Chances are, you’ve heard of the Titanic. On April 15, 1912, the great British transatlantic steamer struck an iceberg in the North Atlantic on its maiden voyage from Southampton to New York City. More than 1,500 souls lost their lives in that calamity, which has been memorialized in popular culture ever since. There are books, songs, musicals, and, of course, films about the doomed ship. Who can forget the iconic scene in the eponymous 1997 movie, when Kate Winslet throws open her arms at the Titanic’s bow, like a joyous figurehead, in Leonardo DiCaprio’s embrace?
While the Titanic tragedy remains a cultural reference point, another disaster three years later has been largely forgotten, despite its impact on American history. The sinking of the Lusitania, the British Cunard line’s luxury ocean liner, by a German U-boat, on May 7, 1915, sent shock waves across the Atlantic and fueled America’s entry into World War I two years later.
In my novel, Line of Flight, Simone Levitsky books passage on the Lusitania’s fatal voyage from New York City to Liverpool, because it is the fastest way to get to Europe. She is chasing after her only daughter, Camilla, who has run off with her boyfriend from home in Worcester, Massachusetts, to volunteer for the French war effort. Simone has no time to lose. Each day risks the possibility of their estrangement deepening.
Researching the Lusitania, a subject I had only vaguely associated with the World War I exhortation, “Loose lips sink ships,” upturned fascinating history and chilling facts. Even before the steamer left New York’s Pier 54 on May 1, notices by the German embassy appeared in New York newspapers, warning passengers that the ship was in danger. Submarines had become a potent weapon for the Germans, who targeted merchant ships bringing supplies to England. Since February of that year, Germany had declared all ships that entered the war zone around the British Isles as targets, neutral or not.
But until May 7, U-boats had not attacked passenger ships. The Lusitania‘s captain, William Turner, disregarded all the warnings and chose not to heed advice to take an evasive, zig-zag course as the ship neared the Irish coast on May 7. As the morning fog cleared, the ship sailed slowly on a serene Irish Sea. The mood onboard was a mix of wariness and cheerful anticipation, as the voyage neared its end.
Suddenly, at 2:10 in the afternoon, a line of froth sped toward the steamer’s starboard bow. The torpedo struck true, sending a shock wave throughout the ship. A second explosion rocked the damaged vessel minutes later. The ship began to list as terrified passengers scrambled in darkened passageways and staircases to lifeboats on the Promenade Deck, but boats on the port side could barely be pushed overboard, and those to starboard swung too far out for many to jump the distance. Only six lifeboats were successfully launched, not nearly enough to save everyone from the icy seas.
Despite the Lusitania‘s honeycomb design below decks, which was supposed to help keep it afloat in case of a disaster, the ship sank in just 18 minutes. Of the 1,959 passengers and crew, 1,198 drowned, including 128 U.S. citizens. Those who survived were rescued hours later by a fleet of Irish fishermen and brought to Queenstown, now Cobh—by coincidence, the last port of departure, three years earlier, of the Titanic.
Germany justified its attack by U-20, commanded by Walther Schwieger, with claims that only one torpedo was fired, and that the second explosion was caused by a cargo of illegal munitions in the ship’s hold. Other accounts assert that it was caused by a ruptured boiler or ignited coal. The cause remains unconfirmed, although the U.S., despite its initial neutral stance, did allow the British to ship American-made munitions out of U.S. ports before its entry into the War in 1917.
Regardless, the tragedy caused an uproar in Britain and America. U.S. Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan, who was a pacifist, sent several letters to Berlin condemning the atrocity. In England, riots broke out against German neighborhoods in London. In response, Germany suspended its unrestricted submarine warfare in the North Atlantic and Mediterranean. Two years later, however, Germany recommenced its U-boat attacks on passenger and merchant ships. That, plus the discovery of a plot to draw Mexico into the War and attack the U.S., was the final straw. President Woodrow Wilson asked Congress to declare war on Germany in April 1917. The Senate concurred on April 4, and the House, on April 6. With that decision, American isolationism came to a close.
Evelyn Herwitz writes about the journey of writing her first novel—a work of historical fiction set in World War I—the vagaries of the creative process, and her quest for publication, at evelynherwitz.com.
Image: New York Times front page, May 8, 1915, via Wikimedia Commons