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The Sinking of the Lusitania


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When Captain Schweiger, of the U-Boat 20, torpedoed the Lusitania, he also torpedoed Germany's chance of keeping America out of the Great War.

Previously she had been a neutral; now, after this outrage, she became, so far as the greater number of citizens was concerned, a red-hot partisan, held in check only by a lukewarm President.

When the Lusitania sank she destroyed, then or later, 1,198 human beings - and of these 139 were American citizens.

Just as the Battle of the Marne was the turning point in the German advance on the Western Front - when the field-grey legions were stopped and held - so the sinking of the Lusitania marked the beginning of a reaction in international sentiment which shortened the war by months, if not years. Those 1,198 did not die in vain. True, it required almost two years to transform American opinion into American action, but the seed had been sown. The thrill of horror which went round the world meant the beginning of the end of American neutrality.

Why was the loss of life so great? Here are the reasons. When the Titanic ripped up her hull on an iceberg she remained afloat two and a half hours. Shortage of boats was her tragedy.

In the case of the Lusitania there were plenty of boats, but most of them could not be launched because of the list of the ship, and because, with her engines out of commission, she could not be stopped. The Titanic had taught her, with others, the lesson of the boats, but no one could foresee that they would be unable to be used. It could not be foreseen that the vessel would sink in little more than eighteen minutes. Nobody was to blame - except the submarine that made war on innocent women and children. Here are the percentages of the saved. They make dismal reading. Crew, 41.17 per cent. Female passengers, 38.6 per cent. Male passengers, 38.8 per cent. Children, 27.1 per cent.

The Cunarder Lusitania was launched at Clydebank in 1906. She was 785 feet long - as compared with the 1,020 feet of the Qrieen Mary - and had a displacement of 40,000 tons, about half that of the Queen Mary. At her best speed she had achieved 25.4 knots, but during the war, for purposes of economy, her boiler capacity was reduced, and her speed was about 21 knots. She was a popular ship; the last word in luxury, according to the standards of those days.

This, then, was the vessel that on the fateful May 7, 1915, was steaming to her home port. She was within a few hours' steaming of Liverpool, and clearly visible, eight miles away, was the Old Head of Kinsale, familiar bluff landmark to Atlantic travellers, some twenty-five miles south-west of Queenstown Harbour.

The sea was beautifully calm, the sun shone brightly after a morning of fog, and the passengers were congratulating themselves upon a pleasant trip and enjoying the thoughts of landing in England.

It was just after two o'clock in the afternoon. Luncheon was still being served, mess stewards went about their business busily; after-luncheon cigarettes were being lighted, when, without warning, came death.

Within twenty minutes the huge liner had disappeared beneath the sea; nearly twelve hundred of her passengers and crew were dead or doomed and seven hundred others were huddled in boats or clinging despairingly to floating wreckage.

Picture the scene! Both torpedoes entered the forward stokehold - it was marvellous shooting, for it did the greatest damage by crippling the motive power. The engines were paralysed; a vital wound. The main steam pipe was fractured. When the torpedo struck, volumes of water and pieces of torn wood rose high into the air.

Captain William Thomas Turner, the Commander of the Aquitania - newest and greatest of the Cunard fleet - was in charge of the ship. He was relieving Captain Dow, her regular commander, who was on rest leave.

Before the crash - warned by a look-out man who saw the torpedo, the captain had ordered the water-tight doors to be closed. Then, when the ship shivered under the explosion, he rang to the engine-room - "Stop... Full Speed Astern."

But from the engine-room there was no response. They could not respond - the engines, the heart and lungs of the ship, were useless.

There was nothing to be done. Forty thousand tons of steel hurtling through the water at over twenty miles an hour cannot be arrested except by its own propellers, and if they are out of action the ship must go on.

So the Lusitania went on. It went on for ten minutes, and during that time the launching of boats was almost impossible. They would have been swept away or crushed against the ship's side like eggshells.

The "S.O.S." went out. And from the land the tragedy had been seen. The assistant keeper at the lighthouse on the Old Head saw the liner sink. The report of the explosion had been heard, and then watchers saw the ship gradually come to a standstill. Gradually her bow sank, and she laid over almost on the water. For nearly a quarter of an hour she remained in this position... and then she disappeared.

The only craft visible at the time from the land were seven small sailing vessels.

Telephone messages were sent to Kinsale, and also to Queenstown. From both these places vessels raced to the rescue. To the people in the water, held up by lifebelts or supported by wreckage, it seemed hours before they arrived. Actually, they made good speed.

When they arrived at the spot they found boats loaded with people, and wreckage in abundance. The explosion of the torpedoes had thrown debris into the water - hatches, collapsible rafts, and the like, and to all of them survivors were clinging. Some of them were more dead than alive; the shock of the immersion had robbed many of the victims of the power to struggle, and they floated there - dead - in their lifebelts.

One by one they were picked up - the living and the dead - and taken to the land. The land many of them had never thought to see again.

Captain Turner, a sailor of the old school, went down with the ship. But he lived. He was thrown clear, and was in the water for nearly three hours, clinging to wreckage, before he was picked up by a trawler.

One of his last acts on the sinking vessel was an unselfish one; typical of the sea and its traditions. Just before the end he turned to the man at the wheel and said: "You can go now, and try and save yourself. You have no further business here. Good-bye."

To Leslie N. Morten, a youth of eighteen, who was a member of the crew, must go credit for heroic work - conduct that, later, at the inquiry, brought forth glowing praise from Lord Mersey. As one of the look-out men he was the first to observe the first of the two torpedoes, and before they had touched the ship he had reported them to the bridge by megaphone.

When the shock came he was knocked off his feet, but at once got up and went to help in filling and lowering the boats. Then, having done all he could he, as he modestly expressed it, "had to swim for it."

In the water he managed to get hold of a floating collapsible lifeboat, and, with the help of another member of the crew, a man named Parry, he ripped off the canvas cover, boarded it, and succeeded in drawing into it some sixty of the passengers fighting for life in the water. He and Parry rowed the boat to a fishing smack and put the rescued passengers on board.

For most lads that would have been enough, but not for these. They rowed back and succeeded in rescuing thirty more people.

What must have been the sensations of those folk - clinging to spars or supported by lifebelts - when they saw the boat coming back for them! Renewed hope when hope had almost gone.

It was no exaggeration on the part of Lord Mersey to say, as he did, that Morten had acted with "great courage, self-possession, and resource."

The stewards, and especially the stewardesses, acted - according to survivors - with great courage and sympathy. One of the latter - unfortunately her name has not been recorded - walked about the top deck as the end approached speaking words of comfort to the women passengers awaiting their turn to get into boats. She was not saved.

In dealing with a disaster of this magnitude it is necessary to inquire deeply - and then to sort the wheat from the chaff. There was a good deal of chaff. Statements were made, at the moment of landing from what had seemed certain death, which afterwards were denied or qualified.

The hysteria of the moment gave way to the reason of reflection. Several passengers, at first, said that the crew were dilatory in launching the boats. They alleged a lack of discipline. They said that some of the boats leaked. But at the subsequent inquiry all these suggestions were withdrawn or repudiated. In the words of the President of the Court, Lord Mersey: "I find the conduct of the masters, the officers and crew was satisfactory. They did their best... and their best was good."

One or two of the passengers said that after some of the boats had been loaded they were not lowered to the water because of some orders which sailors said they had received from "the bridge" to evacuate the boats.

Whoever gave that order - if such order were given, and it is extremely unlikely - it was not Captain Turner. He told Lord Mersey and his Court that after he had given the order: "All women and children to the boats," he did not vary it.

A misunderstanding, somewhere, possibly; but one that may easily be imagined.

At all events, Captain Turner did not mince matters when speaking about his crew. He was asked if they were competent, and he replied: "They are just the same as they all are, as ships' crews go now." "Do you maintain they are not competent?" he was asked. "They are competent enough, but they do not get practice. They do not get experience."

Later the Captain said that the crew was not composed of the old-fashioned type of sailor he had carried in his youth. Then he was asked: "Was it within your knowledge that passengers were helping so far as they could?" and that called forth the bluff answer: "Interfering, I should say." But, it must be remembered, this was the position - a very terrible one for any man in charge of a ship with passengers.

The torpedoes had made huge rents in the hull - one might have driven a wheelbarrow through one without stooping - and the ship had taken a heavy list to starboard. Through the rents the water was pouring. Though the water-tight doors were closed it was obviously only a question of time. The list grew greater. Presently it became impossible to launch boats from the port side - they swung inboard as soon as they were released from the davits.

The ship could not be stopped. There were no engines to stop it. At the speed she was going - at 18 knots - she travelled 10 yards a second.

That was the situation.

On the previous Saturday an advertisement appeared in a number of American newspapers. It was as follows:

"Travellers intending to embark for an Atlantic voyage are reminded that a stare of war exists between Germany and her Allies, and Great Britain and her Allies; that the zone of war includes the waters adjacent to the British Isles; that, in accordance with the formal notice given by the Imperial German Government, vessels flying the flags of Great Britain or any of her Allies are liable to destruction in those waters; and that travellers sailing- in the war zone in ships of Great Britain or her Allies do so at their own risk. "Imperial German Embassy, Washington, April 22."

At the same time many passengers who intended to sail received telegrams of warning, signed "John Smith," or "George Jones," (a curious combination, this latter). One was addressed to Mr. A. G. Vanderbilt, the millionaire sportsman of New York, and read:

"Have it on definite authority Lusitania is to be torpedoed.

You had better cancel passage immediately."

In addition telephone messages to the same effect were delivered by voices with a Teutonic accent.

The New York Press treated the warnings with scorn. The New York Times said:

"It is one thing to be a successful and dreaded law-breaker, and another thing to be compelled to call the world's attention by newspaper advertising to your ambition."

It is on record - and all honour to them - that no American citizens cancelled their passages. They sailed, 218 of them. Only 79 reached port.

Of those who were lost were many famous men; Mr. A. G. Vanderbilt, the millionaire sportsman, of New York; Mr. Charles Frohman, theatrical manager, who had won a great reputation on both sides of the Atlantic; Mr. Elbert Hubbard, the author; and Mr. Charles Klein, playwright, and part author of Potash and Perlmutter.

To all of these, and to America generally, had been issued a warning not to sail. It was disregarded.

To realise, adequately, the state of the world at this period it is necessary to take a brief survey of the conditions as they appeared.

On the Western Front the Allies were holding their own - and only just holding it - but every day brought new names to the casualty lists; Ypres was in being, with its blood and heroism, and on the Eastern Front we waited in vain for the coming of the "Russian Steam-Roller."

At home "Business as Usual" provided many people with an excuse - a perfectly legitimate one in some cases - for remaining in civilian clothes. It was the day of the Special Constable.

Kitchener - not yet by a year embarked upon his last, fatal mission to Russia - appealed for his millions. His piercing eyes stared from every hoarding; conscription was not yet - unlike Germany, where the war drums had automatically put a nation under arms.

Money was still plentiful, officers in uniform were sufficiently a novelty that they rode on public vehicles free of charge. The "no-treating" order was not yet, and while the war had not tightened the belt of any British subject it had begun to fill the purses of the munition maker, and the voice of the profiteer was heard in the land.

Britain had not realised the war - Germany had. In America prices were beginning to soar - export prices - and food came in ship after ship across the Atlantic to feed an England that could not feed herself. Not all of it arrived.

The Lusitania was sunk just after two o'clock in the afternoon. About 5.30 in the evening the evening newspapers announced the news. At first there were no details. Rumour had been busy ever since the warning advertisements had appeared in the United States, and it was hard to believe that this was anything but the logical sequel.

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