Too Proud to Fight

David Reynolds

  • Wilful Murder: The Sinking of the ‘Lusitania’ by Diana Preston
    Doubleday, 543 pp, £18.99, May 2002, ISBN 0 385 60173 5
  • Lusitania: Saga and Myth by David Ramsay
    Chatham, 319 pp, £20.00, September 2001, ISBN 1 86176 170 8
  • Woodrow Wilson by John Thompson
    Longman, 288 pp, £15.99, August 2002, ISBN 0 582 24737 3

The Old Head of Kinsale juts out into the Atlantic from the southern coast of Ireland. For centuries sea captains have used it as a landmark. On 7 May 1915 a local family named Henderson, picnicking on the promontory in bright sunshine, were admiring a huge passenger liner with four raked-back funnels steaming eastward close to shore. Suddenly a vast plume of water and smoke towered above her decks. Within minutes the liner listed to starboard and her bow started to sink. As the stern rose in the water, four great propellers could be clearly discerned. Then she was gone. George Henderson was only six at the time. ‘I can still sit here now,’ he told a TV crew in 1994, ‘and see that great liner just sliding below the waves.’

The Lusitania, launched by Cunard in June 1906 to wrest transatlantic traffic back from the Germans, had completed more than a hundred Atlantic crossings. It left New York for the last time on 1 May, the day the German Embassy printed a warning in the New York Times that travellers sailing on British ships in the war zone around the British Isles did so ‘at their own risk’. Despite the luxurious languor of the voyage, there was a suppressed air of anxiety among the passengers, who included the American tycoon Alfred Vanderbilt and the Welsh mining magnate D.A. Thomas. The German submarine U-20 had already torpedoed three British cargo vessels off the Irish coast. At lunchtime on 7 May its captain, Walther Schwieger, sighted a four-stack passenger liner, clearly British, and dived to intercept her. He fired a single torpedo at 2.10 p.m., and within 18 minutes the ship had disappeared beneath the waves. Of 1962 passengers and crew on board, 1201 lost their lives. Alfred Vanderbilt was among 128 American dead. One Welsh newspaper, apparently in all innocence, proclaimed in banner headlines: ‘great national disaster. d.a. thomas saved.’

For the early 20th century this was the defining act of terrorism against innocent civilians. The principal cause is obvious – the actions of the U-20 – but much has also been written about culpability on the British side, in particular the claim that Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty, deliberately sacrificed the Lusitania to draw the United States into the war. Both Diana Preston and David Ramsay deal briskly and effectively with this. Churchill and Jackie Fisher, the First Sea Lord, were preoccupied with the escalating political crisis over Gallipoli. The absence of British naval escorts for the Lusitania in the war zone reflected the generally accepted view that a liner’s best defence against U-boats lay in its own speed. We are talking here, in Preston’s words, of ‘contributory negligence’ at most.

Such conspiracy as there was occurred after the event. The British Government was anxious to conceal the presence of munitions in the Lusitania’s hold. More than four thousand cases of rifle cartridges and 1250 cases of unfused shells had been declared on the cargo manifest and were legal under US law, but Whitehall feared that a widely reported second explosion had been the result of these munitions going off. It therefore tried to shift the blame onto the Lusitania’s captain, William Turner, and also played up talk of a second torpedo. Both Ramsay and Preston are emphatic, however, that the U-20 fired only once, and they broadly agree on what could have caused a single torpedo to sink a 30,000-ton liner in 18 minutes.

In 1903, Cunard had been bailed out by the state when it became obvious that it was losing the transatlantic liner race to the Germans and Americans. The Balfour Government provided a loan of £2.6 million to help build two fast new liners, plus an annual subsidy of £150,000 to keep both in war readiness. The Lusitania and her sister ship, the Mauretania, were designated by the Admiralty as auxiliary war cruisers. Gun mountings were even fitted in 1913 – though not, both authors maintain, any guns. The Titanic, a White Star liner, was fitted with a series of watertight bulkheads running across the ship, and although five were breached when the iceberg bumped along the side, the rest helped the liner to stay afloat and on an even keel for two hours “and forty minutes. The Lusitania, however, was designed to warship specifications. Because the main fear was gunfire from enemy surface ships, her strongest armour plating was above the waterline. The vulnerable “ engine and boiler rooms, surrounded by longitudinal bulkheads linking them to the coal bunkers, which were expected to provide additional protection against shells, were pushed below water level.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in

[*] Manchester, 272 pp., £49.50, 8 July 2000, 0 7190 5478 8.

[†] European Neutrals and Non-Belligerents during the Second World War (Cambridge, 380 pp., £47.50, 3 December 2001, 0 521 64358 9).