On May 7, 1915, a German U-boat destroyed the passenger ship Lusitania, killing over 1,000 civilians, including 128 Americans. The incident increased hostilities between Germany and the U.S. and was one of the causes of U.S. entry into World War I in 1917.
The Sinking of the Lusitania
In February 1915, responding to a British blockade of German ports, Germany began stationing U-boat submarines in the Atlantic Ocean. It threatened to attack any ship that entered British waters without warning, suspecting that many civilian ships were carrying munitions for the British war effort.
On May 1, 1915, the German government issued a warning to American passengers that ran in dozens of U.S. papers. It read: “Travellers intending to embark on the Atlantic voyage are reminded that a state of war exists between Germany … and Great Britain … and that travelers sailing in the war zone on ships of Great Britain or her allies do so at their own risk.”
That same day, the ocean liner Lusitania left New York, bound for Liverpool with 1,959 passengers and crewmembers on board. It also may have secretly been transporting munitions. Nicknamed the “greyhound,” it was the fastest cruise ship in the world at the time, and its speed was thought to be an effective deterrent against submarines.
But on May 7, 1915, heavy fog prevented the ship from going at top speed. In addition, Capt. William Turner of the Lusitania violated top-secret orders from the British Admiralty by failing to zigzag to make the boat less of a target, and sailing close to land instead of in the middle of the Irish Channel.
As the Lusitania entered the Irish Sea, the German submarine U-20 was lurking in the same waters, having already torpedoed its third victim in as many days. The U-20 and the Lusitania crossed paths around 2:00 p.m. The sub fired at the cruise ship, which suffered an initial explosion followed by another, more powerful one.
The cause of the second explosion has long been controversial; many have stated that it caused by hidden munitions, but more recent studies suggest that it was an industrial explosion. “The violent impact kicked up clouds of coal dust, which when mixed with oxygen and touched by fire becomes an explosive combination,” explains oceanographer Robert Ballard.
Rescue ships raced to respond to the Lusitania’s distress signals, but the British ship was down within 20 minutes, taking 1,198 people with her. Rescue boats arrived two hours after the calls, ultimately saving 761 survivors.
U.S. Entry Into the War
Sources in this Story
- University of Virginia: Miller Center of Public Affairs: Lusitania Sinks—May 7, 1915
- National Archives: Eyewitness: War at Sea
- EyeWitness to History: The Sinking of the Lusitania
- PBS: Lost Liners: Lusitania
- PBS: The Great War: The Lusitania
- First World War.com Primary Documents: German Government's Response to the Sinking of the Lusitania, 28 May 1915
- Our Documents: Joint Address to Congress Leading to a Declaration of War Against Germany (1917)
The sinking of the Lusitania sparked outrage in the U.S. and Britain. “And the way in which German forces waged that war was so important in generating a propaganda campaign of hatred: not of the German leadership, but of the German nation as a whole—of everybody who stood behind the German flag and were responsible for those who were drowned in the Lusitania,” said historian Jay Winter to PBS.
German Foreign Minister Gottlieb von Jagow defended his navy’s actions, arguing that Cunard, the Lusitania’s operating company, had “deliberately tried to use the lives of American citizens as protection for the ammunition carried [and] thereby wantonly caused the death of so many passengers.”
The deaths of 138 Americans prompted President Woodrow Wilson to demand that Germany end its practice of attacking civilian ships and pay reparations for the deaths. Germany decided to stop attacking large merchant ships so as not to provoke the U.S. into entering the war. However, it resumed its practice of unrestricted submarine warfare in February 1917, causing Wilson to respond.
On April 2, 1917, Wilson issues his “War Message to Congress,” calling for U.S. entry into the war. He declared, “It is a war against all nations. American ships have been sunk, American lives taken, in ways which it has stirred us very deeply to learn of, but the ships and people of other neutral and friendly nations have been sunk and overwhelmed in the waters in the same way. There has been no discrimination. The challenge is to all mankind.”
Congress declared war on Germany four days later.
Historical Context: World War I
World War I Events
World War I, originally known as “The Great War,” began in the spring of 1914 and raged through Europe until November 1918. The war cost 9 million lives and billions of dollars in damages. World War I demonstrated the magnitude and destructive power of modern warfare.
PBS’ “The Great War” and the BBC’s “World War One” describe the battles and events of the war and provide commentary from noted historians.
The U.S. Army Center of Military History gives detailed accounts of the U.S. Army’s action during the war, along with a prologue explaining the war prior to U.S. involvement.
First World War.com provides a battle-by-battle history of the war.