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Mystery shrouds the Lusitania’s tragic sinking, 100 years on

US Library of Congress | A poster from 1915 showing the Lusitania in flames and sinking, with people in the water and lifeboats in the foreground

Although it only took the British ocean liner Lusitania 18 minutes to sink after it was torpedoed by a German U-boat during World War I on May 7, 1915, the tragedy has been shrouded in mystery for the past 100 years.

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News of the Lusitania’s sinking dominated the front page of newspapers across the United States in the wake of the disaster. “Liner Lusitania sunk by German submarine”, declared the Washington Post, “Lusitania sunk by a submarine, probably 1,000 dead”, announced the New York Times.

The passenger ship had set sail for Liverpool from New York just six days earlier with 2,165 passengers on board. It would turn out that nearly 1,200 people, including 128 Americans, were killed in the incident. Among the victims was the millionaire Alfred Vanderbilt, as well as the renowned art collector Hugh Lane and the celebrated theatre producer, Charles Frohman.

In the weeks that followed the Lusitania’s sinking, the American press blamed Germany for the tragedy, describing it as an act of barbarism against a country that was, at the time, neutral in the war. Britain also condemned the incident, calling on all military-age men to volunteer to fight against Germany at the front.

“The [German]submarine commander Walther Schwiegger was nicknamed ‘the baby killer’ because there were a lot of children who died in the wreck,” Gérard Piouffre, an expert in maritime history, told FRANCE 24.

But in Germany, a very different account of what happened the day the Lusitania went down was being told.

“For their part, the Germans said that the British allowed the Lusitania to sink for obscure reasons and that it was transporting illegal cargo,” the historian explained.

Now, 100 years after what is probably the most famous shipwreck in history, barring the Titanic, Piouffre has attempted to shed some light on the mystery surrounding who was responsible for the Lusitania’s terrible fate in his new book, “A war crime in 1915?” ("Un crime de guerre en 1915 ?").

A mysterious second explosion

The Lusitania, which made its maiden voyage in 1907, was one of the most modern, luxurious and fastest ships ever built at the time.

The liner was briefly requisitioned by the British Royal Navy at the start of World War I in 1914 to be used as an armed merchant vessel, but it soon resumed its transatlantic voyages as a passenger ship.

The Lusitania in New York during its maiden voyage in 1907.
The Lusitania in New York during its maiden voyage in 1907.

Nearly one year into the war on May 1, 1915, passengers boarded the Lusitania in New York for what would be its last trip, despite unsettling rumours about the threat posed by Germany’s navy.

“[The Germans] had a new weapon: the submarine. All countries had them, but the U-boat was the most sophisticated,” Piouffre said. “Their goal was to cut the supply line of the allies, who got most of their ammunition supplies in the United States.”

Six days into the voyage, at around 2pm, a German U-boat, a SM U-20, spotted the British vessel about 12 nautical miles off Ireland’s coast.

“The Lusitania looked like an auxiliary cruiser. For the commander of the U-20, it could have been a troop transport from Canada to England,” Piouffre explained.

The submarine’s commander, Walther Schwieger, didn’t hesitate in giving the order to fire.

“The torpedo hit the Lusitania just before the bridge of the ship. Despite the impact, the boat could have stayed afloat, but there was a second explosion about 15 seconds later,” Piouffre said.

It is the second explosion that has been the subject of much speculation and debate over the liner’s mysterious sinking for the past century. Some believe it was caused by cold water hitting the Lusitania’s boilers. Others have pointed to three German stowaways who were discovered shortly after the ship set out. And then there are those convinced the blast was caused by stockpiles of ammunition concealed onboard.

For decades, Britain denied that the boat was carrying any ammunition, before owning up to the secret during the 1970s. Hidden inside the holding were 4,200 boxes of ammunition for small arms, 3,250 shell percussion fuzes, and 1,248 boxes containing 5,000 shrapnel shells. There was also 46 tonnes of aluminum powder, which Piouffre said would have posed the greatest danger.

“It’s very dangerous if it is exposed to water because it releases hydrogen, which when combined with the air’s oxygen, creates an explosive mixture,” he explained.

Despite the many hypotheses that have been floated over the past 100 years, it is still unclear what sunk the Lusitania, in part because it now lies 90 metres (around 295 feet) under the ocean.

“We can access the boat, but we can’t go inside. The wreck is a little like a deflated balloon. It’s completely fallen in on itself,” Piouffre said. “The boat is also lying on the wrong side. The breaches are starboard, buried in mud.”

While the exact cause of the disaster remains a mystery, Piouffre has no doubts that both Britain and Germany were responsible for the incident.

“[Germany] had declared the waters surrounding Britain a war zone, which included the Saint-Georges canal, which the Lusitania was navigating. The U-20 was therefore within its rights to sink the vessel. And, while the British didn’t have the right to transport ammunition on a passenger boat, it was common practice. They didn’t think they were putting the passengers’ lives in danger,” he said. “Everyone believed they were doing right.”

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