On May 7, 1915, the RMS Lusitania, a British luxury liner en route from New York to Liverpool, was torpedoed and sunk by the German submarine U-20 off the coast of Ireland. Among its cargo, the ship was carrying rifle cartridges, empty shell casings and fuses. Under "Cruiser Rules," such contraband would have justified a German vessel to search the ship, impound its cargo, and seize or destroy the liner after providing for the safety of its passengers, but a "sink on sight" policy was unjustified. Subsequent German claims that the Lusitania was itself armed or carrying Canadian troops have been disproved while the claim that the ship secretly carried high explosives remains unsubstantiated.
1,201 people died in the event, including 128 Americans. The British and American press both decried the sinking and it contributed to turning American public opinion against Germany.
This poster was published in Boston in 1915, long before the United States entered the war in 1917.
Spear's design was inspired by a news report from Cork, Ireland that described, among recovered bodies, "a mother with a three-month old child clasped tightly in her arms. Her face wears a half smile. Her baby's head rests against her breast. No one has tried to separate them."
Burial of victims from the Lusitania at Queenstown, Ireland, 10 May 1915
Photo courtesy of the Photos of the Great War Web site.
Used with permission.
This article, from the October 1, 1918 edition of The Philadelphia Press, reveals the emotion still attached to the Lusitania sinking over three years later.
Letter sent to Germany by President Woodrow Wilson (under the signature of Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan) about the sinking of the Lusitania.
Department of State,
Washington, May 13, 1915
To Ambassador Gerard:
Please call on the Minister of Foreign Affairs and after reading to him this communication leave with him a copy. In view of recent acts of the German authorities in violation of American rights on the high seas which culminated in the torpedoing and sinking of the British steamship Lusitania on May 7, 1915, by which over 100 American citizens lost their lives, it is clearly wise and desirable that the Government of the United States and the Imperial German Government should come to a clear and full understanding as to the grave situation which has resulted.
The sinking of the British passenger steamer Falaba by a German submarine on March 28, through which Leon C. Thrasher, an American citizen, was drowned; the attack on April 28 on the American vessel Cushing by a German aeroplane; the torpedoing on May 1 of the American vessel Gulflight by a German submarine, as a result of which two or more American citizens met their death and, finally, the torpedoing and sinking of the steamship Lusitania, constitute a series of events which the Government of the United States has observed with growing concern, distress, and amazement.
Recalling the humane and enlightened attitude hitherto assumed by the Imperial German Government in matters of international right, and particularly with regard to the freedom of the seas; having learned to recognize the German views and the German influence in the field of international obligation as always engaged upon the side of justice and humanity; and having understood the instructions of the Imperial German Government to its naval commanders to be upon the same plane of human action prescribed by the naval codes of other nations, the Government of the United States was loath to believe -- it cannot now bring itself to believe -- that these acts, so absolutely contrary to the rules, the practices, and the spirit of modern warfare, could have the countenance or sanction of that great Government. It feels it to be its duty, therefore, to address the Imperial German Government concerning them with the utmost frankness and in the earnest hope that it is not mistaken in expecting action on the part of the Imperial German Government which will correct the unfortunate impressions which have been created and vindicate once more the position of that Government with regard to the sacred freedom of the seas.
The Government of the United States has been apprised that the Imperial German Government considered themselves to be obliged by the extraordinary circumstances of the present war and the measures adopted by their adversaries in seeking to cut Germany off from all commerce, to adopt methods of retaliation which go much beyond the ordinary methods of warfare at sea, in the proclamation of a war zone from which they have warned neutral ships to keep away. This Government has already taken occasion to inform the Imperial German Government that it cannot admit the adoption of such measures or such a warning of danger to operate as in any degree an abbreviation of the rights of American shipmasters or of American citizens bound on lawful errands as passengers on merchant ships of belligerent nationality; and that it must hold the Imperial German Government to a strict accountability for any infringement of those rights, intentional or incidental....
The Government of the United States, therefore, desires to call the attention of the Imperial German Government with the utmost earnestness to the fact that the objection to their present method of attack against the trade of their enemies lies in the practical impossibility of employing submarines in the destruction of commerce without disregarding those rules of fairness, reason, justice, and humanity, which all modern opinion regards as imperative.... The Government and the people of the United States look to the Imperial German Government for just, prompt, and enlightened action in this vital matter with the greater confidence because the United States and Germany are bound together not only for special ties of friendship but also by the explicit stipulations of the treaty of 1828 between the United States and the Kingdom of Prussia.
Expressions of regret and offers of reparation in case of the destruction of neutral ships sunk by mistake, while they may satisfy international obligations, if no loss of life results, cannot justify or excuse a practice, the natural and necessary effect of which is to subject neutral nations and neutral persons to new and immeasurable risks.
The Imperial German Government will not expect the Government of the United States to omit any word or any act necessary to the performance of its sacred duty of maintaining the rights of the United States and its citizens and of safeguarding their free exercise and enjoyment.
The World War I Document Archive, (12 Sept. 2003)