Thursday, May 7, 2015

May 7, 1915

100 years ago today, in a factoid well known to school children, the R.M.S. Lusitania was sunk by a German submarine with a loss of 1198 lives.

And... that little snippet is pretty much all most people know about the disaster.

The details are forgotten compared to her erstwhile competitor, Titanic. Nobody made a blockbuster movie about her. Plenty of books have been written, but they often focus on the debated aspects. Was the ship a legitimate target? Did the British admiralty intentionally put her in harm's way? Was she carrying priceless paintings? These questions will never be settled, and I won't debate them here.

Americans are taught that the sinking is what brought the U.S. into WWI. Horseshit. It certainly contributed, but was only a small part. In fact, President Wilson fought like hell to stay out afterwards, and the U.S. didn't enter the war for another 2 years. The resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare in 1917 was a bigger factor. And, although mostly forgotten now, the Zimmerman Telegram was likely the event that finally pushed America into hostilities. Except for those of you who (like me) are fascinated by history, you've probably never heard of it.

A voyage then was a far cry from cruising now. Today's ships are designed for entertainment, with shows, games, shopping malls, climbing walls, mini-golf courses, and countless activities. They're rarely at sea for more than 2-3 days (at most) and frequent port stops are part of the attraction.

That wasn't the case in 1915.

To get some idea of intercontinental travel in the pre-flight age, think of this: You were in a large hotel for 10-20 days. You couldn't leave. You didn't stop in port until the end. The restaurants, though opulent, were the same. Your fellow travelers, and the crew, never changed. The only entertainment provided by the ship were small orchestras for 1st and 2nd class, an exercise room, and a meagre library. 3rd class slept in large dormitory-like rooms that doubled as their dining areas, and their only entertainment was whatever instruments and reading they'd brought. The North Atlantic crossing, arguably the busiest and most economically important of the era, was rainy, cold, and windy. The ships didn't have the stabilizing systems we take for granted today, and rolled with the choppy seas.

The Lusitania's stories are mostly forgotten (like the Empress of Ireland) probably because of the time scale involved. From start to finish the sinking took 18 minutes. In that sort of time, on a rapidly foundering ship, the overall reaction is rushed panic. The Titanic, in contrast, floated for 2 hours and 38 minutes after striking the iceberg. Enough time to avoid panic and for the norms of Edwardian society to dictate the events. Women and children first. Rich before poor. Americans & Britons before immigrants. Stories of the band playing to the end, of Isidor & Ida Straus choosing to die together rather than get in a lifeboat ahead of younger people, or the chief engineer who went back to carry out a crewman with a broken leg - with neither ever seen again. Thousands of stories in 158 minutes that immortalized the disaster.

In just 18 minutes, those on the Lusitania didn't have time to do much but try to get in a lifeboat. Most failed. Although (unlike the Titanic) she had enough lifeboats for all, the slope of the sinking hull, and the rivets holding it together, made it difficult to launch them. Many dumped people out before hitting the water.

But stories are there, you just have to look for them.

The Lusitania herself was a technological marvel. The first liner fitted with the revolutionary new steam turbines that today run everything from nuclear submarines to power plants. The first ship to have a central climate-control system (the ancestor of air-conditioning) to keep the interior at a steady 68°F, regardless of outside weather. The system also exchanged the air inside the ship 7 times every hour, eliminating the need to open portholes on a cold day. And, for a time, she was the fastest liner to ever cross the Atlantic.

On the antagonist in the tragedy, the submarine U-20, was a story. The ship had been identified as a large passenger liner, and Kapitanleütnant Walther Schwieger still had every intention of sinking her. He gave the order to fire, and it was the job of Quartermaster Voegele to relay it to the torpedo room.

But Voegele wouldn't. He told Schwieger he refused to carry out an order that would kill innocent civilians. Schwieger immediately relieved him of his post and had another officer do it. After returning to land, Voegele was court-martialed and spent the rest of the war in prison.

Very few stories are as popular, or been "re-booted" as much, as Peter Pan. From the Walt Disney cartoon, to Dustin Hoffman's "Hook," to 2003's "Neverland," the tale has been imagined and re-imagined, both in movies and theater, many times. And Tinkerbell now has her own spin-offs.

But the odds are you'd never have heard of Peter Pan or Tinkerbell if it weren't for a man named Charles Frohman. One of the leading theater producers of the era, he was instrumental in bringing the story to stage. First in London, then in America, he put J.M. Barrie's once obscure story in front of live audiences night after night. Frohman even had the title changed, from the original "Peter Pan - the Boy Who Hated Mothers" to the one you know: "The Boy Who Never Grew Up." It's as immortal as a tale can be.

Frohman died on the Lusitania, at age 58. Unable to jump into a lifeboat due to severe arthritis, and not knowing how to swim, he knew his life was coming to a close. He spent his last minutes with the wealthy Alfred Vanderbilt (age 37, also couldn't swim, and refused to get in a lifeboat ahead of women), tying life jackets to the nursery's baby baskets to make sure the infants would float. As the end approached Frohman turned to actress Rita Jolivet (who survived), and quoted from Peter Pan “Why fear death? It is the most beautiful adventure that life gives us." Then he disappeared under a surge of water.

As Margaret Mackworth and her friend Dorothy Connor watched the frantic rush for the lifeboats, Margaret commented that "I've always thought a shipwreck was a well-organized affair." Dorothy replied "so have I, but I've learned a devil of a lot in the last 5 minutes." An hour earlier, at lunch, Mackworth had told others at her table "It's been such a dull, dreary, stupid, trip. I can't help hoping that we get some sort of thrill going up the channel."

In Chicago, Illinois is Ambrose Plamondon Elementary School. Mr. Plamondon was a major American steel industrialist of the 19th century. When he died his son Charles took over the vast company... And, along with his wife, died on the Lusitania.

Another survivor who ran down to get her lifebelt remembered passing an open door, where inside a middle-aged woman cheerfully arranged and re-arranged her suitcase unconcernedly, as though they were about arrive in port.

In New York, Cunard's local director watched a crowd gather outside his office as news drifted in. He remembered watching a similar crowd outside the rival White Star Line office across the street 3 years earlier, and hoping it would never happen to him.

The worst of human nature was on display that night through America, Ireland, and Britain. Mobs attacked and burned business and homes owned by families of German descent, or even those with vaguely German-sounding names.

To the people of Queenstown (now Cobh), Ireland, fell the rescue. As the first S.O.S. crackled from the Lusitania, local fisherman (who'd just come in to unload from the morning) frantically untied their boats and headed back out to sea to save as many as possible. It was a motley collection of mostly sailing boats, a few faster ones with engines, and even some that were being paddled. Boys standing on the cliffs of Kinsale to watch her pass saw the explosion, and helped spread the alarm to local life-saving patrols. The exhausted fishermen worked into the evening to save as many as they could.

As the 767 survivors came into town on overloaded boats, the townspeople rushed blankets and food to the docks. They found places to shelter the fortunate ones - in homes, hotels, warehouses... anywhere there was space - until Cunard was able to make arrangements.

To the locals also fell the unenviable job of handling bodies that were picked up by boats or washed ashore for the next several weeks. Those that could be identified were sent home, but many were beyond that. So three large mass graves, with coffins stacked 2-3 high (some with 2 children put in them) were dug at the Old Church Cemetery. More were buried in Kinsale, at the Church of St. Multose.

Some of the victim's names were known only to their families, sadly being listed on the roster just as "Mr. Stanton's manservant" or "Lady Adam's maid."

In 1912, as the Titanic was about to leave port, the suction from her powerful propellers pulled another liner, the S.S. New York, away from the dock. The 2 ships missed colliding by roughly 3 feet before tugboats could push them apart. Now, 3 years later, the New York was linked to another tragedy. The American government chartered her to bring citizens, living and dead, back to the states. She carried the bodies of Charles Frohman, the Plamondons, and many others.

Survivor Herbert Ehrhardt took off his shoes and gave them to a shivering man in his lifeboat while awaiting rescue. They didn't quite fit, but the man said they'd do. The next day Ehrhardt (and many others) went to a Queenstown shoe store to replace them. As he waited to be helped, he noticed his original pair lying discarded on the floor. He laced them back on and left.

U-20, the submarine that sank Lusitania, ran aground off Denmark in November, 1916, and was subsequently demolished. What's left is roughly 1200 feet from shore, under sediment. The conning tower was removed and is at a local museum.

Captain William Turner of the Lusitania survived the sinking when a wave washed him off the bridge. He was pulled from the water, unconscious, by the crew of a fishing boat. Although exonerated by the inquiry, public opinion held him to be at fault for not taking preventative measures. His wife and sons left him, and he never saw them again. He was assigned to command the ship Ivernia in 1917, which was sunk in the Mediterranean by a submarine. He survived again, but never returned to sea and died in 1933.

Kapitanleütnant Walther Schwieger was killed in September, 1917, when his next submarine struck a British mine.

The last survivor of the Lusitania, Audrey Lawson-Johnston, died at age 95 in 2011.

The once-beautiful Lusitania lies, collapsed on her starboard side, in 300 feet of water off Ireland. While the bow section of the Titanic still evokes a sense of grace and majesty, the Lusitania is little more than a large scrapyard. Her much shallower depth makes her susceptible to the effects of tide, weather, and temperatures. The attack by U-20 was also just the beginning. Countless times in WW1 and WW2 there was concern U-boats were using the wreck to hide, and so it was aggressively depth-charged by destroyers to scare them off.

The hundreds in the mass graves, whose identities will never be known and whose families never saw them again, are marked at the Old Church Cemetery by a single large stone.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for sharing this - did not know all the details.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Grumpy! Do you have a compilation of all your history lessons? I'd buy it for a reasonable price...

Officer Cynical said...

Beautifully written. And as is often the case in history, the beauty is in the details.

Ivan Ilyich said...

Another fascinating maritime story. Coincidentally, I just recently had heard of the Zimmermann telegram, which is featured in a new espionage thriller, The German Agent, by J. Sydney Jones.

Anonymous said...

I normally find history boring and dry and difficult to get into, but your accounts are always so interesting to read. They make me go and do more reading on the events.

Hildy said...

My favorite little factoid from the Zimmerman telegram episode is embedded in one of Mexico's reasons for rejecting the German proposal: That Mexico could not hope to control the retaken area since the population in that region was better supplied than most populations with arms. Nothing has changed apparently.

Ms. Donna said...

Thank you. I had heard of the quartermaster's "mutiny" from my father, a Navy officer. He used it to explain how we are responsible for our actions, and that even correct or humane action has cost.

clairesmum said...

you make history come alive..thanks for the lesson..i learned something new today.

Randy H said...

thanks for this one, didn't know much of this

Mage said...

I like this a lot.
Did you chance to see the NOVA last night on WWII U Boats. Then there is the sinking of the Andrea Doria in 56. The Stockholm continues sailing as the Mv Athena. Recently her last sister was beached in Alang.

bobbie said...

Fabulous ~ thanks for sharing all the details. You have the knack of making history come alive.

PGYx said...

As others have said, you have such talent for making history come alive. I'm no history buff, but you could turn me into one. I, too, will buy your book (or pre-order) when you publish!

PGYx said...

P.S. Your account was so touching it brought a little extra moisture to my eyes. You told these folks' stories so beautifully I read the post twice, savoring every word. Thanks.

David said...

Know about the Sultana? I didn't until I moved to Memphis, and am occasionally surprised when someone from here has no idea.

Unknown said...

I love reading these historical posts. Thanks for putting them up. Unfortunately, when I went to the wiki article (cause you've just gotta afterwards :) ), they mentioned that the whole quartermaster thing is just an urban legend:

"One story – an urban legend – states that when Lieutenant Schwieger of the U-20 gave the order to fire, his quartermaster, Charles Voegele, would not take part in an attack on women and children, and refused to pass on the order to the torpedo room – a decision for which he was court-martialed and imprisoned at Kiel until the end of the war.[34] This rumour persisted until 1972, when the French daily paper Le Monde published a letter to the editor.[35]"

Anonymous said...

Dear Dr. Grumpy,

though admittedly German is a weird language it's not that bizarre:

"Kapitanleütnant" is "Kapitänleutnant".

I thought you might appreciate fixing that spelling mistake.

- History Buff from Germany

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