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Last Updated on August 6, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1024

The sinking of the British Lusitania by a German U-boat (submarine) was a significant event that contributed to America's entrance into World War I. Larson examines the historical tragedy and supplies great details that he gained from primary-source research of survivor accounts, letters, war reports, newspapers, and telegrams.

He describes...

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The sinking of the British Lusitania by a German U-boat (submarine) was a significant event that contributed to America's entrance into World War I. Larson examines the historical tragedy and supplies great details that he gained from primary-source research of survivor accounts, letters, war reports, newspapers, and telegrams.

He describes the impressive ship and the type of torpedo that hit it:

Anyone looking up from the dock saw only beauty, on a monumental scale, while on the far side of the ship men turned black with dust as they shoveled coal—5,690 tons in all—into the ship through openings in the hull called “side pockets.” The ship burned coal at all times. Even when docked it consumed 140 tons a day to keep furnaces hot and boilers primed and to provide electricity from the ship’s dynamo to power lights, elevators.

Torpedoes were expensive, and heavy. Each cost up to $5,000—over $100,000 today—and weighed over three thousand pounds, twice the weight of a Ford Model T.

World War I began in 1914, and by May of 1915, America still had not entered. However, Germany was angered by America's support of Allied countries, such as Britain. Germany had been threatening and attacking ships in the Atlantic.

Germany issued a proclamation designating the waters around the British Isles an “area of war” in which all enemy ships would be subject to attack without warning.

Germany wanted to disrupt and prevent American aid to its allies, even if it meant attacking America at sea. As history would reveal later, Germans drastically underestimated America's ability to change the tide of the war.

The most likely explanation is that there was indeed a plot, however imperfect, to endanger the Lusitania in order to involve the United States in the war.

Koerver reports another example of delusional thinking within the German navy. Admiral Edouard von Capelle said, on February 1, 1917, “From a military point of view, I rate the effect of America coming on the side of our enemies as nil.”

While the Lusitania carried over 1,000 passengers and only 123 were Americans, President Woodrow Wilson and Congress considered German's attack upon the ship a direct attack on America. The American government had been keeping close attention to the events of the war while hoping to not engage militarily.

As Wilson mourned his wife, German forces in Belgium entered quiet towns and villages, took civilian hostages, and executed them to discourage resistances. In the town of Dinant, German soldiers shot 612 men, women, and children. The American press called such atrocities acts of "frightfulness," the word then used to describe what later generations would call terrorism.

Many Americans read about World War I battles from afar but did not know that events would soon bring the war to their door.

America, secure in its fortress of neutrality, watched the war at a remove and found it all unfathomable. Undersecretary of State Robert Lansing, number two man in the State Department, tried to put this phenomenon into words in a private memorandum. “It is difficult, if not impossible, for us here in the United States to appreciate in all its fullness the great European War,” he wrote. “We have come to read almost with indifference of vast military operations, of battle lines extending for hundreds of miles, of the thousands of dying men, of the millions suffering all manner of privation, of the wide-spread waste and destruction.”

After the ship was hit, it took only eighteen minutes for the large vessel to sink. Mass chaos and tumult ensued.

Passengers were crushed by descending boats. Swimmers were struck by chairs, boxes, potted plants, and other debris falling from the decks high above. And then there were those most ill-starred of passengers, who had put on their life preservers incorrectly and found themselves floating with their heads submerged, legs up, as in some devil’s comedy.

The disaster was exacerbated by the fact that only six lifeboats were launched when there were twenty-two attached to the ship. As it was a luxury line ship, there were families with members of all ages on board.

If you had to jump six or seven feet or certainly drown, it's surprising how far even older people will jump.

The death toll was staggering, and the families around the world were left bewildered and wondering how a civilian ship could be targeted during war time.

Families learned of the deaths of kin mostly by telegram, but some knew or sensed their loss even when no telegram brought the news. Husbands and wives had promised to write letters or send cables to announce their safe arrival, but these were never sent.

Survivors faced nightmares of living through such a disaster.

Seagulls dove among corpses and survivors alike. Turner later told his son, Norman, that he found himself fending off attacks by the birds, which swooped from the sky and pecked at the eyes of floating corpses. Rescuers later reported that wherever they saw spirals of gulls, they knew they would find bodies.

Unlike many previous historians reporting the fate of the Lusitania, Larson does not merely retell the story of the ship but presents questions about what could have been done differently to avoid the disaster.

Nor did the inquiry ever delve into why the Lusitania wasn’t diverted to the safer North Channel route, and why no naval escort was provided. Indeed, these are the great lingering questions of the Lusitania affair: Why, given all the information possessed by the Admiralty about U-20; given the Admiralty’s past willingness to provide escorts to inbound ships or divert them away from trouble; given that the ship carried a vital cargo of rifle ammunition and artillery shells; given that Room 40’s intelligence prompted the obsessive tracking and protection of HMS Orion; given that U-20 had sunk three vessels in the Lusitania’s path . . . given that the new and safer North Channel route was available; and given that passengers and crew alike had expected to be convoyed to Liverpool by the Royal Navy—the question remains, why was the ship left on its own, with a proven killer of men and ships dead ahead in its path?

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