Lusitania, Sinking of the

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Lusitania, Sinking of the (1915).On 3 November 1914, Great Britain began mining the North Sea as part of a blockade of Germany, during World War I, ultimately including foodstuffs. German proclaimed a “war zone” around the British Isles (4 February 1915), advising merchant shipping that it must anticipate attack without warning. Berlin cited the submarine's vulnerability to justify abandoning rules of cruiser warfare, which called for warnings and then visit‐and‐search of merchant ships suspected of transporting contraband. If contraband were discovered, the belligerent must ensure the crew's safety before seizing or destroying the vessel. Britain deemed the war zone an illegal blockade, armed its merchant ships, and ordered them to attack surfaced submarines. The United States, not yet in the war, announced it would hold Germany to “strict accountability” for loss of American lives and property.

On 7 May 1915, the German submarine U‐20 sank the unprotected British liner Lusitania without warning in its approach to the Irish Sea. The giant Cunard Vessel sank in twenty minutes. Of 1,959 passengers and crew, 1,128 perished—128 of them Americans. Although the Lusitania was carrying 4,200 cases of contraband ammunition, the reasons why it sank so quickly are still debated.

Attack without warning defied American support of neutral/noncombatant rights. On 13 May, President Woodrow Wilson asked Germany to disavow its action but avoided a diplomatic break, having noted that a people could be “too proud to fight.” When Germany delayed, Wilson moved to preserve national honor, rights, and prestige, insisting on visit‐and‐search, indemnity, and no further attacks on liners. Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan resigned in protest. Eventually, Germany suspended unrestricted attacks, and in February 1916 it apologized and offered indemnity without acknowledging illegality. But the incident strengthened America's perception of Germany as a ruthless and law‐less nation.
[See also Blockades.]


Thomas M. Bailey and
Paul B. Ryan , The Lusitania Disaster: An Episode in Modern Warfare and Diplomacy, 1975.

David F. Trask


views updated May 23 2018


On May 7, 1915, the British cruise ship Lusitania was sunk without warning by the German submarine U-20 off Kinsale, Ireland. All but 761 of the 1,959 passengers and crew were killed, including 128 Americans. The day the liner set sail just six days earlier, the German embassy in Washington, D.C. , published an advertisement in American newspapers warning travelers that they sailed British or Allied cruise ships at their own risk. For this reason, it was widely accepted as fact that the tragedy was premeditated.

This theory was brought into question years later when the log of the U-20 was published and showed that the submarine had sunk other ships and encountered the Lusitania by chance. Out of fear of being rammed, the submarine sank the cruise liner. Although an examination prior to sailing revealed no evidence that the liner was carrying ammunition, the ship was in fact loaded with 4,200 cases of small-arms ammunition as well as 1,250 shrapnel cases. This ammunition, when struck, could have contributed to the amazingly fast sinking of the ship. From the time of impact, just eighteen minutes passed before the liner was submersed.

Earlier that year, on February 10, 1915, the U.S. government had denied the legality of submarine warfare as practiced by Germany. It issued a warning that it would hold Germany accountable for the recognition of American rights on the high seas. Given that edict, the sinking of the Lusitania three months later incensed American diplomats and common citizens alike. President Woodrow Wilson (1856–1924; served 1913–21) demanded that Germany make amends for the crime and “disavow” it (claim it had no knowledge of it). The German government agreed to make reparations and eventually promised not to sink any more cruise liners without warning. But it refused to disavow the sinking of the Lusitania.

Lusitania, Sinking of the

views updated May 23 2018


LUSITANIA, SINKING OF THE. On 7 May 1915, a German submarine sank without warning the Lusitania, killing 128 Americans. Since Germany had warned travelers against sailing on British or Allied ships, many believed that the sinking was premeditated. The log of the submarine shows, however, that it was not.

President Woodrow Wilson resisted considerable popular clamor for war but demanded that Germany make reparation for and disavow the sinking. The German government agreed to make reparation and eventually promised that it would not sink liners without warning, but it steadfastly refused to disavow the sinking of the Lusitania.


Hickey, Des. Seven Days to Disaster: The Sinking of the Lusitania. New York: Putnam, 1982.

Ramsay, David. Lusitania: Saga and Myth. London: Chatham, 2001.

Bernadotte E.Schmitt/a. e.

See alsoMeuse-Argonne Offensive ; Submarines ; World War I .


views updated May 21 2018

Lusitania a Cunard liner which was sunk by a German submarine in the Atlantic in May 1915 with the loss of over 1,000 lives; the event was a factor in bringing the US into the First World War.

Lusitania was originally an ancient Roman province in the Iberian peninsula, corresponding to modern Portugal.