A U-boat torpedo hit ocean liner Lusitania near Britain and some 1200 people, including 128 Americans, on board lost their lives. Subsequent investigations revealed that the major explosions were inside the Lusitania, as it was secretly transporting 6 million pounds of artillery shells and rifle ammunition, as well as other explosives on behalf of Morgan banking corporation to help their clients, Britain and France. It was against US laws to transport war materials and passengers in the same ship.
The Sinking of the Lusitania
Shortly after the outset of World War I, the British were desperate to get America to join the Allies. And the facts suggest that they let a passenger liner be sunk to obtain that end.
Robert Welch, founder of The John Birch Society, described World War I as a senseless European war in which there was no reason for any of the nations or the peoples involved to be fighting each other. Welch also noted, “The outbreak of hostilities in the summer of 1914, with the rapid alignment of countries on the opposing sides, certainly appeared to take most of the world by surprise as it should.”
With entangling alliances all over the world, nations as far from Europe as Japan were involved in the war within days. One great nation, the United States of America, adhering to George Washington’s advice to avoid entangling foreign alliances, wisely kept out of it.
There was an additional obstacle to getting the United States into the war. The U.S. Constitution did not allow the president or any other small group of persons to declare war. The power to declare war required an act of Congress. Convincing the American people they should go to war required an event that would make them angry at some foreign enemy. The sinking of the RMS Lusitania on May 7, 1915, aided by the unnecessary delays in getting rescue vessels to the survivors, led to about 1,200 deaths, including more than 120 Americans. That event supplied a major part of the psychological change needed to get the American people sufficiently angry to go to war.
Britain Blockades Germany
While the British were losing The Great War on land, it was quite a different story at sea. Britain, with a little help from Japan, established supremacy in the Pacific. Britain declared the North Sea to be a military area and imposed a naval blockade of Germany that included food destined for civilians. The starvation of German civilians as a consequence of the British blockade is considered by many to have been the most effective weapon used by either side during the war. One description of the effects of this blockade is posted online at the National World War I Museum’s website:
By 1916, the results of the Allied naval blockade were being deeply felt in Germany. Poor weather conditions that year also contributed to a 70% drop in domestic food production. Wheat was augmented with sawdust during breadmaking and eventually exhausted potato supplies gave way to the “Turnip Winter of 1916.” Among Germans, turnips were considered livestock feed and the prospect of relying on them for subsistence was abhorrent.
The abhorrence of eating turnips was just a steppingstone on the road to the starvation and malnutrition that followed. In December of 1918, Germany’s National Health Office estimated the death toll in Germany from the blockade at 763,000 persons, dying of starvation or other diseases that were aided by malnutrition. These statistics do not include the estimated 150,000 Germans who died in the influenza pandemic of 1918. Germany wanted to break the British blockade.
U-Boats and Q-Boats
The German technological answer to the British naval superiority was the Unterseeboot, which literally means “undersea boat.” These submarines were best known by the term U-boat. U-boats initially fought against both heavily armed warships and cargo ships, but soon they were used predominantly to sink enemy cargo ships. U-boats, the British were surprised to learn, had enough range to be a factor in the waters around the British Isles.
The British learned early in the war that they had underestimated the capabilities of the German U-boats, and Britain needed an answer to them. One of the early answers was the Q-boat. These were merchant ships retrofitted with hidden armaments, or specially designed military ships with panels hiding the armaments making them appear to be merchant vessels. They got the nickname Q-boats (or Q-ships) because their homeport was in Queenstown, Ireland. Q-boats would cruise in areas of known U-boat activity appearing to be easy prey, luring the German U-boats to try to sink them with deck guns, instead of expensive torpedoes. U-boats were vulnerable when they surfaced. This is when the Q-boat crew would quickly remove the panels that concealed the armaments and open fire on the U-boat. U-boats were not designed to sustain battle damage; their stealth was their defense.
One problem with the British Q-boats was that their very existence was a violation of one of the rules of war, the Cruiser Rules, because it blurred the distinction between a warship and a noncombatant merchant vessel. Once it became known that the British had violated the Cruiser Rules by deploying warships disguised as noncombatant merchant ships, Germany was no longer legally bound by the Cruiser Rules to treat merchant ships as unarmed noncombatants.
The Cruiser Rules
At first, German U-boats were obedient to the Cruiser Rules of naval warfare. Unarmed passenger ships were not to be sunk. Unarmed cargo ships of belligerent nations could be sunk or towed away as a prize of war once the crew was allowed to radio a distress call for rescue and abandon ship. The passengers and crew were considered to be in safety in their lifeboats if they were near land or on a neutral vessel. Armed warships or merchant vessels that were a threat to the U-boat could be sunk without warning.
A U-boat, being unable to tow a large cargo ship any appreciable distance, would, under the Cruiser Rules, surface by the side of a cargo ship of a belligerent nation and announce to the crew that their ship had been captured. The captain of the captured ship would be ordered to come aboard the U-boat bringing the ship’s papers. Once the crew made a distress call and abandoned ship, the Germans would take possession of the ship as a prize of war. The U-boat crew then had the right under rules of war to sink it.
The February 1, 1915 issue of the New York Times had a front-page article in which British civilian sailors from unarmed merchant vessels explained in detail their experiences of being captured by German U-boats under the Cruiser Rules. The SS Linda Blanche was sunk by U-31 on January 30, 1915. One of the crewmen related what happened once the U-boat surfaced, announced they had been captured, examined the papers, and determined it was an unarmed merchant ship:
The mate [who] was in charge of the boat that passed between the Linda Blanche, and the submarine, said the German officers were jolly chaps and quite young, too. They could speak English well, and they gave the crew half a box of cigars and some cigarettes. One Welshman got a muffler, another a pair of strong suede gloves, and the cabin boy, a little chap of 15, who was made much of because he was in tears, got a cap and a pair of mittens from the submarine crew. He laughed when he got back to land, and was comparatively happy when he went off to his Welsh home by train.
The quartermaster of the SS Ben Cruachan, which was sunk by the U-21 on that same day in a manner similar to that of the SS Linda Blanche, explained how they were treated by the German submariners:
It was about 10:00 o’clock when the submarine was sighted and we should have been in Liverpool at 2 o’clock. When we were held up the crew got into two large lifeboats and two small boats. The report that our ship was torpedoed is not correct. They blew her up by a bomb which was carried aboard and placed at the stern end. There was a long fuse which ran over the side of the ship and reached almost down to the level of the water. When everybody had got off one of the submarine crew applied a light to it.
The quartermaster added:
The Germans were very decent to us. They told us where we could find a trawler fleet. The chief officer of the submarine shook hands with our skipper and said “I am very sorry, Captain, but war is war.” When our skipper got off the submarine into the lifeboat the German crew stood at salute and the chief officer shouted, “I hope you will all get picked up before bad weather comes on.”
German U-boats obeyed the Cruiser Rules not just as a code of honor, although there was considerable honor amongst the soldiers, sailors, and airmen who served on both sides in World War I. There were also some pragmatic reasons. U-boats had a limited number of torpedoes, torpedoes were expensive, and depending on the size, design, and hull strength of a ship, it frequently required more than one WWI-era torpedo to sink it. U-boat commanders usually preferred to use well-placed demolition charges to sink the ships they captured. Also, humane treatment of the noncombatant crewmembers of captured vessels encouraged future cooperation by crewmembers during subsequent captures.
Britain Caught Violating the Cruiser Rules
When the U-21 captured the Ben Cruachan, the German submarine crew made a startling discovery: official orders to ships’ captains to disobey the Cruiser Rules. Author Colin Simpson in his book Lusitania described it:
On board her first victim, the 3000-ton Ben Cruachan of the Ben Line of Edinburg, she captured a complete set of Churchill’s inflammatory orders, including the instructions to ram and to fly a neutral flag.
Within days Kaiser Wilhelm II traveled to the naval station at Wilhelmshaven. On February 4, the German Admiralty issued a war zone decree. The next day’s New York Times printed much of it on the front page:
Every enemy merchant ship found in this war zone will be destroyed, even if it is impossible to avert dangers which threaten the crew and passengers.
Also, neutral ships in the war zone are in danger, as in consequence of the misuse of neutral flags, ordered by the British Government on Jan. 31, and in view of the hazards of naval warfare, it cannot always be avoided that attacks meant for enemy ships endanger neutral ships.
Germany’s ill-advised war zone reaction to catching the British red-handed was one of the biggest blunders of World War I. Germany should have used this in psychological warfare. They had the evidence they needed to influence neutral nations to take action against Britain. They could have pointed out the endangerment of 15-year-old cabin boys by ordering noncombatant merchant vessels to attempt to ram U-boats, thereby revoking their status as noncombatants. Instead, the German leaders chose a military reaction that backfired in two ways: It alienated the very people they were trying to influence, and the emotional headlines of war got the front page news while articles of substance, if reported all, were frequently pushed to the back pages.
Within days of the heightened awareness of England’s bizarre foreign policy, the British ship Lusitania was observed sailing under an American flag. The incident was reported to the New York Times by three American citizens who were on board and requested their names not be published. The February 7 front-page article contained Lusitania Captain David Dow’s explanation that he changed flags because he had received a warning that U-boats were in the area. Captain Dow defended his actions by saying part of the ship’s cargo was mail of neutral nations and some of the passengers were citizens of neutral nations.
Missouri Senator William Stone was incensed by the incident. As the New York Times reported on February 9, unfortunately on page 2:
Senator Stone of Missouri, Chairman of the Committee on Foreign Relations, was a caller at the White House today. He expressed the opinion that the hoisting of the Stars and Stripes by the Captain of the Lusitania was an improper use of the American flag. He added the belief that it would not be difficult to put through Congress a resolution of protest against this incident, but said he thought the matter was one that ought to be handled exclusively at this time by the executive branch of the Government.
On February 10, under public pressure, President Wilson sent notes to both the British and German governments. His note to the German government is known as the Strict Accountability note. If any German naval commander, assuming a ship flying a U.S. flag is not an American ship, sinks an American ship or takes the life of an American, the German government will be held strictly accountable.
Wilson’s note to the British government soft-pedaled their use of the U.S. flag, essentially giving the British a tacit go-ahead to continue doing it. His note included such phrases as, “reserving for future considerations the legality and propriety of the deceptive use of the flag” and “the occasional use of the flag of a neutral or an enemy … seems to this Government a very different thing from an explicit sanction by a belligerent Government for its merchant ships generally to fly the flag of a neutral power.” It had plenty of double-talk, but no mention of accountability.
Many historians refer frequently to Wilson’s Strict Accountability note to Germany while ignoring his parallel memo to England giving the British permission to use the U.S. flag as a cover. Any attempt to understand this incident while studying only one of these memos without the other is using only half of the truth.
The Germans, realizing their response of unrestricted naval warfare wasn’t gaining friends or influencing people, offered to withdraw it in exchange for a concession that the British declaration of the North Sea as a military area be modified to allow food destined for civilians into German ports. The British were not interested in ending the hunger blockade.
The Lusitania’s Last Voyage
Prior to the Lusitania’s departure from New York on May 1, 1915 — her last voyage — the German government issued official warnings and even paid for advertisements warning prospective passengers that the waters around the British Isles were a war zone. However, Charles Sumner, agent for the Cunard Line, was quoted in a page 3 article in the New York Times published that same day:
There are now no German cruisers in the Atlantic, and the ‘danger zone’ does not begin until we reach the British Channel and the Irish Sea. Then one may say there is a general system of convoying British ships. The British Navy is responsible for all British ships, and especially for Cunarders.”
“Your speed, too, is a safeguard, is it not?” it was suggested.
“Yes; as for submarines, I have no fear of them whatever.”
On May 5, as the Lusitania neared British waters, the bottom fell out of Sumner’s assurance that the Lusitania would have a naval escort. The cancellation of the convoy ship Juno was described by Colin Simpson:
Shortly after noon on 5 May the Admiralty signaled the Juno to abandon her escort mission and return to Queenstown. She was to travel south-east overnight so as to clear the Fastnet by some 50 miles and under cover of darkness. The Lusitania was not informed that she was now alone, and closing every minute to the U-20.
The German U-boat U-20 was active in the busy shipping routes that ran between Ireland and England. The U-20 met the British ship Candidate on Thursday, May 6 in Saint George’s Channel. Kapitänleutnant Walther Schwieger, although not required to observe the Cruiser Rules, did so in this case. Simpson recorded the sequence of events:
After two grenades had been thrown, the Candidate hove to and the crew were allowed to abandon ship. There were no casualties, and the U-20’s boarding party climbed aboard at 8.20 a.m. They stayed an hour and then drawing off a quarter of a mile put a torpedo into her, but the ship refused to sink. Schwieger closed up and a dozen rounds from his deck gun into the waterline sent the Candidate to the bottom at 11.25 a.m. The crew were picked up safely by a naval patrol boat which concentrated on its mission and did not attack the submarine. Schwieger allowed the patrol boat to depart unmolested.
Once again, an incredible story of honor by the men in uniform on both sides, as the British Navy patrol boat rescued the crew of the Candidate without attacking the U-boat, and the U-boat did not fire on the patrol boat while it was rescuing unarmed noncombatants.
About an hour and a half later, the U-20 met the Centurion not far from where it sank the Candidate. For some reason, perhaps suspecting the Centurion might be a Q-boat, Schwieger torpedoed without warning. Once again, a lone torpedo did not sink the ship. Once the crew of the Centurion abandoned the ship with no loss of life, Schwieger took aim and fired a second torpedo. About an hour and 20 minutes later the Centurion sank.
Continued on next page…