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Lusitania: Carving a Story Out of Stone

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LusitaniaBy Dr. Paula Wylie
Faculty Member, School of Security and Global Studies at American Public University

There’s an old saying attributed to Michelangelo, “Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.” For scholars of International Relations, the blocks of stone are infinite given the interdisciplinary nature of the field.

Within one case history, the methods and approaches are limitless. By combining primary documents, original research and previous scholarly works, each new effort builds on what’s come before – whether revising an old story with new evidence or finding a new issue altogether.

This spring marks the 100-year anniversary of the sinking of the Lusitania, a Cunard luxury ocean liner whose final sailing from New York ended in tragedy off the coast of Ireland on May 7, 1915. Struck by a German U-boat at 2:10 in the afternoon, the Lusitania sank within 18 minutes, plunging bow first before slamming in the seabed with 1,959 passengers and crew aboard. Among the fatalities were 128 Americans.

Outrage in the U.S. did not immediately push President Woodrow Wilson toward war. By September 1915, the Germans agreed to exclude passenger ships as wartime targets although some of them (like the Lusitania) were designed to carry military munitions.

What horrified witnesses to the sinking – just 11 miles off the coast of Kinsale, Ireland – was many of the 1,198 did not lose their lives from drowning but from hypothermia. A British cruiser, the HMS Juno, was only an hour away from the wreckage when it heard the distress call. Yet as the Juno began a rescue, the British admiralty house at Cobh (Queenstown) called her back.

The local residents off the Old Head at Kinsale also launched an operation but saved only 764 persons, three of whom later died. With colorful names like Blue Bell, Flying Fish and Heron, stories of the boats searching for survivors became part of the official inquest held at the Kinsale Town Hall May 10, 1915. The inquest included testimony from the local coroner, fishermen and the Lusitania captain, William Turner.

Speculation on why the British cruiser returned to port centered on the true nature of the Lusitania’s mission and the possibility that the munitions aboard were of quantities much greater than the original manifest showed. In an agreement signed in 1903, the Cunard Line had accepted financing from the British government with yearly operating subsidies in return for designing the Lusitania and her sister ship, the Mauritania, as auxiliary cruisers in the event of war.

The Lusitania continues to inspire research. In 2014, the British government released documents from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) from 30 years earlier that indicate salvage divers were warned of highly dangerous explosives at the wreck site, providing further evidence that the Lusitania ferried not only passengers but an unusually large amount of munitions.

For historians and international relations scholars today, the Lusitania remains relevant not just as a historical account from 100 years ago, but with current topics of international law, admiralty law and commercial shipping. Not only does the 2014 release from the FCO hold a treasure of files, but the United States National Archives system in Washington, D.C. houses documents related to the incident – including the diary of the 30-year-old German U-20 commander, Walter Schwieger, who died in 1917 as his U-boat U-88 hit a British mine.

The Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library in Hyde Park, NY contains the Lusitania’s supplementary cargo manifest showing the munitions materiel. One survivor’s mother, Gertrude Prichard, tracked down all survivors in hopes that someone could recount what happened to her son. The Imperial War Museum in London holds her correspondence with survivors and the Cunard line. The German archive is located at Deutsches U-Boot Museum, Cuxhaven, Altenbruch, Germany.

As a model for future research – such as inquiries into the disappearance of Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 and the shooting down of the Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 in 2014 – the Lusitania continues to encourage our imagination on questions of what happened and why.

About the Author
Paula Wylie, Ph.D. is a full-time faculty member in the International Relations Program. She completed her M.A. in International Relations with Boston University and a Ph.D. in Diplomatic History from the National University of Ireland, University College Cork. Dr. Wylie has been teaching and writing in the fields of foreign policy, international law and diplomacy since 1995.

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