RMS Lusitania of the Cunard Line had been launched in 1906 and competed in the trans-Atlantic passenger trade with the German companies and with the White Star Line of Britain, of which the RMS Titanic was the Queen for the briefest of time. When the war began in 1914, Lusitania had secret compartments constructed to carry munitions as a merchantman but remained in service as a passenger liner. In the first year of the war, the German submarines complied with the old “Cruiser Rules” which included warnings before attack, and neutral ships would be left alone. In 1915, all merchants of the allied nations became fair game in the waters around the U.K.
Two Divers Prepare to Explore the Wreckage of the Lusitania, 1935
Lusitania left New York on her 102nd trans-Atlantic voyage on the first of May. Although the United States and Britain denied her having any war materials, the Germans claimed she was loaded with munitions and took out ads in newspapers across the United States warning people not to sail on Lusitania. Eleven miles off the south coast of Ireland, U-20 struck her with one torpedo and then a secondary explosion inside the ship occurred. The ship’s bow struck the ocean floor 18 minutes later. Almost 1,200 people were lost, including 128 Americans. The outrage in America and Britain drowned out all discussion of the cargo, which both nations claimed was passengers only. In 2008, divers found 4 million U.S. manufactured Remington rounds of .303 ammunition still in the hold designated for the killing of German soldiers on the western front. In 1917, Congress declared war on the Central Powers, citing in speeches but not the actual declaration, the unprovoked sinking of the passenger liner Lusitania as one of the reasons.