The Lusitania: United States One Step Closer to War

April is the 100th anniversary of the United States declaring war on Germany and its allies the Great Powers.   The Wilson administration’s decision to go to war was not taken lightly or in haste. In fact, it was almost two years after the sinking of the Lusitania that  The president  appeared before a joint session of Congress on April 2, 1917 and asked that body to declare war.  Woodrow Wilson’s  speech outlined a number German actions – specifically unrestricted submarine warfare, committing sabotage in the United States and attempting to lure Mexico into the war on their side –  that justified this country being involved in what many Americans viewed as a European conflict.   This will be a two-part blog:  the first dealing with the sinking of the Lusitania;  the second,   German efforts at sabotage in the United States  and the  Zimmermann Telegram.

The submarine brought a new dimension to warfare on the world’s oceans.   A vessel that traveled under the water, out of sight of other vessels, had an advantage over the ships they were targeting.   Before the submarine, if a warship stopped a merchant vessel belonging to an adversary or a neutral nation, their crew would board that ship, determine it was carrying forbidden cargo, send the crew safely off, and then sink it.   During the the early part of the Great War, submarines would surface, would use that procedure and sink the ship with a torpedo.   Neutral shipping would be left alone by the Germans as long they were not carrying contraband.   That is until the British started using neutral nations’ ships, such as American freighters, to carry war materials.  Early in February 2015, the German government stated that the area around the British Isles would be considered to a war zone and ships carrying contraband would be targets for U boats.  The German action was partly in response to the Royal Navy blockade of Germany’s coast. (1)

 The RMS Lusitania was scheduled to sail from New York on May 1, 1915, with cargo and passengers on board and Liverpool as her destination.  The German Embassy in the United States took out an advertisement in the New York newspapers warning Americans not to sail on British ships.   For the most part that warning was ignored by the Americans who had booked passage on her.

The day before the  Lusitania sailed out of New York harbor, a U boat backed out of its berth at Emden, Germany, followed the estuary of the Ems River into the North Sea, and set a northerly course that would eventually take it around the British Isles and Ireland to it’s patrol sector in the Irish Sea between England and Ireland.   Periodically the U-20  would send radio messages back to it’s base in Germany, unaware that the Royal Navy code breakers in Room 40 in the Admiralty in London were intercepting them. Kapitänleutnant Walther Schwieger and the commanders of  the six other U boats at sea were under orders from the Hochseeflotte (High Seas Fleet) to hunt British ships and sink them without warning. ( 1 )

While the codebreakers in Room 40 knew the approximate location of the German U boats, they had no knowledge of the position of British passenger or merchant ships in the waters around the British Isles, where the submarines were on the prowl looking for targets.  Messages had been sent to masters of British vessels whose voyages took them past the south coast of Ireland to avoid headlands, choose a course that took up the middle of St. George’s Channel,  zigzag to minimize their ships as targets,  and to time their arrival at the Liverpool bar so they wouldn’t to stop to take on a pilot.

Meanwhile, in the United States, President Woodward Wilson was trying to find a way for the United States to bring peace to the war fought mostly in Europe.  When the conflict had broken out in the summer of 1914, Wilson had told the American people to be “neutral in thought as well as action.”   President Wilson sent his closest advisor Colonel Edward M. House on a peace mission to Europe  in January 1915 on the Lusitania.  On that voyage, the captain raised the United States flag when the vessel approached the Irish coast.

Kapitänleutnant Walther Schwieger’s U boat reached the southern coast of Ireland on 5 May.  Before he encountered the Lusitania on 7 May,  Schwieger attacked four other vessels.  He sunk two of them with torpedoes, shelled one after sending its crew away,  the torpedo he used for the fourth  mis-fired.  When the Lusitania appeared in his periscope, Schwieger released a torpedo.  It struck the ship on the starboard side, causing an explosion.  There was a second explosion minutes later causing the liner to sink in eighteen minutes.   Only 764 persons of the 1962 total of passengers and crew survived.  Of the dead a number were women and children,  and 128 were Americans.  After the fact, the U boat commander claimed he didn’t recognize the profile of the liner until after he had launched the torpedo and a crew member recognized her.   Most authors who have written about the tragedy claim Schwieger was being disingenuous. The German government justified the sinking by claiming the liner was carry munitions in its cargo holds, pointing to the second explosion as proof. In Great Britain, the sinking raised a number of questions; primarily, why hadn’t the Royal Navy sent destroyers to guide the Lusitania through treacherous waters where German submarines had been active.   On 10 May, the First Lord of the Admiralty (Winston Churchill) appeared at the Dispatch Box in the House of Commons to answer members’ questions.  Part of  one of  Churchill’s answers: “I have stated that two warnings were sent to the vessel, together with directions as to her course. I made that quite clear. If the hon. Member asks if a special escort was sent out my reply is “No.” No exception was made to the regular method by which our seaborne commerce is conducted.” (2 )

For almost a year extensive diplomatic correspondence was carried out between the American State Department and the German Foreign Office. (4 ) In February 1916, the Germans agreed to quit sinking neutral vessels.  America stepped back from war, for at the least time being.

(1) For those readers who want to read the German government’s note, use the following: https://history.state.gov/historicaldocuments/frus1915Supp/subch1

(2) Patrick Beesly, Room 40: British Naval Intelligence, 1914-1918, is the best source on Room 40, but the only copy in Cardinal in owned by Forsyth County’s Central Library, which is closed for renovation.   Beesly lists the reasons that could have contributed to the liner sinking so fast and questions the disappearance of documents that could answer several question relating to the Lusitania.

(3) For the full transcript of Churchill’s statement, use this link:   http:n//hansard.millbanksystems.com/commons/1915/may/10/statement-by-mr-churchi

(4)To read this correspondence: https://history.state.gov/historicaldocuments/frus1915Supp/ch8

For further reading:

Christopher Andrew,  Her Majesty’s Secret Service,  pp. 86-127.

A. Scott Berg,   Wilson,  pp. 362-369.

Erik Larson, Dead Wake:  The Last Crossing of the Lusitania.

Diana Preston, Lusitania, an Epic Tragedy.

 

LARSON’S BESTSELLERS

Erik  Larson is one my favorite non-fiction writers, probably because he has written on a variety of subjects.  Larson’s books first appeared  in the early nineties, but the first to become a bestseller was Isaac’s Storm: a Man,  a Time and the Deadliest Hurricane in History (1999).  Larson followed that book with best sellers in 2003,  2006,  2011, and 2015   After reading these books, I surmise Larson might agree with Robert Morgan’s statement, “Sinners make the best characters.”  Sinners abound in these stories.

The Galveston hurricane of 1900 is the subject of his first bestseller, Isaac’s Storm.  That storm killed thousands of people and cut off communication between Galveston Island and the mainland, despite Isaac Cline’s claim that the sea wall would protect the population and property from any storm.    When Cuban meteorologists predicted a  severe hurricane brewing in the Caribbean was going to follow a westerly passage, enter the Gulf of Mexico, and threaten the south coast of Texas, the West Indies office of the United States Weather Bureau in Havana downplayed the Cubans’ forecast. By the time Isaac  Cline, in Galveston, realized what was happening and tried to warn his superiors in the Weather Bureau in Washington of the severity of the storm, it was too late.

Larson’s second bestseller, The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic and Madness at the Fair That Changed America, is set in Chicago in the last decade of the 19th century.  The city has a successful bid to hold a world’s fair in 1893 to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ arrival in the Americas.   The books focuses on two men:  Daniel Burnham  and Herman Webster Mudgett, better known by his alias H. H. Holmes.  Burnham was one of America’s most famous architects, Holmes was to become  America’s most famous serial killer .   While Burnham was in charge of transforming Jackson Park on the south side of Chicago in the fairgrounds for the Columbian Exposition, as the world fair was officially called, Holmes was enticing young women to his building nearby and taking their lives.  The “White City” was the name associated with architecture and landscaping of the  Columbian Exposition and Holmes claimed the Devil was to blame  for his killing people; ergo, the title.  The way Larson weaves the two stories is the reason the book has been a best seller ever it was published.

Thunderstruck, Larson’s third bestseller in a row, combines the stories of Guglielmo Marconi, who invented the wireless radio, and a murderer who leads the British police in  a chase that leads from England to Canada.    On one hand the reader is introduced to Hawley Crippen, an American doctor practicing in London who suspected of murdering his wife; on the other,  reader meets a young Italian inventor who is trying to win the race to successfully develop the wireless telegraph.  Like in his previous book, Larson alternates between the two stories as the reader is trying to figure how he is going to bring  them together.   This book reads like a fiction thriller.

In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin, the family of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s ambassador to Germany, William E. Dodd, finds themselves living in the pre-war Nazi society.  As Hitler’s political party ramps up its crusade against the Jewish population of Germany and Nazi thugs mistreat America citizens, Dodd gets concerned enough to cables back to the State Department in Washington reporting what he seeing. But his communications are all but ignored.   To complicate things, his young adult daughter is carrying affairs with leaders in the Nazi party.  As Dodd witnesses Germany moving closer to war, the United States government continues its isolationist policy.   This book reminds me of William Shirer’s Berlin Diary.

During World War I, before the United State became involved, the British liner  Lusitania left New York on 1 May 1915 bound for Liverpool.  The German Empire had earlier issued a policy of unrestricted submarine warfare on ships carrying war supplies to the Allies. This meant that German submarines would torpedo these vessels without warning or without regard for the safety of civilians.  Because of this, the German Embassy published ads in the New York papers warned civilians, especially Americans, not to travel on the liner because she was carrying munitions.     UBoat 20 fired one torpedo without warning into the Lusitania, but there were two explosions, one following right after the other, and the big liner sunk in only 18 minutes taking nearly 1200 people with her.    Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania, published this spring, is the story of that tragedy.

All the above listed books make good summer reading!