On May 1, 1915, the RMS Lusitania set sail from New York City to Liverpool, England, carrying 1,959 passengers. On May 7, 1915, the ship was sailing off the Irish coast when a German U-Boat, U-20, fired a torpedo that sank the Lusitania within twenty minutes, killing 1,198 passengers, including 128 Americans. The sinking of the Lusitania shocked the conscience of the American public and was later cited as a significant factor that drew the United States into World War I as a combatant. On June 1, 2015, from 6:30-9pm, the British Council will host the program “The War that Changed the World,” in the Library’s Coolidge Auditorium. The program will discuss how the First World War changed America’s place in the world and how the demonstration of U.S. power changed the debate about the U.S. role in world affairs.” In anticipation of this event, I wanted to explore some of the Library’s holdings related to the Lusitania.
The sinking of the Lusitania was shocking and tragic, but it may also have been anticipated. Germany made it clear that they considered the perimeter of the United Kingdom a war zone, with Germany waging a submarine war in response to the British naval blockade. The Imperial German Embassy posted advertisements in U.S. newspapers warning passengers who traveled on the ships of Great Britain and her allies that they did so at their own risk. Before the ship disembarked from New York, telegrams were sent to the Lusitania for select passengers, including Alfred Vanderbilt, warning against the passage, declaring that the Lusitania would be attacked. These warnings were not taken seriously.
If passengers assumed that they were protected by naval prize laws, they were mistaken. Under prize law, which is based upon the law of nations and international treaties, the attacking ship would issue a warning to the enemy ship, such as a shot across the bow. The enemy ship would then be boarded, inspected, and taken as a prize. If military necessity required it, the enemy ship could be sunk, but only after the passengers, crew, and papers were evacuated. Germany claimed such a necessity, pointing out that the submarine warfare campaign rendered it impossible to provide a prize crew to guide a captured enemy ship into port. In any event, compliance with prize law quickly yielded to mutual mistrust and a desire to better prosecute the war. Even if prize law had been strictly adhered to by the combatants, the matter was further complicated by the fact that the Lusitania’s cargo hold contained approximately 173 tons of rifle ammunition and shells, a cargo which Germany felt justified the attack on the ship. One of my colleagues in the Law Library, Jim Martin, mentioned that a German artist was so angered by reports that weaponry was housed in the Lusitania’s cargo hold that he struck a medal depicting the passengers aboard the Lusitania purchasing their tickets from death.
The American public was outraged by the attack, but the U.S. did not immediately enter into World War I. President Wilson instead issuing a letter of protest while maintaining a stance of neutrality. When the U.S. did enter the War, the tragedy of the Lusitania was still fresh in the public mind and figured prominently in recruitment posters.
With so much focus on the Lusitania in the context of its place in the war, we may lose sight of the impact of the tragedy on the lives of the survivors and the family members of those who perished. Chronicling America, a joint project of the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Library of Congress, provides articles that underscore the human toll taken by the attack. Just click on Chronicling America, narrow to the year 1915, and search for the keyword “Lusitania.”
I hope you appreciated this glimpse into some of the Library’s holdings related to the Lusitania. Please join us for “The War that Changed the World” on June 1, 2015, from 6:30-9pm. The event is free, but you must register in advance by emailing: [email protected].
Lusitania (British Ship), Encyclopedia Britannica Academic Edition
Treatise on the Law of Prize, by John C. Colombos