Today’s post comes from Zach Kopin, an intern in the National Archives History Office in Washington, DC.
To honor the pivotal role its sinking played in turning U.S. popular opinion against Germany during World War I, a sketch of the RMS Lusitania’s lifeboat storage mechanism is now on display at the National Archives in Washington, DC.
Built in England, the RMS Lusitania was the pride of the Cunard Line’s fleet. Lusitania completed 201 Atlantic ocean crossings between her maiden voyage in September 1907 and May 1915, holding the record for the fastest time between 1907 and 1909.
The Lusitania left New York for the final time on May 1, 1915, under good weather, but that did not mean she was entering calm waters.
Although technically still neutral in 1915, the United States continued to conduct commerce with the Great Britain, a practice that put the Lusitania at risk. Fearing passenger boats would be used to ship war material, the German government approved unrestricted submarine warfare in February 1915.
After sighting her on May 7, 1915, off the coast of Ireland, the German submarine U-20 fired a single torpedo at the ship at 3:10 p.m. It was a direct hit.
A secondary explosion rocked the Lusitania shortly after the torpedo hit, only adding to the confusion on the ship. As passengers and crew scrambled to the lifeboats, survival took precedence over custom and law as those aboard discovered that many lifeboats were impossible to launch.
Survivor James Leary recalled that he reminded a crewmember that sailors were legally required to save passengers before abandoning ship. The crewman replied “passengers be damned: save yourself first.”
Eighteen minutes after being struck, the Lusitania lay beneath the waves. In total, 1,198 civilians perished, including 128 Americans, largely due to the Lusitania’s poorly designed lifeboat launch system.
A century later, historians question whether the U-20’s sinking of the Lusitania led the United States to enter World War I. Yet, they generally agree that it played a significant role in turning public opinion against Germany. Past blogs have explored this relationship, which can be found here and here.
Regardless of whether or not it was a contributing factor in sending our doughboys to France, the Lusitania is a notable chapter in the history of World War I and the United States more generally.
In recognition of the centennial of the sinking of the Lusitania, a sketch of the lifeboats will be on display in the East Rotunda Gallery of the National Archives in Washington, DC, from April 30 through June 3, 2015.
Interested in learning more about the United States and World War I? Check out George H. Nash’s article “’An American Epic’: Herbert Hoover and Belgian Relief in World War I” in the Spring 1989 issue of Prologue.