The Sinking of the Lusitania and America's Entry into World War I

Postcard image of the Lusitania, a passenger liner which was sunk by German U-Boats during World War I.
Postcard image of the Lusitania, a passenger liner which was sunk by German U-Boats during World War I. Public Domain

On May 7, 1915, the British ocean liner RMS Lusitania was in route from New York City to Liverpool, England when it was torpedoed and sunk by a German U-boat. Over 1100 civilians died as a result of this attack, including more than 120 American citizens. This defining moment would later prove to be the impetus which eventually convinced United States public opinion to change from its’ earlier position of neutrality with respect to being a participant in World War I.

 On April 6, 1917, President Woodrow Wilson appeared before the U.S. Congress calling for a declaration of war against Germany. 

American Neutrality at the Start of World War I

World War I had officially started on August 1, 1914 when Germany declared war against Russia.  Then on August 3rd and 4th, 1914, Germany declared war against France and Belgium respectively, which resulted in Great Britain declaring war against Germany. Austria-Hungary declared war against Russia on August 6th following Germany’s lead. Following this domino effect that started World War I, President Woodrow Wilson announced that the United States would remain neutral. This was consistent with the public opinion of the majority of the American people.  

At onset of the war, Britain and United States were very close trading partners so it was not unexpected that tensions would arise between the United States and Germany once the Germans started to conduct a blockade of the British Isles.

In addition, a number of American ships that were bound for Great Britain had been either damaged or sunk by German mines. Then in February 1915, Germany broadcast that they would be conducting unrestricted submarine patrols and combat in the waters which surround Britain.

Unrestricted Submarine Warfare and the Lusitania

The Lusitania had been built to be the world’s fastest ocean liner and shortly after her maiden voyage in September 1907, the Lusitania made the fastest crossing of the Atlantic Ocean at that time earning her the nickname “Greyhound of the Sea”.

She was able to cruise at an average speed of 25 knots or approximately 29 mph, which is about the same speed as modern cruise ships.

The Lusitania’s construction had been secretly financed by the British Admiralty, and she was built to their specifications. In exchange for the government subsidy, it was understood that if England went to war then the Lusitania would be committed to serving the Admiralty. In 1913, war was looming on the horizon and the Lusitania was put in dry dock in order to be properly fitted for military service. This included installing gun mounts on her decks – which were hidden under the teak deck so that guns could easily be added when needed.

At the end of April 1915, on the same page were two announcements in New York newspapers. First, there was an advertisement of the impending voyage of the Lusitania scheduled to depart from New York City on May 1st for its’ trip back across the Atlantic to Liverpool. In addition, there were warnings that had been issued by the German Embassy in Washington, D.C. that civilians who traveled in war zones on any British or Allied ship was done at their own risk. The German warnings of submarine attacks did have a negative impact on the passenger list of the Lusitania as when the ship set sail on May 1, 1915 as it was far below its’ capacity of a combined 3,000 passengers and crew on board.

The British Admiralty had warned the Lusitania to either avoid the Irish coast or take some very simple evasive actions, such as zigzagging to make it more difficult for German U-boats to determine the ship’s course of travel. Unfortunately the Lusitania’s Captain, William Thomas Turner, failed to give proper deference to the Admiralty’s warning. On May 7, the British ocean liner RMS Lusitania was en route from New York City to Liverpool, England when it was torpedoed on its starboard side and sunk by a German U-boat off the coast of Ireland. It only took about 20 minutes for the ship to sink. The Lusitania was carrying approximately 1,960 passengers and crew, of which there were 1,198 casualties. In addition, this passenger list included 159 U.S. citizens and there were 124 Americans included in the death toll.

 After the Allies and the United States complained, Germany argued that the attack was justified because the Lusitania’s manifest listed various items of munitions that were bound for the British military. The British claimed that none of the munitions on board were “live”, so therefore the attack on the ship was not legitimate under the rules of war at that time. Germany argued otherwise. In 2008, a dive team explored the wreck of the Lusitania in 300 feet of water and found approximately four million rounds of Remington .303 bullets that had been made in the United States in the ship’s hold.

Although Germany eventually gave in to protests made by the United States government regarding the submarine attack on the Lusitania and promised to end this type of warfare, six months later another ocean liner was sunk. In November 2015, a U-boat sunk an Italian liner without any warning whatsoever.  More than 270 people perished in this attack, including more than 25 Americans causing public opinion to begin to turn in favor of joining the war against Germany.

America's Entry into World War I

On January 31, 1917, Germany declared that it was placing an end to its’ self-imposed moratorium on unrestricted warfare in waters that were within the war-zone. The United States government broke diplomatic relations with Germany three days later and almost immediately a German U-boat sunk the Housatonic which was an American cargo ship.

On February 22, 1917, Congress enacted an arms appropriations bill that was designed to prepare the United States for war against Germany. Then, in March, four more U.S. merchant ships were sunk by Germany which prompted President Wilson to appear before Congress on April 2nd requesting a declaration of war against Germany. The Senate voted to declare war against Germany on April 4th and on April 6, 1917 the House of Representatives endorsed the Senate’s declaration causing the United States to enter World War I.