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The Sinking of RMS Lusitania, 1915

The Sinking of RMS Lusitania,
May 7, 1915

The first year of the First World War was markedly contained in the neutral American mind. While Europe and her various colonies all became embroiled against each other in accordance with their allegiances, trade and transportation were still undertaken with surprising regularity across the Atlantic. And then, one day, not a full year into the conflict, a tragic outrage occurred that would forever change public opinion on the nature of the war.

The front page of the New York Times on Saturday, May 8, telling of the sinking of the
RMS Lusitania and the great loss of life

Map showing submarine warfare zone around the United Kingdom, declared by Germany on February 18, 1915

In early May of 1915, the Royal Mail Steamer Lusitania—the fastest cruise liner of her day and carrying almost two thousand passengers—was traveling from New York to Liverpool, England. Steaming just off the southern coast of Ireland, the Lusitania was fired upon by the newest maritime threat of this brave new century: a German submarine. Upon being struck by the torpedo, the giant ship sank in under twenty minutes. Of the approximate 1,959 men, women, and children on board, 1,195 perished, including 123 neutral Americans.

Map showing the movements of RMS Lusitania and SM U-20 prior to the sinking of the former

The shock in America was great as news of the disaster spread. Many saw it as a blatant act of transgression against the conventions of war. Others pointed out that Germany had previously alerted all neutral passengers to the potential of their submarine attacks on British shipping. It was the risk of traveling on a cruise liner whose home port was at war. Germany considered the Lusitania to be British and therefore an “enemy ship”—despite her lack of military markings and her stated manifest of non-combatants.

A newspaper ad for the Lusitania and her intended journey, departing May 29, 1915...

...accompanied by a warning from the German Embassy to those considering passage that the route was within their stated warfare zone

The Lusitania was, however—unbeknownst to her human shield of passengers—carting a hidden cargo consisting of munitions and contraband destined for the British war effort. This fact was later used to reaffirm the targeted attack as ethical. The presence of incendiaries on board also quickened the sinking, as a second explosion quickly compounded the torpedo’s initial damage.

The last photograph of the RMS Lusitania, taken May 1, 1915

The horrors of war had always inflicted themselves most cruelly on the innocent, but the targeting of civilians on the Lusitania underscored the starkly changing moral parameters that would typify both world wars. Gone were the days of gentlemanly hostilities, and in were the years of vicious “total war” ruled by pragmatic concessions.

An illustration of the sinking of the Lusitania as it appeared in
the London Illustrated News on May 15, 1915

But aboard the Lusitania, in the frantic moments before she sank to a watery grave, there was a great swell of the old spirit that had immortalized itself three years before aboard the doomed Titanic. Amongst the panic was love, sacrifice and honor.

An illustration of the sinking of the Lusitania highlighting the sailboat Wanderer which was nearby at the time and rescued around 200 passengers

In the ship’s nursery, Alfred Vanderbilt—heir to an American fortune and one of the world’s richest men—and famed playwright Carl Frohman, tied life jackets to little wicker baskets. These “Moses baskets”, as they were called, held a number of abandoned infants and were these gentlemen’s desperate attempt to save the babes from going down with the ship. The rising water indeed carried the baskets safely off, but none seemed to have survived the turbulence created as the ship sank to the bottom. The sea also claimed Vanderbilt and Frohman while at this noble work.

Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt, Sr. (1877-1915)

Charles Frohman (1856-1915)

Joseph Parry and Leslie Morton belonged to the Lusitania’s deck crew. In the interminable hours adrift after the sinking, the both of them rescued over a hundred people from the ocean, hauling them aboard collapsible lifeboats.

The track of the Lusitania as it sank, leaving a wake of survivors and casualties behind

According to a Liverpool newspaper taken from firsthand accounts at the time:

When there were four people on Parry’s upturned boat they drifted towards a closed up collapsible lifeboat. They began to pull up the sides and began taking in more survivors. Parry was now joined by Able-seaman Leslie Morton....and they began hauling people in as fast as they could. Dazed, frightened, exhausted passengers littered the sea until it seemed the very waters were alive. Many of those rescued were dumped out again as soon as they were pulled in. They were dead. There was only room for the living. Soon the boat was full; another was spotted. Parry jumped on to it and started the whole thing again. Although many of the people they rescued died before they reached harbour, it is estimated that he and Morton picked up one hundred people from the water. On Saturday July 17, 1915, the Football Echo banished sport from its front page and printed Lord Mersey’s judgement at the end of the Lusitania enquiry. In this report the doings of Able-seaman Parry and Morton came to light. “Why didn’t you tell us about all this?” asked relatives at Aintree. “I was just doing what I had been taught to do,” answered Parry. He was not looking for medals, but he got one.

Both men were awarded the Silver Board of Trade Medal for Gallantry in Saving Lives at Sea. As the posted lookout for the Lusitania at the time of the attack, Morton always maintained that he saw two torpedoes heading towards her instead of the reported one.

German U-boats at dock in Kiel, Schleswig-Holstein, Germany on February 17, 1914—
U-20, which fired the torpedo at the Lusitania, is second from the left on the front row

Parry, on the other hand, had another lasting narrative: among the hundred souls he hauled from the Atlantic was a young mother and her screaming baby. Out of sheer gratitude, while still shivering in the boat, the woman took off one of her baby’s booties and gave it to Parry to remind him of his heroism. He treasured the bootie, later writing the words “Lest We Forget Lusitania May 7, 1915” on the sole.

Enlistment poster calling for revenge for the Lusitania

War Propaganda poster showing the sinking Lusitania in the background

Despite the immense loss of lives, the blatant attack on civilians, and the duplicitous carrying of munitions aboard a passenger steamer, Lusitania’s tragedy would be replaced on front pages within the week. The war went on and new and horrifying developments were ever at the disposal of sensationalists. In September of the same year, 1915, the Germans announced that passenger ships would be sunk only with prior warning and appropriate safeguards for passengers.

Enlistment poster for Irish troops to avenge the Lusitania

British War Propaganda poster calling on recruits to avenge the Lusitania

However, the seeds of American animosity towards Germany were sown. Yet America would continue in her steadfast path of neutrality for two more years, despite outcry from those who held the deaths of the 123 Americans aboard as clear aggression. Germany would later resume its campaign of unrestricted submarine warfare in February 1917, after failing to take control of the seas at the Battle of Jutland the previous year.

British recruitment poster stating a summation of the inquiry into the Lusitania sinking,
and closing with the call: “It is Your Duty to Take up the Sword of Justice to Avenge This Devil’s Work—Enlist To-day”

After Germany had been defeated in World War One, the Geneva Convention of 1906 on the treatment of civilians during wartime was renewed by the involved nations. By such conventions, the sinking of the Lusitania has been classified a joint crime, perpetrated by both Britain and Germany.

Image Credits:New York Times ( Warfare Zone ( of the Lusitania ( ad and warning ( photograph ( Illustrated News ( Wanderer ( Vanderbilt ( Frohman ( 10 Casualties ( 11 U-20 ( 12 British Recruitment Poster ( 13 Avenger Poster ( 14 Irish Recruitment Poster ( 15 Leicestershire Recruitment Poster ( 16 British Recruitment Poster #2 (

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