By Justin Reash
As we find ourselves in the second year of the centenary of World War I, the sinking of the RMS Lusitania reminds us that the Great War was not limited to professional soldiers perishing in muddy trenches. No, the tragedy of the Lusitania poignantly embodies the total war that was born in the failures of autumn 1914. In 1915, war had spread from Flanders fields to the Irish Sea.
In a desperate attempt to mortally disrupt British shipping, the lifeline of its Empire, the German Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg instituted unrestricted submarine warfare designed to sink any ship suspected of supplying the Allies. World War I methodically destroyed each conventional belief of war, one after one; unrestricted submarine warfare, in retrospect, seems logical. At the time, however, it was seen as barbaric. In 1917 United States President Woodrow Wilson chastised the tactic as disregarding, “recognized dictates of humanity.” Hollweg and his staff rolled the dice, hedging on catastrophic results that would force Britain to seek peace, a knockout blow that could be justified against any argument.
Travelling from New York to Liverpool, the Lusitania, an internationally recognized Cunard flagship, entered the western approaches on 7 May. The ship was escorted through British waters by warships on previous crossings, but this, surprisingly, never materialized. Without an escort, the German U-boat U-20 torpedoed it without warning off the southern Irish coast. After twenty minutes, the fastest ship on earth had listed, sank and taken 1,208 lives. The German war effort gained little from this event, other than improving the tonnage sank (the metric U-Boat’s were judged upon) for the U-Boat’s captain, Walther Schweiger.
A beneficiary, if one can be identified, was the Allied war effort. Winston Churchill supports this point when he wrote, “The poor babies who perished in the ocean struck a blow at German Power more deadly than could have been achieved by the sacrifice of a hundred thousand fighting men.” He was right. As a result of this sinking, and continued attacks on American merchant vessels, the United States entered the war two years later in 1917. Germany signed an armistice in November 1918.
Tragically, the lives lost of the Lusitania are a by-product of the systematic, shocking and uncompromising march of time and progress. Warfare had entered the modern age; the front lines eroded from defined trenches to unseen planes. Civilians, humans living in a world attempting to destroy itself, were now targets. Many innocent lives, though not explicitly targeted, were now collateral damage of the strategic war plans of the guilty few. The sinking of the Lusitania is considered a pivot in the outcome of the Great War; yet, it cannot be forgotten as a calamitous testament to the evolution of human conflict.
Justin is an Associate Editor at The History Vault. He is currently the Assistant Director of Communications of The Churchill Centre, an international membership non-profit organization that is dedicated to educating future generations on Sir Winston Churchill’s legacy. He is also the Associate Editor of its best-selling quarterly journal, Finest Hour.