New York newspapers have the dubious honor of having published perhaps the most alarming, dramatic and at the same time useless ad in the history of the press. He April 22, 1915along with a note from the shipowner Cunard Line that reviewed the upcoming departure of its transatlantic RMS Lusitania bound for Liverpool, the newspapers published another, commissioned by the German imperial embassy, which warned that getting on that ship was a terrible idea.
To make it clear, the embassy did not save ink, nor was it shy about using the most intimidating tone possible. “Attention, passengers! Those who try to cross the Atlantic are reminded that there is a state of war between Germany and Great Britain and its allies,” the ad began, which stressed the risks of traveling on a British-flagged ship such as the Lusitania and he concluded with an exhortation suitable only for tempered nerves: anyone who had the rennet to sail through the area on English ships had to assume that they were doing so “at their own risk.”
Reassuring it was not.
And unsuccessful too.
Passengers “at their own risk”
Although it probably gave more than one New Yorker such a tagline, it did not cause much of an effect among those who had taken out a ticket to travel aboard the Lusitania. Neither the warnings, nor the risks that the war posed, nor even the dark clouds with which New York woke up, prevented the May 1, 1915 The ocean liner will set sail from its docks with 1,959 people on board, including passengers and crew, as well as cargo.
His destination: Liverpool, on the other side of an Atlantic Ocean that at that time was not exactly a raft of peaceful waters. Its backdrop was the Great War, the bloody conflict that began in the summer of 1914 with the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and that in a very short time had ended up involving the main powers of the old continent.
The Great War stood out for many reasons.
One of them, the role they ended up having the submarines, devices that until then commanders such as Alfred von Tirpitz, of the German Imperial Navy, had viewed with skepticism. He and others like him—including Chancellor Theobad von Bethmann-Hollewg—were not completely convinced by his way of operating, but over time they had to surrender to the evidence: the success of those stealthy and deadly ships capable of surprising the enemy at sea.
Thanks to them, feats such as that of Lieutenant Otto Weddigen’s U-9 had been achieved, which in 1914 managed to ruin three British battleships almost with one stroke of the pen in the North Sea. And in them, too, the strategists of the Central Powers saw a fantastic trump card for Britain’s maritime strangulation. After the battle of Dogger Bank, in January 1915, the idea of using U-boat submarines to whip up the merchant ships that supplied supplies to the British Isles gained strength among the German commanders.
Shortly after, on February 4, his General Staff declared the waters of Great Britain, Ireland and the English Channel as war zone, so that any enemy merchant that crossed that region risked receiving a torpedo from the German submersibles. Only neutral ships were excluded from the threat thanks to US pressure. The objective was clear: to wear down London.
With the winds of war against
With such a background, the RMS Lusitania left New York on May 1, a luxurious liner measuring almost 240 meters in length by 26.5 meters in beam operated by the British company Cunard Line and launched just nine years earlier.
Perhaps because of its benefits at the beginning of the war, the Royal Navy had enlisted it as an auxiliary cruiser, but the truth is that the ship soon returned to its normal functions, carrying passengers. With that role she navigated the May 7, 1915barely a week after leaving New York and when her crew is already divisive the calm and trustworthy shores of Ireland.
The problem is that the Lusitania was not the only one that saw its target in the area.
Unbeknownst to its passenger or captain, veteran William Turner, the liner had been discovered by the U-20, a German submarine sailing back to its base to refuel. At the helm was Walther Schwieger from Berlin, who saw in the Lusitania an easy target with which to put the icing on the cake to the successful voyage of the U-20. The submersible was low on fuel, true; and very little ammunition, true too; but she didn’t need much to open the hull of that ocean liner with an accurate torpedo.
It didn’t matter that Turner had redoubled his vigilance, or that he was trying to get as close as possible to the coast to avoid precisely an unwanted clash with enemy submarines. The U-20 ended up spotting it, positioned itself at the appropriate distance and position, waited, and around two in the afternoon launched a projectile at the Cunard Line ship. “She impacted behind the bridge. The ship stops and lists rapidly. At the same time she sinks forward,” the official report collects.
It smelled like tragedy. And tragedy it was.
The ship sank so quickly that its crew was able to deploy only a minimal number of life preservers. Meanwhile, the passage desperately plunged into the icy waters of the Atlantic. The attack left 1,198 dead, including many children, and barely 761 survivors. These are not the figures for Wilhelm Gustloff, who decades later and with another world war as a backdrop, would star in the greatest nautical tragedy in history; but the balance of the Lusitania is terrifying.
How do you explain the tragedy of the Lusitania, beyond the main and obvious cause, which is the U-20 torpedo? How was such an attack possible? Could it have been foreseen and prevented? And what was the actual scope of it?
If the account of what happened on May 7, 1915 is relatively simple, the answer to any of these questions is. considerably less.
On approaching Ireland, the Lusitania had found no Royal Navy ship to escort it, for example, and the then First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, was even accused of being aware that the U-20 had left. from its port and there was some risk that it would run into the Lusitania.
Another clue is that the liner was carrying more than passengers and civilian cargo. On board, as it turned out later, she was carrying thousands of boxes of ammunition and grenades of fragmentation, a material that totaled 173 tons and explains the large detonations it registered and the speed with which it exploded.
Some also say that Turner did not follow certain Admiralty guidelines, such as the one that suggested that he sail in a zigzag pattern, changing course every few minutes and at irregular intervals, to complicate a hypothetical attack.
Just as important were its consequences. After all, the Lusitania tragedy claimed the lives of 124 US citizens, a bloodletting that sparked outrage in the US and strained a government that, at least on that occasion, decided to cling to its neutral status. It didn’t last long.
Not long after, in 1917, and with the trigger of the Zimmermann Telegram, Thomas W. Wilson took the definitive step and got the US into the war. One of the reasons that he raised to justify himself was the German submarine harassment. The authors of the Encyclopedia Britannica actually believe that what happened with the Lusitania contributed, even if immediately, to Washington’s decision.
What is beyond any doubt is that, due to its scope, it was one of the most tragic episodes of the First World War. And from the nautical chronicle itself.
Images: Wikipedia 1, 2 and 3 and The Loud 1 (Flickr)
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