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RMS Lusitania
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RMS Lusitania

RMS Lusitania was an ocean liner of the Cunard Steamship Lines that was torpedoed and sunk by a German submarine on May 7, 1915 on her 202nd crossing of the Atlantic in an incident that played a role in the USA's entry into World War I.

General Characteristics

German medal recognizing the sinking of the Lusitania
The Lusitania was a British cargo and passenger ship that was torpedoed and sank within sight of the coast of Southern Ireland, due to German submarine activity in May of 1915. It was here that Captain Turner’s ill fated ship was thrown into darkness.

The ship had been hit by an enemy torpedo, fired from a U-boat at 700 yards, causing an explosion in the ship, said at the time to have been triggered by the residue of gasses from what remained of the ships 100,000 tons of coal fuel dust; however, the sudden force of the cold sea pouring onto the hot steam boilers would in all likelihood itself have provided reason enough to have caused a massive explosion.

That any residual coal dust would at this point have been dry enough to ignite is reasonably questionable. The submarine U20, commanded by Captain Walther Schweiger, seems to have also had a routine and uneventful journey, until he encountered the prestigious target.

The Lusitania was principally a luxury passenger liner built to exchange people and property between England and the United States.

It is now known that a secret warning was made to the wealthiest of the ship's passengers, reporting that trouble from U-boat activity was to be expected, and advising the same not to travel. It has since been further argued that the Lusitania was coldly sacrificed by the 1st Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, as a maneuver to hasten America's involvement in the European conflict.

Given that the great ship, like so many other private vessels, had been fitted out, in her instance with 12" gun mounts, carefully hidden under coils of rope, legitimately made her a target. She was also hauling hundreds of rounds of artillery ammunition and hundreds of thousands of rounds of rifle and small-bore cartridges, making her a military transport of sorts.

Six days after setting out, on May 7, 1915, the Lusitania was too slow in noticing both the periscope and the torpedo of the German submarine in her wake.

The ship's sinking was seen by the Allies as yet another example of the "barbarity" of the German war machine, particularly in the context of Germany's actions in occupied France and Belgium.

Infamously, a Munich metalworker named Karl Goetz struck commemorative medallions apparently celebrating its sinking as a triumph of the German navy over the British.

The German government only learned of the medal through the British press and launched an inquiry. Goetz defended his medals as satire, but the government had their distribution halted.

Selfridges of London had been pre-commissioned by British propagandists to make several thousand copies, which were then sold to benefit the British Red Cross.


The Lusitania shows evidence that of having been torpedoed a second or even a third time,*

(* Source: )

...the second, most destructive, explosion may not have been caused by a German torpedo, instead coming from inside the ship.

She is reported to have carried, under the guise of bales of fur and cheese boxes, 3 inch (76 mm) shells and millions of rounds of rifle ammunition. If true, these materials comprised "a contraband and explosive cargo which was forbidden by American law and... should never have been placed on a passenger liner":

(Simpson, Colin. The Lusitania. Little, Brown and Company, Boston., 1972; 157-158).

Captain Turner, it is told, was equally impatient with scholars and millionaires but listened to the protestations of one of his passengers who had approached him in his day cabin, expressing his concerns for their safety, and the lack of passenger drill.

The Professor Ian S. Holbourn, the Laird of Foula (Shetland Isle, Scotland) had insisted that the Captain order Lifeboat drills and that more such precautions be taken, his efforts to stimulate a little spirited safety awareness (during a time of war), was nothing if not vindicated, by the widespread panic that was to be observed when the lights went out.

To his credit Holbourn guided some panic stricken passengers firstly to his cabin where he fitted them with life belts, even offering up his own, then he steered them through the dark tilting passageways of the ship to her decks and the safety of one of the ship's lifeboats.

The youngest in this party being Avis Dolphin, who was escorted by her nursemaids Hilda Ellis and Sarah Smith. Having found a lifeboat for the child and her nurses, the Professor himself dived into the freezing ocean to find himself surrounded by a mass of bodies and wreckage.

His hope of reaching the nearest boat was interrupted, when he was compelled by his innate humanity to take with him a man who was floating helpless, he found his way to a boat, but the body he had pulled along with him was dead by the time he was picked up by a ships lifeboat.

He was later transferred on to the ‘Stormcock’ from the ‘Wanderer of Peel’ with many other wet and injured survivors, being thus amongst the first of the 764 rescued to arrive at Queenstown at Eight O’clock that night.

The official list of the Cunard Steamship Company for the missing and lost of this fateful voyage was 1,195 to be lost, this figure being dated 1st March 1916, a full ten months after the event.

It is not surprising that the Professor Ian S. Holbourn was aware of the imminent dangers presented by Transatlantic crossings during the early months of the Great War, what with his recent insights into the largely hushed up events surrounding the HMSOceanic’ off Foula, and to some extent was prepared to face the worst.

Some well-known people who perished on the Lusitania: