War

Austria-Hungary’s invasion of Serbia on 28 July 1914 triggered the First World War.  Lusitania left New York for the return leg of her 92nd voyage the day the United Kingdom declared war on Germany, on 4 August 1914.  For fear of Lusitania’s safety, she was painted in a grey color scheme to disguise her identity and make her difficult to spot in the stormy, grey North Atlantic.

The British Government’s agreement with Cunard and John Brown and Company to subsidize the construction of Lusitania and Mauretania had been that in the event of war, the British Admiralty would be able to requisition the ships for use as armed merchant cruisers (AMCs).  Their speeds would be an advantage for the British Royal Navy as warships.  As such the sisters were on the official list of AMCs and were listed in the 1914 edition of Jane’s All the World’s Fighting Ships.

At the same time, Lusitania and Mauretania consumed enormous amounts of coal to maintain their high speeds.  They would each need 910 tons of coal a day, or 37.6 tons of coal and hour to operate.  With such high operating costs when fuel needed to be used and allocated carefully, the Admiralty decided against requisitioning Lusitania and Mauretania.  Instead, Lusitania would remain in commercial service.  Mauretania and Aquitania would be laid up in Liverpool until further notice.  After Lusitania’s sinking, they would serve in alternating roles of troopships and hospital ships throughout the war.

The success of the British Royal Navy in keeping the German Navy away from the sea lanes early in the Great War meant that the threat against passenger shipping became less of a concern.  Regular business resumed.  Demand for travel during wartime had dropped in the fall and winter of 1914. Bookings were not as many as in peacetime, but there were still enough to warrant keeping Lusitania in service.

Cunard took other economizing measures in Lusitania’s operations for the war effort.  To conserve coal and make do with reduced manpower who were now either serving their country or dodging the draft by sailing one-way to the neutral United States, Lusitania’s Boiler Room No. 4 would be shut down.  Operating speed would be reduced from an average of over 25 knots to 21 knots.  Despite such cuts, Lusitania remained the fastest passenger ship in service on the Atlantic.

With business as usual, Lusitania returned to her civilian colors with orange-red funnels, white superstructure, and shiny brass letters for her name.  A gold-colored band was added to delineate the superstructure from the hull.

Germany, with her access to the open ocean blocked by the British Royal Navy, experimented with a new weapon, the submarine.  In German, a submarine is called an Unterseeboot, giving rise to the term U-boat.  At first, the British did not take seriously the capabilities of the submarine, but in a space of two hours on the morning of 22 September 1914, the German submarine U-9 sank three British warships, the Aboukir, Hogue, and Cressy. The attack killed 1,459 and established the submarine as a serious threat.

The U-boats began attacking merchant ships as well, but in accordance with the cruiser laws where the attacking ship would fire a warning shot against the bow of an enemy ship.  The enemy ship would stop, the crew of the attacking ship would inspect the ship for contraband and let all of its passengers and crew evacuate.  Once fully evacuated, the attacking ship would then, and only then, sink the enemy ship.

Under these conditions, on 4 February 1915, Germany declared the seas around the British Isles a war zone.

Lusitania was at sea when Germany declared her war zone.  She had departed New York on 30 January, with US President Woodrow Wilson’s adviser, Colonel Edward Mandell House, aboard.  Wilson had sent Colonel House on a secret mission to investigate the prospects of an American-brokered peace before the casualties in the Great War became too high.

The crossing had been rough, and as Lusitania approached Ireland, Captain Daniel Dow raised the American flag, causing much excitement aboard.  Of course, even if Captain Dow had been doing so under the Admiralty orders of flying neutral flags, Lusitania was far too famous and the United States did not have any four-funneled ships of her own to provide Lusitania with an adequate disguise.

The previous night, Captain Dow had been greatly alarmed at the prospect of being torpedoed, thus running the American flag the next day.  Captain Dow had also devised a plan for saving all the passengers and launching of the lifeboats, for as long as the ship was not torpedoed in the boiler rooms, Captain Dow expected the ship to be able to stay afloat for at least an hour, enabling a complete evacuation of Lusitania.

The press descended upon Colonel House when Lusitania reached Liverpool, asking about the reasoning and international implications of the incident.  House himself had not been present when Captain Dow made the decision to fly the Stars and Stripes and made no comment on the affair.  However, he did say that he saw international fallout arising from the incident, which happened.

Germany was furious, insisting that British ships flying neutral flags was illegal.  President Wilson sent a formal letter of protest to London on 10 February 1915 stating that British ships flying neutral flags would place neutral nationals in danger without protecting British ships.  Britain’s response was that Lusitania’s American passengers had insisted the flying of the Stars and Stripes to indicate that neutral Americans were on board, as one passenger even offered to buy Lusitania to make her officially American to prevent attack.  Of the whole episode, an American journalist commented that Britannia not only ruled the waves but also “waived the rules.”

A week after Germany’s war zone declaration, Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, advised that British ships fly neutral flags to confuse the Germans.  The hope was that either German submarines would not fire upon British ships with neutral flags, or that German submarines would sink a neutral ship by accident and bring another neutral country onto the side of the Allies.  On 12 February 1915, Winston Churchill wrote this memo to Walter Runciman, the president of Britain’s Board of Trade:

It is most important to attract neutral shipping to our shores in the hope especially of embroiling the United States with Germany . . . . For our part we want the traffic — the more the better; and if some of it gets into trouble, better still.

Churchill issued further orders that large ships should not stop for U-boats but should instead ram them and sink them, although the word “ram” itself was carefully avoided.  The crews of any British ships that stopped for U-boats in compliance with the cruiser rules would be court-martialed.  The Germans discovered this unpleasant development by 15 February.  Germany announced that after 18 February, Allied ships in the war zone could be sunk without warning.  At the same time, Germany wanted to ensure not to sink any neutral ships.  On 25 February, Churchill also ordered merchant ships to arm themselves to attack U-boats should the U-boats try to intercept them, even if the U-boat had not fired a gun or launched a torpedo.  The war continued to escalate to the point that the torpedoing of a passenger ship with neutrals on board was becoming unavoidable.

Despite being a passenger ship, Lusitania was a target desirable to the Germans.  In early March 1915, U-27 was lying in wait for Lusitania on the approach to Liverpool.  U-27’s commander, Kaptainleutnant Bernhard Wegener, had been tempted to fire on other ships that he saw pass by.  He did not for fear of scaring off Lusitania, the biggest prize of all.  Wegener had believed that Lusitania would arrive in Liverpool on 4 March and waited until 5 March before giving up and returning home.

Lusitania actually arrived in Liverpool on 6 March.  On the way to Liverpool, The Admiralty issued her specific instructions on how to avoid submarines. Despite a severe shortage of destroyers, Admiral Henry Oliver ordered HMS Louis and HMS Laverock to escort Lusitania, and took the further precaution of sending the Q ship Lyons to patrol Liverpool Bay.

On 10 a.m. Friday, 5 March, the commander of the HMS Louis telephoned Cunard in attempt to discover the whereabouts of Lusitania in order to escort the ship.  Suspicious, Cunard refused to give out any information and referred the caller to the Admiralty.  The officer called again several hours later, and once more Cunard referred him to the Admiralty.

On Friday night, the escort ships contacted Lusitania by radio, but did not have the codes used to communicate with merchant ships and thus asked for Lusitania’s position en clair. Captain Dow, astonished by such a request, refused to give Lusitania’s position except in code.  When Dow discovered that Lusitania was far from the positions Louis and Laverock gave, he decided to take Lusitania to Liverpool unescorted despite this pleading message:

You are quite right not to signal your position ‘en clair’ but try and give me some hint so as to save wasting your escort’s time and fuel.

No one had bothered to inform Cunard ahead of time that Lusitania was to be escorted; the escorts did not have the MV code, and did not even know when Lusitania was to be expected.  The senior officer in charge of the fiasco lamented, “I did everything I could think of to find the Lusitania.  But I regret that I did not think of communicating with the Senior Naval Officer at Liverpool.”

The Admiralty inquiry found that the attempts to get the Lusitania to reveal her position as “extraordinary” and could have placed the great ship in great danger had any submarines intercepted their exchanges.  The Admiralty decided that no further action should be taken.

The following April, Captain Dow took sick leave, probably induced from the stress caused by running Lusitania through the war zone.  Captain William Thomas Turner took Dow’s place.  Turner had commanded Lusitania, Mauretania, and Aquitania before the war.  Under Turner’s command, Lusitania left Liverpool on her 201st and last westbound crossing on 17 April, arriving in New York on 24 April.  New orders for Lusitania were not to fly any flags in the war zone and warnings on how to protect the ship.  Her funnels were changed from the distinctive Cunard red-orange to black and superstructure painted grey to make her less visible to the enemy, although her profile was so famous that there was no possibility of disguising her as a neutral ship.

In New York, German Americans hoping to avoid controversy in case Lusitania were to be attacked, went to the German Embassy to express their concerns.  The embassy decided to warn passengers not to sail on Lusitania and placed a warning in 50 newspapers across the United States before Lusitania’s return trip to Liverpool on 1 May.

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