The Secrets of the Lusitania
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hopefully salvage the liner, sunk off the south-west coast of Ireland on May
7, 1915, killing 1,198 people.
"The Lusitania is probably the most important shipwreck that hasn't been
investigated in any detail so far," says Gregg Bemis. And although there are
striking similarities between the Lusitania and the Titanic, recently the
subject of a major movie, Bemis believes that the Lusitania is "a much more
interesting and historical story - and you don't have to make up any phoney
romance the way they did with the Titanic."
It is a story which involves US President Woodrow Wilson, Winston Churchill
and the still unanswered question of what the liner was carrying on board.
The Lusitania, pride of the Cunard line, was sailing from New York for the
port of Liverpool when a single torpedo from a German U-boat crashed into her
hull between the third and fourth funnels.
The ship sank in just under 20 minutes. Of those killed, 128 were American
citizens, and the incident influenced the eventual US decision to enter the
war two years later. It also provoked curiosity and mystery that naval
historians have argued over ever since. Was the Lusitania, as the Germans
claimed persistently, heavily loaded with
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weapons of war? If she was, who tipped Germany off? In addition, did she
carry priceless works of art in watertight containers, and what of the six
million dollars in gold bullion rumored to have been taken aboard but which
was not on the manifest? Following the
discharge of the fatal torpedo, there was a second blast deep inside the ship
a few minutes later - could this have been a secret cargo of explosives? What
is certain is that since the fatal day of May 7, 1915, the wreck of the
Lusitania has lain untouched 100 meters deep off the Old Head of Kinsale, a
prominent peninsula on Ireland's southern coast.
Gregg Bemis is in no doubt that she was carrying weaponry. "She went down in
18 minutes," he says. "That would have been impossible with one torpedo for a
ship that size. There were high explosives on board, all right." Bemis also
points out that one of those who perished was Sir Hugh Lane, Irish art
collector and head of London's National Gallery. He was believed to have had
a stack of paintings by Rubens, Titian and Monet on board in watertight
containers and worth a fortune.
If indeed the Lusitania had been carrying arms, passengers embarking at New
York would have been blissfully unaware of it. They had been far more
occupied taking in the ship's luxury appointments, handsome state rooms with
soaring Doric columns, shimmering chandelier, damask and inlaid mahogany
furnishings. There had been lifts, a nursery, diet kitchens for babies, a
fully staffed hospital, kennels, telephones and special rooms for maids and
Above all, with her double-bottom and watertight compartments, the Lusitania
was reckoned to be one of the safest ships afloat, and with her revolutionary
steam turbines, one of the fastest. But aside from all the splendour and
comfort, there was one
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factor that could not be forgotten - a grim warning contained in an
advertisement placed in New York's newspapers on May 1:
"Travellers intending to embark for an Atlantic voyage are reminded that a
state of war exists between Germany and her allies and Great Britain and her
allies... vessels flying the flag of Great Britain or any of her allies are
liable to destruction."
The signatory was the Imperial German Embassy in Washington.
The Cunard authorities took the threat seriously enough to question each
passenger and closely examine their credentials. Anonymous telegrams were
received by scores of passengers, warning them of the ship's imminent
destruction and urging them to disembark. Most of the passengers ignored any
threat. One of the most celebrated of them, the multi-millionaire Alfred G
"Why should we be afraid of German submarines? We can out-distance any
Amid the gaiety of waved straw hats and tossed confetti, the tunes It's a
Long Way to Tipperary and The Star-spangled Banner had accompanied the
departure from the New York pier. It was in sharp contrast to the muted
departure during the early hours of April 30 from the dock in Germany's
Emden, of the U-20, which had already sunk three merchant ships in the
English Channel under the command of Kapitanleutnant Walther Schwieger. A
week later off the Irish coast, the submariner stood straining to catch the
outline of a perfect landmark for a sure bearing; the Old Head of Kinsale,
rising 256 feet
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out of the water.Shortly before 2pm, his binoculars picked out a rapidly
materializing speck in the west.
Aboard the Lusitania, passengers were either unconcernedly finishing their
lunch, taking a turn on the deck or finishing their packing in anticipation
of arrival in Liverpool for breakfast.
Aboard the U-20, Schwieger, who was later to log that he did not recognize
the identity of the Lusitania until he saw the gold letters on her bow, heard
the torpedo officer report: "Torpedoes ready for firing." The Lusitania was
right on target and her Captain, William Thomas Turner, felt the vessel reel
as the torpedo struck the thick steel sides to starboard and the Marconi
operator began tapping out: "Come at once, big list, 10 miles south old Head
It seemed no time at all before the ship's bow was buried beneath the water
and those who had survived were clinging desperately to the stern.
The screams of those who had not made it to the lifeboats were silenced
virtually by crashes within cargo spaces and engine rooms.The rescue
operation was carried out by a variety of vessels, including a Greek coaster,
harbor ferries, trawlers and sundry tenders. Longboats with oarsmen rowed to
the rescue from small fishing villages beyond Kinsale.
Wesley Frost, the local American consul, later recalled:
"We saw the ghastly procession of the rescue ships as they landed the living
and the dead. Piles of corpses began to appear among the paint kegs and coil
or rope on the shadowy old wharves. Women caught at our sleeves and begged
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desperately for word of their husbands, and men moved ceaselessly from group
to group, seeking a lost bride, daughter or sister."
Elizabeth Duckworth from Taftville, Connecticut, remembered:
"The sea was filled with bodies. To see women and children was bad enough.
But there were small children, even infants."
At the final count, of the 1,959 who had sailed aboard the Lusitania, 1,198
perished, including 785 passengers. There was mass mourning throughout
Ireland on Monday, May 10, the first group of more than 100 dead, borne on
wagons because not enough hearses could be gathered, were laid to rest in
common graves in the city of Queenstown.
On both sides of the Atlantic, grief was not slow to turn to cold anger. In
Victoria, British Columbia, mobs swooped on the German Club, smashing windows
and dragging furniture into the street where it was hacked to pieces. In
Britain, anti-German feeling produced destruction in Liverpool, while in
London Germans who were members of the Order of the Garter were struck off
the roll and their banners removed from Windsor Castle.
Although the German Kaiser, Wilhelm II, was said later to have regarded the
sinking of the Lusitania as "a mistake", the German press showed no regrets
In Munich, a commemoration medal was stuck, one side showing passengers at a
Cunard office buying tickets from a death's head, under the slogan "Business
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The reverse showed the Lusitania sinking, its desk crammed with a variety of
weapons. The torpedoing was hailed by the Frankfurter Zeitung newspaper as
"an extraordinary success".
Revenge, though, Americans didn't take up, waiting until Germany's
announcement of a policy of unrestricted submarine warfare. Four months after
April 2, 1917, President Wilson went before a Senate to request a
declaration of war with Germany. And the Lusitania? For 83 years, she has
lain, her secrets concealed, on the bed of the ocean. The ambitious plans of
Gregg Bemis to explore and salvage the wreck could well change all that.
"Everything that was possible to do was done by the crew to reach the
wreck in time to save life but as we had no wind it took us a long time to
pull the ten or twelve miles out from the boathouse which we had to go. If we
had wind or any motor power our boat would have been amongst the first on the
scene. It was a harrowing sight to witness, the sea was strewn with dead
bodies floating about, some with lifebelts on, others holding on to pieces of
rafts, all dead. I deeply regret it was not in our power to have been in time
to save some."
So wrote Rev. Forde in an official report to the Royal National Lifeboat
Institution following the sinking of the Lusitania.
She was the pride of the Cunard fleet, a ship of immense proportions and
capable of great speed. Carrying 1,959 passengers she left New York on May
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bound for Liverpool. They were dangerous times and these were dangerous
waters, where U-Boats were active. And where she did not survive.