Lusitania: 18 minutes that changed the world – Channel 4


Word PressThis Channel 4 “docu-drama” marked the hundredth anniversary of the sinking of the British passenger liner Lusitania by a German U-boat, with the loss of 1,198 lives – including that of my great-great-uncle Arthur, a 16-year-old member of the crew.

Docu-dramas can sometimes seem like “dumbing down”, but I think that in this case it was an excellent choice of presentation.  The sinking of the Lusitania is so wrapped up in debates about total war and about the effect of the tragedy on public opinion in the United States, as well as in some rather bizarre conspiracy theories, that it sometimes seems as if those who died are rather overlooked.  1,198 passengers and crew, all of them individual people with hopes and dreams, all leaving behind devastated families and friends, lost their lives that day; and this programme sought to tell the story through the accounts of a small number of them.  It also told of the rescue effort.  I feel as if I want to go and thank the town of Cobh (then known as Queenstown), Ireland, for what its people did: the accounts of rescue workers carrying ashore the bodies of dead children as tenderly as if the children had still been alive were so, so moving.

So, were these “18 minutes that changed the world”?  I’m not quite sure how Channel 4 intended the viewer to take that title, but there are two ways in which the sinking of the Lusitania is usually seen as crucial in world history.  One is that it really marked the beginning of total warfare.  It is now generally accepted that the Lusitania was carrying arms – although, as the programme explained, the second explosion on the ship was almost certainly caused by a ruptured steam pipe, not, as is sometimes claimed, by munitions blowing up – but, even if the Germans were aware of that, sinking an unarmed passenger ship broke all the rules of international shipping and warfare and there can be no excuse for that.  The German Navy might perhaps have been within its rights to board and search the ship, but not to destroy it and to take almost 1,200 civilian lives.  1,198 lives … the ship was only 12 miles off the Irish coast, but 12 miles, especially in such cold temperatures, was too far to swim.  And, unlike the Titanic, it had enough lifeboats for everyone on board, but it listed so badly that very few of them only 6 out of a total of 44, could be launched.   There is still some confusion over why the ship sank so quickly, but the steam pipe explosion explanation makes a lot of sense.

There are these theories that the British government expected the Lusitania to be attacked but did nothing because it hoped that the loss of the ship would bring the United States into the war, but I don’t buy them for a moment.  I can believe that the British authorities, whom, let’s face it, wouldn’t have won any awards for their competence in conducting the war during 1915, were made aware that there could be a threat but didn’t take it seriously enough, but certainly not that they made a deliberate decision to let the ship go down in the hope that it would bring America into the war on the Allies’ side.  As for the effect on American actions … well, I think that that’s something that gets overstated, to be honest.  The loss of 128 American lives undoubtedly caused anger in the United States, but it was to be another two years before the United States actually entered the war – something which didn’t happen until a) the Tsarist regime in Russia had been overthrown, b) Germany had offered a military alliance to Mexico and c), crucially, Germany’s decision to resume unrestricted submarine warfare, which they’d suspended after the Lusitania was sunk..  Having said which, the aftermath of the sinking of the Lusitania did see the US making large-scale loans to both Britain and France after the sinking of the Lusitania, the rise of the “Preparedness” movement and, undoubtedly, the growth of negative public opinion towards Germany in the US.

Ships, even the likes of the QE2 don’t quite have the same grip on the popular imagination that they did once, but there’s still something about a huge passenger liner that’s glorious and glamorous and thrilling.  Back in the summer of 1914, a lot of people felt the same about war.  But there wasn’t anything glorious about the events of May 7th, 1915 – only the loss of 1,198 lives.  We accept now, much more easily than people did then, that civilians will die in wartime; but it’s still very hard to accept the sinking of an unarmed passenger ship.  And thank you again to the people of Cobh for what they did for the survivors and for giving the dead as much dignity as was possible, after one of the greatest tragedies in British maritime history.

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