The Lusitania at 100

Today marks the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Lusitania, one of the markers on the way to U.S. entry into World War I. George Will wrote about it the other day in his column, coming close but not quite embracing some of the old rumors and conspiracy charges that the British wanted the Lusitania sunk in hopes of getting the U.S. off the sidelines:

It is commonly but wrongly said that the sinking altered history’s trajectory. Yet some people, including Britain’s first lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, hoped an attack on a ship would pull the United States into the war. They may have facilitated the Lusitania’s calamity by not taking available measures to prevent it. . . Churchill had spoken of attracting shipping to Britain’s shores “in the hopes especially of embroiling the United States with Germany.” And: “We want the traffic — the more the better; and if some of it gets into trouble, better still.”

Although the Lusitania was carrying 4 million rifle bullets, it was said not to be carrying more substantial munitions. But the fact that the Lusitania was rocked by a huge explosion after the torpedo struck—and sank in just a few minutes—has lent fuel to the opinion that the Lusitania was carrying high explosive munitions after all. (That’s what the owner of the salvage rights to the Lusitania still thinks.) The conventional explanation is that a boiler exploded.

In fact the German submarine that sank the Lusitania, the U-20 under the command of Captain Schweiger, can be said to have gotten off a very lucky shot. The Lusitania was a much faster ship than the U-20, even running on just three of its four boilers, and the U-20 was able to get off the fatal torpedo strike by lying perfectly in Lusitania’s path. It is precisely because the Lusitania could easily outrun a German submarine that the Admiralty called off dispatching a destroyer escort, though there is a lot of bungling involved in the whole story, including the decision of the Lusitania’s captain to slow down as the ship approached the Irish coast.

While the general consensus is that the big explosion that shattered the ship was a boiler explosion and not hidden munitions going off, there is still one other possibility. Captain Schweiger claimed he fired only one torpedo at Lusitania, but according to his diary and German records the U-20 was nearly out of fuel and returning shortly to port, and had only three torpedoes left. Maybe he fired two torpedoes? There are decent circumstantial reasons for entertaining this possibility, which include claiming only one torpedo—aimed at the bow of the Lusitania but striking amidships because Schweiger underestimated Lusitania’s speed—because the high loss of life transformed the sinking into a war crime.

The U.S. didn’t enter the war in 1915, to which George Will notes Churchill’s regret in The World Crisis:

Churchill’s thinking about the Lusitania tragedy and the economizing of violence was similar. In his World War I memoir, he wrote that America’s entry into the war in April 1917 “could have been done in May 1915. And if done then what abridgement of the slaughter . . . would have been prevented.”

However, Churchill changed his mind about this by the 1930s, writing to an American friend:

“America should have minded her own business and stayed out of the World War. If you hadn’t entered the war the Allies would have made peace with Germany in the spring of 1917. Had we made peace then there would have been no collapse in Russia followed by Communism, no breakdown in Italy followed by Fascism, and Germany would not have signed the Versailles Treaty, which has enthroned Nazism in Germany. If America had stayed out of the war, all of these ‘isms’ wouldn’t today be sweeping the continent and breaking down parliamentary government, and if England had made peace early in 1917, it would have saved over one million British, French, American and other lives.”

More here from John Steele Gordon.