This post was written by Tammy Kiter, Manuscript Reference Librarian.
On the morning of May 1, 1915, the German Embassy in the United States placed ads in New York newspapers issuing serious warnings to anyone planning to travel on an Atlantic voyage; alerting them that a war zone existed in the waters adjacent to the British Isles and any vessels flying the flag of Great Britain, or her allies, was taking a great risk and liable to destruction.
Despite the warnings, 1,264 passengers boarded the RMS Lusitania for her 101st voyage across the Atlantic. This ocean liner, once the largest and fastest in the world, was originally launched by the Cunard Line in 1906. Prior to boarding, the ship’s crew, along with numerous detectives, went to great measures to ensure the safety of their passengers by having them line up single file, thoroughly checking their paperwork and examining all baggage and packages. With Captain William Thomas Turner at the helm, the Lusitania left New York bound for Liverpool just after 12pm on Saturday, May 1, 1915.
Cunard equipped the Lusitania with advanced turbine engines, wireless telegraph, electric lights, generous passenger space and extensive luxuries. Passengers were not aware that the Lusitania was also carrying over 170 tons of weapons and ammunition destined for delivery to the British allies.
International laws, known as Cruiser Rules, prohibited firing upon non-military ships without warning. German U-boat commander, Walter Schweiger, breached this law by firing a torpedo at the vulnerable target, Lusitania, when she was about 11 miles off the southern coast of Ireland, near the Old Head of Kinsale in County Cork. Unfortunately, the Lusitania was also in violation of the Cruiser Rules by traveling in a war zone and carrying munitions.
At 2:10pm, on May 7, 1915, the torpedo fired by German submarine U-20 struck the Lusitania on the starboard bow, just below the wheelhouse. That blast was soon followed by a much larger explosion which ripped the massive liner apart and caused her to list toward the starboard side as she filled with water. Due to the rapidity with which the Lusitania began to submerge and the angle at which she was leaning, both crew and passengers had a very difficult time loading and launching lifeboats. Passengers were thrown overboard by enormous waves. Within 18 minutes this massive ship had sunk bow first into the bottom of the sea, leaving hundreds of panic-stricken victims scrambling for safety as the stern disappeared into the Atlantic Ocean.
Out of a total of 1,960 crew members and passengers on board the Lusitania, 1,193 people perished and only 767 survived this terrible ordeal.
Among the survivors was 31 year old Dwight C. Harris, a U.S. citizen who’d been living abroad. Harris was from a prominent New York family and was traveling to Liverpool to visit his new fiancee, Aileen Canvendish Foster. In fact, The New York Times announced their engagement just one day prior to the bombing of the Lusitania.
Harris, a First Class passenger, had been enjoying a leisurely cruise playing games in the ship’s lounge, conversing with fellow passengers and reading books. In a 12-page letter written to his mother on May 10, Harris provides an astonishingly detailed first-hand account of his own struggle, the horror he witnessed in the water and the aftermath following this disaster. Not only was he able to save himself, but also rescued a young boy who’d been separated from his parents–and was, thankfully, reunited. He recalls the dead bodies he had to push past in order to make his way to an overturned raft for he and the boy to cling to. Harris also mentions the mine sweeper, Indian Empire, that rushed to the scene to transfer he and many others from life boats to dry land. Rescue vessels brought the exhausted survivors into the harbor in Queenstown, Ireland, where they were given shelter and food in hotels and private homes as well as dry clothes from some local townspeople.
The first line of the letter from Dwight C. Harris to his mother reads, “Thank God I’ve come safely through the most awful experience anyone could imagine!” Our library holds the scrapbook Harris compiled after living through the traumatic event. This unique item consists of correspondence, sketches, newspaper clippings and political satire. Had he not purchased a life vest from Wannamaker’s prior to the cruise and had the wherewithal to properly put it on during the chaos, he may not have lived to tell the tale.
A common misconception is that the sinking of the Lusitania prompted the United States’ decision to enter WWI. Although this heinous crime drastically changed public opinion toward Germany and certainly acted as a catalyst, the U.S. did not officially declare war on Germany until April 6, 1917.
This poster, featuring the artwork of W.A. Rogers, uses imagery of young children in a Lusitania lifeboat receiving assistance from U.S. sailors. Posters such as this were common during WWI and were used not only to encourage new recruits to enlist in all branches of the U.S. Military, but to rally support on the home front and bolster participation in charitable organizations such as the Red Cross.
On this 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Lusitania, let us take a moment to reflect upon those who lost their lives and to honor the many individuals who selflessly provided comfort and aid to hundreds of innocent victims.