The RMS Lusitania was a British ocean liner, holder of the Blue Riband, and briefly the world's largest passenger ship. She was launched by the Cunard Line in 1906, at a time of fierce competition for the North Atlantic trade. On May 7th, 1915; she was torpedoed and sunk by a German U-boat, causing the deaths of 1,198 passengers and crew. She had made a total of 202 trans-Atlantic crossings.
German shipping lines were aggressive competitors in the transatlantic trade, and Cunard responded by trying to outdo them in speed, capacity and luxury. Lusitania and her running mate Mauretania were fitted with revolutionary new turbine engines, able to maintain a service speed of 25 knots. Equipped with lifts, wireless telegraph and electric light, they provided 50% more passenger space than any other ship, and the first class decks were noted for their sumptuous furnishings.
When the RMS Lusitania left New York City for Liverpool on what would be her final voyage on May 1st, 1915; submarine warfare was intensifying in the Atlantic. Germany had declared the seas around the United Kingdom a war zone, and the German embassy in the United States had placed a newspaper advertisement warning people of the dangers of sailing on the Lusitania. On the afternoon of May 7th, Lusitania was torpedoed by a German U-Boat, 11 miles (18 km) off the southern coast of Ireland and inside the declared "zone of war". A second internal explosion sent her to the bottom of the ocean in 18 minutes.
In firing on a non-military ship without warning, the Germans had breached the international laws known as the Cruiser Rules. Although the Germans had reasons for treating Lusitania as a naval vessel, including the facts that the ship was carrying war munitions and the British had been breaching the Cruiser Rules, the sinking caused a storm of protest in the United States, as 128 Americans were among the dead. The ship's sinking provided Britain with a propaganda opportunity, which helped shift public opinion in the United States against Germany and influenced America's eventual declaration of war two years later, in 1917.
Comparison with the Olympic class
Lusitania and Mauretania were smaller than the White Star Line's Olympic-Class vessels. Both vessels had been launched and had been in service for several years before the Olympic class ships were ready for the North Atlantic. Although significantly faster than the Olympic class would be, the speed of Cunard's vessels was not sufficient to allow the line to run a weekly two-ship transatlantic service from each side of the Atlantic. A third ship was needed for a weekly service, and in response to White Star's announced plan to build the three Olympic class ships, Cunard ordered a third ship: the RMS Aquitania. Like the Olympic, Cunard's Aquitania had a lower service speed, but was a larger and more luxurious vessel. This decision made the Olympic-class and the Mauretania-class ultimate rivals.
The vessels of the Olympic-class also differed from the Lusitania and Mauretania in the way in which they were compartmentalized below the waterline. The White Star vessels were divided by transverse watertight bulkheads. While the Lusitania also had transverse bulkheads, it also had longitudinal bulkheads running along the ship on each side, between the boiler and engine rooms and the coal bunkers on the outside of the vessel. The British commission that had investigated the sinking of the Titanic in 1912 heard testimony on the flooding of coal bunkers lying outside longitudinal bulkheads. Being of considerable length, when flooded, these could increase the ship's list and "make the lowering of the boats on the other side impracticable" — and this was precisely what later happened with Lusitania. Furthermore the ship's stability was insufficient for the bulkhead arrangement used: flooding of only three coal bunkers on one side could result in negative metacentric height. On the other hand Titanic was given ample stability and sank with only a few degrees list, the design being such that there was very little risk of unequal flooding and possible capsize.
Much like Titanic, the Lusitania did not carry enough lifeboats for all her passengers, officers and crew on board at the time of her maiden voyage (actually carrying four lifeboats fewer than the Titanic would carry in 1912). This was a common practice for large passenger ships at the time, since the belief was that in busy shipping lanes help would always be nearby and the few boats available would be adequate to ferry all aboard to rescue ships before a sinking. Interestingly after theTitanic sank, Lusitania and Mauretania would only be equipped with an additional six more clinker-built wooden boats under davits, making for a total of 22 boats rigged in davits. The rest of their lifeboat accommodations were supplemented with 26 collapsible lifeboats, 18 stored directly beneath the regular lifeboats and eight on the after deck. The collapsibles were built with hollow wooden bottoms and canvas sides, and needed assembly in the event they had to be used. It was not enough for her full capacity of 2950 but for the amount of 1962 souls on board during her trip it was sufficient.
This contrasted with the Olympic and the Britannic which received 64 boats, a full complement of lifeboats all rigged under davits. This difference, however, was not a major contributor to the high loss of life involved with the Lusitania's sinking, because even though there was not sufficient time to assemble collapsible boats or life-rafts, the ship's severe listing made it impossible for lifeboats on the port (left hand side when facing toward the bow) side of the vessel to be lowered, and the rapidity of the sinking did not allow the remaining lifeboats that could be directly lowered (as these were rigged under davits) to be filled and launched with passengers. When Britannic, working as a hospital ship during World War I, sank in 1916 after hitting a mine in the Kea channel the already davited boats were swiftly lowered saving nearly all on board, but the ship took nearly three times as long to sink as Lusitania and thus the crew had more time to evacuate passengers.
On May 7th, 1915 the Lusitania was nearing the end of her 202nd crossing, bound for Liverpool from New York, and was scheduled to dock at the Prince's Landing Stage later that afternoon. Aboard her were 1,266 passengers and a crew of 696, which combined totaled to 1,962 people.  She was running parallel to the south coast of Ireland, and was roughly 11 miles off the Old Head of Kinsale when the liner crossed in front of U-20 at 14:10. Because of the liner's great speed, some believe the intersection of the German U-boat and the liner to be coincidence, as U-20 could hardly have caught the fast vessel otherwise. Schwieger, the commanding officer of the U-boat, gave the order to fire one torpedo, which struck Lusitania on the starboard bow, just beneath the wheelhouse. Moments later, a second explosion erupted from within Lusitania's hull where the torpedo had struck, and the ship began to founder in a much more rapid procession, with a prominent list to starboard.
Almost immediately, the crew scrambled to launch the lifeboats but the conditions of the sinking made their usage extremely difficult, and in some cases impossible due to the ship's severe list. In all, only six out of 48 lifeboats were launched successfully, with several more overturning and breaking apart. Eighteen minutes after the torpedo struck, the bow struck the seabed while the stern was still above the surface, and finally it slid beneath the waves.
Of the 1,962 passengers and crew aboard Lusitania at the time of the sinking, 1,191 lost their lives. As in the sinking of Titanic, most of the casualties were from drowning or hypothermia. In the hours after the sinking, acts of heroism among both the survivors of the sinking and the Irish rescuers who had heard word of Lusitania's distress signals brought the survivor count to 764, three of whom later died from injuries sustained during the sinking.
A British cruiser HMS Juno which had heard of the sinking only a short time after the Lusitania was struck, left her anchorage in Cork Harbour to render assistance. Just south of Roche's Point at the mouth of the harbor only an hour from the site of the sinking she turned and returned to her mooring as a result, it is believed, on orders issued from admiralty house, Cobh (HQ Haulbowline naval base).
By the following morning, news of the disaster had spread around the world. While most of those lost in the sinking were either British or Canadians, the loss of 128 Americans in the disaster, including American writer and publisher Elbert Hubbard, outraged many in the United States.
The sinking caused an international outcry, especially in Britain and across the British Empire, as well as in the United States, considering that 128 of 139 U.S. citizens aboard the ship lost their lives.
On May 8th, Dr Bernhard Dernburg, a German spokesman and a former German Colonial Secretary, published a statement in which he said that because Lusitania "carried contraband of war" and also because she "was classed as an auxiliary cruiser," Germany had a right to destroy her regardless of any passengers aboard. Dernburg further said that the warnings given by the German Embassy before her sailing plus the February 18th note declaring the existence of "war zones" relieved Germany of any responsibility for the deaths of the American citizens aboard. He referred to the ammunition and military goods declared on Lusitania's manifest and said that "vessels of that kind" could be seized and destroyed under the Hague rules. Lusitania was indeed officially listed as an auxiliary war ship, and her cargo had included an estimated 4,200,000 rounds of rifle cartridges, 1,250 empty shell cases, and 18 cases of non-explosive fuses, which was openly listed as such in her cargo manifest. The day after the sinking, The New York Times published full details of the ship's military cargo. Assistant Manager of the Cunard Line, Herman Winter, denied the charge that she carried munitions, but admitted that she was carrying small-arms ammunition, and that she had been carrying such ammunition for years. The fact that Lusitania had been carrying shells and cartridges was not made known to the British public at the time. In the 27-page additional manifest, delivered to U.S. customs 4–5 days after the Lusitania sailed from New York, and the Bethlehem Steels papers is stated that the "empty shells" were in fact 1,248 boxes of filled 3" shell, 4 shells to the box, totaling 103,000 pounds or 50 tonnes.
The British felt that the Americans had to declare war on Germany. However, U.S. President Woodrow Wilson refused to act. During the weeks after the sinking, the issue was hotly debated within the U.S. government, and correspondence was exchanged between the U.S. and German governments. German Foreign Minister Von Jagow continued to argue that Lusitania was a legitimate military target, because she was listed as an armed merchant cruiser, she was using neutral flags and she had been ordered to ram submarines – in blatant contravention of the Cruiser Rules. He further argued that Lusitania had on previous voyages carried munitions and Allied troops. Wilson continued to insist that the German government must apologize for the sinking, compensate U.S. victims, and promise to avoid any similar occurrence in the future. The British were upset at Wilson's actions – not realizing that it reflected general U.S. opinion at the time. Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan advised President Wilson that "ships carrying contraband should be prohibited from carrying passengers ... [I]t would be like putting women and children in front of an army." Bryan later resigned because he felt the Wilson administration was being biased in ignoring British contraventions of international law, and that Wilson was leading the U.S. into the war.
A German decision on 9 September 1915 stated that attacks were only allowed on ships that were definitely British, while neutral ships were to be treated under the Prize Law rules, and no attacks on passenger liners were to be permitted at all.
It was in the interests of the British to keep U.S. passions inflamed, and a fabricated story was circulated that in some regions of Germany, schoolchildren were given a holiday to celebrate the sinking of Lusitania. This story was so effective that James W. Gerard, the U.S. ambassador to Germany, recounted it in his memoir of his time in Germany, Face to Face with Kaiserism (1918), though without substantiating its validity.
The wreck of Lusitania lies on its starboard side at an approximately 30-degree angle in roughly 300 feet (91 m) of water, 11 miles (18 km) south of the lighthouse at Kinsale. The wreck is badly collapsed onto her starboard side, due to the force with which she struck the bottom coupled with the forces of winter tides and corrosion in the decades since the sinking. The keel has an "unusual curvature" which may be related to a lack of strength from the loss of its superstructure. The beam is reduced with the funnels missing presumably to deterioration. The bow is the most prominent portion of the wreck with the stern damaged by depth charges. Three of the four propellers were removed by Oceaneering International in 1982. Expeditions to Lusitania have shown that the ship has deteriorated much faster than Titanic has, being in a depth of 305 feet (93 m) of water. When contrasted with her contemporary, Titanic (resting at a depth of 12,000 feet (3,700 m)), Lusitania appears in a much more deteriorated state due to the presence of fishing nets lying on the wreckage, the blasting of the wreck with depth charges and multiple salvage operations. As a result, the wreck is unstable and may at some point completely collapse. Also in comparison with Titanic, the Lusitania had been a working active ship for seven years prone to constant use and salt water attack, so her hull wasn't brand new at her sinking as Titanic's had been.
The first attempt to revive the sinking of the Lusitania was made in 1918 by the release of the silent film The Sinking of the Lusitania. It wasn't a big success.