When the Lusitania left New York for Liverpool on what would be her final journey on May 1 1915, during the First World War it would change the course of history.
A week later on May 7, the Lusitania was torpedoed and sunk by a German U-boat with the loss of 1,198 lives of passengers and crew off the southern coast of Ireland inside Germany’s declared, but unrecognized “zone of war.”
The sinking, without prior search or warning, and with no regard for the safety of the passengers and crew, contravened international law. Germany argued (unconvincingly) that the liner was itself breaching international law by carrying munitions, and by so doing, provided Germany with its justification for the attack.
New research by Dr Matthew Seligmann, Reader in History, at the Department of Politics, History and Law at Brunel University London, has cast fresh light on the incident. Dr Seligmann has uncovered records that show that the Lusitania, one of two of the fastest and most luxurious British passenger liners built at the turn of the century, had in fact a hidden purpose as a trade protection vessel against attacks on British merchant vessels by German commerce raiding auxiliary cruisers.
Paid for by a British government loan and given a hefty annual subsidy from Admiralty funds, the Lusitania was a warship in all but name. This fact, he stresses, does not absolve Germany from the illegal sinking as it was not serving as a commissioned warship at the time of the attack. On the contrary it had recognized civilian status and character.
“Cargo vessels are inevitably civilian vessels,” he explained. “The Lusitania was built as a warship to protect British trade, as well as being a cargo ship, and a state-of-the-art luxury passenger liner.
“ It was designed to mount guns and destroy German commerce raiders. Of course it was doing none of things when it was sunk, but that only makes the fact of its sinking all the more ironic.”
He added: “All merchant vessels carry cargo and in 1915 the most likely cargo for a British merchant vessel was war materials. The Lusitania in 1915 was sailing as a civilian cargo and passenger vessel. Its cargo was munitions. That was legal, normal and ordinary. What was illegal was that the ship was sunk without warning.”
The Germans’ reason for sinking the Lusitania and other cargo vessels bound for Britain, argues Dr Seligmann, was to destroy the British economy “and starve us into submission. In exactly the same way, the reason the Royal Navy stopped cargo ships from reaching Germany with war supplies was to undermine the Germany economy. It did not sink them.”
At that time America was not involved in what was then a European war and had no desire to be, but the loss of 128 American lives among the ship’s casualties had the potential to change American attitudes. British Naval Intelligence exploited the sinking for all it was worth with a major propaganda campaign in America.
A key part of this was a commemorative medal. Designed and manufactured by a Munich craftsman, the medal seemed to depict the sinking of the great liner as a major German military triumph and celebrate the loss of life that accompanied it.
There was no concession to the fact that world opinion might view the attack on a civilian passenger vessel as an atrocity and a war crime. Accordingly, the British Government managed to smuggle a copy out of Germany and arranged to have thousands of them pressed for distribution in the United States as a graphic illustration of German callousness.
However, it was only when Germany intensified its U-boat campaign to include US vessels that the Americans finally declared war on Germany in 1917.