On the 7th May 1915, 102 years ago, the RMS Lusitania was lost 11 miles off the coast of Kinsale. History recalls the great ocean liners of the early 20th Century in many different ways, mostly in terms of luxury, grandeur and achievement. But some are also remembered more tragically. For RMS Lusitania, its grand life is also saddled with a multitude of conspiracy surrounding its ultimate fate that to this day continues to be a matter of great speculation.
The RMS Lusitania made her maiden voyage on the 7th of September 1907. Over the next 8 years she would make an impressive 101 Atlantic round trips and was for a time was the largest, fastest and most luxurious cruise liner on the water, only later eclipsed by the Harland and Wolff giants Olympic and Titanic.
On the 7th of May 1915 the Lusitania was nearing the end of what would be her final voyage from New York to Liverpool. She carried 1,267 passengers, many of whom were famous and wealthy socialites, as well as a crew of 693.
About 11 miles off the Old Head of Kinsale the Lusitania crossed paths with the German submarine U-20. The commanding officer Walther Schwieger gave the orders and a single torpedo was all it took. It struck on the starboard bow, alongside one of the cargo holds and moments later a second explosion erupted from within the hull. The ship began to list steeply and within 18 minutes the Lusitania was gone. Of the 1960 on board only 767 survived, and four of whom died over the following months.
Sir Hugh Lane, philanthropist, art collector and founder of the Hugh Lane Gallery was one of the Irish passengers who would drown. Another Irishman on board, luckier than most, was Albert Besic, a junior third officer. He not only managed to survive the wreck but would also narrowly escape another German bombing attack years later aboard the SS Isolda.
But the story doesn’t end here. The Lusitania’s tale is steeped in controversy, conspiracy and political intrigue. Numerous stories and theories about treasure, cover ups, missing evidence and suspicious activity. Here’s just a snapshot of some of the controversies.
Propaganda power – Avenge the Lusitania
After news of the sinking that resulted in so many civilian deaths broke there was international outcry, especially in America. While it was not the final straw in America’s decision to join the war it was definitely a turning point and changed America’s public opinion against Germany. The media helped too. The ship became somewhat of an iconic symbol in military recruitment campaigns and a poster child for why the war was being fought. An animated film “The Sinking of the Lusitania” by Windsor McKay was produced to help sway opinion more against “Germany a once great and powerful nation who has done a dastardly deed in a dastardly way”
A secret cargo
The nature of the cargo the ship was carrying became a matter of dispute and some suggested this may have been the reason behind the attack. Was there something hidden below deck that made it in the eyes of Germany a legitimate military target? Was the ship masquerading as a passenger vessel to get arms past the German blockade? Evidence of ammunition was recovered by divers but Gregg Bemis, who bought the wreck, argues that there’s still no definitive proof that it was carrying a substantial amount of munitions to make the ship a legitimate target for U-boats.
A second explosion
The nature of the mysterious second explosion is also the subject of speculation. Was it a torpedo from a second submarine hiding nearby? Or because of the secret stash of munitions? American oceanographer Robert Ballard discounted this theory and attributed the second explosion to coal dust or an exploding boiling. Still theories keep spinning.
Whatever the truth about the whole affair, the sinking of the ship and the significant loss of life means the RMS Lusitania will always be remembered as one of the greatest ship disasters of the last century.