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Laurence Dunne Archaeology,
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May 7, 2015

Sinking of the Lusitania 100 years ago today - lest we forget

Sinking of the Lusitania 100 years ago today - lest we forget

100 years ago today 7th May at 2.10pm the pride of the Cunard Line, RMS Lusitania, was struck by a single torpedo fire by a German submarine, U-20, off the Old Head of Kinsale. Almost immediately after a second massive internal explosion occurred and the world's fastest passenger liner sank by the bow on its impacted starboard side in just 18 minutes with the loss of 1201 lives.

At 12 noon on the 1st May the Lusitania with 1,960 passengers, crew and three stowaways embarked from the Cunard Dock at Pier 54 New York bound for Liverpool. As well as passengers it also carried a mixed cargo including over 4 million rounds of .303 ammunition as well as other war material, the precise nature of which is not entirely known to this day.

The Lusitania is without doubt the world’s most important historic shipwreck.The impacts and ramifications, both nationally and internationally, of the huge loss of life of innocent, non-combatants, men, women and children, continues to have immense relevance and historic resonance that is especially poignant during these centenary commemorations.

Questions, blame and conspiracy theories

How could the fastest passenger liner in the world, the greyhound of the seas, be hit by a submarine when it could travel at almost twice the surface speed and three times the submerged speed of a submarine? What caused the second internal detonation that resulted in the incredibly rapid sinking of the Lusitania in only 18 minutes with such enormous loss of life? Was the Lusitania carrying explosives that were detonated by the impact of the torpedo? Who was responsible for its destruction? Why was it not protected by British naval escort when it made its approach into the narrow waters of the declared unrestricted warzone off our coast, often referred to as 'U-boat Alley'. Why was it not informed of the daily attacks and sinkings by U-20 all along the south coast of Ireland between Carnsore Point in Wexford, Daunt's Rock off Cork Harbour and the Old Head of Kinsale in the six days leading up to its own destruction? Why did a German U-boat attack a massive passenger liner in the first place? Was the Lusitania a 'legitimate' target? Was it the '45,000 tons of live-bait' that Winston Churchill referred to it as at Liverpool docks the previous September? Was it a callous attack by a belligerent nation on an innocent passenger liner?

Lusitania -Greyhound of the Seas

  • The 30,396 ton passenger liner Lusitania: pride of the Cunard Line, largest ship ever built at the time and hailed as the finest ship in the World. Dimensions 238.5m (length), 26.5m (beam), 18.3m (height to boat deck), 10.2m draught.
  • The RMS Lusitania was an enormous ship-the equivalent of a street block in New York at sea.
  • Designed by the engineer Leonard Peskett as a veritable floating hotel with accommodation for 2300 guests and a staff of 900
  • A loan was given to Cunard at a low rate of interest by the British government who wanted fast Atlantic civilian liners capable of being pressed into naval service as auxiliary cruisers at a moment’s notice.
  • Laid down in 1904 and launched in 1906. It was built by John Brown & Co. Ltd, on the Clyde in Scotland.
  • It had four giant steam-turbine engines fitted instead of the usual reciprocating pistons, the first time a merchant ship had been fitted out in this way. However, these giant engines consumed up to 1000 tons of coal per day at max speed
  • Revolutionary 4 giant turbine engines generating 68,000 horse power designed by Charles Parsons
  • Another innovation was electric controls for steering, detecting fire and for closing her watertight compartments, of which there were 175
  • Fitted out for her maiden voyage to New York leaving Liverpool on the 7th September 1907 cheered by over 200,000 people
  • Lusitania called at Cobh (Queenstown) on her maiden voyage to similar enthusiasm
  • Arrival in New York was a major event with the ship receiving a rapturous welcome
  • Capable of travelling at 25 knots-on her second voyage she won the coveted Blue Riband by doing the Atlantic Crossing in 4.5 days with a speed of 25.88 knots-, (30 miles per hour, or 48 km per hour)
  • Sister ship of the Mauritania that served as a troop ship during WW1
  • Lifeboats: 22 standard with 22 collapsible lifeboats added after the Titanic enquiry.


Modifications to Lusitania in preparation for war :

  • Secretly between May and July 1913, a year before WW1 started, twelve revolving gun-rings for twelve 6-inch guns, six on each side were installed on the Lusitania
  • the shelter deck and below the upper deck were also double plated
  • The reserve coal bunker immediately forward of Boiler 1 was converted to a magazine with special shell racking. A second magazine was converted from one of the mail rooms at the stern
  • In March 1914 Winston Churchill, then Lord of the Admiralty announced that forty British Merchant ships had been ‘defensively’ armed
  • With the outbreak of war in August 1914 Lusitania was fitted with her guns in the Canada Dock in Liverpool and was ready for war by September 17th.
  • Leonard Peskett told Churchill that the Lusitania was ready and Churchill remarked that as far as he was concerned the Lusitania was only '45,000 tons of live-bait'- a remark that was to come back to haunt him.
  • On September 24th the Admiralty changed its mind and informed Cunard that it had a new role for the Lusitania to prioritise cargo space to transport material for the war effort.
  • The Lusitania went back into service as a passenger liner with its guns removed but with ‘a very important job to do’ as the Secretary of the Admiralty put it.


World War 1

War with Germany was in the air all through the start of the twentieth century. From the beginning the Lusitania had been included in the British Admiralty plans as an auxiliary cruiser. It was also included in the 1914 edition of Jane's Fighting Ships, which every submarine had a copy, with silhouettes provided of every naval ship in the world.

World War 1-the war to end all warscommenced on August 4th 1914 and in November the Royal Navy blockadesthe German ports.

Ireland as a part of the British Empire was a belligerent and four of her ports were used as naval bases - Cork Harbour (Queenstown), Berehaven, Lough Swilly and Dun Laoghaire (Kingstown). Cork was the headquarters.

The Admiralty was not prepared for submarine warfare and did not realise that German U-Boats had long range offensive capability and could travel around Scotland, the west coast of Ireland and up the Irish Sea. Initially it saw the main threat was elsewhere by surface craft and maintained only a small and generally useless flotilla out of Cobh under Admiral Coke-who was later replaced by Admiral Bayly.

They were shocked at how vulnerable many of her fleet were-particularly the Baccante class cruisers when three, the Aboukir, Hogue and Cressy,were destroyed on the 22nd September 1914 with the loss of 1459 men by a single submarine, U-9 under the command of Otto Weddigen.

The first attack on merchant ships was in October 1914. In an effort to counteract the U-boat menace merchant ships known as ‘Mystery ‘or ‘Q-ships’ were fitted out that concealed armaments with naval crews dressed as civilians. Several of the Q-ships were fitted out at Queenstown, hence the name.

The Admiralty also issued orders to treat all captured U-boat crews as felons and not to accord them prisoner-of-war status- Churchill wrote that U-boat survivors ‘should be taken prisoner or shot-whichever is the most convenient’.In any event, the gloves were off and an exceedingly horrific aspect of WW1 was played out off this coast.

Up to this Cruiser Rules were the accepted norm for belligerent naval powers since the time of Henry the VIII. Essentially, naval ships would stop a vessel check her papers, cargo etc. If the ship was an enemy vessel it could then be taken and its cargo as a prize and its crew as hostages.

On the 18th February 1915 Germany declared the waters around Ireland and UK an unrestricted warzone. All ships entering this zone were liable to be destroyed without warning. Submarines were no longer required to first surface and give warnings although some sometimes did.

The Falaba Incident.

On the 28th March 1915 Captain Schmidt of U-28 forced the 5000 ton British liner Falaba to halt by firing a shot across her bows and gave the passenger liner ten minutes to abandon ship. However, the Falaba continued to send out wireless messages for help and this continued when they were given another ten minutes. In the course of a further three minute extension an armed British trawler appeared and consequently U-28 fired a torpedo into the liner’s stern which detonated 13 tons of high explosive that it was carrying.

The Falaba was the first passenger liner to be sunk by a U-boat in WW1.

At 02.10 pm on the afternoon of the 7th May 1915 the Lusitania was struck by a single torpedo fired by U-20, circa eleven miles off the Old Head of Kinsale, Co. Cork.

In the week after Lusitania left New York, 23 ships had been sunk in the area that she was sailing into.

No word was relayed to the Lusitania about the submarine activity and the radio messages between the Admiralty and the Lusitania between the 5th and 7th of May remain classified to this day.


Sinking of the Lusitania

The Lusitania was hit on its forward starboard side by the torpedo.A second much larger explosion occurred in the same area almost immediately after the torpedo strike. This massive second internal detonation precipitated the rapid sinking of the Lusitania. Immense quantities of water poured into the forward area accelerated by the fact that this leviathan of the sea had been travelling at around 18 knots at the time of impact.

The great liner came to rest on the seabed on its starboard side thus concealing the physical evidence of both explosions and thereby masking the opportunity or ability to evaluate the ultimate source or reason for the second explosion, the cause of which has remained one of modern history’s greatest secrets-Cé shéid an Lusitania? as Caoimhín Ó Cinnéide asks in his haunting poem Carraig Aonair.

Officially the death toll was 1198 but this number did not include three stowaways that had been discovered early on in the voyage and had been detained in the brig. Among the dead there were 291 women and 94 children. The majority of the 764 survivors were landed in Cobh and others at Kinsale and Baltimore. Only 289 bodies were eventually found of which 65 were never identified. Lusitania victims were found all along the south west coast, some washed in months later in Kerry and as far away as the Aran Islands and Mayo.

A flotilla of vessels of all kind rushed to the tragic site from Cobh and Kinsale, Courtmacsherry and Baltimore. The Courtmacsherry lifeboat took hours to row out there as there was no wind.


Aftermath :

The blame game and the massive enlistment drive in the aftermath of the sinking was a dreadful cynical aspect of the whole affair. Who knows just how many men did enlist because of the enormous propaganda campaign and how many of them lost their lives at the Somme or Gallipoli during this 'war to end all wars.


The commander of U-20 was KapitÓ“nleutnant Walther Schwieger while the officer who fired the torpedo was Raimund Weisbach. The following year the promoted Weisbach featured in an episode of Irish national history as it was he who was in command of U-19 that brought Sir Roger Casement from Germany to Tralee Bay in April 1916.

Mystery surrounds the cause of the second explosion with blame cast by both sides at the time. The British claimed that it was due to a second torpedo while the Germans, in refuting the claim, maintained that the cause was due to the explosion of gun-cotton and or other explosive material that they claim the liner was clandestinely carrying. Germany regarded the Lusitania as a legitimate target. In that context Germany had warned and advertised intending passengers in New York, before it sailed on its fateful journey to Liverpool, not to travel as they would be entering the war zone.


The huge loss of life included the deaths of 128 American passengers. There was enormous public outpouring and denunciation of the sinking on both sides of the Atlantic.


Whatever, the political, wartime protocols or conventions on what constituted a legitimate target, the Lusitania as a passenger liner was hardly a moral target. As a corollary to that, the wider corpus of evidence strongly supports the possibility that Lusitania was transporting large quantities of explosive war material to Liverpool, aside from the millions of rounds of.303 ammunition recorded on the published manifest and indeed seen by us during our Expedition in 2011. If this is the case, and it appears to be so, there is much blame on the British side as well. The Falaba sinking five weeks before the Lusitania needs to be taken into consideration.


The shipwreck of the Lusitania itself is privately owned by Mr. Gregg Bemis Jr. of Santa Fe, New Mexico. Mr. Bemis owns the physical wreck itself however, the cargo and personal belongings of the passengers and crew are not his.

The wreck of the Lusitania is a protected monument in the jurisdiction of the Irish State.Consequently, any diving to the Lusitania requires the permission of Mr. Bemis as well as a licence from the Underwater Archaeology Unit of the National Monuments Service of the Dept of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht.

In 1995 the Irish Government put a heritage protection order on the Lusitania that made it, in effect, Ireland’s only underwater National Monument.

In 2011, Laurence Dunne was the lead project archaeologist for a major expedition to the wreck of the Lusitania that was funded by the National Geographic Channel in association with Mr. F. Gregg Bemis. The expedition was undertaken in two phases at the start and end of August 2011.The resulting documentary by the National Geographic Channel, Dark Secrets of the Lusitania was released in July 2012.


The primary objective of the Expedition was to try to discover physical evidence for the cause of the massive second explosion while the secondary objective was the recovery of a number of specific artefacts from the shipwreck.

The archaeological expedition team comprised three maritime archaeologists – Laurence Dunne, Julianna O'Donoghue and Ian Panter Chief Conservator of York Archaeological Trust. The Expedition was also monitored by two archaeologists of the Underwater Archaeology Unit of National Monuments Service.

This was the first Expedition to the Lusitania that included an Irish based maritime archaeological company or indeed any archaeologistlicensed by the State.

In late August 2011 we returned to the wrecksite in flat calm conditions with a small thirteen member recovery team comprising: four crew members, one photographer, a dive team of six and two marine archaeologists aided by a recovery boat the Rón Carraig and dive vessel the Harpy re-visited the wrecksite and successfully recovered five artefacts- the telemotor, telltale, two portholes and first class cabin windows.

The artefacts were transported to Tralee where they were de-salinated and meticulously conserved under licence from the National Museum of Ireland over a couple of years. They have since been returned to their owner Gregg Bemis.

See main menu for animation created of 1st class cabin window

See facebook for audio visual presentation