On May 7, 1915, the British passenger liner RMS Lusitania was torpedoed and sunk by a German submarine off the coast of Ireland, killing 1,198 passengers and crew and sparking outrage on both sides of the Atlantic.
When the Lusitania set out on its final voyage on May 1, World War I had been raging for almost a year (though America was still neutral), and Germany had begun unrestricted submarine warfare around the British Isles. Still, despite a warning placed in newspapers by the German embassy that anyone traveling on a British or Allied ship did so at their own risk, many felt that the Germans would never sink a ship with so many civilians and that the Lusitania was much too fast for a submarine to catch anyway. So the Lusitania left New York, headed toward Liverpool, with about 2,000 passengers and crew—and munitions intended for the British war effort—on board.
The Lusitania’s crossing was uneventful, though as the ship neared Britain it received a few general warnings about German submarines operating nearby. Then, at 2:10 p.m. on the 7th, only 11 miles off the coast of Ireland, the ship was struck by a torpedo fired by a German submarine, U-20. The torpedo hit amidships on the starboard side and was quickly followed by a secondary explosion (the cause of which remains a mystery today, though there are many theories). As water rushed into the lower portion of the Lusitania, the ship began to list severely.
Though there were enough lifeboats and lifejackets for everyone, the ship sank far too rapidly (in just 18 minutes) for most people to make use of them. Only 6 of the 48 lifeboats were successfully launched; everyone else was trapped in the ship or forced to fend for themselves in the frigid water. Rescue boats took about 2 hours to reach the survivors. Despite the rescuers’ best efforts, only about 760 people were saved—a little over a third of the number of those originally on board.
The sinking of the Lusitania caused international outrage toward Germany, especially in America, which had lost 128 of the 159 of its citizens on board. Though the sinking of the Lusitania didn’t directly cause America to enter the war (it wouldn’t enter for another two years), it did turn public opinion against Germany, and when America finally entered the war, Germany’s submarine attacks were a leading reason.
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