The Sinking of the Lusitania

At a recent meeting of Largs Probus Club, Kevin Kerrigan of Glasgow Museums gave an illustrated and very interesting talk on the impact of the action on 7 May, 1915 when the German submarine U-20 torpedoed and sank the Lusitania, a Cunard  cruise liner traveling from New York to Liverpool. Built at John Brown & Co’s shipyard at Clydebank, along with its sister ship Mauritania, and launched on 7 June 1906, it won Blue Ribands for the fastest crossing from 1907 to 1909. Only 761 people survived out of the 1,266 passengers and 696 crew aboard. 128 of the casualties were American citizens. The public reaction to the tragedy was mixed, some saw it as a blatant act of evil and transgression against the conventions of war. While others were aware that the German’s had put an advert under the notice advertising the sailing alerting all passengers of Atlantic vessels to the potential for submarine attacks on British ships, Germany considering the Lusitania to be British.

Kevin spoke about the propaganda arising from the event with posters of the sinking encouraging people to enlist. One poster showed a women in white under water with a baby in  her arms which reminded him of his meeting with Audrey Warren Pearl who had been 3 months old and was traveling with her parents, three siblings, and two children’s nurses Alice Lines and Greta Lorenson. When Lusitania was torpedoed and sinking, Alice took charge of Audrey and her brother Stuart, and entered into the water with Audrey clung to her chest and holding Stuart’s hand. As they sank a hand grabbed her long hair and hauled them all into a lifeboat. Audrey’s parents were also saved but two sisters and Greta, were lost. Audrey’s passing on 11 January 2011 at the age of 95 marked the passing of the last surviving Lusitania survivor.

In August 1915, German artist Karl Goetz cast a commemorative medal depicting the sinking of the Lusitania. On one side the Lusitania was shown sinking by its stern (it sunk bow first) with artillery pieces and airplanes on the deck, while the reverse shows a skeleton selling tickets to passengers. The date on the medal showed the sinking as 5 May which the British used as propaganda as it showed the sinking of 7 May was pre-meditated by the Germans, a cowardly act. Goetz had actually taken the date from an erroneous newspaper report. 

The sinking of the Lusitania contributed to the entry of the United States into the war two years later and it signalled the end of the “gentlemanly” war practices of the nineteenth century.

Ray Young thanked Kevin for his extremely informative and illustrated talk from which he gained a lot of information about the Lusitania medal and particularly the British replica he owned, which was made as propaganda to demonstrate the brutality of the sinking of the cruise liner.

Largs PROBUS Club will next meet in the Willowbank Hotel on Wednesday 21st  February for a talk on the 1884 Reform Demonstration by Dr. Mark Nixon.

Men over the age of 50 who are retired, or nearing retirement, are welcome to join the Club by completing our Contact Form.