The Sinking of the Lusitania

“The hour of two had struck and most of the first cabin passengers were just finishing luncheon. Suddenly at an estimated distance of about 1,000 yards from the ship there shone against the bright sea the conning tower of a submarine torpedo boat. Almost immediately there appeared a churning streak in the water and the trail of a death-dealing torpedo was marked. Passengers who saw the onrushing engine of destruction found no time for deep reflection. Instantly there was an explosion. Portions of the splintered hull of the steel vessel mounted upward over the waves to mark the stroke of the torpedo and fell again to mingle with still more debris sent aloft by the explosion of a second torpedo,” so reads “The Tragedy of the Lusitania” (1915), by Capt. Frederick D. Ellis.

Lusitania arriving in New York for first time, Sept. 13, 1907. Photograph by Frances Benjamin Johnston. Prints and Photographs Division.

Lusitania arriving in New York for first time, Sept. 13, 1907. Photograph by Frances Benjamin Johnston. Prints and Photographs Division.

On the afternoon of May 7, 1915, the German submarine U-20 torpedoed and sank the British cruise liner Lusitania traveling from New York to Liverpool, England. In a scant 18 minutes, the luxury liner with nearly 2,000 passengers sunk to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Ireland. Nearly 1,200 passengers perished; more than 100 were Americans, including millionaire Alfred Vanderbilt, writer Elbert Hubbard and theater producer Charles Frohman.

Only a couple of weeks before, the German Embassy published a warning in newspapers telling passengers that travel on Allied ships was “at their own risk,” including mentioning the Lusitania specifically. Germany had declared the waters around the United Kingdom a war zone. The fact that the Lusitania had been built with the ability to be converted into an armed merchant cruiser and that she was carrying war contraband was enough to incite Germany to attack.

According to a post from the Library’s Now See Hear! blog, within a month, the busy Victor Military band recorded “National Airs of the Allies,” a medley of anthems and national songs of France, Belgium, England and Russia. The sinking itself was soon memorialized in song in Charles McCarron and Nat Vincent’s “When the Lusitania Went Down,” published within weeks of the event. In February of 1916, Frederick Wheeler recorded “Wake Up, America,” which urged Americans to stand ready to join the fight.

German submarine U20, said to be the one that sank the Lusitania. Between 1914 and 1919. Prints and Photographs Division.

German submarine U20, said to be the one that sank the Lusitania. Between 1914 and 1919. Prints and Photographs Division.

While the sinking of the Lusitania was not the single largest factor contributing to the United States entering World War I two years later, it certainly solidified the public court of opinion against Germany. In addition, the deadly attack was also a turning point in modern warfare. Traditional mandates had called for warning commercial vessels before firing upon them. However, the introduction of the submarine posed a new threat of stealth attacks.

During the war, sections in newspapers captured the details and intensity of the fighting, introduced technological innovations to a curious and interested American public and documented the work and play of the home front. These pictorials were important tools for promoting U.S. propaganda and influenced how readers viewed world events. Images from the battlefields and dramatic coverage of casualties from the 1915 sinking of the Lusitania contributed to the U.S. decision to join the war.

The sinking itself has also been the topic of controversy, including the possibility that the Lusitania was deliberately put at risk in order to drag the U.S. into the war and that the ship was carrying undeclared war munitions in her cargo.

The Library has a wealth of material related to the sinking of the Lusitania and WWI, including a guide to historic newspaper articles, photographs and a compilation of digital collections.

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