On this day in history, a British ocean liner was torpedoed and sunk by a German U-boat, resulting in the deaths of 1,198 passengers, including 128 Americans. World War I was raging in Europe, but America had not yet joined the war.
Three months previously, Germany had declared the seas around the United Kingdom to be a war-zone, and said that beginning on February 18, 1915, allied ships in the area would be sunk without warning, although efforts would be taken to avoid sinking neutral ships. The German embassy in America had even placed a newspaper advertisement warning people not to sail on Lusitania. When the Lusitania was sunk, it was inside the declared “zone of war.”
Ordinarily, non-military ships would still have gotten a warning first, but the British had been taking advantage of the “Cruiser Rules” to get arms sent to them surreptitiously from America. These rules, part of various international agreements among European states, provided that passenger ships may not be sunk; crews of merchant ships must be placed in safety before their ships may be sunk (life boats are not considered a place of safety unless close to land); and only warships and merchant ships that are a threat to the attacker may be sunk without warning.
While the Lusitania had been carrying passengers, she was also carrying a great deal of war munitions, and was even officially listed as an auxiliary war ship. Nevertheless, afterward British and American officials denied the ship was carrying weapons. In 2008, however, a diving team confirmed that around four million rounds of U.S.-manufactured Remington .303 bullets lay in the Lusitania’s hold at a depth of 300ft. As writer Hampton Sides, who witnessed the discovery, stated:
‘They are bullets that were expressly manufactured to kill Germans in World War I – bullets that British officials in Whitehall, and American officials in Washington, have long denied were aboard the Lusitania.'”
In addition, significant amounts of high explosives were in the holds, including shells, powder, and gun cotton. These presumably accounted for the huge second explosion survivors reported and may help explain why the 787ft Lusitania sank within 18 minutes of a single German torpedo slamming into its hull.
The American public was outraged by the incident, and pro-war, anti-German sentiment roiled the country. Another important side-effect was that, because so many of the major breweries in the U.S. had German company names, the temperance movement was given a major boost.