans really no longer had a way of distinguishing the ships that were armed from those which were not. Second, even if a merchant ship turned out not to be armed, it still presented a severe threat to the U-boat if it turned to ram, which Churchill’s orders required them to do.
You have to consider that U-boats were not heavily armed, nor were they very fast or maneuverable. The typically World War I U-boat carried only six torpedoes, and a single 3.5 inch deck gun. The reality was that a surfaced U-boat was very vulnerable, and obeying Cruiser Rules had become far to risky for the U-boats, with many of them nearly being sunk in attempting that endeavour. In essence, argued the Germans, Churchill’s orders had created circumstances which made it impossible for the U-boat captains to abide by Cruiser Rules.
And finally, the Germans objected to the intentional flying of false flags by British vessels. Now, the use of false flags during warfare is probably as old as flags are. There’s nothing new about it. But, there were still generally accepted rules for the use of false flags in naval warfare.
It was generally accepted that armed ships could fly false colours provided they hoisted their true flag prior to firing the first shot. Likewise, the flying of a false flag by an unarmed merchantman in an attempt to escape attack was nothing new, and itself not cause for scandal.
But, all the British actions taken together, the Germans summarized, could only have two effects:
First, to make it impossible for German U-boats to continue to follow Cruiser Rules; henceforth they’d have to sink without warning. And second, given the propensity of the British ships to falsely fly the American flag, legitimate American ships were clearly placed at heightened risk of being sunk in such surprise U-boat attacks.
And so, the first period of unrestricted submarine warfare began.
U.S. Responds to German War Zone
At the same time Germany declared the war zone around Britain, the Germans also sent specific communications to the U.S. warning them not to place their citizens or cargo on British vessels, since Germany essentially had to consider every British ship a vessel of war given Churchill’s orders.
Within the U.S. State Department, the Secretary of State, William Bryan was a pacifist and decidedly against any U.S. involvement in the war, and quite inclined to see the justification in the German actions, and condemn the British for their actions.
But in contrast, and acting as Bryan’s second in command at the State Department, was Robert Lansing, who was decided anti-German. As it turns out, Secretary of State Bryan was away on a speaking trip on February 5th, 1915 when the Germans cable announcing the war zone was received, along with the accompanying memorial providing the German justification and captured British orders. In Bryan’s absence, it was the anti-German Lansing who was to shape the U.S. response. This Lansing did drafting the response for President Wilson’s approval, neglecting to inform the President of the contents of the memorial the Germans had sent to explain and justify their war zone declaration. Lansing also kept from the President the existence of the British orders requiring any merchant ship to ram or attack any U-boats.
The resultant back and forth of diplomatic cables is fascinating to read, and there are a few parts worth quoting to get a sense of the positions being taken:
Telegram. From Germany to U.S. State Department, February 6th, 1915.
Mr. Secretary of State: It has come to the Imperial German Government’s knowledge that the British Admiralty has issued secret orders to the effect that, on account of the appearance of German submarines in the English Channel and Irish Sea , all British merchant vessels should immediately fly neutral flags. They should also show no house flag, and should conceal all markings such as names, ports of origin, etc.
In compliance with instructions, I have the honor to point out to your excellency that this measure of the British Government may well expose neutral vessels to great danger, and I venture to leave it to your excellence’s kind consideration whether representations to the British Government against the improper use of the American flag by British vessels are in order.
Telegram. From U.S. Secretary of State to Germany, February 10th, 1915:
If the commanders of German vessels of war should act upon the presumption that the flag of the United States was not being used in good faith and should destroy on the high seas an American vessel or the lives of American citizens, it would be difficult for the Government of the United States to view the act in any other light than as an indefensible violation of neutral rights which it would be very hard indeed to reconcile with the friendly relations now so happily subsisting between the two governments.
If such a deplorable situation should arise, the Imperial German Government can readily appreciate that the Government of the United States would be constrained to hold the Imperial German Government to a strict accountability for such acts of their naval authorities and to take any steps it might be necessary to take to safeguard American lives and property and to secure to American citizens the full enjoyment of their acknowledged rights on the high seas.
The Government of the United States, in view of these considerations, which it urges with the greatest respect and with the sincere purpose of making sure that no misunderstanding may arise and no circumstance occur that might even cloud the intercourse of the two Governments, expresses the confident hope and expectation that the Imperial German Government can and will give assurance that American citizens and their vessels will not be molested by the naval forces of Germany otherwise than by visit and search, though their vessels may be traversing the sea area delimited in the proclamation of the German Admiralty. It is added for the information of the Imperial Government that representations have been made to His Britannic Majesty’s Government in respect to the unwarranted use of the American flag for the protection of British ships.
Simultaneous to this telegram to Germany, the following telegram is sent to the British:
Telegram. From U.S. Secretary of State to Britain, February 10th, 1915:
The Department has been advised of the declaration of the German Admiralty on February fourth, indicating that the British Government had on January 31 explicitly authorized the use of neutral flags on British merchant vessels presumably for the purpose of avoiding recognition by German naval forces. The Department’s attention has also been directed to reports in the press that the captain of the Lusitania, acting upon orders or information received from the British authorities, raised the American flag as his vessel approached the British coasts, in order to escape anticipated attacks by German submarines. (I’ll talk more about that incidence in a few minutes). Today’s press reports also contain an alleged official statement of the Foreign Office defending the use of the flag of a neutral country by a belligerent vessel in
order to escape capture or attack by an enemy. (Side note: This is referring to articles the British Admiralty has had published in the British press seeking to justify and provide a legal basis for the flying of false colors).
Assuming that the foregoing reports are true, the Government of the United States, reserving for future consideration the legality and propriety of the deceptive use of the flag of a neutral power in any case for the purpose of avoiding capture, desires very respectfully to point out to His Britannic Majesty’s Government the serious consequences which may result to American vessels and American citizens if this practice is continued.
The occasional use of the flag of a neutral or an enemy under the stress of immediate pursuit and to deceive an approaching enemy, which appears by the press reports to be represented as the precedent and justification used to support this action, seems to this Government a very different thing from an explicit sanction by a belligerent government for its merchant ships generally to fly the flag of a neutral power within certain portions of the high seas which are
presumed to be frequented with hostile warships. The formal declaration of such a policy of general misuse of a neutral’s flag jeopardizes the vessels of the neutral visiting those waters in a peculiar degree by raising the presumption that they are of belligerent nationality regardless of the flag which they may carry.
In view of the announced purpose of the German Admiralty to engage in active naval operations in certain delimited sea areas adjacent to the coasts of Great Britain and Ireland, the Government of the United States would view with anxious solicitude any general use of the flag of the United States by, British vessels traversing those waters. A policy such as the one which His Majesty’s Government is said to intend to adopt, would, if the declaration of the German Admiralty is put in force, it seems clear, afford no protection to British vessels, while it would be a serious and constant menace to the lives and vessels of American citizens. The Government of the United States, therefore; trusts that His Majesty’s Government will do all in their power to restrain vessels of British nationality from the deceptive use of the flag of the United States in the sea area defined in the German declaration, since such practice would greatly endanger the vessels of a friendly power navigating those waters and would even seem to impose upon the Government of Great Britain a measure of responsibility for the loss of American lives and vessels in case of an attack by a German naval force.
Let me expand on the incident referenced in the telegram we just read from the U.S. State Department to the British, specifically the hoisting of the American flag on the Lusitania. This was known for a fact to have occurred by the U.S. State Department. On her previous voyage from New York to Britain one of her passengers was Colonel Edward House. Colonel House is a fascinating character to study and worthy of a podcast episode in his own right, but for our purposes just know that Colonel House was President Wilson’s right hand man, and most trusted advisor. Colin Simpson describes House and Atlantic crossing as follows:
House was the personal representative and confidential advisor of President Wilson. His mission was a secret, for he brought with him the President’s proposals for a peace initiative that he was to place in turn before the Allies and the Kaisar. His diary of his visit to Europe survives in the archives of Yale University:
…the first two days we had summer seas, but just after passing the Banks a gale came shrieking down… It lasted for twenty-four hours and the Lusitania, big as she is, tossed about like a cork in the rapids. This afternoon, as we approached the Irish Coast the American flag was raised. It created such excitement, and comment and speculation ranged in every direction.
– Simpson, The Lusitania, page 18-19
This incident of the Lusitania hoisting the American flag, was well published in the various newspapers, and the German’s were well aware of it:
Telegram. U.S. Ambassador to Germany to U.S. State Department, February 10th 1915:
The hate campaign here against America has assumed grave proportions. People much excited by published report that Lusitania by order of British Admiralty hoisted American flag in Irish Channel and so entered Liverpool. Hope you can authorize me to deny this. If report true and no action is taken by American Government, bitter feeling here will be immeasurably increased.
A few minutes ago I read the official American response to Germany’s proclamation of the war zone in the English Channel and the Irish coast. It was a decidedly harsh response, and put Germany on notice that if anything happened to an American ship, or a ship carrying American passengers, Germany would be held to “strict account”, regardless of the British policy to arm merchantman, and the orders for merchantman to ram U-boats and fly false colors.
The strong position taken by the American’s gave the Germans pause, and they reiterated their willingness compromise. This can be seen clearly in the diplomatic cables, to core of which is succinctly summarized by Simpson in his book The Lusitania:
Germany promptly offered to drop the offending instructions to her submarines and to observe the standard Cruiser Rules, provided in return that England would permit foodstuffs to enter Germany and cease arming merchant ships. She (Germany) also suggested that if the United States would inform her of any American vessels sailing to English ports, together with their routes and destinations, and preferably if she would arrange to paint the Stars and Stripes on the ships’ sides, she (Germany) would guarantee their immunity from attack. These concessions made sense to President Wilson.
-Simpson, The Lusitania, page 78.
But the British wanted none of it. They knew that starving Germany was one of the best tools they had to weaken their adversary. Further, and we’ll get into this a little later, this latest heightening of tensions between the U.S. and Germany was exactly what the British wanted to stoke.
Telegram. U.S Ambassador to Britain to U.S. Secretary of State, February 20th, 1915.
I am sorry to report that I do not see a ray of hope for any agreement between Germany and England whereby England will permit food to enter Germany under any condition. Since Germany has declared her intention to prevent everything from abroad entering England, it is practically certain that England will prevent everything from entering Germany. That policy was foreshadowed, though not definitely stated to me, by Sir Edward Grey yesterday. Early in the war Germany destroyed a food ship bound for Ireland. That fact, together with the declared German policy of a blockade, I fear absolutely cuts off any chance of such an arrangement as you hope for.
I am to spend Sunday with the Prime Minister in the country and I will follow the subject up. The Germans have so bungled the matter that I have little hope. The English will show the greatest courtesy and consideration to us but none henceforth to the Germans.
I want to pause from tracking the historical narrative here to opine on the British position, which to me seems to not satisfy basic logic. Essentially the British argument appears to be that, even though they started the war with a complete blockage against Germany, any German response to that blockade merely proves its justification and necessity. It’s a strange kind of circular logic they’re using: I punch you in the face, and then if you punch me back in defence, that just proves why I was justified in originally punching you in the face.
The second thing I want to take issue with is the characterization of the U.S. Ambassador to Britain that “The Germans have so bungled the matter that I have little hope”. Now, I’m certainly not a diplomat, but I have read all the relevant and public diplomatic cables sent to and from the State Department during this period, and the German position seems clear and consistent, as does their willingness to compromise. The assertion that the German response was bungled does not appear valid to me.
German Implements the War Zone
At this point, any hope of a diplomatic compromise is out of the question. The British are refusing to budge at all from their total blockade of Germany, and the Admiralty has even published detailed justifications of the flying of false flags in major newspapers.
In fact, the British actually announced an expanded the list of items considered contraband, and also further expand the Admiralty’s power to intercept and seize neutral vessels, even if those vessels are not destine for German ports.
To implement their war zone, the German’s had 21 submarines, of which only seven could typically be at sea at any one time. Given the time to travel back and forth between the German U-boat base to the patrol zones off the Irish coast, rarely more than two U-boats were operating in the area of the war zone at any one time.
Still, the Germans were able to make the U-boats effective. From the implementation of the war zone in February until March 28th, 1915, the German’s sank 25 merchant ships, 16 of them without warning. In practice it was at the captain’s discretion whether a particular merchant ship poised a threat; if so it was sunk without warning; if not it would be ordered to halt.
Of the 16 ships sunk, 52 crew members were killed (and no passengers), with most of the deaths occurring on a single ship, the Tangistan, whose load of nitrates exploded.
The Sinking of the Falaba
Then on March 28, 1915, the first American was killed. Erik Larson in his book “Dead Wake” describes the situation as it was widely published in the newspapers at the time, and indeed how the incident was reported to President Wilson:
…on March 28, 1915, a British merchant ship, the Falaba, encountered a U-boat commanded by Forstner, one of Germany’s submarine aces. The ship was small, less than five thousand tons, and carried cargo and passengers bound for Africa. A sharp-eyed lookout first saw the submarine when it was three miles off and alerted the Falaba’s captain, Frederick Davies, who turned his ship full away and ordered maximum speed, just over thirteen knots.
Forstner gave chase. He ordered his gun crew to fire a warning shot.
The Falaba kept running. Now Forstner, using flags, signaled, “Stop or I fire”.
The Falaba stopped. The U-boat approached, and Forstner, shouting through a megaphone, notified Captain Davies and all aboard – 242 souls – to abandon ship. He gave them five minutes.
Forstner maneuvered to within one hundred yards. The last lifeboat was still being lowered when he fired a torpedo. The Falaba sank in eight minutes, killing 104 people including Captain Davies. A passenger by the name Leon C. Thrasher was believed among the lost, though his body was not recovered. Thrasher was a citizen of the United States.
The incident, condemned as the latest example of German frightfulness, was exactly the kind of thing Wilson had feared, for it held the potential to raise a cry for war.
– Erik Larson, Dead Wake, Page 39-40.
Typical excerpts from the newspapers would contain something like the following, this quoted from an interview done by the British newspaper Daily Mail of passenger Hubert Blair, who happened to be a Sergeant in the Royal Army Medical Corps:
The captain ordered us into the boats. About 20 men got into the first boat, but directly that it touched the water, it capsized and men were thrown into the sea. Three other boats got off. The last was touching the water when the submarine fired a torpedo at us. It struck right under my boat, which was blown to pieces. Then the Falaba went down, head first, in less than five minutes. All the while, the submarine was standing by and watching us struggle in the water. They didn’t make the slightest attempt to help us, but the crew, or some of them, gathered on deck and laughed and jeered at us. All at once the sub submerged and disappeared. She was a large submarine, quite the largest I have seen.
You can see how this would justifiably enrage both American and British citizens, which it most certainly did. Unfortunately this, in reality, is an example of the British propaganda machine that had been so effective in casting the German’s as brutes and the epitome of evil since the start of the war. The real story, uncovered only after much insistence by the level-headed U.S. Secretary of State Bryan is decidedly different. Simpson in The Lusitania describes the event as follows:
…the U-28 ordered the 5,000 ton cargo and passenger liner Falaba to halt by firing a shot across her bows. The Falaba refused. Eventually the U-28 forced her to halt and gave her master ten minutes to abandon ship. The Falaba continued to send out wireless messages for assistance, and as disembarkation was still in progress the U-28 extended the period by another ten minutes. A third extension of three minutes was granted and shortly after this an armed British trawler came to the scene. The U-28 promptly put a torpedo into the stern of the Falaba, and her cargo, which included thirteen tons of high explosive blew up.
The fury with which the American press reacted was to bind the President politically even closer to his acceptance of Lansings doctrine of “strict accountability”. At the time the public version of events was that little or no warning had been given, that the torpedoing had been a cold-blooded and wanton act of destruction. The true nature of the cargo was vigorously denied (the manifest and statements of the ship’s officers were not released in full until 1965).
– Simpson, The Lusitania, page 82.
That cargo, for the record included 13 tons of rifle cartridges and gunpowder.
The fact that Secretary of State Bryan had, through perseverance, uncovered the truth of the sinking of the Falaba, a truth which largely exonerated the U-boat captain of wrong doing, and a truth which cast the British propaganda machine in a dim light indeed, in reality made little difference. In times of war what matters is the public perception, and the sinking of Falaba was used in America to shape public opinion against the Germans, and against the U-boat. The war drum’s beat had gotten louder in America, and all that was needed was one galvanizing event to move the U.S. into the war.
Lusitania at the Outbreak of War
With all the context set, at long last we can turn our attention back to the Lusitania, and catch up on her activities during the first six months of the war.
In fact, over a year before the war started, in May of 1913, Churchill as Lord of the Admiralty and seeing war on the horizon, had invoked their agreement with Cunard to have Lusitania enter dry dock for three months. The official narrative was that Lusitania was having the latest turbine engines installed. The reality, as detailed in the archives of Cunard, are very different. Colin Simpson summarizes the modifications:
The entire length of the vessel between the shelter deck and below the upper deck – a depth of 14 feet 6 inches – was double plated and hydraulically riveted. The stringer plate of the shelter deck was also doubled. The reserve coal bunker immediately forward the No. 1 boiler room was converted to a magazine, special shell racking was installed so that the shells rested against the bulkheads, and handling elevators were installed. A second magazine was converted from part of the mail rooms at the stern of the ship and revolving gun rings were mounted on the forecastle and on the afterdeck, so that each deck could mount two 6-inch quick-firing guns. The teak planking which composed the floor of the shelter deck was cut into and revolving gun rings were installed beneath it; then the sections of teak deck were replaced in such a way that the relevant sections could be lifted off like trapdoors. The shelter deck was adapted to take four 6-inch guns on either side… All that was required to complete the fitting of armament was to lower the run onto the ring prepared for it, and to secure twelve castellated bolts.
– Simpson, The Lusitania, page 26-27.
So basically the Admiralty armoured the ship to help protect her from shell fire, and prepared enough gun fittings to make her more heavily armed than many of the Navy’s cruisers. Lusitania returned to passenger service in July of 1913, with her passengers non the wiser, due to the concealment of the gun mounts.
On August 8th, just as World War I begins, the Lusitania enters dry dock again. Two changes are made to the ship. First, her guns are installed, which is a quick process given that the mounts are ready. Second, a large section of passenger accommodations were gutted, which included the entire lower deck, and a good portion of the front of the ship, in order to make additional room for cargo. On September 17th the Lusitania officially joins the British Navy listed as an armed auxiliary cruiser.
As it turns out, the Admiralty quickly has second thoughts about the best use for Lusitania. At the outbreak of the war, the British Navy had been very successful at hemming in the German navy and keeping the German heavy ships and auxiliary cruisers from leaving port and mounting any effective offensive actions. Cargo space, and the ability to quickly get material from the United States to Britain quickly became the priority, and so, just one week after entering the British Navy as a cruiser, Cunard was informed that the Lusitania would be disarmed, but that, in addition to her regular passengers, she would be required to transport cargo on behalf of the Admiralty.
The President of Cunard, Alfred Booth, was furious. In a letter to his cousin he wrote:
In essence Sir William (that’s the Secretary of the Admiralty) took me into my own club and ordered me to be a high-grade ‘contra-banist’ in the national interest.
Simpson, The Lusitania, page 38.
Though Booth objected, and wanted to simply have Lusitania wait out the war at dockside, the terms of his contract with the Admiralty left him no choice but to obey.
British Shipping of War Contraband on Passenger Liners
In reality what the Lusitania was being asked to do, transporting civilian passengers together with war contraband, was not legal under U.S. law. In fact, at the outbreak of war the U.S. had specifically outlawed the shipment of munitions upon passenger ships, a rule which applied equally to both Germany and Britain.
Here into our story enters once again American banker J.P. Morgan, or rather his son, J.P. Morgan junior, with J.P. Morgan the elder have passed away prior to the outbreak of hostilities. Remember it was Morgan senior’s attempt to setup a monopoly on trans-Atlantic shipping and his potential German sympathies that had been one of the catalysts for the British Admiralty working with Cunard to get the Lusitania built in the first place.
Of pro-Germany sympathies his son, had none. J.P. Morgan Jr. had headed the bank’s London operations for eight years, and was a committed anglophile. The British government quickly select Morgan Jr. to act as their front man in America to procure and then illegally ship war material aboard passenger liners, including the Lusitania. Summarized by Simpson in The Lusitania:
…if anyone could drive a coach and horses through the mass of red tape and prohibitions established by President Wilson to support his neutrality it was J.P. Morgan. In fact, he had already sent a secret emissary to London to discuss the matter. This was H.P. Davidson, who told Sir George Parish at the Treasury that the house of Morgan had decided that they could not and would not remain neutral and would do all in their power to help. This so impressed Lloyd George (British Prime Minister) that he decided to use Morgan’s services… Morgan took the job and established a special department to handle the difficult matter of purchasing for Britain all the war materials she needed. Throughout the period of American neutrality, British serviceman in civilian clothes worked at Morgan’s. This great banking combine rapidly established such a labyrinthine network of false shippers, bank accounts and all the paraphernalia of smuggling that although they fooled the Germans, there were also some very serious occasions when then flummoxed the Admiralty and Cunard, not to speak of the unfortunate passengers on the liners who carried the contraband.
Simpson, The Lusitania, page 49-50.
So the vast Morgan network is what allows the procurement of various war materials to be made in secret, and to create a paper trail capable of obfuscating the reality. This fooled both the Germans as well as the American authorities.
As a side note, his pro-anglophile tendencies aside, Morgan had another reason for organizing such a complex and shadowy procurement racket: The arrangement he struck with the British paid him 1% the value of goods shipped. In just the year 1916 $2.3 billion dollars was shipped, with 1% of that converted to 2023 dollars being almost $600 million in revenue for the bank.
So, the problem of procurement was taken care of. But there were additional problems that the British had to solve.
The first problem was the American requirement that, prior to departing, a ship was required to provide a detailed cargo manifest, which would be duly published. This obviously presented a problem for the British, as the German’s could simply read the manifests to determine which ships carried contraband, and then pass this information to her U-boats.
To solve this problem the British used an obscure loophole in the health laws of New York, which allows for any items added to the cargo last minute to be declared on a supplementary manifest, several days after the ship had set sail, by which point the information would be of little use to the Germans. On the Lusitania’s final voyage, as an example, the manifest filed prior to departure was a single page, while the supplemental manifest filed four days later, was a full 24 pages, the contents of which we’ll get into shortly.
The final problem the British had to solve was how to get around the United State’s explicit embargo on passenger liners shipping war munitions. For this they simply stamped the munitions as “Non-explosive in bulk”, and magically those munitions were no longer considered as such. For larger munitions such as shells, they would be shipped with the fuses removed and also stamped “non-explosive in bulk”.
Of course, the question is: Why on earth would the U.S. have allowed such shenanigans to occur? After all, there were custom collectors dockside in New York responsible for auditing what was on these ships prior to departure, for making sure manifests were complete and accurate, and for making sure that all laws, including those barring the shipping of munitions on passenger ships, where followed. Simpson explains it thusly:
It became standard British practice to obtain a clearance to sail on the basis of a false manifest and false affidavit, and some four or five days after sailing to turn in a supplementary manifest which gave a truer picture of the ship’s cargo. This subterfuge was acquiesced in by the collector of customs, Dudley Field Malone, a former Treasury lawyer whom President Wilson had appointed to the near sinecure of his job as a reward for political favors. Malone knew of the ruse and countenanced it because he was determinedly pro-Ally.
*and then later Simpson writes:*
From October 1914 until it entered the war, the United States sent the Allies over half a million tons of cordite, guncotton, nitrocellulose, fulminate of mercury and other explosive substances, all franked with such a certificate (he means the “non-explosive in bulk” stamp), and the cooperative Malone allowed them to pass.
– Simpson, The Lusitania, page 48-49
After the Lusitania disaster people obviously started asking questions. Lusitania.net has an excerpt from a New York Times interview done with Malone in which he states:
If no fuse was fitted to them then they would be classified as being NON-EXPLOSIVE. Therefore any such projectiles as might be loaded aboard a passenger ship would not be illegal under US law, as long as it appeared on the manifest.
I will add to this that even the supplemental manifest was often missing some of the important cargo. There was one example in late January when another Cunard passenger liner, the Transylvania, upon approaching the Irish coast, was diverted by the Admiralty due to U-boat activity. Across the diversion order in the Admiralty archives included the handwritten note
“Deflected to Queenstown on account of 2 seventy-ton guns on board for Royal Navy”. These massive battleship guns were listed on neither the original nor the supplementary manifests.
And, of course, the German’s weren’t stupid. They had their own agents all over the docks in New York, and had a pretty good sense of what was going on, and the games being played by the British. I’m not saying that, given the chance, the Germans wouldn’t have done the same thing, but as it stands, the British blockade made the point moot. The Germans were strangled off from shipping any materials, and had to watch as the British flagrantly flouted the rules and used their fast passenger liners to get munitions from the U.S.
Lusitania During the Early War
And so this is how it went for the Lusitania through the last few months of 1914 and into the spring of 1915. She did her regular runs from New York to Ireland with a load of cargo bound for the British military which included munitions, as well as a somewhat reduced complement of civilian passengers who were unaware of the presence or nature of the cargo with which they travelled.
Then, as we’ve discussed, in February of 1915, Germany declares the war zone around the Irish coast, and with it unrestricted submarine warfare is unleashed, or at least is threatened to be. As it turns out, the Lusitania was at sea as events started to unfold, and on her return voyage to Britain she passed within 10 miles of a merchant ship as it was torpedoed off the Irish coast. From the Lusitania, Simpson continues the story:
Captain Dow had had enough. On March 8 he informed Alfred Booth (the President of Cunard) that though he did not mind commanding a merchant vessel in these waters, he refused to carry the responsibility of mixing passengers with munitions or contraband.
– Simpson, The Lusitania, page 87
Dow is replaced by Captain William Thomas Turner, who takes the Lusitania back to New York on April 17th, 1915. In keeping with orders from the Admiralty all identifying markings have been painted out, including her name, nationality, and port of registry. She flew no flag.
Germany Warns Lusitania Passengers
At the same time, the German’s, having failed to motivate the U.S. State Department to bar or even warn American citizens against traveling on British passenger liners, decided to explicitly take out newspaper advertisements in 50 leading U.S papers, and specifically the major New York newspapers. The intention was to have the advertisement run on April 23rd, a full week before the Lusitania’s departure for Ireland, but due to various issues, only a single paper carried the warning on that day. Only after German representatives managed to directly intervene with Secretary of State Bryan did the additional papers publish the warning on the morning of Lusitania’s departure, May 1st, 1915. The warning read as follows:
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 of any of her allies, are liable to destruction in those waters and that travellers sailing in the war zone on ships of Great Britain or her allies do so at their own risk.
Imperial German Embassy.
Washington, D.C., April 22, 1915.
– Simpson, The Lusitania, page 92.
As passengers arrived on May 1st to board the Lusitania, they were greeted by a larger than usual group of reporters, who asked the passengers their thoughts on the German advertisement. Many of the passengers had not yet seen the advertisement, but it, and the U-boat threat, was soon the talk of the ship. In general while there was some fear of a potential attack the general sentiment was that the Germans would not dare attack a ship such as the Lusitania, and regardless her great speed and the inevitable British warship which would convoy her through the war zone upon arrival off the coast of Ireland would mitigate any risk.
Even some of the high-profile passengers who received anonymous telegrams warning them not the sail on the Lusitania dismissed the threat. One of these, Alfred Vanderbilt, was interviewed by a member of the press shortly after boarding the Lusitania. This from Larson’s Dead Wake:
Vanderbilt commented that there seemed to be an unusual amount of excitement aboard. “Lots of talk about submarines, torpedoes and sudden death… I don’t take much stock in it myself. What would they gain by sinking the Lusitania?”
End quote Larson continues:
He (Vanderbilt) showed Lawrence (that’s the reporter interviewing him) a telegram he had received after boarding. “The Lusitania is doomed” it read. “Do not sail on her”. It was signed Mort. Vanderbilt said he didn’t know anyone named Mort but wondered if it might be an allusion to death.
Larson, Dead Wake, page 93
Lusitania Cargo on Final Voyage
And so, on May 1st, the Lusitania sets out for Britain on what will be her final voyage. Aboard her are 1266 passengers and 696 crew. And, of course, the cargo, virtually all of which is contraband, and much of which is outright munitions.
While the contraband is largely innocuous, the war munitions, both their character and amount were certainly not. To this day a great deal of controversy exists over what exactly the Lusitania was transporting.
David Ramsay does a good job in his book “The Lusitania Saga and Myth” summarizing those items officially listed on the Lusitania’s manifest, a manifest which was published in the papers the day after she sailed, and about which there is no controversy:
The most obvious military cargo consisted of 4,200 cases of rifle ammunition (1,000 rounds per case) weighing 173 tons, consigned by the Remington Arms Co. to the Woolwich Arsenal and 1,248 cases of 3-inch shrapnel shells (four shells per case) totalling 51 tons, together with eighteen cases of fuses, supplied by Bethlehem Steel. Under American regulations, these munitions were legal cargo on passenger liners.
– Ramsay, The Lusitania Saga and Myth, page 43
Technically Ramsay is correct that rifle ammunition was technically legal to transport on passenger liners provided the customs collector allowed it labelled “non-explosive in bulk”, which the pro-Ally customs collector in New York, as we’ve discussed, was quite happy to do.
And, those 51 tons of “unfilled” shells sound safe enough. Clearly they are war munitions, but unfilled they would be little more than a bunch of scrap metal, which is indeed how the official Lusitania waybill describes them saying “1248 cases shrapnel, non-explosive”.
But what of the supplementary manifest filed on May 5th, four days after the Lusitania had put to sea? This was not made public at the time, and remained unseen until President Roosevelt requested the only copy of it from the New York Customs Collector in January 1940, and promptly locked it in his personal archives. This supplemental archive was finally released to the public in November of 2012, almost 100 years after the sinking.
The supplemental archive runs 24 pages and adds additional details of the items shipped. Of relevance to our discussion are the 18 cases of shell fuses being shipped in the aft of the ship, obviously highly-explosive, as well as several other suspicion items which are pretty clearly not what they are described to be in the manifest.
The source for most of what follows in this discussion on the Lusitania’s cargo comes from Simpson’s book “The Lusitania” as well as the websites lusitania.net and rmslusitania.info.
First off, there is much speculation, and I think quite founded, that the Lusitania was carrying far more rifle ammunition than is reported in the cargo manifests. There is a cable that was sent from the President of Cunard Alfred Booth to the manager of Cunard operations in New York, a man named Sumner, two days after the sinking where Booth asks Sumner where the rifle ammunition had been stored, and Sumner replies that it had completely filled most of F deck in the bow of the ship, a massive space that would have accommodated much more than the 4200 cases reported on the manifest. In addition there are records in the Cunard archives showing that a last minute transfer of just under 200 tons of cargo from the Cunard ship Queen Margaret to the Lusitania which included 2,000 cases of .303 ammunition.
As for the artillery shells, there is some reason to believe that these were in fact not the inert empty shells they were claimed to be, but rather that these shells included the explosive charge, and lacked only the fuse. The evidence for this comes from the shipping note of the supplier of these shells, Bethlehem Steel Company, which referenced the shells as “1,248 cases of 3-inch shrapnel shells filled”. That terminology “filled” seems to imply that these shells included the explosive and propellant charge, and many researchers have asserted this to be the case.
The finally cargo I want to dig into is the innocuous sounding guncotton. This is a highly controversial topic, and never has it been admitted or proven conclusively that guncotton was aboard the Lusitania. That said, I’ll produce the evidence available regarding the guncotton, and you can draw your own conclusion as to whether or not it is probable that guncotton was included amongst the Lusitania’s cargo.
First of all, guncotton, though it sounds innocuous, is actually an explosive that was used by the British during World War I primary in sea mines, which the British were making heavy use of at the start of the war. Guncotton has the unique property that, upon contact with salt water, it explodes. So obviously guncotton would be considered an explosive munition, and one particularly dangerous to transport on a ship. The standard practice was to transport the guncotton in heavy-duty plastic barrels to make darn sure it stayed dry.
The problem was that, just a few days before the Lusitania sailed, the British Naval Attache in New York, Captain Guy Gaunt, had received a phone call from Morgan’s team of, well let’s call them creative exporters, that all the special containers for shipping guncotton had been purchased by a likely pro-German company trying to prevent the shipping of the explosive to Britain.
The manufacturer of the guncotton, a chemical company called Du Pont de Nemours, who we know today simply as DuPont, was aware of the packaging shortage and was pressing Gaunt for details on how the British planned to ship the guncotton DuPont was due to deliver. All of this was unfolding in the week before the Lusitania set sail and on April 26th Gaunt visited the DuPont plant in New Jersey, and on the two days following his visit 600 tons of guncotton were shipped from DuPont to the Cunard wharf in New York. How this guncotton was packaged is not known.
So, we have 600 tons of explosive guncotton showing up at the Cunard wharf in New York, likely improperly packaged, just days before the Lusitania is to set sail. And the evidence for this cargo making it aboard the Lusitania gets more solid when you consider the following details concerning the circumstances surrounding the supposed 43 tons of cheese, 43 tons of butter, and 349 tons of fur that were supposedly shipped on the Lusitania.
First, the 349 tons of fur. Simpson sums up the evidence supporting the supposition that this was in-fact guncotton as follows. From his book “The Lusitania”:
Three clues exist to show that it was not what it purported to be. First, it was insured for $150,000, but no claim was ever made on the insurers. Second, the shipping documents show that it came by barge from Rheaboat, Maryland, and by rail from the Hopewell freight station of the Pennsylvania Railroad. Neither Rheaboat nor Hopewell were fur storage depots; both had branches of Du Pont de Nemours. Third, it was all consigned to B. F. Babcock and Company of Liverpool.
Benjamin Franklin Babcock was an Anglo-American dealer in the cotton trade, with a thriving business in importing cotton from the southern states. During the war he purchased raw cotton for the Allies for the manufacture of guncotton… B. F. Babcock and Company is still in business in Liverpool, and their records, which they have checked for me, show that they… never dealt in or imported furs, treated or otherwise, and that in 1915 they imported nothing at all.
– Simpson, The Lusitania, page 107
As for the massive butter and cheese consignments, these had two problems: First, they were not refrigerated. Second, it was destine for the Royal Navy Weapons Testing Establishment in Essex. As lusitania.net points out, what precisely the British Navy wanted with 90 tons of rancid butter and cheese remains a mystery.
And then there was the question of the shipping rate for all of these items, which were supposedly being shipped to private businesses. From Simpson’s “The Lusitania”:
The furs, the butter and the cheese have not been publicly explained to this day… All these unexplained consignments had one more factor in common. They were shipped at the rate specially agreed upon by Cunard and the British government and no insurance was ever claimed against them.
-Simpson, The Lusitania, page 110.
So we’ll leave the detailing of the controversial cargo here. We can conclude with certainty that the Lusitania was loaded with contraband, had at least several hundred tons of small arms munitions, had a bunch of artillery shells that may or may not have included the explosive charge, and a bunch of explosive fuses for those shells. You can then take your own educated guess as to whether there was also 600 tons of improperly shipped and highly volatile guncotton aboard.
The German Spies
As we’ve mentioned, the Germans were not ignorant to the fact that the British were running munitions on the Lusitania. We’ve already talked about their agents, who carefully monitored the loading of ships in the New York harbour and indeed on April 26th, just a few days before the Lusitania set sail for the last time, a German representative obtained an interview with Secretary of State Bryan and (this from Simpson’s “The Lusitania”):
…pointed out to him (Bryan) that on all but one of her wartime voyages the Lusitania had carried munitions. He produced copies of her supplementary manifests, which were open to public inspection at the collector’s office. More importantly, he informed Bryan, no fewer than six million rounds of ammunition were due to be shipped on the Lusitania the following Friday and could be seen at that moment being loaded on Pier 54.
– Simpson, The Lusitania, page 97.
It appears that the Germans were also attempting to get additional direct evidence of what the Lusitania was actually carrying. From Larson’s “Dead Wake”:
Meanwhile, the Lusitania’s purser and stewards conducted their usual inspection to detect stowaways. This being wartime, they did so with extra care and soon had three men in custody. The men appeared to speak only German; one carried a camera… What the stowaways intended to accomplish was unclear, but later speculation held that they hoped to find and photograph evidence that the ship was armed or carried contraband munitions.
Larson, Dead Wake, page 119-120.
Why the Cargo Matters
Clearly the Germans were taking more than a passing interest in the Lusitania. They had a pretty good idea of what was aboard. They’d sent telegrams to warn prominent passengers. They’d attempted to take out advertisements in over 50 major U.S. papers to warn passengers against travelling on any British ship, and even intervened at the level of U.S. Secretary of State when these advertisements were blocked, and again requested the U.S advise citizens not to travel aboard British ships.
If you put your self in the German shoes, they really have two fundamental options: Option one, allow the British to run munitions aboard the Lusitania unmolested. Option two, attempt to intervene in some way to prevent the free-flow of war materials aboard Lusitania.
And this really is the crux of why the cargo matters, and why I spent a fair amount of time digging into it. Since we know that the British were illegally shipping war munitions aboard a passenger liner, they were essentially using human shields.
That may sound extreme, but consider the following: Back when the British were in control of Palestine after World War One, there was a massive uprising against the British in which the Palestinians started to effectively attack the British supply lines. In order to mitigate this, the British took to using human shields. The British supply convoys would literally drive into a Palestinian town, grab some kids, strap those kids to the hood of their trucks, and drive to their destination. It was an effective tactic. Attacks on the transportation convoys became much less frequent.
Was that use of human shields moral? I think most of us would say it was not moral.
Now there are some major problems with using this as a direct analogy for what happened on the Lusitania.
From the perspective of the passengers, they are aboard voluntarily, though they did so being ignorant of the nature of the cargo. A lot of them may well have made a different choice had they known what was really on board.
From the perspective of the British, the use of the passengers, rather than being compelled by overt force, was made use of subterfuge. They simply don’t tell the passengers they are travelling with munitions that made the ship a legitimate target of war.
From the perspective of the Germans, the difference is simply one of scale. Instead of one of two kids strapped to the hood of a vehicle, they are looking at a couple of thousand people.
My goal of this little detour is to have you pause and at least consider that there was at least some element here of the British using civilians as a shield. To what extent you think this was an intentional and primary motive of the British, versus merely a side effect of them using any means necessary to get needed munitions, is entirely debatable. But, for the British in a purely Machiavellian sense, either possible outcome from this tactic would be acceptable: Either they get to ship war munitions with impunity, or the Germans attempt to intercede, and in so doing create a massive incident that helps draw the U.S. into the war. For the British, provided they can control the media narrative, which they absolutely can and do, this is a win-win scenario.
So we’re at the point in our story where the Lusitania, with her cargo of war munitions and passengers has set sail. Over in Germany, on April 30th, U-20 departs destine for her patrol zone. Captain Walther Schwieger is in command, a four year veteran of U-boats. David Ramsay provides an good introduction to Schwieger in “The Lusitania Saga and Myth”:
Kapitanleutant Walther Schwieger, commanding U-20, was a tall fair-haired man of thirty, with blue eyes and sharply chiseled features. He had joined the navy as a cadet in 1903 and had transferred to U-boat service in 1911, taking over command of U-20 in December 1914… A contemporary, Admiral Werner Furbringer, remembered him as a commander of exceptional ability, intellectually quick and with a noticeable sense of humour. He enjoyed the admiration and loyalty of his crew and he ran a happy ship, which was not always easy in the cramped conditions and often fetid atmosphere of a small submarine. He was not prepared to take risks as some of his contemporaries… and the safety of his boat and his crew came first. He was ready to attack merchant ships without warning, including those whom he suspected were falsely flying neutral colors.
– Ramsay. The Lusitania Saga and Myth, page 50.
Over the next five days the U-20 makes its way through the North Sea around the north of Ireland and down the west coast of Ireland. Along the way Schwieger attempts to attack two merchantman without any success, and at one point is forced to run submerged for 50 miles to escape from patrolling destroyers and notes in his log that had there been one more destroyer, he’d have been forced to surface and face attack, his batteries near exhaustion.
Let’s take a quick detour and talk about the state of U-boat technology in World War One. The U-20 was a type U-19 U-boat, and amongst the most modern in the German fleet. For propulsion she had both two 850 horsepower diesel engines and two 600 horsepower electric motors. The reason for this was that diesel engines, like all combustion engines, require oxygen. This was fine when the U-boat was running on the surface, but when submerged the only source of oxygen came from the atmosphere of the U-boat, which was needed by the crew for obvious reason. Thus, use of the diesel engines was not possible when submerged, and the crew had to rely on the electric motors.
While U-20 was capable of 15 knots on the surface, when submerged her best speed dropped to just 9 knots, and this only for a very limited time until the batteries were exhausted. Running submerged at her best endurance speed, U-20 could perhaps travel as far as 80 miles. Running submerged at 9 knots would drain her battery in just one hour. At that point, the U-boat would be essentially forced to surface and use the diesels to recharge the battery.
Standard practice amongst U-boat captains was to travel on the surface whenever possible, and submerge only when necessary to setup for an attack or avoid hostile ships.
I think it’s worth quoting extensively from Erik Larson’s Dead Wake, as he has a great passage which gives you a sense of what life was like aboard a U-boat:
The boats were cramped, especially when first setting out on patrol, with food stored in every possible location, including the latrine. Vegetables and meats were kept in the coolest places, among the boat’s munitions. Water was rationed. If you wanted to shave, you did so using the remains of the morning’s tea. No one bathed. Fresh food spoiled quickly. Whenever possible crews scavenged. One U-boat dispatched a hunting party to a Scottish island and killed a goat. Crews routinely pillaged ships for jam, eggs, bacon, and fruit. An attack by a British aircraft gave one U-boat crew an unexpected treat when the bomb it dropped missed and exploded in the sea. The concussion brought to the surface a school of stunned fish.
The crew of U-20 once scavenged an entire barrel of butter, but by that point in the patrol the boat’s cook had nothing suitable on hand to fry. Schwieger went shopping. Through his periscope he spotted a fleet of fishing boats and surfaced U-20 right in their midst. The fishermen, surprised and terrified, were certain their boats would now be sunk. But all Schwieger wanted was fish. The fishermen, relieved, gave his crew all the fish they could carry.
Schwieger ordered the submarine to the bottom so his crew could dine in peace…
– Larson, Dead Wake, page 62.
Side note here: This practice of submerging a U-boat all the way to the bottom to rest on the sea bed was common practice in the North Sea given depths rarely exceeded the maximum allowed for U-boats. Larson continues:
These fish and their residual odors, however, could only have worsened the single most unpleasant aspect of U-boat life: the air within the boat. First there was the basal reek of three dozen men who never bathed, wore leather clothes that did not breathe, and shared one small lavatory. The toilet from time to time imparted to the boat the scent of a cholera hospital and could be flushed only when the U-boat was on the surface or at shallow depths, lest the undersea pressure blow material back into the vessel. This tended to happen to novice officers and crew, and was called the “U-boat baptism”. The odor of diesel fuel infiltrated all corners of the boat, ensuring that every cup of cocoa and piece of bread tasted of oil. Then came the fragrances that emanated from the kitchen long after meals were cooked, most notably that close cousin to male body odor, day-old fried onions.
All this was made worse by a phenomenon unique to submarines that occurred while they were submerged. U-boats carried only limited amounts of oxygen… Off-duty crews were encouraged to sleep because sleeping men consume less oxygen. When deep underwater, the boat developed an interior atmosphere akin to that of a tropical swamp. The air became humid and dense to an unpleasant degree, this caused by the fact that the heat generated by the men and by the still-hot diesel engines and the boat’s electrical apparatus warmed the hull. As the boat descended through ever colder water, the contrast between the warm interior and the cold exterior caused condensation, which soaked clothing, and bred colonies of mold. Submarine crews called it “U-boat sweat”. It drew oil from the atmosphere and deposited it in coffee and soup, leaving a miniature oil slick. The longer the boat stayed submerged, the worse conditions became. Temperatures within could rise over 100 degrees Fahrenheit…
The men lived for the moment the boat ascended to the surface and the hatch of the conning tower was opened…
All these discomforts were borne, moreover, against a backdrop of always present danger, with everyone aware they faced the worst kind of death imaginable: slow suffocation in a darkened steel tube at the bottom of the sea.
– Larson, Dead Wake, page 63-64.
In terms of armaments, U-boats like the U-20 had four torpedo tubes, two in the bow, and two in the stern, but carried only six torpedos, along with 250 shells for the 6-inch deck gun, which was the preferred weapon for attack, with torpedos typically only being used against ships deemed a threat.
In general the torpedos used during this time were not particularly effective. Overall about 60% of torpedoes fired would either miss or malfunction in some way. Sometimes they would strike the target and fail to explode. Sometimes they would veer wildly off course upon exiting the torpedo tube, and in some cases turn back on the U-boat, resulting on near misses.
Then there was the process of submerging a submarine, and keeping her submerged. To aid with vertical control, U-boats had two hydroplanes, essentially horizontal rudders; one for the bow, and one for the stern. By angling these hydroplanes, the crew could direct the ship to dive or surface, but had to also carefully manage the amount of seawater stored in the ballast tanks to maintain the right buoyancy for the desired depth. This was an art form, since factors such as the water temperature, degree of salinity, and importantly, the weight of the boat all impacted the calculation of how much ballast would be needed. Firing a three thousand pound torpedo would suddenly make the U-boat lighter and subject to surfacing. Men had to constantly adjust their position in the ship to maintain the correct balance, and crash dives required all available men to rush to the bow of the ship to make her nose-heavy and help the bow hydroplane bite the water and speed the descent. A well trained U-boat crew could submerge a ship from sitting on the surface to a depth suitable to escape danger from the hulls of the largest vessels in under 75 seconds.
U-20 Arrives Off Queenstown
Anyways, on May 5th and 6th, the two days before Lusitania is sunk, the U-20 finally arrives in the target rich waters off Queenstown. She’s had a frustrating voyage so far, and has fired two of her torpedos to no effect, but on the evening of May 5th, U-20 claims it’s first victim, a relatively small schooner which U-20 sinks with her deck gun after allowing the crew to evacuate.
Later on the evening of May 5th, U-20 encounters a ship flying a Norwegian flag which Schwieger correctly identifies as being actually British. He uses his third torpedo of the voyage to attack her, but the torpedo’s wake is spotted by alert lookouts, and the ship is able to avoid the torpedo and flee.
These two attacks on May 5th have resulted in little strategic damage to Allied shipping, but what they have done is made the British Admiralty well aware that they have a U-boat now operating in the busy shipping waters off Queenstown. Within the operational section of the Admiralty, the position of U-20 has been plotted, and the Admiralty has even adjusted the orders for two cruisers in the area to ensure they stay clear of the hunting U-20.
Now, the British Admiralty had been well aware since her departure that the U-20 was on the way, and even had a good idea of her intended hunting grounds even before she announced her presence on the evening of May 5th with her attacks on the two British ships.
One of the very first moves of the war made by the British Navy had been to cut the underwater sea cables to Germany, rendering Germany wholly reliant on wireless for all communications. Now, the German’s weren’t stupid, and they relied on a double encryption. The innermost layer of this encryption was done through the use of a large codebook that the recipient and sender would both have to possess. The outer encryption applied was a more traditional cipher, subject to decoding via various mathematical models, but only if one could decode the inner codebook-based cipher.
Fortunately for the British, in the first days of the war a German destroyer ran aground when cornered by Russian ships, and the Russians were able to obtain not one but three copies of the naval codebook, one of which they gave to the British in October of 1914.
From that point on the British established something called Room 40. Room 40 was a top secret room located in an older nondescript building into which each day poured hundreds of intercepted German messages. Room 40’s job was to decode those messages, providing the Admiralty with near-realtime information as the German ship movements and intentions.
The trick for the Admiralty was to decide when to act on the cornucopia of actionable intelligence streaming forth from Room 40. Consistent actions by the British which appeared to show foreknowledge of German movements would tip the German’s off that their naval code was compromised, and the British would lose their advantage. The key for the British was to use the information sparingly, and only when it really mattered.
One example of using this information to prevent disaster had occurred in January of 1915 when Room 40 tracked a U-boat as it departed and reached its patrol zone near Liverpool. From Larson’s “Dead Wake”:
The Admiralty acted at once. It sent a warning to the home fleet, identifying the source of its information only as a “reliable authority”. Destroyers converged on the U-boat’s patrol zone from the north and south. Two large Cunard liners, the Ausonia and Transylvania, were en route to Liverpool at the time, carrying naval gun barrels made by Bethlehem Steel. The Transylvania, then under the command of Captain Turner, also carried passengers, among them forty-nine Americans. The Admiralty ordered both ships to change course immediately and speed as fast as possible to Queenstown on the south coast of Ireland, and wait there until destroyers could arrive to escort them to Liverpool.
-Larson, Dead Wake, page 86.
A few months later in March of 1915, Room 40 decoded a disturbing message. Larson describes the message and what happened:
Addressed to all German warships and submarines, the message made specific reference to Lusitania, announcing that the ship was en route to Liverpool and would arrive March 4 or 5. The meaning was obvious: the German navy considered the Lusitania fair game.
The Admiralty found the message disconcerting enough that it dispatched two destroyers to rendezvous with the ship and escort it to port.
– Larson, Dead Wake, page 87.
Juno is Recalled
Though information from Room 40 of U-boats in the vicinity of the Lusitania had, on that previous occasion earlier in 1915, prompted the Admiralty to send escorts, this time information of an active U-boat in the path of Lusitania on May 5th had an opposite effect. The intention had been for the British cruiser Juno to rendezvous with, and act as escort for, the Lusitania prior to the Lusitania entering the dangerous costal waters. Described by Simpson in “The Lusitania”:
Shortly after noon on May 5th the Admiralty signaled Juno to abandon her escort mission and return to Queenstown. She was to travel southeast overnight so as to clear Fastnet by some fifty miles and under cover of darkness. The Lusitania was not informed that she was now alone, and closing every minute to U-20.
– Simpson, The Lusitania, page 130.
The question is: Why was the Juno recalled? That is a question that can be explained without necessarily assuming it was the intention of the Admiralty to put the Lusitania in harms way.
The Juno was a cruiser of the pre-war design, featuring what are called longitudinal bulkheads. Basically, prior to the advent of U-boats, it was considered good ship design to store all coal in bunkers beneath the waterline and along the length of the ship, with the long compartment segmented by watertight bulkheads.
The introduction of the torpedo rendered this design highly hazardous, since damage below the waterline was now to be expected, and the longitudinal compartments would be breached. Once breached, these compartments tended to flood quickly, and cause ships to list and even capsize. It was a lesson the British learned the hard way early in the war. From Simpson’s The Lusitania:
…the three Bacchante class cruisers, Aboukir, Hogue and Cressy, steamed in a line across their station. At 6:30 A.M. the Aboukir was struck by one torpedo. She capsized almost immediately and sank in twenty-five minutes. With chivalrous simplicity her consorts steamed to the scene, and both suffered immediate and similar fates. 1,459 men were drowned.
– Simpson, The Lusitania, page 30.
From that point on the Admiralty became understandably wary to place any warships featuring longitudinal bunkers in potential conflict with U-boats, and this can be seen as a logical reason for withdrawing the Juno from escort duty.
Of course, the be fair one must then ask the question: If the Juno had been assigned to escort the Lusitania to safeguard it from U-boats, but then if there are actually U-boats present is ordered to flee the scene, how useful an escort was Juno in the first place? And, given that reality, why were not other ships, less vulnerable to torpedo attack sent to escort the Lusitania, as had been done on previous occasions?
Part of the explanation may come from the shockingly low number of British ships available to patrol the costal waters, and the even lower number suitable to escort the high-speed Lusitania. One reason so few ships were available was that at this point in 1915, was Churchill’s Dardanelles campaign, destine to be a complete disaster, was in full swing, and had commandeered many of the ships which should have been available for escort duty in the coastal waters.
Larson describes the sad state of affairs:
In December 1914, the coasts of Britain had been divided into a number of area commands, each headed by an Admiral designated as senior naval officer (SNO). Admiral Coke, Vice-Admiral of Queenstown, was responsible for Irish waters. In May 1915 he had under his command the 11th Cruiser squadron, four obsolete cruisers, and seventeen small vessels, yachts and fishing boats, of the so-called auxiliary patrol, a force which became derisively known elsewhere in the navy as the “Gilbert and Sullivan Navy” …Coke had no authority over any other warships. The resources at his disposal and the restrictions on his authority imposed on him by the Admiralty were clearly inadequate for the effective protection of these vital sea-lanes through which passed virtually all the transatlantic traffic inward bound for British ports.
– Larson, Lusitania Saga and Myth, page 58-59.
With that said, there were other escort options in the area that could have been used. Indeed at the meeting of the Admiralty on May 5th when the decision was made to withdraw Juno from escort duty, the minutes record Admiral Oliver, Chief of Naval War Staff, suggesting that elements of the destroyer flotilla from Milford Haven should be sent immediately in Juno’s place. The decision to not take this suggestion likely doomed the Lusitania. No one knows why these destroyers were not sent, as the Admiralty minutes of the meeting stop at this suggestion. What we do know is that Churchill was in the room. And Churchill being Churchill, it is reasonable to assume that he either made the decision to not send the destroyers himself, or at the very least was in agreement with the decision. I’ll have more to say on the topic of Churchill’s possible culpability in the events a little later.
May 6th, 1915
So this brings us up to May 6th 1915, the day before the Lusitania is sunk. The Lusitania is fast approaching the coast. The Admiralty has recalled Juno and knows that U-20 is active in the area, sinking ships, and that specific information has been sent over wireless informing U-20 of the Lusitania’s impending arrival.
In the meantime, the U-20, though battling persistent fog, is able to sink two cargo liners. In both cases Captain Schwieger allows the crews to take to the boats before sinking the ships.
That evening Captain Turner aboard the Lusitania receives his first warning from the Admiralty that U-boats are active off the coast. Still expecting to meet Juno the following morning, Turner orders takes additional precautions. From Simpson’s “The Lusitania”:
All the lifeboats were swung out on their davits, the canvas covers removed, their oars and provisions checked. Double lookouts had been posted, all watertight doors and bulkheads not essential to the working of the ship had been closed. The stewards had been ordered to blackout all the passengers portholes and the passengers themselves had been asked not to show any unnecessary light.
Simpson, The Lusitania, page 144.
To calm his passengers at dinner that evening Turner gives a brief speech assuring them that “On entering the war zone tomorrow we shall be securely in the case of the Royal Navy” (Simpson, The Lusitania, page 46).
May 7th, 1915
On May 7th 1915, the day begins with both the U-20 and the Lusitania finding themselves in thick fog. With his fuel for the trip home running low, Schwieger makes the decision around 11 A.M. to finish charging his batteries, and then make for Germany.
Back on land, people inside the Admiralty, realizing the proximity of U-20 to the Lusitania, finally hit the panic button. Admiral Coke sends updated position reports on the U-20 to the Admiralty with an annotation to “make certain the Lusitania gets this”. A generic warning gets sent, with the position of the U-boat reported being as it had been 28 hours ago. No explanation exists for why the updated positions of U-20 based on the sinkings of the previous day were not used.
Alfred Booth, president of Cunard, reading of those attacks of May 6th, hurries to the office of the Senior Naval Officer of Liverpool, Admiral Stileman. Simpson reports the details of this meeting as follows:
Alfred Booth was in the Cunard office in Liverpool and read in his morning paper of the loss of the Centurion and the Candidate (those are the two cargo ships U-20 had sunk the previous day). He felt the same apprehension of danger as Captain Turner and immediately hurried to Admiral Stileman, the S.N.O Liverpool, and demanded that steps be taken to warn the Lusitania. Booth was always reticent as to what Stileman agreed to do, but he came away from the office convinced that the Lusitania was to be diverted to Queenstown. He telephoned his cousin George and told him so, and George Booth sent a telegram to Paul Crompton aboard the Lusitania to await him at the Cunard office in Liverpool… Alfred Booth, until the time he died, would only concede that Stileman had agreed to take certain steps, but that the tragedy had occurred before they could be put into execution…
Around 11 A.M. Coke claimed that he spoke with both the Admiralty and Admiral Stileman in Liverpool. There is no record of what was said, but Coke has stated he asked for permission to divert the Lusitania and could get no firm decision.
– Simpson, The Lusitania, page 149.
Regardless, it was likely too late. Around noon, U-20 comes up to periscope depth and discovers the fog has lifted. Schwieger’s log tells the story:
12:45. Excellent visibility, very fine weather. Therefor surface and continue passage; waiting off the Queenstown Banks seems unrewarding.
13:20. Saw smoke on the horizon. Sight dead ahead four stacks and two masts of a steamer steering on a parallel course to us. (coming from SSW towards Galley Head). Ship identified as a large passenger steamer.
13:25. Diving to periscope depth (11 meters) and proceed at high speed on intercepting course toward steamer in the hope that the steamer will alter course to starboard and sets course for Queenstown, permitting an approach for a shot. Proceed at high speed until 1400 in order to gain bearing.
14:10. Clean bow-shot from 700 meters. Torpedo set for 3 metres depth, inclination 90 degrees, estimated speed 22 knots. Torpedo hits starboard side very close aft the bridge, followed by an unusually large explosion with a violent emission of smoke, far above the foremost funnel. In addition to the explosion of the torpedo there must have been a second one (boiler or coal or powder?). The superstructure above the point of impact and the bridge are torn apart, fire breaks out, a thick cloud of smoke envelopes the upper bridge. The ship stops at once and very quickly takes a heavy list to starboard, at the same time starting to sink by the bows. She looks as if she will quickly capsize. Great confusion reigns on board; boats are cleared away and some lowered into the water. Apparently considerable panic; several boats, fully laden, are hurriedly lowered, bow or stern first and at once fill with water. Owing to the list fewer boats can be cleared away on the port side than the starboard side. The ship blows off steam; forward the name Lusitania in gold letters is visible. Funnels painted black, no flag set astern. Her speed was 20 knots.
14:25. As it appears that the steamer can only remain afloat for a short time longer, I dive to 24 meters and proceed out to sea. Also I could not have fired a second torpedo into this mass of people struggling to save their lives.
– Ramsay, The Lusitania Saga and Myth, page 64-65.
On board the Lusitania the drama unfolds quickly, and in under twenty minutes the massive ship sinks. The torpedo had been spotted by the lookouts, and the bridge had received word just moments before impact, too late to evade. First hand accounts tell of the sharp crack of the torpedo exploding followed about 20 seconds later by a much larger rumbling explosion.
The Second Explosion
What exactly caused the second explosion that apparently blew out the bottom of the bow of the Lusitania remains a source of controversy to this day.
The official narrative at the time was that the U-20 had fired two torpedoes into the Lusitania, and one of her four hot boilers had exploded upon coming into contact with cold sea water from thermal shock. The problem with this theory, is the first hand accounts from members of the Lusitania’s crew working in each of the boiler rooms who survived the sinking and who testified that their respective boilers were not the cause of the fatal second explosion.
We also know for a fact that the U-20 only fired a single torpedo, something the Admiralty was also well aware of through intercepted German communications decoded in Room 40 immediately after the event. Despite this, the Admiralty persisted in its position that the Lusitania had been struck by two torpedos. Even the quote from Churchill’s The World Crisis I used at the start of this episode has Churchill stating that U-20 had fired two torpedoes, something Churchill knew for a fact to be untrue.
On the conspiratorial side, speculation has persisted from the time of the sinking that it was the large consignment of munitions that were the cause of the second explosion. That the Lusitania was carrying such a large quantity of munitions was a fact vehemently denied at the time. All that was and has been officially acknowledged is the 173 tons of rifle ammunition and 51 tons of supposedly inert artillery shells. But, as I detailed earlier, a compelling case backed with much tangible evidence can be made that the consignment of rifle cartridges was larger than 173 tons, that the shrapnel shells were in fact fully loaded with explosive charges, and that over 600 tons of guncotton, highly explosive upon contact with sea water and used in naval mines for this reason, was also onboard and being shipped improperly due to a shortage of the requisite watertight containers. All of this cargo would have been stored in the cargo holds in the bow of the ship, which the Admiralty had created by tearing out the passenger compartments from that area at the start of the war.
In the end it probably doesn’t matter. The Lusitania was carrying contraband, including explosive munitions, commingled with its passengers. The Lusitania was struck by a single torpedo from U-20, and something caused a massive secondary explosion. To me the question of what exactly caused the second explosion, while interesting to dig into, is not particularly relevant and seems to draw attention away from the salient points of the event that should be what we focus on, most importantly that the Lusitania was carrying a large cargo of war munitions onboard a passenger vessel, something expressly forbidden by U.S. law, and with good reason. The presence of war munitions onboard made the Lusitania a legitimate target of war by any logical measure. The fact that a moral hazard existed due to the presence of a large number of civilians is, and this is my opinion, something for which the primary blame must be placed on those who made that decision. And that decision to use civilians as unwitting human shields came from the British Admiralty. Stated differently, while the cause of the deaths of the 1,195 civilians was the torpedo fired by U-20, the reason for those deaths was the British practice of using Lusitania to transport war munitions while civilians were onboard.
I won’t go into too many of the gory details of the 20 minutes between when the Lusitania was struck by the torpedo and her sinking beneath the waves. If you are interested, there are many fascinating and disturbing first hand accounts in Larson’s book “Dead Wake”.
The general narrative is that, immediately after the impact of the torpedo and second explosion the Lusitania developed a severe list to starboard that got progressively worse. This list, aside from making moving about the ship difficult for the passengers who had to get to their cabins in order to retrieve their life jackets, recked havoc on the already disorganized efforts to launch the lifeboats. From Larson’s Dead Wake:
The first attempts to launch the Lusitania’s lifeboats revealed the true danger now faced by the ship’s passengers and shattered the illusion of safety projected by having so many boats aboard. The list was so severe that the boats on the starboard side now hung well away from the hull, leaving of gap of 5 to 8 feet, with the sea 60 feet below. Members of the crew tried using deck chairs to span the opening, but most passengers chose to jump…
Meanwhile, the lifeboats on the opposite side, the port side, had swung inward over the deck. These were all but unusable. Only a great effort could move them into position for launch. Captain Turner ordered them, emptied, but as the ships condition worsened, passengers and crew tried to launch then anyway.
– Larson, Dead Wake, page 259.
It was in the launching of the port side boats that some of the most dramatic and tragic scenes unfold. Ultimately only two port-side boats make it into the water, and both have been so severely damaged in the lowering that they are unusable. Of the 48 lifeboats, only 6 are successfully launched, leaving many survivors to fend for themselves in the cool, though mercifully calm Atlantic waters.
There was another problem caused by the starboard list that accelerated the sinking of the Lusitania: Portholes. Though Captain Turner had ordered all portholes closed the previous evenings, many passengers had failed to comply with the order, and left their portholes open. Larson in Dead Wake does the math on the impact of these open portholes on the now listing starboard side:
Now the sea found a new path into the hull. Water began to flow through the open portholes, many of which were barely above water to begin with. Those of E Deck, for example, normally cleared the water by only 15 feet. By one estimate, at least 70 portholes had been left open on the starboard side. Multiplied by 3.75 tons of water per minute per porthole, that meant that 260 tons was entering the ship each minute through the starboard portholes alone.
– Larson, Dead Wake, page 257.
Captain Turner During the Sinking
It’s worth commenting on the actions of the Lusitania’s Captain, Captain Turner as all this chaos unfolds. In the wake of the disaster there will be a concerted effort by Churchill and the Admiralty to scapegoat Captain Turner for the disaster.
When the call of torpedo sighted when out, Turner was just outside the entry to his room. From there he was able to watch the wake of the torpedo approaching, and started for the bridge just as the impact occurred. He immediately ordered the engines full astern and a turn for shore. The order to reverse the engines was to stop the Lusitania as quickly as possible, as the lifeboats could not be launched while she was underway. The intention of turning to shore was to prevent the ship from sinking by running her aground.
Unfortunately the damage done prevented either order from being carried out successfully. Neither the rudder or engine responded and the Lusitania continued to surge ahead due to the sheer momentum of the massive vessel, and swung randomly out to sea.
Next Turner orders all the ship’s watertight doors below the passenger decks to be closed, something that ordinarily could be done automatically from the bridge. Given the damage, Turner sends his second officer below to ensure the doors had actually closed. He also orders that the life boats be swung and and readied for launch, but given the speed at which the Lusitania was still drifting, he ordered that no attempts to launch be made until the vessel had slowed.
A relative calm persisted for the next few minutes, and the list seemed to temporarily stabilize at 15 degrees. Then slowly at first, the list began to increase, and the Lusitania’s bow began to drop further. Simpson picks up the story:
Ten minutes after the torpedo struck and six minutes after the D deck ports were submerged, Turner conceded that no matter what they did his ship was doomed and he signed to Anderson that despite the still appreciable headway on the ship, it was time to put the boats into the water. In that six-minute interval, at least 1,500 tons of water had entered through the open ports besides that coming in over the bulkheads as the bows sunk lower and lower.
At 2:23 P.M. Johnston, the quartermaster, called up to Turner that the list was now 25 degrees and Turner called down to him, “Then save yourself.” Johnston picked up a lifebelt and stepped into the sea which was now lapping gently over the starboard side of the bridge. In his own words he “let the tide take me where it wanted to.”
Turner was now alone, high up on the port side of the navigation bridge. He stood there gazing up at the boat decks which now reared high above him as the Lusitania’s stern rose higher out of the water. As the revolving propellers came clear the headway diminished and seconds after that the bow struck the bottom, momentarily halting the inclination to capsize… The Lusitania was now literally standing and pivoting on her bow, which rested on the granite ocean floor, and ever so slowly she commenced to settle, and the same time turning over on her starboard side. She had three minutes of life left.
– Simpson, The Lusitania, page 162-163.
Turner was to remain on the bridge as the Lusitania sank, intending to go down with the ship. As fate would have it, that was not to be his destiny, and as the bridge submerged, Turner found himself washed clear of the sinking ship and floated for three hours before being picked up by a life boat. Larson describes Turner’s three hours in the water:
Turner saw the bodies of some of the ship’s firemen floating nearby, upside down in their life jackets – he counted forty in all. Seagulls dove among corpses and survivors alike. Turner later told his son, Norman, that he found himself fending off attacks by the birds, which swooped from the sky and peeked at the eyes of floating corpses. Rescuers later reported that wherever they saw spirals of gulls, they knew they would find bodies. Turner’s experience left him with such a deep hatred of seagulls, according to Norman, “that until his retirement he used to carry a .22 rifle and shoot every seagull he could.”
– Larson, Dead Wake, page 296.
With only six lifeboats successfully launched, most of the survivors found themselves, like Captain Turner, in the water clinging to pieces of wreckage.
For many, this struggle for survival would not last long. Many of the passengers had put their lifejackets on incorrectly, and upon entering the water the lifejackets wound up inverting them face first into the water. For those who had correctly put on their life jackets, they were fortunate that the sea was unusually calm, but still a cold 55 degrees Fahrenheit. At that temperature survivors had only one or two hours before hypothermia caused them to lose consciousness.
Admiral Coke, in charge of Queenstown, received word almost immediately of the Lusitania’s sinking and quickly ordered every ship available, civilian and military, to be sent to the site of the sinking. This included the recently docked cruiser Juno, the ship which was supposed to have escort the Lusitania prior to being recalled by the Admiralty. Larson describes the events:
The Juno was the fastest ship available. Queenstown was two dozen miles from the site of the attack. Most of the smaller vessels would be lucky to cover that distance in three or four hours; given the calm air, sail-powered craft would take even longer. The Juno, capable of making 18 knot… could do it in just over one hour. Its crew moved with great haste, and soon the old cruiser was under way.
But the Admiralty fired back a reply: “Urgent: Recall Juno”. The order was a direct offspring of the Aboukir, Cressy, and Hogue disaster: no large warships to go to the aid of victims of a U-boat attack. The risk was too great that the submarine might still be present, waiting to sink ships coming to the rescue.
– Larson, Dead Wake, page 280.
The Juno was within sight of the survivors when she received her recall order, and turned around. The survivors had to wait over three hours for the first rescue boats to arrive, by which point many in the water had already succumbed to hyperthermia. The final tally was 1,195 souls lost.
Colonel House’s Curious Conversations
I want to back up our timeline a bit now, and talk about the actions of Colonel House on the day of the sinking. Recall that Colonel House was in Britain on a special assignment from President Wilson to try and find a negotiated peace or at least a deescalation of the naval tension. This mission had failed completely, with the British ratcheting up their blockade on the Germans and the Germans responding with the unrestricted U-boat war in the coastal waters around Britain.
Now, on the morning of the sinking, House finds himself in preparations for an audience with King George at noon. The British foreign secretary, Sir Edward Grey was to accompany House for his meeting with the King and had asked to see Colonel House in advance. As the two walked through the gardens, House later wrote that he found Grey seemingly off his game and behaving strangely. Simpson describes the scene as follows:
Thereafter (Grey’s) conversation was halting. House recalled a faint sense of the ridiculous, as though he were a young girl walking with a tongue-tied beau, waiting for him to summon up the courage to propose. Gently (House) tried to steer the conversation back to matters of immediate importance. Grey suddenly stopped still and said apropos of nothing: “What will America do if the Germans sink an ocean liner with American’s onboard?” House stopped walking and thought for a moment, and searching into his mind he formulated his reply… “I believe that a flame of indignation would sweep the United States and that by itself would be sufficient to carry us into the war.” His reply seemed to loosen Sir Edward’s tongue for thereafter he talked fluently and frankly, regretting that House’s plan for “Freedom of the Seas” had come to nothing. He made it quite plain that it was the certain opposition from Kitchener and Churchill that made it such a political hot potato.
– Simpson, The Lusitania, page 147.
If you think that this conversation, given that it occurring on the very day the Lusitania was sunk is chilling, consider further what occurred a few hours later during Colonel House’s meeting with the King. In Larson’s Dead Wake, after he has described the meeting between House and Grey in the garden in a manner similar to Simpson, says:
Oddly enough, the subject came up again a couple of hours later, when Colonel House paid a call on King George V at Buckingham Palace.
The king turned to House at one point, and asked, “Suppose they should sink the Lusitania with American passengers aboard?”.
– Larson, Dead Wake, page 227.
Was it a setup?
I’d like to now use those conversations as a segue into exploring the possibility that the British, or more correctly certain elements of the British government and military, wanted to see the Lusitania sunk in order to embroil the U.S. into the war.
I think we can certainly say that there existed a motive for the British to attempt to foment such an event. In the second year in the war, an Allied victory was far from assured, and to the contrary, the possibility of Germany grinding out a victory was ever-present. Churchill himself writes about his deep concerns at this particular point in the way in his The World Crisis. First, Churchill was concerned about the perilous military situation the Allies found themselves in. In referring to the trip he made to France on May 5th to finalize the terms of the treaty which would bring Italy into the war on the side of the Allies, Churchill characterizes the current state of the war:
The terms of the secret treaty which resulted in the entry of Italy into the war have long since been made public. They reveal with painful clearness the desperate need of the three Allies (Britain, France and Russia) at this juncture. Locked in the deadly struggle, with the danger of the Russian collapse staring them in the face, and with their own very existence at stake, neither Britain nor France was inclined to be particular about the price they would pay or promise to pay for the accession to the alliance of a new first-class power.
– Churchill, The World Crisis Volume II, pages 251-252.
“Their own very existence at stake.” Yes, I would say that Churchill at least, and likely most elements of the British government, are seeing the possibility of losing the war at this point in 1915 as a real and existential threat.
Making that threat worse is the other of Churchill’s major concerns: That the U.S. will make it impossible for Britain to continue her total blockade of Germany. Again from The World Crisis, Churchill writes:
…we might well at this time have been forced to give up the whole efficiency of our blockade to avoid a rupture with the United States. There is nowadays a strong tendency to underestimate the real danger of an adverse decision in America at this period. The National tradition of the United States was not favourable to us… It was not always possible to harmonize our action with the strict letter of the law. From this arose a series of delicate and perplexing discussions in which rigid legalists across the Atlantic occupied a very strong position. There were in addition serious political dangers: Irish and German influences were powerful and active; a strong party in the Senate was definitely anti-British; the State Department was jealously and vigilantly watched, lest it should show any partiality to Great Britain. The slightest mistake in dealing with the American situation might at this juncture have created a crisis of the first magnitude.
– Churchill, The World Crisis Volume II, page 222-233.
I don’t think Churchill was alone in feeling this existential threat, nor the danger that not only might the U.S. continue to stay out of the war, but that it might pressure the Allies into a less stringent blockage, thus strengthening the German position.
From very early on Churchill was acutely aware that the Germans sinking neutral shipping that would serve as one highly effective way of shifting public opinion in the U.S. Churchill viewed the German declaration of unrestricted U-boat warfare along the coast as essentially an opportunity to ensnare the U.S. into the war:
On the other hand, we were sure that the German declaration and the inevitable accidents to neutrals arising out of it would offend and perhaps embroil the United States: and that in any case our position for enforcing the blockade would be greatly strengthened.
(and in a later section)
…the first German U-boat campaign gave us our greatest assistance. The German announcement threatening neutrals as well as British merchant ships had altered the whole position of our controversies with America. A great relief became immediately apparent.
– Churchill, The World Crisis Volume II, page 213, 223.
So we’ve pieced together a few circumstantial pieces of evidence to support the thesis that the Lusitania was intentionally put in danger. Clearly the conversations between Colonel House and the British Foreign Secretary as well as the King point to, uncannily accurate foreshadowing of the Lusitania’s sinking.
And, clearly Churchill and others were well aware of the propaganda and foreign relations boost that would result from the Germans sinking a large passenger liner. One could defend Churchill as simply being astute in his observations, which he most certainly was. But, there is evidence that Churchill may have been more sinister in his actions and intentions.
First, we have a letter that Churchill sent to earlier in 1915 to Walter Runciman, the head of England’s Board of Trade. In it Churchill writes “It is most important to attract neutral shipping to our shores in the hope especially of embroiling the United States with Germany… For our part we want the traffic — the more the better; and if some of it gets into trouble, better still.”
Next, let’s go back to the meeting of the Admiralty on May 5th, in which Churchill and senior staff arrived at the decision to recall the cruiser Juno from her assigned escort mission for the Lusitania. We’ve already talked about this meeting and the suggestion there voiced of sending other destroyers in the area to escort in Juno’s place, and how this suggestion was not acted on. Churchill, as the senior man present, must have concurred with the decision to recall Juno and not replace her with another suitable escort. The minutes of this meeting are conspicuously incomplete, and provide little additional insight into the mindset of the men who made this fateful decision.
But there was one attendee to this meeting who later gave some insight into what had transpired. This from Simpson’s The Lusitania:
What was said will never be known, but Kenworthy (a British naval Commander) left that meeting in the map room disgusted by the cynicism of his superiors. In 1927 he gave a brief hint of what did transpire in his book “The Freedom of the Seas”. “The Lusitania” he wrote, “was sent at considerably reduced speed into an area where a U-boat was known to waiting and with her her escorts withdrawn.” Their lordships, he (Kenworthy) concluded, had obviously decided to let the international legality and success of the German U-boat offensive be tested in the court of public opinion. Kenworthy’s is the only eyewitness account of that morning in the map room, and if responsibility is to be apportioned, then at this stage it must be the reader’s decision.
– Simpson, The Lusitania, page 131.
And with that sentiment I agree: It is up to you, the listener, to decide: Was the sinking of the Lusitania just one of those events that happen in war? Or, was the Lusitania a pawn on the geo-political chessboard sacrificed to shift public opinion in the United States, and bring America into the war?
The Initial Reaction
Now I was tempted to leave this episode here, having covered the material I wanted to, and having reached a natural mic drop moment. And yet, if you’ll indulge, I’m going to prattle on a little bit longer to fill in the aftermath of the sinking, and the longer than expected road to the U.S. entering the war. Consider what follows as an addendum of sorts.
On the day of the sinking many key figures in the story immediately recognized the significance of the event, and saw it as an irrevocable turning point that must draw the U.S. into the war, something they thought would happen quickly.
Let’s revisit the quote from Churchill that I used in the introduction to this episode:
This crowning outrage of the U-boat war resounded through the world. The United States, whose citizens had perished in large numbers, was convulsed with indignation, and in all parts of the great Republic the signal for armed intervention was awaited by the strongest elements of the American people. It was not given, and the war continued in its destructive equipoise. But henceforward the friends of the Allies in the United States were armed with a weapon against which German influence was powerless, and before which after a lamentable interval cold-hearted policy was destined to succumb.
Even in the first moments of realizing the tragedy and horror, I understood the significance of the event.
– Churchill, The World Crisis Volume II, page 255.
As the reports of the sinking start to arrive, Colonel House is at the American Embassy for a dinner in his honour, thrown by Ambassador Page. Simpson describes the scene:
There was little or no denunciation, there was no discussion of any of the consequences of the sinking, except that it was universally accepted that the United States would enter the war. The most vociferous proponent of this view was the guest of honor, Colonel House, who informed all present that the United States would enter the war within the month.
– Simpson, The Lusitania, page 178.
The reaction inside Great Britain was immediate. In the Lusitania’s home port of Liverpool the anger turns to violence almost immediately. From Ramsay’s The Lusitania Saga and Myth:
As the day wore on, tension, bred from… lethal emotions of grief and fury, simmered and as night fell it exploded. Riots broke out in several parts of the city and across Mersey in Birkenhead, continuing throughout the next day. Mobs of up to 3,000 people, among them crew members and relatives of some of those who had died, directed their anger at German-owned shops…
The situation in the Everton district of the city became so bad that a posse of about fifty police, clearly caught off guard, had great difficulty in restoring order…. On the following day all public houses were closed and the police were forced to invoke the Defence of the Realm act and order the internment of all German and Austrian citizens as a protective measure. Anti-German riots erupted in in many parts of London, in Newcastle, and in cities as far away as Victoria, British Columbia, where the German club was wrecked and the mayor was called out to read the Riot Act… On the stock exchange anyone of German origin was boycotted… Workers… refused to return to the job until German – and Austrian – born employees had been given their tickets.
– Ramsay, The Lusitania Saga and Myth, page 80.
The Western media reports the basic tenants of the story as a German U-boat surfacing 100 yards from the Lusitania firing multiple torpedos, and then proceeding to attack the Juno as she arrived on-scene causing the Juno’s inability to affect a rescue. Indeed on the following days the New York Times features stories from eyewitnesses talking about two submarines attacking the Lusitania from both sides with as many as seven torpedos, some laced with poison gas.
Now, in fairness, the New York Times of May 9th 1915 also published an article detailing the German position on the sinking, and included the allegations of contraband and munitions being on board the Lusitania. But, overall, as the days after the sinking go on, the papers are dominated by editorial denouncements of the Germans, strong calls for war, and grim stories of death, suffering and loss. The public opinion is being shifted. Ramsay in The Lusitania Saga and Myth summarizes the news coverage as follows:
Throughout Britain and America, the press reacted with dismay and outrage, castigating Imperial Germany. The Times denounced the sinking as “wholesale murder.” The New York Herald thundered that “even the rattlesnake gives warning before striking.” The New York Times, voice of the east coast establishment, was even more outspoke, concluding that “if this sinking is to accepted as a true manifestation of the German spirit then all neutral nations are on notice that the complete defeat of Germany and the eradication of its military spirit are essential to their peace and safety.”
– Ramsay, The Lusitania Saga and Myth, page 82.
On the German side, the reaction in the press was one of celebration. Taken from a German newspaper of the day:
The sinking of the Lusitania is a success of our submarines which must be placed beside the greatest achievement of this naval war. The sinking of the giant English steamship is a success of moral significance which is still greater than material success. With joyful pride we contemplate this latest deed of our Navy. It will not be the last. The English wish to abandon the German people to starvation. We are more humane. We simply sank an English ship with passengers who at their own risk… entered the zone of operations.
– Ramsay, The Lusitania Saga and Myth, page 82.
The Germany Navy was likewise congratulatory to Captain Schwieger upon receiving the first cable from U-20 announcing the news, which was duly intercepted by the British and decoded in Room 40: “Have sunk off the South coast of Ireland: one sailing ship, two steamers, and Lusitania. Am steering for the mouth of the Ems.” To which the commander of the German High Seas Fleet sent personal congratulations: “My highest appreciation of commander and crew for success they have achieved. Am proud of their achievement and express best wishes for their return.”
The U.S. Response
The initial assessment of the U.S. ambassador in Britain, Ambassador Page, is that the U.S. must act quickly.
Telegram. From American Ambassador in Britain to U.S. State Department. May 8th, 1915.
As nearly as I can interpret public opinion here, as affected by the sinking of the Lusitania, it is as follows, which I transmit for your information:
A profound effect has been produced on English opinion in general regarding both the surprising efficiency of the German submarine work and the extreme recklessness of the Germans. The sinking of the Lusitania, following the use of poisonous gas and the poisoning of wells, and the torpedoing of the Gulflight and other plainly marked neutral ships, the English regard as the complete abandonment of war regulations and of humanity in its conduct, as well as of any consideration for neutrals. Sir Edward Grey said to me last night, “They are running amuck.” It is war under the black flag. Indignation in the aggregate reached a new pitch.
Official comment is of course reticent. The freely expressed unofficial feeling is that the United States must declare war or forfeit European respect. So far as I know this opinion is universal. If the United States comes in, the moral and physical effect will be to bring peace quickly and to give the United States a great influence in ending the war and in so reorganizing the world as to prevent its recurrence. If the United States submits to German disregard of her citizens’ lives and of her property and of her neutral rights on the sea, the United States will have no voice or influence in settling the war nor in what follows for a long time to come. This, so far as I can ascertain, is the practically unanimous opinion here. The Americans in London are outspoken to the same effect.
For his part President Wilson was, by all accounts, deeply distressed by the event, but to his credit, he withheld judgement pending additional information. In particular he was concerned that the Lusitania may have been carrying contraband munitions the explosion of which caused or contributed to her sinking. Wilson quickly tasks Lansing, second in command at the State Department with finding the truth of the matter. From Simpson’s The Lusitania:
Lansing had a detailed report in writing from Malone (the New York Customs Collector) which stated that “practically all her cargo was contraband of some kind” and listed great quantities of munitions. Nevertheless, Lansing and Wilson were the first to realize that if it became public that over 100 American lives had been lost because of the Administration’s lax interpretation of neutrality, it would be most unlikely for them to survive the inevitable political holocaust.
– Simpson, The Lusitania, page 180.
Remember also that the U.S. State Department had a bit of a Jenkyl and Hyde situation occurring. While second in command Lansing was very pro-Britain and wanted the U.S. in the war, the Secretary of State was still William Jennings Bryan, who was much more inclined to see the German actions as being reactionary and at least partially justified by the actions the British had taken.
The German Response and a Rift Within the U.S. State Department
What winds up unfolding between Germany and the United States is a quite lengthy and contentious diplomatic exchange.
The initial German response to the U.S. State Department as as follows, taken from the archives at history.state.gov:
Telegram. From German Foreign Office to U.S. State Department, May 10th, 1915:
German Government desires to express deepest sympathy at loss of American lives on board steamship Lusitania. Responsibility rests, however, with British Government which, through plan preventing importation of foodstuffs and raw materials for civilian population, forced Germany resort to retaliatory measures, and answered German offer to stop submarine war in case this plan be given up by even more stringent blockade measures. British merchant vessels being generally armed with guns and having repeatedly tried to ram German submarines so that previous search impossible, can not be treated as ordinary merchant vessels. Recent declaration in British Parliament by Parliamentary Secretary, answering question of Lord Beresford, stated at present practically all British merchant vessels armed and provided with hand grenades. Besides openly admitted by English press that Lusitania was armed, Germany knows that Lusitania on previous voyages repeatedly carried large quantities war material. On present voyage Lusitania carried 5,400 cases of ammunition; rest of cargo also chiefly contraband. If England, after repeated official and unofficial German warnings, considered herself able to declare that boat ran no risk and thus lightheartedly assumed responsibility for human lives on board of steamer which owing to armament and cargo was liable to destruction, German Government, in spite of heartfelt sympathy for loss of American lives, can not but regret that Americans felt more inclined to trust English promises rather than pay attention to warnings from the German side.
I don’t think the German position on the matter could be summed up more succinctly. And yet, even if one agrees with the German position, the Germans are badly miscalculating the prevailing attitudes in Washington. The mood within the U.S. is shifting day by day as the propaganda machine grinds on with stories of German barbarity. And in Britain, Ambassador Page notes the deteriorating attitude, and the pressure to act:
Telegram. From U.S Ambassador in Great Britain (Page) to Secretary of State, May 11, 1915.
To the Secretary and the President: …Continuing my report of British feeling and opinion. Every day without news of definite action by the American government about the Gulflight and the Lusitania deepens the British suspicion into a conviction that our Government will content itself with mere argumentative protests. The respectful and sympathetic silence of the first few days’ excitement is now giving way to open criticism of American failure to realize the situation and of American unwillingness to act. There is a good deal of contempt in British feeling. This contempt is not based upon British wish for military help, but on the feeling that America falls short morally to condemn German methods and has fallen victim to German propaganda and does not properly rate German character, as shown in war, nor understand German danger to all free institutions. Fear grows of a moral failure on the part of the United States.
The most conservative action hoped for by the best friends of America here is that diplomatic relations be severed with Germany pending satisfactory settlement, and that Congress be convened so that the voice of the nation may be heard.
That’s about as hyperbolic as anything you’ll ever read from an Ambassador. He’s sounding the alarm on a massive shift in opinion. There’s huge pressure building on the President and the State Department to do something to respond. And, within the State Department, Secretary of State Bryan and his second in command Lansing jockey to set the tone of that response. For his part Bryan was counselling President Wilson not to break diplomatic relations with Germany and in a note to Wilson proposes the situation be defused by simply delaying dealing with it until things have calmed down. The note reads partially as follows, taken from Bryan’s public archives:
The words “strict accountability” have been construed by some of the newspapers to mean an immediate settlement of the matter. I deem it fitting to say that that construction is not a necessary one. In individual matters friends sometimes find it wise to postpone the settlement of disputes until such differences can be considered calmly and on their own merits. So it may be with nations. The United States and Germany, between whom there exists a longstanding friendship, may find it advisable to postpone until peace is restored, any disputes which do not yield to diplomatic treatment.
Simpson, The Lusitania, page 194. Taken from the Bryan papers.
President Wilson takes Bryan’s draft modifies it, and sends it back to Bryan for approval. The plan is to give this statement to the press as a sort of unofficial statement from the White House in the hopes of defusing the tension of the moment and having cooler heads prevail.
Unfortunately, here Secretary of State Bryan does something stupid, and shows the draft to his subordinate Lansing. Lansing refused to endorse the statement, not that anyone was asking him to, and sets about quietly rallying all the hawkish cabinet members, assisted by the President’s own Chief of Staff, Joseph Tumulty, who like Lansing is also frustrated by the Wilson’s refusal to act more forcibly against the Germans. Essentially what we’ve got going on here is a mini-coup, lead by the second in command at the U.S. State Department, the goal of which is to force definitive action against the Germans.
For Lansing, the stakes appear to have been personally motivated as well. He wanted Bryan out as Secretary of State, fancying himself for that position.
The U.S. Takes a Hard Line
In the face of such opposition Wilson recalls the note, and a formal reply to Germany takes shape that is aggressive enough in its tone and demands to placate the hawkish cabinet members. This is quite a lengthy note, but it is worth reading in full as it marks a pivotal shift in the relations between the U.S. and Germany, and represents the U.S., for the first time, taking a hard line with Germany:
Telegram. From U.S. Secretary of State to German Foreign Minister, May 13, 1915.
In view of recent acts of the German authorities in violation of American rights on the high seas which culminated in the torpedoing and sinking of the British steamship Lusitania on May 7, 1915, by which over 100 American citizens lost their lives, it is clearly wise and desirable that the Government of the United States and the Imperial German Government should come to a clear and full understanding as to the grave situation which has resulted.
The sinking of the British passenger steamer Falaba by a German submarine on March 28, through which Leon C. Thrasher, an American citizen was drowned; the attack on April 28 on the American vessel Cushing by a German aeroplane; the torpedoing on May 1 of the American vessel Gulflight by a German submarine, as a result of which two or more American citizens met their death; and, finally, the torpedoing and sinking of the steamship Lusitania, constitute a series of events which the Government of the United States has observed with growing concern, distress, and amazement.
Recalling the humane and enlightened attitude hitherto assumed by the Imperial German Government in matters of international right, and particularly with regard to the freedom of the seas; having learned to recognize the German views and the German influence in the field of international obligation as always engaged upon the side of justice and humanity; and having understood the instructions of the Imperial German Government to its naval commanders to be upon the same plane of humane action prescribed by the naval codes of other nations, the Government of the United States was loath to believe—it can not now bring itself to believe—that these acts, so absolutely contrary to the rules, the practices, and the spirit of modern warfare, could have the countenance or sanction of that great Government. It feels it to be its duty, therefore, to address the Imperial German Government concerning them with the utmost frankness and in the earnest hope that it is not mistaken in expecting action on the part of the Imperial German Government which will correct the unfortunate impressions which have been created, and vindicate once more the position of that Government with regard to the sacred freedom of the seas.
The Government of the United States has been apprised that the Imperial German Government considered themselves to be obliged by the extraordinary circumstances of the present war and the measures adopted by their adversaries in seeking to cut Germany off from all commerce, to adopt methods of retaliation which go much beyond the ordinary methods of warfare at sea, in the proclamation of a war zone from which they have warned neutral ships to keep away. This Government has already taken occasion to inform the Imperial German Government that it can not admit the adoption of such measures or such a warning of danger to operate as in any degree an abbreviation of the rights of American shipmasters or of American citizens bound on lawful errands as passengers on merchant ships of belligerent nationality; and that it must hold the Imperial German Government to a strict accountability for any infringement of those rights, intentional or incidental. It does not understand (that) the Imperial German Government… question(s) those rights. It assumes, on the contrary, that the Imperial Government accept, as of course, the rule that the lives of non-combatants, whether they be of neutral citizenship or citizens of one of the nations at war, can not lawfully or rightfully be put in jeopardy by the capture or destruction of an unarmed merchantman, and recognize also, as all other nations do, the obligation to take the usual precaution of visit and search to ascertain whether a suspected merchantman is in fact of belligerent nationality or is in fact carrying contraband of war under a neutral flag.
The Government of the United States, therefore, desires to call the attention of the Imperial German Government with the utmost earnestness to the fact that the objection to their present method of attack against the trade of their enemies lies 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. It is practically impossible for the officers of a submarine to visit a merchantman at sea and examine her papers and cargo. It is practically impossible for them to make a prize of her; and, if they can not put a prize crew on board of her, they can not sink her without leaving her crew and all on board of her to the mercy of the sea in her small boats. These facts it is understood the Imperial German Government frankly admit. We are informed that, in the instances of which we have spoken, time enough for even that poor measure of safety was not given, and in at least two of the cases cited, not so much as a warning was received. Manifestly submarines can not be used against merchantmen, as the last few weeks have shown, without an inevitable violation of many sacred principles of justice and humanity.
American citizens act within their indisputable rights in taking their ships and in traveling wherever their legitimate business calls them upon the high seas, and exercise those rights in what should be the well-justified confidence that their lives will not be endangered by acts done in clear violation of universally acknowledged international obligations, and certainly in the confidence that their own Government will sustain them in the exercise of their rights.
There was recently published in the newspapers of the United States, I regret to inform the Imperial German Government, a formal warning, purporting to come from the Imperial German Embassy at Washington, addressed to the people of the United States, and stating, in effect, that any citizen of the United States who exercised his right of free travel upon the seas would do so at his peril if his journey should take him within the zone of waters within which the Imperial German Navy was using submarines against the commerce of Great Britain and France, notwithstanding the respectful but very earnest protest of his Government, the Government of the United States. I do not refer to this for the purpose of calling the attention of the Imperial German Government at this time to the surprising irregularity of a communication from the Imperial German Embassy at Washington addressed to the people of the United States through the newspapers, but only for the purpose of pointing out that no warning that an unlawful and inhumane act will be committed can possibly be accepted as an excuse or palliation for that act or as an abatement of the responsibility for its commission.
Long acquainted as this Government has been with the character of the Imperial German Government and with the high principles of equity by which they have in the past been actuated and guided, the Government of the United States can not believe that the commanders of the vessels which committed these acts of lawlessness did so except under a misapprehension of the orders issued by the Imperial German naval authorities. It takes it for granted that, at least within the practical possibilities of every such case, the commanders even of submarines were expected to do nothing that would involve the lives of non-combatants or the safety of neutral ships, even at the cost of failing of their object of capture or destruction. It confidently expects, therefore, that the Imperial German Government will disavow the acts of which the Government of the United States complains, that they will make reparation so far as reparation is possible for injuries which are without measure, and that they will take immediate steps to prevent the recurrence of anything so obviously subversive of the principles of warfare for which the Imperial German Government have in the past so wisely and so firmly contended.
The Government and the people of the United States look to the Imperial German Government for just, prompt, and enlightened action in this vital matter with the greater confidence because the United States and Germany are bound together not only by special ties of friendship but also by the explicit stipulations of the treaty of 1828 between the United States and the Kingdom of Prussia.
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, can not 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.
The Imperial German Government will not expect the Government of the United States to omit any word or any act necessary to the performance of its sacred duty of maintaining the rights of the United States and its citizens and of safeguarding their free exercise and enjoyment.
The United States is formally demanding that the Germans essentially cease using U-boats all together. This is a huge victory for the British. Remember, up to this point, the majority of the diplomatic pressure from the U.S. State Department has been targeted at Britain for their blockade, and the actions the British have taken to make it impossible for the German’s to adhere to Cruiser Rules. Indeed, the basis of those American objections was that Britain was creating conditions which would inevitably endanger neutral vessels and citizens. Now that event the State Department was so concerned about has come to pass, and the reaction is to shift all blame and responsibility to Germany. It’s an incredible diplomatic win for Britain. For Germany, it’s a disaster. The U-boats are the one weapon they have that is at least somewhat effective against the British supply lines.
Interestingly, at the same time this message from the U.S. to Germany is being drafted, Lansing receives the formal opinion of the U.S. State Department’s legal team on the international case law as it pertained to the sinking of the Lusitania. Their conclusions stand in stark contrast to the response the U.S. response subsequently issued that I just read. From the Lansing papers, as summarized by Simpson the conclusions are:
- Britain had obliterated the distinction between merchantmen and men of war.
- Therefore Germany had every right to sink the Lusitania.
- If Germany had not sunk the Lusitania, then a valuable cargo of munitions would have passed through to Germany’s enemies.
- There was no basis in international law for the United States claim that the life of an American citizen was sacrosanct even when aboard a belligerent ship of any category.
- That England had recognized this fact during the Russo-Japanese war and had published a warning to her citizens against their taking passage on belligerent vessels.
- That the owners and operators of the Lusitania appeared to have committed a breach of section 8 of the Passenger Act of the Navigation Laws of the United States.
– Simpson, The Lusitania, page 200.
In short, the State Department’s legal team is effectively agreeing with the German position. So why didn’t this legal opinion impact the drafting of the State Department’s response to Germany? Most likely Lansing disappeared this document into his personal archives. There is no record that his boss Secretary of State Bryan nor the President were ever aware of this document nor its conclusions. In hiding this information, as in fomenting the mini-coup, Lansing is overtly shaping the U.S. response, and doing so in a manner that one has to consider to be insubordinate.
Germany Takes a Hard Line
The German response comes on May 28, 1915. I’ll extract the portion of the response which is of particular interest to our narrative:
Telegram. From German Foreign Minister to U.S. Secretary of State, May 29th, 1915.
With regard to the loss of life when the British passenger steamer Lusitania was sunk, the German Government has already expressed its deep regret to the neutral Governments concerned that nationals of those countries lost their lives on that occasion. The Imperial Government must state for the rest the impression that certain important facts most directly connected with the sinking of the Lusitania may have escaped the attention of the Government of the United States. It therefore considers it necessary in the interest of the clear and full understanding aimed at by either Government primarily to convince itself that the reports of the facts which are before the two Governments are complete and in agreement.
The Government of the United States proceeds on the assumption that the Lusitania is to be considered as an ordinary unarmed merchant vessel. The Imperial Government begs in this connection to point out that the Lusitania was one of the largest and fastest English commerce steamers, constructed with Government funds as auxiliary cruisers, and is expressly included in the navy list published by British Admiralty. It is moreover known to the Imperial Government from reliable information furnished by its officials and neutral passengers that for some time practically all the more valuable English merchant vessels have been provided with guns, ammunition, and other weapons, and reinforced with a crew specially practiced in manning guns. According to reports at hand here, the Lusitania when she left New York undoubtedly had guns on board which were mounted under decks and masked.
The Imperial Government furthermore has the honor to direct the particular attention of the American Government to the fact that the British Admiralty by a secret instruction of February of this year advised the British merchant marine not only to seek protection behind neutral flags and markings, but even when so disguised to attack German submarines by ramming them. High rewards have been offered by the British Government as a special incentive for the destruction of the submarines by merchant vessels, and such rewards have already been paid out. In view of these facts, which are satisfactorily known to it, the Imperial Government is unable to consider English merchant vessels any longer as “undefended territory” in the zone of maritime war designated by the Admiralty Staff of the Imperial German Navy, the German commanders are consequently no longer in a position to observe the rules of capture otherwise usual and with which they invariably complied before this. Lastly, the Imperial Government must specially point out that on her last trip the Lusitania, as on earlier occasions, had Canadian troops and munitions on board, including no less than 5,400 cases of ammunition destined for the destruction of brave German soldiers who are fulfilling with self-sacrifice and devotion their duty in the service of the Fatherland. The German Government believes that it acts in just self-defense when it seeks to protect the lives of its soldiers by destroying ammunition destined for the enemy with the means of war at its command. The English steamship company must have been aware of the dangers to which passengers on board the Lusitania were exposed under the circumstances. In taking them on board in spite of this the company quite deliberately tried to use the lives of American citizens as protection for the ammunition carried, and violated the clear provisions of American laws which expressly prohibit, and provide punishment for, the carrying of passengers on ships which have explosives on board. The company thereby wantonly caused the death of so many passengers. According to the express report of the submarine commander concerned, which is further confirmed by all other reports, there can be no doubt that the rapid sinking of the Lusitania was primarily due to the explosion of the cargo of ammunition caused by the torpedo. Otherwise, in all human probability, the passengers of the Lusitania would have been saved.
The Imperial Government holds the facts recited above to be of sufficient importance to recommend them to a careful examination by the American Government.
If I was going to pick apart this note into those points the Germans make which are provably true, and those points which are not necessarily provable I would do it as follows:
Provable that the Lusitania was built as a vessel of war, and true that many English merchantman were being armed at least to some extent, with some being used as deliberate decoys to lure U-boats into vulnerable positions.
Not provable that the Lusitania was armed. She was certainly ready to be armed, having being retrofitted with gun decking at the start of the war, and there are rumours and circumstantial eyewitness accounts of their being hidden deck guns on board, but I’ve yet to see any definitive proof, and at the least none of the guns were mounted at the time of the sinking.
Provable that English ships had been instructed to fly false colours, specifically the Stars and Stripes, and provable that all merchant ships were under orders to attack by any means possible including ramming any U-boat. Merchantman were prohibited from heaving to upon intercept. Included with the note delivered to the U.S. ambassador in Germany were photographs of Churchill’s orders proving the accuracy of this assertion.
Provable that the Lusitania was carrying munitions on board which would be used to kill German troops, and indeed the Lusitania, we now know, was carrying far more munitions than the Germans suspected.
False that the Lusitania was carrying Canadian troops. There does not appear to be any basis for that accusation.
Possible, but not provable, that the Lusitania was sunk due to a large secondary explosion of munitions.
Those points aside, there something else that we start to see in these latest telegrams, or rather don’t see: Whereas previously such diplomatic wires would always start with or include some pleasantries like “Imperial Germany, in recognition of her close friendship with the United States of America respectfully asks…”, you’re seeing none of that now from either side in these latest telegrams. Germany and the United States are becoming more frustrated and entrenched in their positions. Diplomacy is starting to break down.
The Resignation of Bryan
Within the U.S. State Department, Secretary of State Bryan is convinced enough by the German arguments, specifically the photos showing the British orders for all merchantmen to ram U-boats when challenged, that he requests an investigation into the matter.
Lansing was having none of it and argued strenuously that these orders were forgeries, and not worthy of any investigation. President Wilson sides with Lansing, and together they draft the U.S. reply to Germany. Bryan objects to the contents of the reply, and insists that an investigation of the German allegations must be made to establish the truth of the matter. So passionate is Bryan about this matter than on June 8th, 1915 he resigns his position as Secretary of State in protest, and is immediately replaced by Lansing. There will be no more anti-war doves driving State Department policy from here on out. The day after Bryan’s resignation, the United States fires its reply to Germany. It’s another long one, so I’ll extract the portion most interesting to our story:
Telegram. From Interim Secretary of State Lansing to German Ambassador. June 9th, 1915.
…Your excellency’s note, in discussing the loss of American lives resulting from the sinking of the steamship Lusitania, adverts at some length to certain information which the Imperial German Government has received with regard to the character and outfit of that vessel, and your excellency expresses the fear that this information may not have been brought to the attention of the Government of the United States. It is stated in the note that the Lusitania was undoubtedly equipped with masked guns, supplied with trained gunners and special ammunition, transporting troops from Canada, carrying a cargo not permitted under the laws of the United States to a vessel also carrying passengers, and serving, in virtual effect, as an auxiliary to the naval forces of Great Britain. Fortunately, these are matters concerning which the Government of the United States is in a position to give the Imperial German Government official information. Of the facts alleged in your excellency’s note, if true, the Government of the United States would have been bound to take official cognizance in performing its recognized duty as a neutral power and in enforcing its national laws. It was its duty to see to it that the Lusitania was not armed for offensive action, that she was not serving as a transport, that she did not carry a cargo prohibited by the statutes of the United States, and that, if in fact she was a naval vessel of Great Britain, she should not receive clearance as a merchantman; and it performed that duty and enforced its statutes with scrupulous vigilance through its regularly constituted officials. It is able, therefore, to assure the Imperial German Government that it has been misinformed. If the Imperial German Government should deem itself to be in possession of convincing evidence that the officials of the Government of the United States did not perform these duties with thoroughness, the Government of the United States sincerely hopes that it will submit that evidence for consideration.
Whatever may be the contentions of the Imperial German Government regarding the carriage of contraband of war on board the Lusitania or regarding the explosion of that material by the torpedo, it need only be said that in the view of this Government these contentions are irrelevant to the question of the legality of the methods used by the German naval authorities in sinking the Vessel.
But the sinking of passenger ships involves principles of humanity which throw into the background any special circumstances of detail that may be thought to affect the cases, principles which lift it, as the Imperial German Government will no doubt be quick to recognize and acknowledge, out of the class of ordinary subjects of diplomatic discussion or of international controversy. Whatever be the other facts regarding the Lusitania, the principal fact is that a great steamer, primarily and chiefly a conveyance for passengers, and carrying more than a thousand souls who had no part or lot in the conduct of the war, was torpedoed and sunk without so much as a challenge or a warning, and that men, women, and children were sent to their death in circumstances unparalleled in modern warfare…
The Germans Back Down
But even before the U.S. wire was sent, the Germans were already so badly bruised in the court of public opinion that they were starting to ease off their campaign of unrestricted U-boat warfare. The Kaiser, on June 5th, ordered that no more passenger liners were to be attacked under any circumstances, over the strenuous objections of both German Admiralty, and Admiral Tirpitz, who attempted to resign over the order, only to have Kaiser reject his resignation. The first period of unrestricted U-boat warfare was over, but the damage to the German reputation internationally, and specifically its relations with United States, was already done.
From this point on, and with Lansing at the helm of the U.S. State Department, the U.S. begins to overtly support the Allies and a wary truce persists throughout the rest of 1915 and 1916, though there are a series of ongoing diplomatic kerfuffles related to German U-boat activity.
The Second Period of Unrestricted U-boat Warfare and the Entry of the U.S. into the War
In 1917, everything finally comes to a head. The British blockade was starving the German civilian population. Something had to be done to break the brutal stalemate. By this point the Germans had grown their U-boat fleet from the mere 20 U-boats used in the 1915 campaign to a massive fleet of 140 U-boats. They calculate that if they unleash these U-boats in a second period of unrestricted U-boat warfare, they can knock Britain out of the war and force a peace before the United States is able to mobilize.
It was a daring plan, and it almost worked. Unrestricted U-boat warfare is again declared on January 31st, 1917. By March fully 25% of all British bound ships are intercepted and sunk by the U-boats. By April British wheat reserves are down to only six weeks.
I’ll let Churchill walk us through a summary of these key events. From Volume III of The World Crisis:
The desperate action of the German War-Leaders left him (President Wilson) in the end no loophole of escape. On January 31, Germany informed the United States of her intention to begin the unrestricted submarine campaign. On February 3, the German Ambassador at Washington was given his passports, the United States representative at Berlin was recalled, and the severance of diplomatic relations with Germany was announced by the President to Congress. But Mr. Wilson had still another line of defence. He declined to believe that any “overt act” would follow the declaration of the German intention. On February 29, an American ship was sunk and eight Americans drowned. Meanwhile the British Intelligence Service had ascertained that Herr Zimmermann, the German Foreign Secretary, had instructed the German Minister in Mexico to make an alliance with Mexico in the event of war between Germany and the United States, and to offer as an inducement to the Mexicans the United States territories of Texas, Arizona and New Mexico. This document, which dealt also with the possibilities of ranging Japan against the United States, was published by the American Government on March 1. During March four American vessels were sunk with the loss of twelve American lives. On April 1, the Aztec was sunk and twenty-eight Americans drowned. On the 2nd, President Wilson demanded from Congress a declaration that a state of war existed between the United States and Germany.
Step by step the President had been pursued and brought to bay. By slow merciless degrees, against his dearest hopes, against his gravest doubts, against his deepest inclinations, in stultification of all he had said and done and left undone in thirty months of carnage, he was forced to give the signal he dreaded and abhorred. Throughout he had been beneath the true dominant note of American sentiment. He had behind his policy a reasoned explanation and massive argument, and all must respect the motives of a statesman who seeks to spare his country the horrors of war. But nothing can reconcile what he said after March, 1917, with the guidance he had given before. What he did in April, 1917, could have been done in May 1915. And if done then what abridgement of the slaughter; what sparing of the agony; what ruin, what catastrophes would have been prevented; in how many million homes would an empty chair be occupied today; how different would be the shattered world in which victors and vanquished alike are condemned to live!
But anyhow all was settled now. “A drunken brawl”, “Peace without victory”, where were these festering phrases on April 2? Amid the clink and clatter of a cavalry escort the President has reached the Senate. He is reading his message to Congress and to mankind. Out roll the famous periods in which the righteousness of the Allied cause was finally proclaimed.
Vessels of every kind, whatever their flag, their character, their cargo, their destination, their errand, have been ruthlessly sent to the bottom: without warning and without thought of help or mercy for those on board, the vessels of friendly neutrals along with those of belligerents. Even hospital ships and ships carrying relief to the sorely bereaved and stricken people of Belgium, though the latter were provided with safe conduct through the proscribed areas by the German Government itself and were distinguished by unmistakable marks of identity, have been sunk with the same reckless lack of compassion or of principle… The peace of the world is involved and the freedom of its peoples, and the menace to that peace and freedom lies in the existence of autocratic governments backed by organized force which is controlled wholly by their will, not by the will of their people… The World must be made safe for Democracy… The right is more precious than peace, and we shall fight for the things which we have always carried nearest our hearts,-for Democracy, for the right of those who submit to authority to have a voice in their own Governments, for the rights and liberties of small nations, for a universal dominion of right by such a concert of free peoples as shall bring peace and safety to all nations and make the world itself at last free.
In response to all of this the House of Representatives on April 6 resolved that a state of war was formally declared, and that “to bring the conflict to a successful termination all the resources of the country are hereby pledged by the Congress of the United States.”
From the Atlantic to the Pacific the call was answered and obeyed. Iron laws of compulsory service, reinforced by social pressures of mutual discipline in with the great majority of the population took part, asserted an instantaneous union of opinion. No one stood against the torrent. Pacifism, indifference, dissent, were swept from the path and fiercely pursued to extermination; and with a roar of slowly gathered, pent-up wrath which overpowered in its din every discordant yell, the American nation sprang to arms.
– Churchill, The World Crisis Volume III, pages 166-167.
From the time the U.S. declared war on Germany, until they could start landing troops in Europe in early 1918 the Allies just had to hold on. The United States, which had only a very small standing army, upon the declaration of war passes the Selective Service Act, and overnight drafts four million men into the military. By the summer of 1918 two million American soldiers are in France, with half of those active on the front lines, and ten thousand more American soldiers are arriving every day.
The German gambit had failed. As expected the declaration of unrestricted U-boat warfare had drawn the U.S. into the war. But the plan to bring the Allies to their knees before America could mobilize her army had failed. Exhausted by years of war, with a civilian population starving, and facing in the United States an adversary with seemingly unlimited men and materials, on November 11th, 1918 the Germans sign the armistice bringing an end to the war.
I’m Greg Campbell, and you’ve been listening to the Pivotal History podcast.
Want to support the show? I don’t want donations, but there are three things you can do that I would deeply appreciate:
First, subscribe the show in whatever podcast app you’re using.
Second, leave a five star review.
And third, if you know anybody you think would be interested, spread the word, and tell them about the Pivotal History podcast.
Thanks for listening.