World War I Artifacts and Memories: Sinking of the Lusitania

7, May 2015
The <em />Lusitania being torpedoed on May 7, 1915. Library of Congress. The Lusitania being torpedoed on May 7, 1915. Library of Congress.

May 7, 2015, marks 100 years since the sinking of the RMS Lusitania by German submarine U-20. A British passenger ship on its way from New York to Liverpool, England, the Lusitania was running a risk traveling through waters that were at the time declared a war zone by Germany. The sinking of the Lusitania was a watershed moment in the conflict, serving as a galvanizing force in the United States that eventually led to their declaration of war against Germany less than a year later.

The sinking of the ship was the result of an escalation of naval operations. In response to claims of Germany mining international waters, on November 3, 1914, Great Britain stated their intentions to mine the North Sea, turning it into a war zone. Germany responded by declaring the seas around Great Britain a war zone in February 1915, with a warning that enemy merchant vessels would be targeted. Until this point, Germany had only targeted naval vessels belonging to Allied countries. Between February 1915 and the end of April 1915 the German submarines had claimed 66 merchant ships.

To avoid any run-ins with German submarines, the RMS Lusitania took several precautions during its transatlantic voyage, including not flying any flags in the war zone. Despite the precautions taken to disguise the ship's identity as a British ocean liner, the RMS Lusitania was a well-known ship at the time and was briefly recognized as the world’s largest passenger ship.

Though internationally known as a passenger ship, it was also known that the building and operation of the Lusitania were subsidized by the British government, with the understanding that the ship would be converted into an armed merchant vessel for wartime use. At the outbreak of war, the ship was re-designated by the British government as an Armed Merchant Cruiser (AMC), but it continued to operate transatlantic passenger service with the Cunard Line. But, in accordance with the understanding about its funding, during its final voyage from New York to Liverpool, the official manifest of the RMS Lusitania notes it was carrying small arms ammunition, artillery shells and fuses, and other munitions supplies. Additionally, the captain of the Lusitania was a commander in the British Royal Navy Reserve.

Propaganda circular issued by Britain explaining the medal's meaning to incite anti-German sentiment. Propaganda circular issued by Britain explaining the medal's meaning to incite anti-German sentiment. World War I Collection, Missouri History Museum.

The RMS Lusitania’s final trip began on May 1, 1915, as she departed New York. The official manifest included 1,959 people, plus 3 German stowaways who were locked up soon after the ship's departure from port. Of those aboard the ship, 159 were Americans, a factor that would weigh heavily on America’s opinion of the war. On May 7, the ship was in a dense fog 120 miles off the southern tip of Ireland. At 1:20 P.M. the Lusitania was spotted by the German submarine U-20. After a short pursuit at 4:10 P.M. the first torpedo was fired from the U-20 at the Lusitania. Quickly after the torpedo struck the ship, a second explosion occurred. The vessel issued an SOS and passengers began to abandon ship, but with the ship sinking at a rapid rate only a handful of lifeboats were launched. Within 18 minutes the Lusitania was fully submerged.

Rescue crews were sent from the Irish coast, but by the time they arrived many people had already succumbed to the cold water. When the final count was taken in Queenstown, Ireland, only 764 passengers and crew had survived the sinking.

The sinking of the Lusitania sparked international outrage, especially in the then-neutral United States, who lost 159 citizens in the sinking. President Woodrow Wilson issued a series of three notes to Germany condemning their actions and paving the road to eventual war with Germany less than a year later. The sinking was also used as propaganda tool by Great Britain as they tried to rally support, especially from the United States.


both sides of a medal commemorating the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915This medal provides a commentary on the sinking of the Lusitania. World War I Collection, Missouri History Museum.

The Missouri History Museum’s collections include a medal originally created in 1915 by German sculptor Karl X. Goetz. The medals were intended to be a commentary on the Cunard Line’s insistence on continuing operations in war zones and on the British government, who allowed passenger ships to do so despite warnings from Germany. One side of the medal shows the Lusitania sinking, guns visible on its deck, with the motto “KEINE BANNWARE!” in German, which translates to “No Contraband Goods!” Below the sinking ship are the words “DER GROSSDAMPFER / LUSITANIA/ DURCH EIN DEUTSCHES / TACUCHBOOT BERSECKT / 7 MAI 1915,” declaring the sinking of the Lusitania along with the date. Perhaps the most interesting part of the medal, the obverse, features a skeleton selling tickets out of a booth marked “CUNARD,” and inscribed above is “GESCHAFT VEER ALLES,” which translates to “Business Above All,” a direct reference to the continuation of passenger service in a war zone by the Cunard Line. In the background a figure can be seen reading the warning issued by the German government about traveling in the war zone. Though intended by Goetz as satire, this medal would be reproduced by the British government and was sold as a medal made by Germany to commemorate the sinking of the Lusitania. The medals were sold with propaganda that condemned Germany.

To explore the fascinating, and oftentimes surprising collection of the Missouri History Museum visit our cross-collection search here.

—Patrick Allie, World War I Curator