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10 Things You May Not Know About The Lusitania & Its Sinking

The Lusitania, 1907

This spring is the 100th anniversary of one of the most notorious maritime tragedies in history – but there is probably a lot you didn’t know about the sinking of the Lusitania.

As World War I was being fought in Europe, a German submarine U-boat sank the British ocean liner – the Lusitania.  Nearly 1,200 people died in the attack, while over 700 survived. Three Wisconsin natives were among the passengers. The one Wisconsin survivor was Charles Jeffery, an auto manufacturer from Kenosha.

"Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania" by Erik Larson

The sinking itself has been included in many history books. However, author Erik Larson’s latest book, Dead Wake, brings new attention to the ship and its story.

"I think the reason it hasn't had as much attention in the national consciousness as the Titanic is because it's always been dismissed as a dusty geo-political event, when in fact it was a human tragedy of the largest proportions," says Larson.

Lake Effect's Mitch Teich spoke with Erik Larson to discuss some of the surprising facts and stories surrounding the attack. Here are a few:

1. The attack on the Lusitania did not prompt a swift American involvement in WWI - it took two full years before the U.S. officially entered the fight.

2. Passenger liners made great efforts to make boats safer after the sinking of the Titanic. The Lusitania had more life boats and vests, but there was a shortage of experienced sailors to assist people to safety after the torpedoes hit. Many sailors were killed at first impact due to a shift change and their location on the ship. Although safety precautions were taken in the event of a sinking, no one could have predicted, or believed that a torpedo attack was a serious threat.

  • "The truth is that the Lusitania is the safest boat on the sea. She is too fast for any submarine. No German war vessel can get her or near her." - The Cunard line's official response, following a German warning to travelers on British ships.
Credit James Vaughan / Flickr
The sinking of the Lusitania prompted a flood of propaganda aiming to increase enlistment of able men in WWII.

4. The Lusitania is surrounded by diplomatic sagas and conspiracy theories related to the aftermath of the attack and the British government's response.

5. The attack prompted Americans to change their thinking concerning the war. Most were initially reluctant for the United States to get involved in the war, but changed their minds in the months following the attack. 128 Americans died in the sinking of the Lusitania. 

6. After the Lusitania, attacks against American ships and American flag ships continued.

7. The German U-boat was brand-new at the time, but quickly proved its superiority in the sea. German citizens were initially against U-boat involvement, fearing that naval attacks would spark American involvement that would be disastrous for the war. German officials believed the war would be done in 5 months before America could get involved once U-boats were sent to the sea.

8. Walther Schwieger, the U-20 boat captain that sunk the ship and killed 1,200 people, was described as a man who "couldn't hurt a fly" by his fellow commander.

9. British intelligence agents were aware of the U-20's position and the expertise of its crew, thanks to  intercepted German naval wire communications. However, no information was communicated to the captain of the Lusitania.  That has led to a decades-old debate over whether the tragedy was the result of a mistake or conspiracy? Evidence cannot definitively prove either theory.

  • The British Admiralty, and even Winston Churchill himself, later placed the blame of the attack and sinking on the Lusitania captain. This adds fuel to conspiracy theories claiming the government used to captain to protect their own secrets.

10. It was standard policy to not rescue victims of a submarine attack, following the Lusitania, in order to protect all British ships at sea. The British Navy feared that getting too close to a sunken ship would put the rescue boat at risk of a torpedo attack.
Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania has been out for just a few days, but already tops numerous non-fiction bestseller lists. Erik Larson’s previous books include Devil in the White City and In the Garden of Beasts.  Larson is in Milwaukee tonight for an appearance at Boswell Book Company and tomorrow at the Wauwatosa Library Foundation.  Both events are sold-out, but there is limited standing room available for the Boswell event.

Audrey Nowakowski hosts and produces Lake Effect. She joined WUWM in 2014.