In one week, it will be 100 years since the sinking of the Lusitania (7 May 1915). I think everyone should pay attention. It was kind of a big deal.
The Lusitania was one of four shipwrecks that most interested me, growing up. I know I had read about it extensively before fifth grade, because it came up somehow in a reading we had, and Mrs. Buchholz stumbled over the name, and I excitedly and quickly corrected her. That day, I learned that it’s not polite to be too enthusiastic when correcting one’s teachers (Sorry, Mrs. B!). I also learned that no other fifth graders at Norman County West shared my historical shipwreck interest. Sigh.
Though the Titanic gets most of the shipwreck press these days (thanks, James Cameron), the sinking of the RMS Lusitania is a much more exciting story, in many ways. The ship was smaller than the Titanic, less fancy, and had been in use for over seven years when it was hit by German U-boat torpedoes, off the southern coast of Ireland. The Lusitania went down in less than twenty minutes. Shit, it took Cameron twenty minutes to get Leonardo DiCaprio out of his handcuffs. It took almost 3 hours from the time the Titanic hit the iceberg until it finally went down.
All those great lessons we’d learned from the Titanic about lifeboats and orderly progression were lost on the Lusitania, because there was so little time. After the initial blast of the torpedo, there was a huge explosion, and the ship immediately began to list to one side, making half the lifeboats unusable.
Germany had declared they would practice “unrestricted submarine warfare” on any ships they could find in “war zone waters.” And they meant it, apparently, sinking supply ships and cruise ships alike. Still, though the sinking of the Lusitania killed more than 1100 people (more than 120 Americans), President Wilson really, really, really didn’t want to get involved in this war. Germany sunk an Italian liner in 1915 that killed another 25+ Americans. It wasn’t until nearly 2 years after the Lusitania disaster, 6 April 1917, that America entered WWI.
This source lists 1962 passengers and crew members on board the Lusitania. 1201 died. Of 129 children on board, 94 perished. (761 survivors).
On the Titanic, of the 2224 passengers and crew, 1514 died. Of 109 children, 53 died. (701 survivors). Again, though, the Titanic had six times longer to send out lifeboats, and the boats on both side were usable for much of that time. One reason more children survived on the Titanic, though, was that handy “women and children first” thing, which apparently didn’t hold up well with the chaos of the Lusitania.
Want to know more?? Of course you do! You’re in luck. I can’t even tell you how excited I am about Erik Larson’s new book, Dead Wake, about the Lusitania disaster. He’s the genius who brought us The Devil in the White City (Worlds Fair and mass murder?? swoon!), and I can think of no one better to metaphorically bring the Lusitania back up from the ocean floor.