On May 1, 1915, the Royal Mail Ship Lusitania set sail from New York City bound for Liverpool. Though the massive four-stack ocean liner was a merchant and passenger vessel, among its cargo, according to the ship manifest, were munitions for the British forces in World War I. This would have been a secret to the civilian passengers aboard, but the German navy believed that civilian ships were carrying military supplies across the Atlantic.
The beginning of widespread submarine warfare began in the Great War. German U-boats initially complied with international rules protecting neutral ships, but soon fired upon any vessel suspected of transporting war materiel or troops. The Lusitania, in particular, put Germany in a difficult position. An attack on a ship carrying American civilians would almost certainly cause outrage, but Germany was becoming increasingly desperate to isolate Great Britain.
On the day RMS Lusitania set sail, the German Embassy issued a warning in American newspapers that any ship flying British colors, including civilian vessels, would be liable to attack in declared war zones. That did not dissuade over 1,000 passengers, including 197 Americans, from stepping on board.
On May 7, the Lusitania entered the Irish Sea as the German U-boat U-20 was heading to its home port after destroying several ships. What followed would change the course of the Great War.
That foggy morning, the Lusitania's captain, William Turner, slowed the ship's speed to 15 knots, against orders from the Admiralty. The U-20, under the command of Kapitänleutnant Walter Schwieger, had just unsuccessfully pursued the British war cruiser Juno, but at 1:20 p.m., the four-stacker came into the German captain's view. At 1:40 p.m., the Lusitania was in striking distance, and Schwieger fired a single torpedo that hit its starboard side. Another explosion aboard the British ship has led some to question whether Schwieger fired a second time, but different crew members' accounts and early reports suggest not.
Although Lusitania had enough lifeboats, many could not be launched in time. Some passengers successfully made it into the boats, while others, including Turner, jumped into the water. A lifeboat then picked up the captain.
In all, 1,198 people perished, including 128 Americans. While there had been previous attacks on neutral ships, including a few American vessels, the Lusitania disaster brought anti-German sentiment to a new high. President Woodrow Wilson threatened that Germany would face "strict accountability" if such attacks continued.
Fearing U.S. retaliation, Germany ordered its submarines to cease firing on neutral ships, but American hostility toward the Central Powers grew. In 1917, after Germany began a policy of unrestricted warfare and offered to help Mexico recapture its lost territories if it were to join in a war against the United States, Congress voted to declare war on the German Empire at Wilson's request.
Conspiracy theories surfaced - and linger still - about the sinking of the ocean liner. U-20 had been hunting British ships for a few days, and the Juno had just escaped its firing range. Why didn't naval authorities warn the Lusitania? We may initially blame the Royal Navy, but had the Juno gone to protect the passenger liner, Germany could have argued that the cruiser was protecting a vessel carrying troops and supplies. Furthermore, the Lusitania had slowed down against protocol and did not engage in the zigzag maneuvering advised in the War Zone (Turner later stated that he believed zigzagging would be a waste of time and that it was commonplace for merchant ships not to zigzag, especially in narrower bodies of water).
Some conspiracy theorists believe Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty at the time, wanted the Lusitania sunk to bring the United States into the war. That's doubtful. Churchill was in France at the time, not the place to supervise such a plot, and the Lusitania's reputation as a fast ship made its sinking seem unlikely.
The ship lies on its starboard side roughly 300 feet below the surface. When the liner initially sank, its stern stood above the water. Compared to the Titanic, the hull is in poor condition now as a result of strong winter tides as well as depth charging in the area during World War II. Although the British maintained that the Lusitania was not carrying weapons, a 2008 diving expedition discovered bullets, suggesting otherwise. While some may think of the sinking as a war crime, Germany was acting on suspicions that proved true.