The Lusitania was a British cargo and passenger ship that was torpedoed and sank due to German submarine activity in May of 1915, just shy of ten years after she began her trans-Atlantic journeying. The Lusitania's construction began in September of 1904, and she went to sea approximately two years later on June 7, 1906. She was used to ferry goods and people between England and the United States. The Lusitania was very popular because of her speed and luxurious accommodations. She was considered "the acme of comfort," and deemed a "floating palace" by her passengers (Simpson 7).
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The Lusitania crossed the Atlantic peacefully many times over the years, but as World War I escalated and German submarines took a prevalent, threatening role in the seas, her situation became rather precarious. The Lusitania felt herself unsinkable because of her reserve speed capabilities (which would enable her to flee under attack). Because of her over-confidence she set out from New York on May 1, 1915, with the intent of delivering food and passengers to England in spite of threats of sinking by German authorities.
Six days later, on May 7, 1915, the Lusitania was too slow in noticing both the periscope and the torpedo of a German submarine to escape her fate. She took a solid hit whose sound was described by passengers as a "peal of thunder," a "dull thud-like sound," or "like a million-ton hammer hitting a steel boiler a hundred feet high and a hundred feet long" (Hickey and Smith 184-185). Though they did not explode, water rushed into the first and second boiler rooms and caused the boat to shake from side to side. She then rose a little before a second massive explosion took her down into the sea.
The exact cause of the second explosion is a point of contention. The Lusitania shows evidence that she may have been torpedoed a second or even a third time - but the second, most destructive, explosion may not have been caused by a German torpedo, but rather may have come from inside the ship. The reason behind this speculation is that the Lusitania's cargo can be called into question. She had originally said she would take, along with her passengers, platinum, bullion, diamonds and various other precious stones, but these things were never found and port records do not list them either. She is believed to have instead carried, under the guise of bales of fur and cheese boxes, 3-inch shells and millions of rounds of rifle ammunition. If true, these materials comprised "a contraband and explosive cargo which was forbidden by American law and... should never have been placed on a passenger liner" (Simpson 157-158).
Whether the torpedoes completed the destruction of the ship by their own power or they were aided by internal ammunition explosions, the German submarine attack devastated the Lusitania. The ship sank within twenty minutes of when she was hit and took with her 1,201 people - and left only 764 to be saved by those who responded to her SOS (Simpson 9). Many American lives were lost as a result of the sinking, and because the Lusitania was never officially in government service, the United States believed the attack on her "was contrary to international law and the conventions of all civilized nations" (Simpson 8-9). The sinking of the Lusitania caused serious tension between the United States and Germany. Though those tensions were in a large part resolved over time, the sinking of the Lusitania still stands out in history because it was the single most dramatic incident in the conflicts over German submarine warfare in World War I .
Hickey, Des and Gus Smith. Seven Days to Disaster. (William Collins Sons and Co. Ltd; London, 1981)
Simpson, Colin. The Lusitania. (Little, Brown and Company, Boston.; 1972)