Welcome to 'Lost in the Myths of History'

It often seems that many prominent people of the past are wronged by often-repeated descriptions, which in time are taken as truth. The same is also true of events, which are frequently presented in a particular way when there might be many alternative viewpoints. This blog is intended to present a different perspective on those who have often been lost in the myths of history.

Sunday, 15 January 2012

The Sinking of Lusitania

In May 1915 when a German U-boat torpedoed the passenger liner Lusitania over a thousand people – including more than 100 Americans - drowned off the coast of Ireland. Since America was a neutral country the deaths of innocent people caused outrage and this is often cited as the event which brought the USA into the First World War – a sort of precursor of Pearl Harbour. In fact, it would be two years before Woodrow Wilson sent his troops to Europe to participate in that pointless conflict and, on closer inspection, it is clear that there was far more to this attack, which was seen as an example of German aggression, than is immediately apparent.
It is generally accepted now that the ship was carrying arms destined for Britain and her Allies. This fact alone made the ship a legitimate target for a U-boat, particularly when the British blockade of the German fleet was an attempt to starve Germany out and, for some time, it seemed to account for the speed with which Lusitania sank. The explosion caused by the German torpedo was immediately followed by a far bigger explosion and, though nowadays it is believed that this was due to the torpedo igniting coal dust or one of the engines, for a while it was thought that it was due to the igniting of the hidden arms. In a scene reminiscent of the bombing of an Iraqi hospital, which was said to be built over one of Saddam’s arms depots, the innocent passengers were basically used as a human shield. Of course, the killing of civilians (including children and citizens of a neutral country) cannot be excused but I believe that the greater guilt lies not with Walter Schwieger, who captained the U-boat, but with Britain’s First Lord of the Admiralty – Winston Churchill.

Churchill – the man who wrote, when millions of people were dying: “I LOVE this war!” - had sent several ‘top secret’ memos saying that it would be ideal if American ships could be enticed into the areas where U-boats were operating, so that they would be sunk and America would join the Allies. He did not care how many people were killed as long as he succeeded in his war game. Captain Schwieger, on the other hand, had sunk several ships but had always given the crews time to escape. Only days before sinking Lusitania, he surfaced before firing a torpedo at another vessel so that the crew would see him, abandon ship and make their way to safety before they were struck. No one was killed. When he saw Lusitania, he was aware that the ship had sufficient lifeboats for all the passengers. He also knew that a ship like that would take a long time to sink (Titanic took two hours) and, since they were very close to the Irish coast, the passengers would have time to make their way to the shore. In fact, due to the second explosion, the ship listed, rendering half the lifeboats useless and in the ensuing panic, other lifeboats were dropped too hastily into the sea and capsized. The whole ship sank in less than twenty minutes.

A couple of weeks before the ship left New York, the German Embassy in Washington posted a notice warning that all ships bearing the British flag were liable to be attacked. Several prominent bankers also received specific telegrams from some ‘unknown’ source, telling them quite specifically that Lusitania would be torpedoed. Some of them cancelled their passage.

A British battleship, Juno, had been patrolling the waters and could have served as an escort to Lusitania but this ship was recalled to port and no alternative was sent out. British intelligence was aware that the U-boat was operating but no specific warning was sent by Churchill. Lusitania was capable of great speed and could have out-sailed any U-boat, but the owners had ordered the captain to use only some of her engines in order to save fuel, and for the same reason the ship did not zig-zag as others did to make a torpedo attack virtually impossible. Basically, Lusitania was a sitting duck.

The evening before the attack, King George V asked an ambassador whether the USA would enter the war if a U-boat sank Lusitania. Churchill then went on holiday. Who was to blame for the murder of over a thousand people? Who was the real – and more cowardly – aggressor?


MadMonarchist said...

It was widely reported at the time (even put into a famous propaganda film of the day) that Kaptlt. Schwieger was decorated for sinking the Lusitania and that the Germans struck a medal to commemorate the event as sort of a celebration of their barbarism.

First of all, Schwieger was not rewarded for sinking the Lusitania. He was decorated later for being one of the most successful submarine commanders in history. Nor did he (as some put out at the time) kill himself out of guilt, he went down with his sub in the line of duty.

Second, Germany did strike a medal about the Lusitania affair (I have one) but it is not glorying in it but rather expresses disgust at the British for allowing passengers on a ship carrying weapons and headed for enemy waters. The seldom-shown reverse of the medal has the image of death in a booth selling tickets despite German warnings to stay away.

Of course, it was still a horrible event no matter how you look at it but then so was the starvation blockade of Germany, which took far more lives and not just German ones.

Christina said...

Thank you, MadMonarchist. I think that Churchill was behind much of that propaganda and I agree with you completely about the blockade, which was illegal!
How interesting that you have the medal - thank you so much for the description of it! Thanks again for your very interesting comment.

Paul Maitrejean said...

How refreshing to see someone with a fresh, un-programmed view of history! It's amazing what comes to light when we dispose of the myths we learned in high school and start digging into the facts. Keep up this good work! I'll be checking out this blog often.

Christina said...

Thank you very much for your comment and for kind words about the blog, Paul.
It really is amazing what comes to light when we look beneath the surface, isn't it!

Nelson said...

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Thanks for sharing!

Val said...

Christina - I never learned a lot about the Lusitania in school or otherwise. This post was rather enlightening, but it saddened me at the same time. Thank you for sifting through the layers to bring us the truth!

Christina said...

Thank you, Val - I think that there are, sadly, many more layers before one can get even close to the truth....

bretonfilms said...

Is the picture of the ship sinking public domain? I would like to use it on a TV show. Let me know if you know of its ownership. Email me at: bretonfilms at gmail.com


Christina said...

Thank you for your question, Ana. I have emailed you.

Blas Vega ferrándiz said...

Great post...this and others are changing my view of Churchill, once my uquestionable hero of the 20th century. Everybody has a dark side

Cycling Guy said...

It is interesting to see that the myth is perpetuated to this day even at official museum sites like the destroyer exhibit in Charleston, SC in which a existence of arms on the Lusitania is blandly denied as a myth.
In fact Woodrow Wilson, in spite of the neutrality laws in existence at the time and his own professed desire to keep out of the war, waived the prohibition against bank loans to Britain, opening the door to financial institutions like JP Morgan to use WW1 for their own financial gain - the result being that JP Morgan made billions out of the catastrophe of WWI - based on money that had to be paid back by Britain and in turn relied on the crippling war reparations that had been imposed on Germany by the Treaty of Versailles. So, once again WWI was all about money and making the bankers and industrialists rich.