The Attack Against RMS Lusitania

The attack against RMS Lusitania by a German U-boat is one of the major events of World War One (WWI). The sinking of RMS Lusitania – simply called the “Lusitania disaster” by some – is as tragic as it was consequential, as it is one of the major factors that led the United States to enter WWI. The attack against Lusitania also served as a rallying cry of sorts, giving military recruiters a clear instance of German aggression to point to in their efforts to enlist more men in the war effort. Below is a basic overview of the attack against Lusitania, as well as some facts about the Lusitania disaster.

Lusitania was a British ocean liner that was operated by Cunard Line, a British-American shipping company that is still in business today. (It is owned by Carnival, the largest cruise ship operator in the world.) Before its tragic sinking, it was a heavily-used ship that carried passengers from Liverpool, England to New York City. During a period of eight years, starting in 1907, Lusitania crossed the Atlantic Ocean on its route from Liverpool to New York City a little over 200 times. The Lusitania also carried mail across the ocean; indeed, the “RMS” affixed at the beginning of “Lusitania” stands for “Royal Mail Ship.”

Because the construction and maintenance of Lusitania were subsidized by the British government, the ship could be converted into an Armed Merchant Cruiser (i.e., a merchant ship equipped with guns, called AMCs for short). After the outbreak of WWI in 1914, Lusitania was added to the list of AMCs, but it was removed because a large ship like Lusitania required an enormous amount of coal to operate, and this would have eaten away at the coal reserved for the war effort.

Even though Lusitania was not an AMC, this fact ultimately wouldn’t matter. In early 1915, German U-boats began to attack ships. At first, Germany only attacked navel vessels, but then the submarines started to attack merchant ships as well. In February 1915, Germany declared the seas around Britain a war zone. Lusitania continued to cross the Atlantic, however, arriving to New York on April 24, 1915. While the ship was in New York, Germany actually issued warnings in 50 American newspapers to passengers who intended to take Lusitania back to Britain. The warnings reminded potential passengers that Germany was at war with Britain, and that the waters around the British Isles were a war zone. This means, the notice continued, that ships sailing in these waters flying Great Britain’s flag (or the flags on any of its allies) were subject to destruction.

On May 7, 1915, Lusitania was sailing toward Queenstown, Ireland, which was one of the regular stops on Lusitania’s trips across the Atlantic. Lusitania crossed in front a U-boat in the early afternoon of that day, making it an easy target. The German submarine fired one torpedo at Lusitania, creating a huge hole in the side of the ship, which in turn caused the ship to list. Chaos ensued as crew members attempted to lower lifeboats. Many lifeboats were overturned during this process, hurling passengers into the sea. Other lifeboats were dropped on the ship’s deck, crushing passengers. There were 48 lifeboats on board the ship, but only six were successfully lowered and stayed afloat. In 18 short minutes, Lusitania sank. It was about 11 miles off the coast of Ireland.

The RMS Lusitania disaster claimed the lives of 1,198 people, over half of the 1,959 people who were on board the ship. Many of the victims are still entombed in wrecked ship. The attack against Lusitania turned many neutral countries again Germany, and the United States entered WWI two years after the attack. The rest is, quite literally, history.

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