On the 7th of May 1915, as transatlantic passengers were eating their lunch, the Lusitania was hit by a German torpedo and sank with the loss of 1,201 lives. Three years earlier, when the Titanic hit an iceberg, the death toll of 1,513 was attributable to negligence, but the sinking of the Lusitania was a deliberate crime committed on the orders of U-boat captain Walther Schweiger. So why is it scarcely remembered today, while the Titanic has so firmly entered our cultural memory?
The torpedoing of the Lusitania was deeply shocking at the time. Although the passengers were predominantly British there were 159 Americans, of whom 128 perished, shaking the US stance of neutrality in the First World War to its foundations. Among the dead were 94 children, and survivors gave harrowing accounts of their angelic upturned faces as they floated lifeless in the water. At first, as with the Titanic, coverage focused on the fates of rich and famous: millionaire Alfred Vanderbilt, on his way to a meeting of a horse-breeding society; Charles Frohmann, the theatre impresario who brought Peter Pan to the stage; actresses Rita Jolivet and Josephine Brandell; fashion designer Carrie Hickson; aristocrat Lady Hugh Montagu Allan and her two daughters… And then news stories shifted to the tiny acts of heroism, the split-second decisions that had made the difference between life and death: the volunteering of a lifejacket, the rush down to a cabin to search for a lost child, all of them heart-rending and forcing readers to wonder “Would I have shown the same mettle?”
While the Titanic took two hours and forty minutes to sink after hitting the iceberg, passengers on the Lusitania had only eighteen minutes before the ship upended and slid beneath the surface. There was no time for a band to play, for ladies to collect their jewellery and furs and gents to fill their hip flasks, or for couples to argue about whether one should get into a lifeboat and leave the other behind. In the mad scramble only seven lifeboats were launched out of a total of twenty-two. The severe list of the ship made it virtually impossible to use the boats on the port side – but there was still hope for those who had failed to find a place. The water off the south coast of Ireland was 11°C, and those who were fit enough to cling to a piece of wreckage had a chance of surviving until the first rescue boats arrived some three and a half hours later. By contrast, it’s reckoned that no one lived more than twenty minutes in the –2°C north Atlantic waters where the Titanic sank.
Maybe there are dramatic reasons why so few films have been made about the Lusitania. The tension in Titanic movies comes from those 160 minutes when it gradually became clear the ship was doomed and rescue would not arrive in time, despite the valiant efforts of the radio operators signalling in the new Morse code. On the Lusitania, it was obvious from first impact that the ship was fatally damaged, but the Irish coast was so close everyone expected rescue to be imminent. The reason it took so long was because boats were understandably reluctant to venture out with a German U-boat on the prowl. In cinematic terms, survivors growing gradually weaker as they float around on disintegrating rafts or cling to beer crates does not make for dramatic viewing.
While the sinking of the Titanic dominated the news for over a year, the Lusitania was soon superceded by further wartime atrocities. Chlorine gas had been used to devastating effect at Ypres two weeks before, on 22nd April, and by late 1915 gas would be the most terror-inducing weapon of the war. The senseless slaughter of the battles of the Somme and Verdun, and the million-plus death tolls of each of the great offensives of 1918 would vastly overshadow the 1,201 killed on the Lusitania. Still, it was a huge factor in swinging American public opinion so that President Woodrow Wilson could finally persuade Congress in April 1917 that the US should fight alongside Britain and France. It can easily be argued that the Lusitania’s sinking left more of a mark on history than that of the Titanic.
The main reason why everyone has heard of the Titanic is the sheer hubris. It was the most luxurious ship that ever sailed, with every care lavished on fixtures and fittings, but there weren’t enough lifeboats. There was a suggestion that the captain may have been racing to arrive in New York in good time despite knowing there were icebergs in the area. And some (although not its builders) had suggested the ship was unsinkable – and yet it sank on its maiden voyage. Ships have sunk before and since, with greater loss of life, but none with such a poke at the sheer arrogance of mankind.
There’s hubris in the Lusitania story too: it’s suggested that the British government stowed arms on board then failed to tell the captain of U-boat activity in the area, gambling that her sinking would bring America into the war. Corroborating that version of events, divers have found over four million rounds of rifle and machine-gun ammunition in the wreck. I hope more of the truth will emerge around the centenary, as we commemorate 1,201 people who need not have died.
Gill Paul’s novella “We Sink or Swim Together”, based on the story of a real-life couple on the Lusitania, is available on Amazon. Her Titanic novel “Women and Children First” was published in 2012.