The recent wonderful meeting of Cunard’s “Three Queens” in the line’s spiritual home of Liverpool recalls memories of the greatest disaster to hit the Cunard Line 100 years ago. It was a man made tragedy which changed the course of World War 1 but more importantly the nature of warfare. In an act which was to be repeated countless times in the 20th Century the deliberate mass killing of civilians was to become a method of waging war. It is an act which still affects many, including Kinsale in Co. Cork where the sinking of the Lusitania took place off the Old Head of Kinsale, the lifeboat station in Courtmacsherry whose heroic volunteer crew rescued survivors and the Cobh of Cork where both survivors and bodies were brought . This is the story of a Cunard Liner sailing from New York to Liverpool.
At exactly 2.10 pm On the 7th May 1915 the U-boat U-20 fired a single torpedo which struck the wonder ship of the age, the RMS Lusitania, somewhere near the bridge. The Lusitania sank in eighteen minutes with the tragic loss of 1201 lives. The Old Head of Kinsale which is the nearest point of land to the wreck site just over eleven miles due south of the Old Head of Kinsale Lighthouse. One of the largest ships in the world, it was sailing from New York to its home port of Liverpool when it was sunk off the coast of Ireland. The sinking turned public opinion in many countries against Germany, contributed to the American entry into World War I and became an iconic symbol in military recruiting campaigns of why the war was being fought. Lusitania had the misfortune to fall victim to torpedo attack relatively early in the First World War, before tactics for evading submarines were properly implemented or understood. The contemporary investigations in both the UK and the United States into the precise causes of the ship’s loss were obstructed by the needs of wartime secrecy and a propaganda campaign to ensure all blame fell upon Germany.
— Cunard Line (@cunardline) May 8, 2015
The sinking of the Lusitania in 1915 is less widely known than the Titanic disaster three years earlier but in some ways it was more significant. Much like its more famous counterpart, the Lusitania was large, luxurious and fast. In its home port of Liverpool, “Lusi” was also regarded as the jewel in the city’s crown. The ship was launched at a time when safe air flights were still a dream and sea travel was king. Named after a Roman province that once stretched across modern Portugal and some of Spain, it competed for passengers travelling across the North Atlantic.
— Celia Bartlett (@ailecphoto) May 8, 2015
At ten minutes past two on Friday the 7th May 1915 all hell broke loose on the Lusitania. A single torpedo fired from the German U-20 submarine had just ploughed into the starboard side of the Lusitania at a speed of 38 knots from a distance of just 550 metres (600 yards) hitting the ship somewhere near the bridge and three metres (10 feet) below the surface of the water. The torpedo explosion was followed almost instantaneously by a second much larger explosion. Despite her size the ship immediately began to list steeply and her bows began to dip rapidly.
— Lusitania100Cork (@LusitaniaCork) May 11, 2015
On the bridge of the Lusitania Captain William Turner, realising that his ship was doomed, gave the order to ‘abandon ship’. Looking back along her length he saw that all of the starboard lifeboats had swung out and all of the port lifeboats had swung in over the decks making their launch practically impossible. In an attempt to slow down the ship he next ordered a ‘reverse thrust’ with disastrous consequences. Unable to withstand the increased stress some critical valves failed with almost complete loss of boiler pressure leaving the ship without power. In any case the propellers were already beginning to rise out of the water.
— Niall O'Connor (@NI_ALLO) May 10, 2015
Despite the immense practical difficulties, frenzied efforts to launch some starboard lifeboats were partially successful but on the port side there was mayhem. Released lifeboats careered down the steep deck crushing people in their path and dumping passengers into the sea or against solid obstacles. One or two port lifeboats were handled to the side but as soon as an attempt was made to lower them construction rivets which were projecting out from the Lusitania’s side ripped the lifeboats and dumped their passengers into the sea.
— Visit Cobh (@VisitCobh) May 8, 2015
Suddenly the liner’s forward momentum ceased. Her bows had struck the bottom three hundred feet below. Her stern settled and she slowly slid under the water. The Lusitania was gone. The time was twenty eight minutes past two o’clock. Of the forty eight lifeboats only six were afloat. There were bodies everywhere and people were clinging to any piece of floating wreckage they could reach. The Lusitania carried 1,962 persons in total of which 1,201 perished. Of the 129 children on board, 94 perished. Of the 159 Americans on board, 128 died. The vast majority of passengers and crew were Irish and English of which many perished. People of many other nationalities also lost their lives. Many famous and wealthy people perished on the Lusitania. It was a monumental tragedy with historic repercussions. This once beautiful ship, the pride of the Cunard Line and a wonder of the world was lost in horrific and tragic circumstances in the middle of WWI. The question of why she sank so quickly has not been definitively answered and after a 100 years her hull is rusting at a fast rate. Unlike the Titanic which has been preserved in deep ocean the Lusitania is in 300 feet of tidal water.
The centenary of the sinking of the Lusitania was marked on the 7th May 2015 by memorial services in its homeport of Liverpool and at the port of Cobh in Ireland where both survivors were brought and the bodies of the dead were interred in the cemetery. When Lusitania was built, her construction and operating expenses were subsidised by the British government, with the provision that she could be converted to an Armed Merchant Cruiser if need be. At the outbreak of the First World War, the British Admiralty considered her for requisition as an armed merchant cruiser, and she was put on the official list of AMCs. The contemporary investigations in both the UK and the United States into the precise causes of the ship’s loss were obstructed by the needs of wartime secrecy and a propaganda campaign to ensure all blame fell upon Germany.
Today, powered by its readers and contributors, from its cyber eyries in Ireland and the centres of the Irish Diaspora The Eagle casts its Cold Eye on Life and Death and much in between.