Before the days of transatlantic air travel, ocean liners like the Lusitania were the only means of crossing the Atlantic. With the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, this became a risky undertaking. In February 1915 Germany announced a policy of unrestricted submarine warfare in the waters around the British Isles. Any ship sailing in these waters became a potential target for German submarines. Not even the Lusitania was safe, and she fell victim to a German torpedo on May 7, 1915.

RMS Lusitania

The Royal Mail Ship, or RMS, Lusitania was one of the largest and fastest vessels of her day, in a similar class to the RMS Titanic that sank after hitting an iceberg in 1912. The Lusitania was owned by the British Cunard Line, who operated the ship on the prestigious Liverpool-to-New-York route. When the Lusitania arrived in New York on April 24, 1915, it marked the completion of her 201st Atlantic crossing. The next one was destined to be her last.

The Final Voyage

Shortly before the Lusitania set sail from New York on May 1, the German Embassy in the United States issued a formal warning that it considered the ship a legitimate target for its submarines. In retrospect there was some justification for this because it is now known that the Lusitania was carrying ammunition apparently destined for British troops fighting in Europe. At the time, however, the British government denied that the ship had munitions on board. After sailing across open ocean for six days, the Lusitania approached the coast of Ireland on May 7, just a few hours away from docking in Liverpool.

Sunk by a Torpedo

Approximately 12 miles from the southern coast of Ireland, the Lusitania was attacked by the German submarine U-20. Just after 2 p.m. a single torpedo was fired into the liner's starboard side, resulting in two massive explosions, the second of which may have been caused by the munitions the ship was carrying. The Lusitania sank in less than 20 minutes, with massive loss of life. Out of 1,959 people on board, 1,198 were killed. Among the fatalities were 128 American citizens.

Reaction to the Sinking

The sinking of the Lusitania, with the loss of so many civilian lives, caused outrage around the world. This was particularly true in the United States, which at the time was not involved in the First World War. The sinking is often given as one of the reasons for America's entry into the war, but this was not the immediate result. Initially U.S. President Woodrow Wilson managed to secure a promise from Germany that similar incidents would not happen in future. It was only when this promise was withdrawn in 1917 that the United States finally declared war on Germany.