In the early afternoon of May 7, 1915, the RMS Lusitania made her way towards Liverpool, England. Six days earlier she’d left New York City on her 202nd transatlantic voyage, carrying 1,265 passengers and 694 crew members from all over the world, including nearly 150 Americans.
The mood aboard Lusitania during the voyage was one of resigned anxiety. On April 22, 1915, just two weeks before Lusitania’s departure, the Imperial German Embassy placed an advertisement in American newspapers warning of the threat to passenger ships entering the declared war zone off of the British Isles. On the evening of May 1, the day of Lusitania’s departure, the Washington Times reported, “Cunard line officials laughed at passengers’ fears and said the Lusitania could show her heels to any submarine.” Still, the Cunard Line took precautions at the suggestion of the British Admiralty, advising that Lusitania not fly flags in the war zone, paint her funnels to avoid detection, and consider a zigzagging maneuver. Captain William Turner also took precautions at sea, closing the ship’s watertight doors, ordering a blackout, and preparing the lifeboats to be launched if necessary.
Shortly after 2:00 PM on May 7th, 11 miles off the southern coast of Ireland, the Lusitania crossed paths with German submarine U-20, commanded by Captain Lieutenant Walther Schwieger. According to his diary, Schwieger followed the Lusitania, hoping for her to turn to her starboard side in order to secure a favorable shot. By 3:10 PM, Schwieger had a “clear bow shot.” He set an angle of intersection at 90 degrees and ordered the torpedo fired. He reported:
Shot struck starboard side close behind the bridge. An extraordinarily heavy detonation followed, with a very large cloud of smoke (far above the front funnel). A second explosion must have followed that of the torpedo (boiler or coal or powder!). The superstructure above the point of impact and the bridge were torn apart; fire broke out; light smoke veiled the high bridge. The ship stopped immediately and quickly listed sharply to starboard, sinking deeper by the head at the same time. It appeared as if it would capsize in a short time.¹
The Lusitania sank in 18 minutes, taking 1,195 lives with her. News of the disaster was immediate and the response was swift, with the U.S. government condemning the actions of U-20 and the British government urging the United States to declare war on Germany. Although the United States would not enter the war for two more years, the sinking of the RMS Lusitania had a profound impact on German-American relations, significantly turning the tide and setting the stage for America’s entry into World War I. Below are some images from the aftermath of the sinking, including photographs of funeral processions, victims, and survivors of the RMS Lusitania.
For footage of the RMS Lusitania leaving New York on her final voyage, click here. For a more detailed examination of the sinking featuring some of our textual holdings, click here. NARA is currently completing a large-scale project to digitize photographs and films from World War I, including these photographs from 165-WW, American Unofficial Collection of World War I Photographs, 1917-1918. Check back soon for updates on this project.
1. English Translation of His Majesty’s Submarine U-20 Diary, Subject Files, ca. 1924-1946, Naval Records Collection of the Office of Naval Records and Library, 1961-1945; Record Group 45; National Archives Building, Washington DC.
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