by Roger Weston
Allegedly, anonymous and mysterious telegrams were received by some passengers just before they boarded the fateful journey of a glamorous passenger liner that was to depart from New York on May 1st, 1915. The telegrams warned of impending disaster. They were signed Morte.
Such was the beginning of the legendary final journey of the Lusitania, one of the most famous passenger liners ever. And in fact, she was about to play a stunning role in world history.
Officials denied the reports of the threatening telegrams. Evidently they were persuasive because 1,256 passengers decided to go ahead with the trans-Atlantic crossing to England—as well as hundreds of crew members. There were other reasons for caution, too. The German embassy in Washington, for example, warned travelers that it was wartime and ships like the Lusitania were legitimate targets. Keep in mind that due to the ongoing hostilities in Europe, crossings were limited. After all, the Germans were sinking ships with stealthy submarines called U-boats.
The passengers had plausible reasons to think that they would survive the dangerous trip. After all, the Lusitania was a fast ocean liner. Combine speed with the safety precaution of following a zigzag pattern and they might well have made it. Other ships certainly did. It was also said that no submarine could outrun the Lusitania, winner of the Blue Riband for being the fastest transatlantic liner. There were added factors that would inspire confidence. Passengers felt certain that the Germans would not hit a passenger ship—especially one with Americans onboard. If all of that wasn’t enough, the ship’s brochure advertised that she was “unsinkable”. Many people have blind trust in authorities, and this claim must have given them comfort. The brochure also touted that the Lusitania and her sister ship were “the safest… in the world.” This is a logical conclusion: an unsinkable ship would be safe indeed. These claims could be backed up, too. The ship was constructed with 175 watertight compartments, so that if one compartment was flooded, the others would stay dry, and the boat would be fine—assuming all the watertight doors were closed.
Furthermore, the famous multimillionaire Alfred G. Vanderbilt would be along for the crossing. Surely, if well-connected people were taking the trip, everything would be okay. Or would it? It is unlikely that the captain of the German U-boat knew or cared whether or not there were celebrities on board.
Amidst all the rumors and hype, the ship kept her schedule. She slipped her moorings on May 1st, and five days later entered dangerous waters. To his credit, the captain took several wise precautions in a display of competence and efficiency. The lifeboats were uncovered and swung out on their davits; the crew was told to have them ready for launch in case of trouble. He also dictated that the ship be blacked out, which was a wise move. He ordered extra lookouts on deck. Then on May 6th, the Lusitania received what must have been a chilling message over the wireless: U-boat activity in the area.
Anyone who has been at sea knows that this is not the kind of news that you want to hear. Nevertheless, the Lusitania’s captain was not especially concerned. This much can be inferred from his subsequent actions—or shall we say lack of actions. For example, the British Admiralty had issued critical instructions, which the captain either misunderstood or ignored. No doubt many passengers who signed on for the journey had taken comfort in the Lusitania’s capabilities. She was known for her speed, which meant they could outrun a submarine. There were other precautions a captain could take such as running a zigzag course. This would have made it difficult for a submarine to sink them. The passengers were right to think that these factors worked in their favor; however, the captain, as has been said, ignored such instructions. He also ignored the order to keep clear of headlands and steam in mid-channel. He did the opposite. He ran a lackluster 18 knots, and he ran a straight course, hugging the coast a half mile offshore of the Coningbeg Lightship. He did all this in the very area where the submarines had been sighted. As a result, the Lusitania was an easy target.
At 1:20 p.m., a U-boat spotted the massive ocean liner and fired a torpedo, which struck the leviathan amidships. A second blast within the hull was even more powerful. This explosion in the boiler room was probably a detonation of the coal dust. However, the captain of the Lusitania had a secret. He was delivering more than just passengers to England; he was also delivering ammunition for the war against Germany. There were 5,000 cases of cartridges and 1,500 cases of shells. Furthermore, these were stored against the bulkhead leading into the No. 1 boiler room. Some have suggested that the ammunition caused the secondary explosion. Perhaps it did.
Either way, the damage was fatal. The ship listed to starboard. Within minutes, she tilted forward and buried her nose in the frigid water. Within 18 minutes, she made her descent to the bottom. Almost 1,200 doomed passengers and crew members made the deep fall with her; by the time the silt settled, they had surely passed on, and the ship had become their watery tombstone.
It may seem that this was a routine disaster where a ship was in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong captain. And that may be the case. However, there is a mystery associated with the Lusitania. Some writers have claimed that Winston Churchill, who was at the time first lord of the Admiralty, wanted this disaster. They have suggested that because there were over a hundred Americans aboard, their deaths at the hands of Germans would lure the Americans into the War. It is true that England was in dire straits and desperately needed military help from reluctant America. It is true that this disaster helped tilt the scales toward America entering the war, although not for a couple more years. While this is possible, at least for now, these claims are just conspiracy theories—at least until convincing evidence emerges, which so far has not yet happened after a hundred years.
On May 7, 1915, off the coast of Ireland, 1,198 people perished. These were mothers and fathers, sons and daughters. These people took a risk that didn’t pay off. A hotel manager named Albert Bilicke took the cruise for his health because he was recovering from abdominal surhgery. His recovery was cut short by the German torpedo. A 24-year old Canadian girl named Dorothy Braithwaite was on the Lusitania to visit her sisters in London, who had been widowed on the same day. Dorothy never got a chance to console them. Emily Hadfield of Ontario, Canada, was traveling with her 8-month old baby. Emily perished in the shipwreck; however, her baby was plucked out of the water and survived. An opera singer named Millie Baker had been training her voice in France and Spain and was planning to make her stage debut with the Opera Comique, but she was deprived of her big chance. After her death on the Lusitania, her mother received a note in the mail, sent on May 1st, 1915, signed, “Love always, your Millie.” Father Basil W. Maturin, stayed on the sinking ship and never attempted to board a lifeboat. Instead he gave absolution to all who requested it, and he handed a child onto the last lifeboat.
More than seven hundred survived the shipwreck, but many endured trauma and survived as a testament of the human spirit. They clung to floating debris and held on for their lives. One woman floated to shore in an armchair. Another woman gave birth in the water. She and her baby survived. A new bride was sucked into one of the funnels of the sinking ship, but was then spit out. She splashed down into the water near her husband’s lifeboat.
As we now approach the 100-year anniversary of the tragic shipwreck, we honor and remember the passengers of the Lusitania.