How the Lusitania brought America into the First World War

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When the Lusitania left New York for Liverpool on what would be her final voyage on 1st May 1915, during the Great War, it would alter the course of history forever.

Just a week later on 7th May 2015, the Lusitania was torpedoed and sunk by a German U-boat resulting in the loss of 1,198 lives of both passengers and crew off the southern coast of Ireland inside Germany’s declared, but unrecognised “zone of war.”

The sinking, without any prior search or warning, and with no regard for the safety of the passengers and crew, breached international law. Germany produced the argument (unconvincingly) that the liner was itself breaching international law by carrying munitions, and through doing so, providing Germany with justification for the attack.


Novel research conducted by Dr. Matthew Seligmann, Reader in History, at the Department of Politics, History and Law at Brunel University London, has unveiled new information on the incident. Dr. Seligmann has uncovered records that demonstrate that the Lusitania, one of the two fastest and most luxurious British passenger liners built at the turn of the century, had a hidden purpose. It acted as a trade protection vessel against attacks on British merchant vessels by German commerce raiding auxiliary cruisers.

Funded by a British government loan and given a hefty annual subsidy from Admiralty funds, the Lusitania was warship in all but name. This fact, he stresses, does not excuse Germany from the illegal sinking, as it was not serving as a commissioned warship at the time of the attack. On the contrary it had recognised civilian status and character.

“Cargo vessels are inevitably civilian vessels,” he explained. “The Lusitania was built as a warship to protect British trade, as well as being a cargo ship, and a state-of-the-art luxury passenger liner.

“It was designed to mount guns and destroy German commerce raiders. Of course it was doing none of these when it was sunk, but that only makes the fact of its sinking all the more ironic.”

He added: “All merchant vessels carry cargo and in 1915 the most likely cargo for a British merchant vessel was war materials. The Lusitania in 1915 was sailing a civilian cargo and passenger vessel. Its cargo was munitions. That was legal, normal and ordinary. What was illegal was that the ship was sunk without warning.”

The argument the German’s provided for sinking the Lusitania and other cargo vessels bound for Britain, argues Dr. Seligmann, was to destroy the British economy “and starve us into submission. In exactly the same way, the reason the Royal Navy stopped cargo ships from reaching Germany with war supplies was to undermine the German economy. It did not sink them.”

At this time America was not involved in the First World War, it was a European war at the time, and had no desire to be involved, but the loss of 128 American lives among the ship’s casualties had the potential to alter American attitudes. British Naval Intelligence exploited the sinking for all its worth with a major propaganda campaign in America.

A crucial part of this was a commemorative medal. Designed and manufactured by a Munich craftsman, the medal appeared to depict the sinking of the great liner as a major German military triumph and celebrate the loss of life that accompanied it.

There was no concession to the fact that world opinion may view the attack on a civilian passenger vessel as an atrocity and a war crime. Accordingly, the British Government managed to smuggle out a copy out of Germany and arranged to have thousands of them pressed for distribution in the United States as a graphic illustration of German callousness.

However, it was only when Germany intensified its U-boat campaign to include US vessels that the Americans finally declared war on Germany in 1917.

Contributing Source: Brunel University

Header Image Source: Wikimedia


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