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  • 1. TO WHAT EXTENT WERE THE BRITISH CULPABLE FOR THE SINKING OF THE LUSITANIA ON MAY 7, 1915? Grace Lee February 21, 2006 IB History 2, Pd. 2 Mr. Hines 1
  • 2. To what extent were the British culpable for the sinking of the Lusitania on May 7, 1915?Part A: Plan of Investigation The Lusitania was one of a pair of huge, fast, and technologically advanced luxury linersthat were created by the Cunard Line of Britain for use as passenger ships, but which could beeasily converted into warships1. During World War I, the Lusitania continued its regularvoyages across the Atlantic Ocean, sparking rumors that it was carrying illicit munitions fromAmerica to Great Britain. On May 7, 1915, the German submarine U-20 sank the Lusitania offthe coast of Ireland, killing 1,195 people, including 123 Americans 2. However, controversysurrounds the factors that led the Germans to sink the Lusitania. To what extent were the Britishculpable for the sinking of the Lusitania? Some historians theorize that Winston Churchill, FirstLord of the British Admiralty, purposefully provoked the Germans to sink the Lusitania. Forexample, Churchill commissioned a report to determine how other nations would react to theGerman sinking of a passenger ship, and he ordered British ships to be threatening so thatpassengers would not be allowed to disembark before the ship was sunk3. Other historiansbelieve that British culpability was minimal and the sinking was primarily due to Germany’sdesire for military and naval superiority. This investigation will cover Britain’s allegedinvolvement in the plot through a comparative study of Lusitania: An Epic Tragedy, by DianaPreston, and The Lusitania: Finally, the Startling Truth about One of the Most Fateful of AllDisasters of the Sea, by Colin Simpson. Most of the research will be from books written bymodern historians, either on the Lusitania in particular or on infamous ship disasters of thetwentieth century, which incorporate many primary sources, including telegrams betweengovernment officials, government documents, and newspapers published during World War I.Part B: Summary of Evidence Some historians attribute the sinking of the Lusitania to many other factors besidesBritish involvement, focusing on Germany’s goals and intelligence in the United States. One ofGermany’s primary reasons for sinking the Lusitania was to establish naval supremacy, whichthey believed would be a key factor in winning World War I4. The British Royal Navy hadalready asserted its power by establishing an illegal blockade of Germany. In retaliation, KaiserWilhelm II of Germany declared a policy of “unrestricted submarine warfare” around the BritishIsles in January 19155, meaning that all British ships would be sunk and that neutral ships sailingin the Isles could not be guaranteed protection6. The United States government immediately1 Ballard, Robert D. Exploring the Lusitania: Probing the Mysteries of the Sinking that Changed History. NewYork: Warner Books, Inc., 1995, Page 20.2 Ballard, Robert D. Exploring the Lusitania: Probing the Mysteries of the Sinking that Changed History. NewYork: Warner Books, Inc., 1995, Page 13.3 Simpson, Colin. The Lusitania: Finally, the Startling Truth about One of the Most Fateful of All Disasters of theSea. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1972, Pages 32-33.4 Pickford, Nigel. Lost Treasure Ships of the Twentieth Century. London: Pavilion Books Limited, 1999, Page 65.5 Many German submariners believed that “as England completely disregards international law, there is not the leastreason why we should exercise restraint.” Preston, Diana. Lusitania: An Epic Tragedy. New York: WalkerPublishing Company, Inc., 2002, Page 67; Gibson, R.H. The German Submarine War, 1914-1918. London:Constable, 1931, Page 26.6 Coffey, Michael. Days of Infamy: Military Blunders of the 20th Century. New York: Nugus/Martin ProductionsLimited, 1999, Page 23. 2
  • 3. warned Germany that it would be held accountable for any American lives lost due to submarinewarfare. Nevertheless, the Germans assumed that the United States would not be able tomobilize quickly enough to make a difference in the war. Germany also wanted to show theUnited States that they would not tolerate a neutral country funneling war materials to Britain.The Germans were well aware of American aid to the Allies7, and a spy ring, led by the Germanmilitary and naval attachés, Franz von Papen and Karl Boy-Ed, uncovered that the Lusitania inparticular would be carrying arms to Britain on her May 1, 1915 voyage8. The sinking of the Lusitania was also partly due to the personality of Walther Schwieger(U-20 commander). Schwieger believed in taking advantage of any opportunities that arise, evenif they diverged with orders. For example, the day before he torpedoed the Lusitania, Schwiegertried to sink an unmarked passenger steamer9. Historian Diana Preston acknowledged that theBritish could have protected the Lusitania more, given that the Germans had published a warningto all passengers embarking on the Lusitania10 and that Britain had acquired Germany’s threemain naval codes, enabling them to pinpoint the location of German U-boats11. Nevertheless,Preston believed that British involvement in the sinking was minimal. Other historians assert that the British government organized a conspiracy that wouldensure the Germans sank the Lusitania. Historian Colin Simpson blamed the entire plot onWinston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty. From the start of the war, Churchill ordered thatall British merchant ships be armed, thus provoking increased aggression from Germany bybreaking the Cruiser Rules12. Churchill also violated international code by transportingmunitions from neutral America to Britain on passenger ships13. Additionally, Churchill ordereda report to study the effect on other nations of a German attack on a passenger ship, illustratingChurchill’s ruthless determination to strengthen the Allied side. Churchill’s inflammatory ordersalso included a mandate for all British merchant ships to disguise themselves as American shipsand to “immediately engage the enemy” if a U-boat ordered them to halt14. In fact, Churchilleven states, “The maneuver which brings an ally into the field is as serviceable as that which7 Official German communications mentioned “heavy artillery fire in certain sections of the Western front, mostlywith American ammunition” and that “captured French artillery officers say that they have great stores of Americanammunition.” Preston, Diana. Lusitania: An Epic Tragedy. New York: Walker Publishing Company, Inc., 2002,Page 81; Gerard, J.W. My Four Years in Germany. London and New York: Hodder and Stoughton, 1927, Page159, as cited in Preston.8 Preston, Diana. Lusitania: An Epic Tragedy. New York: Walker Publishing Company, Inc., 2002, Pages 87-88.9 Preston, Diana. Lusitania: An Epic Tragedy. New York: Walker Publishing Company, Inc., 2002, Page 170.10 Preston, Diana. Lusitania: An Epic Tragedy. New York: Walker Publishing Company, Inc., 2002, Page 91.11 Preston, Diana. Lusitania: An Epic Tragedy. New York: Walker Publishing Company, Inc., 2002, Page 160-162.12 The Cruiser Rules stated that unarmed ships could be stopped and the crew could be allowed to disembark beforethe ship was captured or destroyed. However, armed ships could be attacked without warning. Simpson, Colin.The Lusitania: Finally, the Startling Truth about One of the Most Fateful of All Disasters of the Sea. Boston: Little,Brown and Company, 1972, Pages 32-33.13 On May 20, 1915, Vice Admiral Oliver (Chief of the Naval War Staff) stated, “It also frequently happens that theship has sailed before it is known [at the Admiralty] that troops or valuable government warlike stores are onboard.” Simpson, Colin. The Lusitania: Finally, the Startling Truth about One of the Most Fateful of All Disastersof the Sea. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1972, Page 69; Fisher, Lord John A. Memories and Records.Volume 2. New York, 1920, Page 215, as cited in Simpson.14 Simpson, Colin. The Lusitania: Finally, the Startling Truth about One of the Most Fateful of All Disasters of theSea. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1972, Page 36. 3
  • 4. wins a great battle”15, implying that the sinking of the Lusitania was necessary for bringingAmerica into the war as a British ally.Part C: Evaluation of SourcesPreston, Diana. Lusitania: An Epic Tragedy. New York: Walker Publishing Company, Inc., 2002. Diana Preston, who studied modern history at Oxford University, is a historian and theauthor of several books. She has written articles and reviewed books for numerous newspapersand magazines, including The Wall Street Journal, and is a broadcaster for the BBC. Preston’spurpose for writing this book was to reach a conclusion, after analyzing recently releasedGerman documents and other materials, about the motivations behind the sinking of theLusitania and its worldwide ramifications16. This source is valuable because it provides a verybalanced, objective account of the events surrounding the attack on the Lusitania based on manyprimary sources, including interviews with survivors and previously-classified American,British, and German documents17. Also, Preston uses extensive endnotes, making it simple totrace the basis for her claims back to the evidence. Additionally, one of the appendices focuseson the technical aspects of the sinking, which includes diagrams of the ship’s configuration andwhich refutes Britain’s initial claims that the Lusitania was not carrying any munitions18. Theonly limitation is that only about one-fourth of the book focuses on the reasons behind the attackon the Lusitania, while the rest discusses the passengers on the ship, the attack itself, and itsconsequences.Simpson, Colin. The Lusitania: Finally, the Startling Truth about One of the Most Fateful of All Disasters of the Sea. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1972. Colin Simpson was a British journalist and historian who became famous for his theorythat the British were part of a conspiracy to sink the Lusitania. After extensive searches on theInternet, no other information on Simpson could be found, though many other prestigioushistorians refer to him in their works. Simpson’s purpose for writing this book was to advancehis assertion that Churchill purposely instigated and enabled Germany to sink the Lusitania inorder to bring America into the war on the Allied side19. This source is valuable because, not15 Simpson, Colin. The Lusitania: Finally, the Startling Truth about One of the Most Fateful of All Disasters of theSea. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1972, Page 35; Churchill, Winston S. The World Crisis. Revised Edition.London, 1931, Page 298, as cited in Simpson.16 Preston states that she wanted to “provide a fresh perspective on why some acted as they did and how their actionsand decisions influenced not only the fate of the Lusitania but, as a consequence, the outcome of the First WorldWar and the conduct of warfare in general.” Preston, Diana. Lusitania: An Epic Tragedy. New York: WalkerPublishing Company, Inc., 2002, Page 5.17 Preston includes many direct quotes from survivors, particularly in Chapter 14 (entitled “My God, We Are Lost”)in which she recounts the actual attack on the Lusitania. For example, many survivors commented on seeing thetorpedo speeding towards the ship underwater. Preston, Diana. Lusitania: An Epic Tragedy. New York: WalkerPublishing Company, Inc., 2002, Pages 189-200.18 Appendix B, entitled “A Technical Account of the Sinking.” Preston, Diana. Lusitania: An Epic Tragedy. NewYork: Walker Publishing Company, Inc., 2002, Pages 441-454.19 Simpson, Colin. The Lusitania: Finally, the Startling Truth about One of the Most Fateful of All Disasters of theSea. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1972, Pages 35-36. 4
  • 5. only does it express a unique viewpoint, but it bases its conclusions on evidence taken fromprimary sources. For example, Simpson quotes from one of Richard Webb’s (head of the TradeDivision of the Admiralty) memos in which he claimed that Captain William Turner (of theLusitania) had been “inviting disaster” in order to illustrate Webb’s blatant lies and attempts toplace the blame away from the Admiralty20. Simpson also includes many maps, illustrations,and diagrams in order to clarify his points, such as the map of St. George’s Channel, whichshows how the U-20 had approached the Lusitania21. However, this book has many limitations,primarily because of Simpson’s blatant bias in favor of his conspiracy theory. In some cases,Simpson tends to interpret ambiguous sources in ways that support his thesis but that may not beaccurate22. For example, Churchill states in his autobiography that “the maneuver which gainsan important strategic point may be less valuable than that which placates or overawes adangerous neutral,” a statement which Simpson interprets as a clear indication of Churchill’sdesires to do anything in order to bring America into the war as a British ally23. Anotherlimitation is that the book was written in 1972, so the materials may be outdated, and manyhistorians have since then attempted to discredit Simpson’s thesis.Part D: Analysis While one can conclude that Germany sank the Lusitania in an attempt to enforce theunrestricted submarine warfare policy, it would be difficult to assert that the British had playedas large a role in the conspiracy to sink the ship as Colin Simpson would claim. In response toSimpson’s conspiracy theory, Thomas Bailey and Paul Ryan published a book that attempted todiscredit Simpson’s argument. Bailey and Ryan asserted that the Lusitania was attacked becauseof Captain Turner’s negligence and because of excessive German aggression, not because of aplot by the British24. However, some of Bailey’s other arguments are founded on more flimsyevidence. For example, Bailey asserted that the Lusitania “was not being used as a warship,” buthe never provided any source as to where he obtained this information25. Much more evidencesupports the theory that the British were involved in some way with the sinking of the Lusitania,20 Simpson, Colin. The Lusitania: Finally, the Startling Truth about One of the Most Fateful of All Disasters of theSea. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1972, Page 185; The Webb memorandum in Lord Mersey’s papers,duplicated in P.R.O., ADM / 137 / 1058, as cited in Simpson.21 Another example is the diagram showing what cargo the ship was carrying on its last voyage and where the cargowas placed in the ship’s interior. Simpson, Colin. The Lusitania: Finally, the Startling Truth about One of the MostFateful of All Disasters of the Sea. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1972, Pages 135 and 104.22 For example, the Admiralty War Diary documents Lord Fisher (Admiral of the Fleet) and Churchill’s discussionof the Lusitania’s arranged escort ship. The diary stops abruptly after the escort ship’s futility against submarineattack was discussed, which Simpson claims clearly indicates Churchill and Fisher’s desires to mask their decisionof withdrawing the Lusitania’s escort. Simpson, Colin. The Lusitania: Finally, the Startling Truth about One of theMost Fateful of All Disasters of the Sea. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1972, Page 130.23 Simpson, Colin. The Lusitania: Finally, the Startling Truth about One of the Most Fateful of All Disasters of theSea. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1972, Page 35.24 Bailey claimed that “Captain Turner had deliberately violated five of his top-secret instructions,” quoting one ofCaptain Webb’s memorandums to show that the Admiralty was blameless; Webb believed that “not only had [theLusitania’s] course leaked out but that ‘misleading directions’ had been sent to the liner while en route ‘in [theBritish] code.” The five instructions were “high speed, zigzagging, a mid-channel course, avoiding headlands, andshunning approaches to harbors.” Bailey, Thomas A., and Ryan, Paul B. The Lusitania Disaster: The Real AnswerBehind the World’s Most Controversial Sea Tragedy. New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc., 1975, Page 179.25 Bailey, Thomas A., and Ryan, Paul B. The Lusitania Disaster: The Real Answer Behind the World’s MostControversial Sea Tragedy. New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc., 1975, Page 178. 5
  • 6. though their degree of involvement is probably not as extreme as Simpson asserted. Forexample, Churchill’s order for a report predicting the effect on other nations of an attack on apassenger ship is irrefutable, and as was his deliberately antagonistic arming of British merchantships; Churchill was certainly desperate for any advantage that could be brought to the Alliedside26. Nevertheless, the British cannot be fully blamed for the sinking of the Lusitania since agreat deal of evidence indicates that Germany was already planning on sinking ships carryingmunitions into Britain. Germany needed to deter neutral countries from sending military aid tothe Allies, to demonstrate their naval power, and to impose a blockade around Britain that wouldprevent her from receiving illegal aid27. Establishing a war zone around the British Isles, withunrestricted submarine warfare28, could achieve these goals, and sinking the Lusitania woulddemonstrate their ability and willingness to enforce it. Even without Churchill’s questionableactions (i.e. telling passenger ships to arm themselves and ram submarines 29), the Germansclearly intended to sink the Lusitania, as demonstrated by their warning published innewspapers, stating that “travelers sailing in the war zone on ships of Great Britain or her alliesdo so at their own risk”30. Furthermore, the Germans directly responsible for the sinking,Captain Schwieger and Hermann Bauer (commander of the U-20 and two other submarines),both believed that attacking passenger ships, even unmarked and potentially neutral ones, wasacceptable in the war zone31. Therefore, the British played only a minor role in the sinking of theLusitania; German political and military motivations were the primary factors.Part E: Conclusion Like in most military and government decisions, a multitude of factors combined to causethe Germans to sink the Lusitania. However, the British were not primarily responsible for theattack; their actions simply enabled the attack to occur. Britain may have played a part ininstigating Germany, but ultimately German motivations would cause the sinking. Churchill’sactions ensured the attack’s success by making the Lusitania an easy target; he did not directlycause her to be attacked in the first place. Ultimately, the sinking of the Lusitania brought theAmericans one step closer to war; the United States’ declaration of war on Germany on April 6,1917 would change the outcome of the war and affect international relations dramatically.26 In his autobiography, Churchill stated, “The first British countermove, made on my responsibility … was to deterthe Germans from surface attack. The submerged U-boat had to rely increasingly on underwater attack and thus ranthe greater risk of mistaking neutral for British ships and of drowning neutral crews and thus embroiling Germanywith other Great Powers.” Simpson, Colin. The Lusitania: Finally, the Startling Truth about One of the MostFateful of All Disasters of the Sea. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1972, Page 36; Churchill, Winston S. TheWorld Crisis. Revised Edition. London, 1931, Pages 724-725, as cited in Simpson.27 Bailey, Thomas A., and Ryan, Paul B. The Lusitania Disaster: The Real Answer Behind the World’s MostControversial Sea Tragedy. New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc., 1975, Page 30.28 Preston, Diana. Lusitania: An Epic Tragedy. New York: Walker Publishing Company, Inc., 2002, Page 67.29 Preston, Diana. Lusitania: An Epic Tragedy. New York: Walker Publishing Company, Inc., 2002, Page 73.30 Ballard, Robert D. Exploring the Lusitania: Probing the Mysteries of the Sinking that Changed History. NewYork: Warner Books, Inc., 1995, Page 31.31 When U-boat captains were told not to sink neutral ships, Bauer angrily expressed that “his U-boats should not beput at risk because of political wavering and that his captains must have some freedom to act.” Preston, Diana.Lusitania: An Epic Tragedy. New York: Walker Publishing Company, Inc., 2002, Page 149. 6
  • 7. Preston’s book was more valuable to this investigation than Simpson’s book because herbook showed a more balanced, objective viewpoint and was based on more reliable sources.Simpson tended to be biased and made some of his claims based on questionable evidence.Part F: Source ListPrimary SourcesChurchill, Winston S. The World Crisis. Revised Edition. London, 1931, as cited in Simpson.Fisher, Lord John A. Memories and Records. Volume 2. New York, 1920, as cited in Simpson.Gerard, J.W. My Four Years in Germany. London and New York: Hodder and Stoughton, 1927, as cited in Preston.Webb memorandum in Lord Mersey’s papers, duplicated in P.R.O., ADM / 137 / 1058, as cited in Simpson.Secondary SourcesBailey, Thomas A., and Ryan, Paul B. The Lusitania Disaster: The Real Answer Behind the World’s Most Controversial Sea Tragedy. New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc., 1975.Ballard, Robert D. Exploring the Lusitania: Probing the Mysteries of the Sinking that Changed History. New York: Warner Books, Inc., 1995.Coffey, Michael. Days of Infamy: Military Blunders of the 20th Century. New York: Nugus/Martin Productions Limited, 1999.Gibson, R.H. The German Submarine War, 1914-1918. London: Constable, 1931Pickford, Nigel. Lost Treasure Ships of the Twentieth Century. London: Pavilion Books Limited, 1999.Preston, Diana. Lusitania: An Epic Tragedy. New York: Walker Publishing Company, Inc., 2002.Simpson, Colin. The Lusitania: Finally, the Startling Truth about One of the Most Fateful of All Disasters of the Sea. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1972. 7