The Lusitania – remembered throughout the Western World as “you know, that other ship that sank”, but actually a disaster of virtually the same scale as the Titanic. And perhaps, far greater consequence.
Far greater, because its sinking in 1915 just off the Irish coast arguably brought the United States into the First World War, turning its tide and changing the course of history. Arguably, because if you say this historians will argue with you. And this is not the only aspect of the disaster that remains controversial. Hit by a single German torpedo, the ship was shocked by not one but two explosions. Was it secretly carrying munitions to Britain? If so, then sinking it wasn’t the mindless act of German aggression against civilians that the British made out in their propaganda, but a legitimate act of war. Right?
This rumour was exacerbated by the apparent fact that the British dropped depth charges on the wreck in the 1950s – presumably to destroy the evidence that the Germans were perfectly justified in sinking it. Because the Americans would be so pissed if they found out that they were tricked into joining a war they won by… by secretly smuggling weapons to the British unbeknownst to themselves.
Unfortunately for the theory it had been known since precisely all along that the Lusitania was carrying weapons. They’re in the cargo manifest. It’s just that it was rifle ammunition and the non-explosive parts of shell fuses, which wouldn’t explain the second explosion. There must therefore have been some other sort of weapon that they were keeping secret, but which would have justified the Germans sinking the ship if they did know about it – which they didn’t because otherwise they would have mentioned by now I think – if they needed any more justification, which they didn’t.
What I’m broadly saying here is that this is not a very good theory.
Besides, the Germans were trying to blockade Britain for Christ sake, they were going to make an exception for luxury liners? Just wave them on through? “Don’t mind us, we’re having a war.” They had even warned potential passengers that they considered the liners targets [See Illustration]. The Cunard shipping line just took a gamble, and it didn’t pay off. Not even a little.
It seems likely that the second explosion was merely the ship’s high-pressure steam turbine system rupturing. In all probability the US would have joined the war eventually. Even if they hadn’t the French and British should have won anyway, having access through their vast maritime empires to far greater resources than Germany and Austria-Hungary. So the sinking of the Lusitania is probably the greatest non-mystery in the history of disaster at sea. And it may soon be solved!