05 May 2010

Disasters: RMS Lusitania

By Isabel Roman

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 any of her allies, are liable to destruction in those waters and that travellers sailing in the war zone on the ships of Great Britain or her allies do so at their own risk.
This ominous and foreshadowing warning was printed in all the New York newspapers three weeks before what would be the RMS Lusitania's final Atlantic crossing. The torpedoing of the Lusitania became one of the major factors for the US's entrance into the WWI theater of war.

It is probably true that the RMS Lusitania was carrying munitions to aid Britain in their fight against Germany but the attack on one of the world's most luxurious cruise liners, especially with the loss of RMS Titanic so fresh in the memories of the public, was a catastrophic miscalculation on Germany's part.

Initially, the German's defended their right when in a state of war to attack any enemy vessel. However, it soon became apparent that the world was against their position and in true back-pedalling style they reversed their position and agreed on rules of engagement. The Lusitania sank in just 18 minutes. In six minutes the forecastle was underwater. Of the 1900+ passengers, 1,195 died. The ship was just 18 miles from the coast of Ireland.

Germany justified it at the time by saying the Lusitania carried weapons (which she did) but the public didn't know this and so the outcry from both Germany, Britain, and America was immense. Her cargo had included an estimated 4,200,000 rounds of rifle cartridges, 1,250 empty shell cases, and 18 cases of non-explosive fuses, all listed in the manifest, but the cartridges were not officially classed as ammunition by the Cunard Line. (Various theories have been put forward over the years that she had also carried undeclared high explosives that were detonated by the torpedo and helped to sink her, but this has never been proven.)

Eventually, the German government issued a statement describing what the ship carried and how it had warned people not to travel on luxury ships during time of war, and the tide of German sentiment turned, but only slightly. No one advocated the killing of non-combatants. German's allies, Turkey and Austria-Hungry, criticized the sinking. It did outrage America, which was not ready to enter into any kind of global conflict, and President Wilson issued three increasingly strongly worded notes to the German government, with the last saying: the US would regard any subsequent sinkings as deliberately unfriendly.

In 1967 the wreck of the Lusitania was sold by the Liverpool & London War Risks Insurance Association to former US Navy diver John Light for £1,000. Gregg Bemis became a co-owner of the wreck in 1968, and by 1982 had bought out his partners to become sole owner. He subsequently went to court in England in 1986, the US in 1995, and Ireland in 1996 to ensure that his ownership was legally in force.