The Sinking of the Lusitania 1915

On May 7th 1915, the sinking of one ship would have drastic consequences for Germany, the RMS Lusitania sunk by U-boat 20.  We often associate the sinking of the Lusitania as the reason as to why the US entered to war against Germany.  But is it the main reason and was the Lusitania that significant?  It certainly saw a huge loss of life with around 1200 dead, with 128 of those being American.  Nonetheless, there were other ocean liners sunk whilst ferrying passengers, whom also included US citizens, so perhaps the Lusitania was the last straw?

Was the Lusitania a valid target?  Well this has certainly raised a lot of debate among historians, it is claimed that the ship was carrying cargo of ammunition, specifically riffle cartridges.  Therefore it can be argued that it was a valid military target, maybe the fault should be therefore be pointed at the British for using a passenger liner carrying civilians as a rouse to transport ammunition.  It must also be pointed that German Admiral Hugo von Pohl, who was in charge of the German High Seas Fleet, wrote in February 1915 and declared in the German newspaper Deutscher Reichsanzeiger (Imperial German Gazette) that: “The waters around 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 encountered in this zone will be destroyed, nor will it always be possible to avert the danger thereby threatened to the crew and passengers”.  And that “neutral vessels also will run a risk in the War Zone, because in view of the hazards of sea warfare and the British authorization of January 31 of the misuse of neutral flags, it may not always be possible to prevent attacks on enemy ships from harming neutral ships”.  So Germany had made their intentions clear, and had sent a clear warning to all those travelling.  However heavy British and US propaganda ensured that Germany would receive the entirety of the blame, even though it had made its intentions clear.

The U.S entrance into the war was not because of the Lusitania being sunk by a torpedo, but rather because of the matter of unrestricted submarine warfare.  Wilson had written three notes to the German Government after the sinking of the Lusitania, the third note, on 21 July, issued an ultimatum, to the effect that the US would regard any subsequent sinking’s as deliberately unfriendly.  Later in August 1915, the White Star liner SS Arabic was sunk, killing 44 Americans, this sort of warfare turned Americans attitude to Germany, and helped Wilson get through Congress a decision for war.

Therefore the Lusitania saw a tragic loss of life, and it was another dark event during World War One.  Nonetheless, its sinking was turned into a political tool, and the people who died were to be revenged, or at least that’s how it was to be portrayed.  If the British had stacked it full of ammunition and was warned that ships would be sunk, and still went ahead anyhow, the blame on the loss of life, must be put on both parties, the British and the US and Germany must all share blame for the sinking of the Lusitania.

Of course, some controversies on the sinking will never be solved; did U-20 launch two torpedoes, or just one?  Was their other ammunition on the ship other than riffle cartridges?  We might never know, but there is more to this sinking than meets the eye.  But remember, the sinking did not directly bring the U.S. into the war, it was just one of a few factors!

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