This week (May 7) in 1915, the Lusitania, a British luxury liner owned by the Cunard Line, was sunk by a German U-boat off the southern coast of Ireland, killing 1,198 people, including 123 Americans.

It is one of the most infamous ship-sinking incidents in maritime history, and since it was such an avoidable tragedy, many historians believe the British government purposely neglected the Lusitania’s safety in the hope the deaths of the Americans on board would force the United States to enter World War I.

First, there were ample warnings danger awaited any ships sailing from America to Europe, especially ships headed for nations, including Great Britain, then at war with Germany. German officials even placed advertisements in newspapers, including newspapers in New York City, where the Lusitania was docked that April, warning Germany and Britain were at war, and “the zone of war includes the waters adjacent to the British Isle.”

Second, British intelligence had intercepted messages from the U-boat, the U-20, and knew it had already sunk three vessels in the same waters the Lusitania was heading for. Indeed, when the Cunard Line’s chairman, Alfred Booth, read of these attacks in the newspapers, he immediately met with the senior naval officer in Liverpool, the Lusitania’s destination, and pleaded with him to send a warning message to the Lusitania. When finally sent, the message was too late and too devoid of relevant information to be of any use.

Third, just two days before the Lusitania was hit, the British dreadnought HMS Orion was in the path of the U-20, but thanks to British intelligence alerts it was escorted to safety by four British destroyers. The British Admiralty knew the Lusitania would soon be in those same waters, yet provided no warning message, let alone naval escort. To say the least it was highly unusual not to provide a naval escort for British ships in waters off the British Isles that German U-boats had been patrolling, especially given all the information British intelligence had on the U-20’s movements.

“I am reluctantly compelled to state,” British historian Patrick Beesly concluded, “that on balance … there was indeed a plot, however imperfect, to endanger the Lusitania in order to involve the United States in the war.”

The plot was “imperfect” and would fail. Isolationist, and led by a president, Woodrow Wilson, determined to avoid war, America would not be provoked into entering WWI for another two years, and it would be because of an entirely different incident – the decision of Germany to attack all neutral shipping, including U.S. vessels. The deaths, then, of 1,198 innocent people were in vain and almost certainly avoidable.

Bruce G. Kauffmann’s e-mail address is bruce@historylessons.net.

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