On May 7, 1915, 1,198 people perished in the sinking of the British ocean liner Lusitania, in a totally preventable act of war.
The events described in this post are relevant to a central thesis of Capitalism: The Liberal Revolution, the book portion of the website of which a blog, and this Post, are a part. The thesis is that in pursuing political goals, politicians are capable of great evil. That was true of one of the justifiably most admired politicians of the 20th century—Winston Churchill.
As First Lord of the Admiralty Churchill was the head of the British navy in 1915 when the famous British ocean liner RMS Lusitania was sunk by a German submarine as the ship was on approach to its home port on the last day of a voyage from New York City.
A thorough appraisal of evidence brought to light in a recent book 1 indicates that Churchill was instrumental in causing the sinking of the Lusitania, a disaster that cost the lives not only of British subjects, but also of people from many nations. Churchill knew that if the Lusitania were sunk innocent lives would be lost. Yet it now appears incontestable that he endeavored to bring about the sinking.
This Post is not intended to detract from Churchill’s well-earned reputation, although the events recounted here show Churchill in a shameful role. Nevertheless, Winston Churchill is without a doubt one of the heroes of the decade leading up to World War II and of the war itself.
- Churchill recognized the threat from Adolf Hitler and Nazism as early as 1930 – three years before Hitler came to power.
- In a famous speech to Parliament in November 1934, Churchill described Germany as a powerful, resourceful, and productive country that had come under the rule of people whom Churchill described as a fearsome threat to the safety and liberty of Britain and peace loving peoples everywhere.
- The British Parliament and people disregarded Churchill’s warnings, due to reluctance to risk a repetition of the terrible military casualties Britain’s armed forces suffered in World War I.
- In May 1940, spurred by Nazi Germany’s rout of the French and British armies in France, the British called upon Churchill to head the government as Prime Minister.
- Throughout World War II, Churchill by words and actions encouraged the British people to continue resistance to Nazi German aggression.
- Churchill foresaw the Cold War that followed the triumph of Britain and its ally the United States in World War II. In 1946 Churchill warned the world of the tyranny that the erstwhile ally, communist Russia, was imposing on Eastern Europe.
In the decade before the outbreak of World War I in Europe in August 1914, the British steam ship RMS Lusitania was among the largest and fastest ships operating on the busy north Atlantic route between New York City and England. 2
By early 1915 the submarine fleet of the German navy was active in trying to sink ships bringing vital necessities and war materials to Britain, a nation that imported much of what it needed for normal life, as well as for war.
On May 7, 1915, the Lusitania was sunk by a torpedo launched by a German submarine. The Lusitania carried 1, 962 people, including 1,266 passengers and a crew of 696. The passengers included 949 British citizens and 189 Americans. 1,198 people perished by drowning and other incidents of the sinking of the Lusitania. 3 Among the dead were 123 Americans.
At the time of the sinking Britain had been at war with Imperial Germany for eight months. The United States was neutral, in accordance with the desire of the American people to avoid entanglement in European wars and long standing policy of the United States to avoid participating in the wars that plagued Europe.
This account is based on the book Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania (2015) by Erik Larson. Dead Wake is a work of history. The author states that “. . . this is a work of nonfiction. Anything [in this book] between quotation marks comes from a memoir, letter, telegram, or other historical document.” 4
Despite the known danger of German submarine activity in the sea where the Lusitania was attacked by a German submarine, the British navy made no effort to protect the ship.
According to author Erik Larson, “The absence of any protective measures may simply have been the result of a lapse of attention . . . It would take on a more sinister cast, however, in light of a letter that Churchill had sent earlier in the year to the head of England’s Board of Trade, Walter Runciman, in which Churchill wrote that it was ‘most important to attract neutral shipping to our shores, in the hopes especially of embroiling the United States with Germany.’
“After noting that Germany’s submarine campaign had sharply reduced traffic from America, Churchill told Runciman: ‘For our part, we want the traffic—the more the better; and if some of it gets into trouble, better still.” 5 [Emphasis added]
The sinking occurred off the south coast of Ireland, as the Lusitania sailed for its home port of Liverpool, England, on the seventh and last day of a voyage that began in New York City on May 1, 1915.
High officials of the British Admiralty knew that German submarines were active off the coast of southern Ireland, on the lookout to sink ships of all kinds bound to and from England. The Admiralty knew the identity and location of the submarine that sunk the Lusitania—Unterseeboot U-20—because the Admiralty had the capability of deciphering coded messages between German submarines and their home base in Germany.
The movements of U-20 were being closely tracked by the Admiralty for several days before U-20 sank the Lusitania.
The relevance of the sinking of the Lusitania to the book and website of which this blog post is a part is to serve as an example of deliberate misconduct by public officials that endangers the very people they are supposed to protect. Rather than being an isolated case, the betrayal of the Lusitania exemplifies the willingness of some in political and military power to sacrifice people in pursuit of a military or political goal, or to fail to take action to protect lives they could and should protect. Several prominent examples appear in the book of which this blog is a part in the chapter entitled “National Defense.” The most striking examples include the following.
- The twenty year course of conduct of the dictators of Russia from 1921 to 1941 that actually helped Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany re-arm and rebuild its military in violation of the Treaty of Versailles, despite the fact that Russia had suffered two million military and civilian fatalities in its war with Germany during World War I, and despite the known and obvious risk that eventually Nazi Germany would again attack Russia.
- The failure of the French government and army to take action to protect the people of France in 1936 when appropriate action at the time, without the need to fire a single shot, would have prevented the later outbreak of WW II in Europe and the conquest of France by Germany. 6
- The deliberate acts of the President of the United States and his military chieftains in 1941 to sacrifice over 33,000 members of the United States military to death or capture and imprisonment by the armed forces of Imperial Japan, in order to overcome the reluctance of the American people to enter the war between England and Nazi Germany then raging Europe
These are extremely serious and damning charges. They are incontestably true in the light of the facts corroborating these charges that appear in chapter 25 of the book of which this blog and website are a part. 7
The plot to bring the Lusitania into harm’s way was a dreadful political act—cold-blooded planning to sacrifice the lives of passengers and crew of the ship in order to achieve a political outcome—embroiling the United States in war. This tragic event has a place in CTLR as a means of fostering understanding that political states usually fail in, and sometimes violate, their primary responsibility—protecting the citizens of the nations they rule.
On a beautiful spring day, May 7, 1915, in the ocean off the south coast of Ireland, a German submarine lay in wait for ships to sink. The submarine was Unterseeboot-20 8, or U-20. It was under the command of 32-year old Captain Walther Schwieger, who was notorious for the ruthless sinking of ships. The British navy knew the identity of U-20 and of its captain, due to ability to decode wireless messages to and from German submarines and thereby to keep track of their location. The German navy was unaware the British were able to do this.
The sinking of the Lusitania was entirely predictable. Germany had earlier announced that the state of war with Britain would justify the German navy in sinking any ships bound to or from England. Author Larson notes that “On the morning of the ship’s departure from New York, a notice had appeared on the shipping pages of New York’s newspapers. Placed by the German Embassy in Washington, it reminded readers of the existence of the war zone [in the seas around Britain] and it cautioned that ‘vessels flying the flag of Great Britain, or of any of her allies, are liable to destruction’ and that travelers sailing on such ships ‘do so at their own risk.’” 9
The sinking of the Lusitania was just one of many caused by submarine warfare of the German navy. However, the sinking of the Lusitania was unique. Out of the hundreds of ships sunk by German submarines during WW I, the Lusitania sinking was the only one that the British navy could have prevented and deliberately chose not to prevent.
The British navy had tracked the German submarine for the seven days preceding its attack on the Lusitania. The navy knew that U-20 was active off the south coast of Ireland; knew that it had sunk several ships in the region in the two days preceding the attack on the Lusitania and knew that the captain of U-20 would have no scruples about sinking a passenger ship.
The British navy could have prevented the sinking in two ways. First, it could have directed the Captain of the Lusitania to take a different route around Ireland to its destination, Liverpool, England—the northern route—where no German submarines had been operating. Second, the navy could have sent several readily available destroyers to escort the Lusitania safely to port. The presence of a destroyer escort probably would have scared off U-20, as destroyers were the greatest danger to a submarine.
The navy had protected ships near Britain in these ways earlier in 1915. On a prior voyage in March 1915 the Lusitania was given a destroyer escort by the British navy as the ship approached Liverpool.
Just a few days before the sinking of the Lusitania an escort by destroyers was provided to a British battleship. On the day of the sinking of the Lusitania those destroyers were returning to port near the region where U-20 was lying in wait for ships to sink.
The navy knew that U-20 was directly on the route Lusitania would take. The four destroyers were available to escort the Lusitania. They were not sent to do so.
Furthermore, the navy did not warn Captain Turner of the Lusitania that a German submarine was sinking ships off the south coast of Ireland. The navy easily could have warned the Captain of the imminent danger towards which he was sailing—and directed Captain Turner to change course in order to sail north along the west coast of Ireland and thence over the north of Ireland via the northern approach to Liverpool. The navy did none of those things.
Three days after the sinking, Winston Churchill was questioned in parliament about the failure of the navy to take steps to protect the Lusitania. Churchill replied, “Merchant traffic must look after itself.” 10
Simultaneously the Royal Navy launched an inquiry into the cause of the disaster. In this inquiry the navy sought to prove that the loss of the Lusitania was due to the negligence of the ship’s Captain. In an internal communication within the Admiralty Churchill wrote “we should pursue the Captain without check.” 11
Submarine warfare was an important part of Germany’s military strategy in WW I. Britain was accustomed to importing about two-thirds of its people’s food supply, as well as many other necessities for industry and consumption. All imports came by sea as Britain is an island nation.
At the outset of the war the British government took control over all British ships plying the Atlantic Ocean. German officials suspected, rightly in the event that British merchant ships and ocean liners were carrying munitions and other war supplies from America to England. On its final voyage the Lusitania was carrying in its cargo a large amount of munitions bound for Britain. 12
Germany’s military strategists hoped to knock Britain out of the land war in France by depriving the British of the supplies they needed to import. If the submarine war could cripple Britain economically, Britain would be forced to withdraw its army from France and sue for peace.
Soon after the start of war in August 1914 German submarines began sinking freighters and other civilian ships in the waters around Britain.
The Admiralty had previously established a secret facility, known cryptically as “Room 40” to decipher intercepted German military wireless messages. The existence of Room 40 and the information it provided were known only to its staff and nine senior officials of the Admiralty, foremost of whom was Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty.
Churchill required all the intercepted and decoded messages to be delivered to him personally. He was keen about knowing what the intercepted messages revealed about the movement, tactics and strategy of the German navy.
Unaware that the British navy was listening to and deciphering their wireless communications despite their encryption in code, German submarine commanders communicated incessantly with their home base. These communications invariably gave the location of the submarine in latitude and longitude, for example 55.21 N and 3.15 E, meaning 55.21° North Latitude and 3.15° East Longitude.
Such precise locations were communicated every two hours throughout the voyage of U-20 that culminated with the sinking of the Lusitania on May 7, 1915. On that day, the Admiralty knew that U-20 was about twenty miles off the south coast of Ireland, near Queenstown in County Cork, precisely on the course that Lusitania was steaming towards on the last day of its approach to Liverpool.
From the intercepted messages the Admiralty knew the name of the captain of the U-20, Walther Schwieger. The Admiralty knew also that Schwieger had already sunk a British civilian ship on May 5 and two more on May 6, the two days preceding the sinking of the Lusitania.
Captain Schwieger’s log records his surprise at sighting the Lusitania at all, and sighting it sailing without protective escort. 13 In his ship’s Log Schwieger wrote that it was inexplicable that the ship was not sent through the North Channel.
The North Channel was the other route to Liverpool. It went to the west of Ireland, over its north end and then down to Liverpool. On this route there were no German submarines active because of a much higher risk of encountering British destroyers, which were a great danger to submarines.
After the torpedo struck the Lusitania, Schwieger watched through his periscope. He later wrote to a friend, “The ship was sinking with unbelievable rapidity. There was a terrific panic on her deck. Overcrowded lifeboats . . . dropped into the water. Desperate people ran helplessly up and down the decks. Men and women jumped into the water and tried to swim to empty, overturned lifeboats. It was the most terrible sight I have ever seen. It was impossible for me to give any help. I could have saved only a handful. And the cruiser that had passed was not very far away and must have picked up the distress signals. She would shortly appear. I thought. The scene was too horrible to watch, and I gave orders to dive to twenty meters, and away.” 14
Immediately after the sinking of the Lusitania the Admiralty made a formal request for an investigation by Britain’s Board of Trade, which appointed a Wreck Commission to inquire into the sinking of the Lusitania. The Wreck Commission proceedings were presided over by Lord Mersey, a judge experienced in the investigation of ship sinkings. 15
The Admiralty official who asked for the inquiry charged that Captain Turner “appears to have displayed an almost inconceivable negligence, and one is forced to conclude that he is either utterly incompetent, or that he has been gotten at by the Germans.” 16
After taking testimony from 36 witnesses, including surviving passengers and crew members, and experts, Lord Mersey laid the blame entirely on the German submarine and absolved Captain Turner. Soon afterward Lord Mersey resigned his post as Wreck Commissioner and called the Lusitania inquiry “a damned dirty business.” 17
Due to Britain’s Official Secrets Act, much of the evidence surrounding the sinking of the Lusitania was unavailable for a long time. That the British government applied the Official Secrets Act to the sinking of the Lusitania indicates that disclosure of all the facts would have revealed the responsibility of the navy for the sinking of the ship. However, by the 1970s a full record was available to investigators, analysts, and historians.
A prominent British naval historian and World War II officer in the Royal Navy’s Intelligence service, Patrick Beesly (1913-1986), published several books about Britain’s successful breaking of the German naval code during WW I. Author Erik Larson quotes Beesly’s writing on the Lusitania affair as follows.
“. . . [Beesly] addressed the controversy only obliquely, stating that if no deliberate plan existed to put the Lusitania in danger, ‘one is left only with an unforgivable cock-up as an explanation.’
“However, in a later interview, housed in the archives of the Imperial War Museum, London, Beesly was less judicious. ‘As an Englishman and a lover of the Royal Navy,’ he said, ‘I would prefer to attribute this failure to negligence, even gross negligence, rather [than] to a conspiracy deliberately to endanger the ship.’
“But, he said, ‘on the basis of the considerable volume of information which is now available, I am reluctantly compelled to state that on balance, the most likely explanation is that there was indeed a plot, however imperfect, to endanger the Lusitania in order to involve the United states in the war.’ So much was done [to protect other ships] . . . but nothing for the Lusitania. He struggled with this. No matter how he arranged the evidence, he came back to conspiracy. He said, ‘If that’s unacceptable will someone tell me another explanation to these very very curious circumstances?’” 18
Author Larson reports that “. . . James Bisset . . . [who] was captain of the HMS Caronia when it met the Lusitania off New York at the beginning of its final voyage, wrote in a memoir, ‘The neglect to provide naval escort for her in the narrow waters as she approached her destination was all the more remarkable as no less than twenty-three British merchant vessels had been torpedoed and sunk by German U-boats near the coasts of Britain and Ireland in the preceding seven days.’” 19
No doubt it may be observed that Winston Churchill believed that sacrificing the Lusitania, while regrettable, was a necessity to prevent even greater loss of life that would occur if the United States was not persuaded to enter the war on the side of Britain. It seems clear that at the time the Lusitania was allowed to sail into danger, it could be only speculation that its sinking would draw the United States into the war. In the event, the United States did not enter the war until nearly two years after the sinking of the Lusitania.
It may be easier to make a difficult decision to sacrifice the lives of other people you don’t know, compared to sacrificing the life of a loved one. Would Churchill have selected the Lusitania as bait for German U-boats if one of the passengers was Clementine Churchill, his beloved wife, confidante and adviser? 20
The tragic story of the sinking of the Lusitania raises questions about the responsibility of persons other than Churchill, whose whose actions or inaction contributed to the loss of the ship and nearly 1,200 lives.
What if Captain Turner had resigned his commission rather than sail the ship into harm’s way? What if no other sea Captain was willing to risk the lives of passengers by sailing into harm’s way? Turner’s immediate predecessor as Captain of Lusitania, Daniel Dow, resigned his commission, attributing his resignation to stress, after guiding Lusitania from New York to Liverpool in March 2015. 21
According to the account in Dead Wake, “On a March  voyage to Liverpool, Dow had guided the Lusitania through waters in which two freighters had just been sunk. Afterward he told his superiors at Cunard that he could no longer accept the responsibility of commanding a passenger ship under such conditions, especially if the ship carried munitions intended for Britain’s military [which made a ship liable to attack without warning] 22 . . . What troubled [Dow] was not the danger to himself but rather having to worry about the lives of two thousand civilian passengers and crew.” 23
Lusitania was owned by the Cunard Steamship Company. What if the company had cancelled trans-Atlantic sailings after the outbreak of submarine warfare in 1914 due to the risk of loss of life? Perhaps Cunard was not free to make such a decision, given the role of the British government in financing the construction of Lusitania and in controlling all British ships after the outbreak of war in 1914. When war was declared Lusitania was requisitioned by the British Admiralty as an armed merchant cruiser. 24
In 2008, divers found a large amount of munitions in the hold of Lusitania. According to a report in the London Daily Mail newspaper, “the diving team estimates that around four million rounds of U.S.-manufactured Remington .303 bullets lie in the Lusitania’s hold at a depth of 300 ft.” 25
What if most of the people who booked passage on Lusitania cancelled their booking after learning of the German embassy warning about passenger ships being at risk of destruction on entering the war zone around Britain?
The German U-boat captain, Walther Schwieger was horrified by the plight of Lusitania’s passengers after his torpedo struck the ship. Suppose Captain Schwieger held reservations about sinking ocean liners, and acted upon those reservations by refraining from launching the fatal torpedo?
At the outbreak of WW I in 1914 Britain was under no threat of hostile military activity by Germany, although there was intense rivalry between the navies of the two countries. What if Britain had not gone to war against Germany in August 1914? Would the Germany navy have refrained from attacking British ships?
And, to the author of this blog, the biggest question of all: can human society evolve to a status where wars no longer occur? That is an ideal and one of the goals animating the writing of the book of which this blog Post is a part.
- See below ↩
- The designation RMS stands for Royal Mail Ship, used for seagoing vessels under contract to the British Royal Mail ↩
- The dead included three stowaways. ↩
- Dead Wake, page 1 ↩
- Larson, Erik, Dead Wake (2015), pages 189-190 ↩
- According to Winston Churchill, in the opinion expressed in his famous “Iron Curtain” address he delivered at Fulton, Missouri in on March 5, 1946. See Churchill’s Iron Curtain Speech reproduced at https://www.thoughtco.com/winston-churchills-iron-curtain-speech-1779492 ↩
- See chapter 25 herein entitled National Defense, text accompanying notes 12 through 88, discussing Russia, France and England, and the United States, following the heading CAUSES OF WAR AND CATASTROPHES OF THE COMBATANTS IN WW II ↩
- Literally translated as undersea boat ↩
- Dead Wake, page 2 ↩
- Dead Wake, page 319 ↩
- Dead Wake, page 317 ↩
- Discussed below ↩
- The log has become a public record ↩
- Dead Wake, page 264 ↩
- Mersey had presided previously over inquiries into the sinking of several other ships including that of RMS Titanic in 1912. ↩
- Quoted in Dead Wake, page 318 ↩
- Dead Wake, pages 322-323 ↩
- Dead Wake, pages 323-324 ↩
- Dead Wake, page 325 ↩
- On the close relationship of the two, see Clementine: The Life of Mrs. Winston Churchill, by Sonia Purnell, Book Review by Amanda Vaill, New York Times, December 4, 2015, https://www.nytimes.com/2015/12/06/books/review/clementine-the-life-of-mrs-winston-churchill-by-sonia-purnell.html?_r=0 ↩
- See Wikipedia, RMS Lusitania, 1915, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/RMS_Lusitania#Outbreak_of_the_First_World_War ↩
- Under the “cruiser” or “prize” rules that were part of the international law of the sea in 1915 ↩
- Dead Wake pages 20-21 ↩
- See Wikipedia, RMS Lusitania, Lusitania and the Outbreak of War,” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/RMS_Lusitania#Outbreak_of_the_First_World_War ↩
- See “Secret of the Lusitania: Arms find challenges Allied claims it was solely a passenger ship,” by Sam Greenhill, London Daily Mail, December 19, 2008, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1098904/Secret-Lusitania-Arms-challenges-Allied-claims-solely-passenger-ship.html ↩