History, History Column

100th Anniversary: Sinking of the RMS Lusitania

On May 7, 1915 Alexandria resident, British national and second cabin passenger John Booth lost his life off the Irish Coast while cruising aboard the RMS Lusitania. Booth, age 35, was sunk; German U-boat Captain Walther Schwieger—with the blast of a submerged torpedo—buried him at sea. The 32,500 ton RMS Lusitania was traveling from New York to Liverpool.

London, May 7, 1915…“The giant Cunarder, Lusitania, was torpedoed and sunk off Old head, Kinsale at 3:38 o’clock this morning. All details are lacking but, it is reported the passengers and crew have taken to the boats and were saved,” the Alexandria Gazette reported. In fact 1,198 passengers died including 128 Americans.

London, May 8, 1915…“Yesterday’s dispatches stated that no lives had been lost by the sinking of the Cunard steamer Lusitania by a German submarine,” the Alexandria Gazette re-counted. “Late advices, however, dissipated all hope that torpedoing of the steamer had been accomplished without fatalities, and now it is feared that the loss of life will equal that of the Titanic disaster three years ago…” The Germans alleged the British flagged ship had entered a war zone armed.

On August 1, 1914 Germany declared war on Russia, on France two days later. Europe’s continental war expanded when Germany raided Great Britain in January 1915. The British claimed the attack on the RMS Lusitania was without warning.

“The attack came as a surprise,” The Washington Post said. “Passengers were lunching when water rushed through the vessel’s side.” American minister, the Reverend John Henry Jowett described the German action “as premeditated murder.” The United States as of August 19, 1914 was neutral.

Washington, May 10, 1915…“With the full proportions of the Lusitania horror known and with evidences that the [United States] is stirred to its depths over it, all eyes now are turned to the course which will be pursued by President [Woodrow] Wilson and his advisers,” the Alexandria Gazette wrote. “It is not too much to say that not only the eyes of the neutrals of the world, but those of the belligerents as well, are focused on Washington…Every indication is that Berlin will…seek to justify [the attack] on the ground—so far as Americans are concerned—that they were warned.”

“There was only 15 minutes from the time the ship was struck until she foundered, going down bow foremost,” the Alexandria Gazette concluded.

Philadelphia, May 10, 1915…“The example of America must be a special example, not merely of peace because it will not fight, but of peace because peace is the healing and elevating influence of the world,” President Wilson said. “There is such a thing as a man being too proud to fight. There is such a thing as a nation being so right that is does not need to convince others by force that it is right.” President Woodrow Wilson’s unofficial European envoy, Colonel Edward M. House was on board when the RMS Lusitania sank.

The days following were “trying to men’s souls.” Colonel House survived but the President struggled “to hold the imperial German government to strict accountability.” The public was rallying including Colonel Theodore Roosevelt.

“Dudley Field Malone, collector of the port, denied…the German statements that the Lusitania had guns mounted when she sailed from this port,” The Washington Post penned. “The Lusitania was inspected, as is customary. No guns were found, mounted or unmounted, and the Lusitania sailed without any armament. No merchant ship would be allowed to arm in this port and leave the harbor.”

United States citizens, “prominent men”—like Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt, Charles Frohman and Justin Miles Forman—were dead.   Had Germany gone too far? Or had Britain ignored passengers’ safety?

America asked: Why was it that the Lusitania’s Captain “appeared in the war zone exactly on schedule time, at the place where the enemy might expect to find him? Why was it that he slowed down from 24 or more knots to 17 knots, at the same time blowing his fog whistle continually…despite clear weather? Why was it that no British patrol boats…appeared to escort the Lusitania, in view of the enemy’s warning? The answers, The New York Times concluded, “beclouded understanding.”

In 1916 Woodrow Wilson was narrowly re-elected President. “Although we have centered counsel and action…upon the [domestic] problems…to which we addressed ourselves four years ago, other matters have more and more forced themselves upon our attention—matters…which, despite our wish to keep free of them, have drawn us more and more irresistibly into their own current and influence,” President Wilson said in his March 5, 1917 inaugural address.

On January 31, 1917 Germany notified the United States unrestricted submarine attacks would continue. They announced Germany would sink on sight all merchant vessels found in a zone around the British Isles or in the Mediterranean. President Wilson broke off diplomatic negotiations and ordered the arming of American freighters.

German submarines were only part of Wilson’s naval predicament. America’s once proud merchant marine had withered away. It was the victim of devastation wrought by Confederate raiders during the Civil War as well as post-Reconstruction changes in the American economy.

In February 1917 the Germans sank 540,000 tons of Allied shipping; in March 578,000 tons, and 874,000 tons in April. On April 6, 1917 America responded by declaring war. The United States entered the global war on the condition that it could legitimately demand universal liberal democracy from the world.

“It is fearful to lead this great peaceful people into war, into the most terrible and disastrous of all wars, civilization itself seeming to be in the balance,” President Wilson said. “But the right is more precious than peace, and we shall fight for the things which we have always carried nearest our hearts—for democracy, for the right of those who submit to authority to have a voice in their own government, for the rights and liberties of small nations, for a universal domination of right by such a concert of free peoples as shall bring peace and safety to all nations and make the world itself at last free.”

The Great War, World War I concluded with the Peace Conference of 1919. The 1914 conflict was “a quarrel…between nation and nation, culture and culture.” President Wilson’s 1917 war was about competing ideologies, competing visions of the European and international orders. From Alexandria passenger John Booth’s family crest, God Assists Us.

The National World War I Museum is located in Kansas City, Missouri. Nearly 4.7 million American soldiers served. Although state and city memorials abound no national WWI Memorial exists.

Washington, D.C.’s WWI Memorial, the only District of Columbia memorial on the National Mall, is situated in West Potomac Park. The District’s Woodrow Wilson House celebrates Lusitania Week with a display. An ongoing exhibit, War & Art: Destruction and Protection of Italian Cultural Heritage during WWI continues until August 5. In Virginia, Alexandria’s WWI Memorial—an adapted 18’ granite column initially intended for the George Washington Masonic Memorial—is located in the traffic circle in front of Union Station.

The 1918, WWI Virginia Shipbuilding Corporation was located in Alexandria at Jones Point along the Potomac River. On April 6, 1918 Corporation executives and city officials marched through the streets in celebration of the first “anniversary of this country’s declaration of war against Germany.”

Written by: Sarah Becker, © 2015, abitofhistory53@gmail.com

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