The disasters of the RMS Titanic and the RMS Lusitania were two of the greatest maritime tragedies of their era.
In April of 1912, the Harland & Wolff, Belfast-built Titanic sank on its maiden voyage after colliding with an iceberg in the frigid waters of the Atlantic Ocean en route from its final port of call in Queenstown (now Cobh, Co. Cork) to New York. One thousand, 523 of the 2,240 onboard lost their lives, the confidence in one of the grandest ships ever built shattered.
Three years later in 1915, the Cunard-owned, Scotland-built Lusitania sank off the coast of Ireland, a mere 18 minutes after it was struck by a torpedo from the German U-boat U-20 and sustained a second, still unexplained explosion. Of the 1,959 passengers and crew on board, 1,198 died (though some sources cite three stowaways who also perished, bringing the total to 1,201).
100 years later, in May 2015, a massive commemoration ceremony for the disaster was hosted in Cobh, Co Cork, with further events scheduled for the Old Head of Kinsale, Courtmacherrry, and Kinsale. Ten thousand people attended, with the president of Ireland Michael D. Higgins, British ambassador Dominick Chilcott, American ambassador Kevin O’Malley, Germany’s ambassador Matthias Hopfner, and Irish Defense Minister Simon Coveney all present for the solemn occasion, in addition to descendants of those impacted by the disaster.
At 2:10 pm, a whistle sounded to mark the moment the Lusitania was hit by a torpedo. The ceremony also included a minute silence, blessings and hymns, and a wreath-laying at the Lusitania Monument in Town Square, which marked the efforts made by local people to rescue survivors, recover bodies and comfort the bereaved. Over 150 victims are buried in Kinsale’s Old Church Cemetery.
Yet, in the popular imagination and historical mythology, the story of the Titanic endures much stronger than that of the Lusitania. It’s hard to pinpoint why, and to suggest that it’s entirely due to James Cameron’s Kate and Leo epic (and a certain song by Celine Dion) is to overlook the decades of professional inquiry, dramatizations, and amateur obsession that preceded it.
Here are a few theories as to why we care about the Titanic so much more, and a case for why we should place just as much importance and think about the tragedy of the Lusitania.
Peacetime, wartime, and human folly
The Titanic sank on its maiden voyage during a time of peace while the Lusitania sank during its 202nd Atlantic crossing, in the midst of WWI British/German hostilities. While both ships were constructed with the height of speed, efficiency, and luxury in mind, the Lusitania was built for wartime - its construction was subsidized by the British government, with the idea that it could be converted to an Armed Merchant Cruiser if the time called for it.
One of the most dwelled upon aspects of the Titanic’s collision with the iceberg is that it was largely due to hubris and human folly – traveling quickly in an attempt to make record time, with iceberg warnings unheeded until it was too late.
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However, there were also warnings leading up to the torpedoing of the Lusitania. On April 22, nine days before the Lusitania set sail for the last time from Pier 54 in New York, the German Embassy issued a warning to passengers regarding Germany’s unrestricted submarine warfare. The embassy placed an ad in 50 American newspapers – in some instances next to ads for the Lusitania – that read:
Travelers intending to embark on the Atlantic voyage are reminded that a state of war exists between Germany and her allies and Great Britain and her allies; that the zone of war includes the waters adjacent to the British Isles; that, in accordance with formal notice given by the Imperial German Government, vessels flying the flag of Great Britain, or any of her allies, are liable to destruction in those waters and that travelers sailing in the war zone on the ships of Great Britain or her allies do so at their own risk.
IMPERIAL GERMAN EMBASSY
Washington, D.C., April 22, 1915.
The ad caused ripples of unease and received press coverage, but was also chalked up to wartime intimidation. William Turner, the captain of the Lusitania, reportedly called it “the best joke I’ve heard in many days.”
Interestingly, just one week before the Lusitania was torpedoed, Captain Turner had been called to the New York law offices of Hunt, Hill & Betts to testify in the ongoing limitation of liability case surrounding the Titanic. In April of 1912, he had sailed a ship across the same iceberg-laden stretch of water just a few days after the Titanic sank.
As William B. Roka from the National Archives of New York has highlighted, he answered a series of questions including:
Q. Under the above circumstances, would it be reasonably safe for such a vessel to proceed at a speed of 20 knots an hour or upwards?
A. Certainly not; 20 knots through ice! My conscience!
Q. Have you learned nothing by that accident?
A. Not the slightest; it will happen again.
The Lusitania’s crossing passed without event for the first few days, until it entered the war zone on May 6. As “History” recounts, the same German submarine that would deal with the vessel its fatal blow was already in the waters off the southern coast of Ireland and had sunk two ocean steamers and a schooner.
“Thanks to these attacks, along with intercepted wireless messages, the British Admiralty knew of U-20’s general location (and of other U-boats operating nearby). Nonetheless, it never sent a promised military escort to Lusitania, nor did it offer anything but general warnings about active submarines in the area.”
Time for decisions
The Titanic took two hours and forty minutes to sink, which gave time for tough decisions to play out. Some people were selfless heroes, while others, understandably, just wanted to save their own skins. With the majority of the crew abiding by the orders of Captain Edward Smith that women and children be given priority, there was something of an order to the ship’s evacuation, though the shortage of lifeboats to accommodate the passengers fated many onboard the sinking ship to unnecessary doom.
The Lusitania had learned from the Titanic’s tragedy in at least one sense – it had sufficient lifeboats for the number of passengers. But after the torpedo hit the ship’s starboard side and a second explosion erupted from inside, the Lusitania sank in a mere 18 minutes. Though a similar order was issued, all those on board were left scrambling for their lives with insufficient time to carry out an orderly evacuation. Only six of the ship’s 48 lifeboats were successfully deployed, with many of them rendered useless or inaccessible by the explosion.
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As “History” writes, “Many splintered apart or capsized, killing dozens in the process, whereas others could not be pried free from the deck. As it became clear that Lusitania would not stay afloat, those still on board were forced to jump into the frigid ocean, including mothers with babies in their arms. Once there, they fought to hold onto any piece of wreckage they could find, awaiting the rescue boats that were rushing out from the Irish shore.”
Close to 1,200 people died – 124 of them children. There were 763 survivors, thanks in large part to nearby ships, some of them small fishing vessels, which sped to the scene of the disaster.
One notable difference is that while on the Titanic first-class passengers fared the best and those in steerage suffered the greatest fatalities, on the Lusitania passengers in first-class fared the worst. Famous victims included Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt, one of the wealthiest men in America, and the art collector Hugh Lane, who, rumor has it, was traveling with Rembrandt and Monet paintings stowed safely in sealed tubes.
The significant discrepancy in the timeframes of the tragedies made them fertile ground for comparison.
A 2010 study conducted by a team of behavioral economists from Austria and Switzerland combed through all of the available data from each of the disasters to analyze how people act in a crisis
The study, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), concluded that on the Lusitania, "the short-run flight impulse dominated behavior. On the slowly sinking Titanic, there was time for socially determined behavioral patterns to reemerge." In essence, the shorter time frame of the Lusitania sinking meant that people acted more out of self-preservation.
As “Time,” explained, “That theory fits perfectly with the survival data, as all of the Lusitania's passengers were more likely to engage in what's known as selfish rationality — a behavior that's every bit as me-centered as it sounds and that provides an edge to strong, younger males in particular. On the Titanic, the rules concerning gender, class, and the gentle treatment of children — in other words, good manners — had a chance to assert themselves.”
For the ship’s wreckages, there may also be some mystery in distance. The Titanic lies 12,500 feet below the water, 370 miles off the coast of Newfoundland. Because it lies in international waters, no single country can lay claim to it, and many private enterprises have warred over the years for access and ownership over salvaged items. It became a UNESCO-protected site in 2012, after the 100th anniversary of the sinking.
The Lusitania, on the other hand, lies 11 and a half miles off the coast of Co Cork, a mere 300 feet below the water’s surface.
It’s accessible, but, legally speaking, tantalizingly out of reach. The Lusitania has been owned for 33 years by American venture capitalist Gregg Bemis, now almost 87-years-old. He purchased the full salvage rights to the ship for $1.00 from his friend, with whom he had co-owned it.
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However, a subsequent change in the maritime law intended to extend countries' jurisdictions over their offshore resources had close consequences for the Lusitania. The 12 nautical mile territorial limit, adopted by many countries, including Ireland, in the 1980s, meant that the Lusitania, which sits 11.5 miles off the Irish coast, falls under the jurisdiction of Ireland.
In 1994, “Fortune” reported after a National Geographic documentary on the Lusitania wreckage garnered renewed international interest: “Ireland’s cultural ministry, the Department of Arts, Heritage, and the Gaeltacht, quickly placed a protective order on the Lusitania—making it necessary, under Irish law, not only to get Bemis’s approval to dive there but Ireland’s too. That order, now known as an Underwater Heritage Order, remains in effect two decades later.”
It means that for Bemis to carry out investigations on the Lusitania he needs cooperation from the Irish government – a legal battle that continues to this day.
This is particularly vexing since he believes, as do many others, that the ship was secretly carrying arms from the US, which was still neutral at that point, to Britain. Furthermore, those arms brought about the second explosion that caused the ship to sink so quickly.
While it’s impossible and unfair to weigh the scale of one disaster against the other on a human level, in a historical context, the Lusitania had much greater ramifications on world events. The US wouldn’t enter WWI until 1917, but the loss of 128 American lives on the Lusitania played a part in the eventual decision to join the war.
When the time came for the US to join the battle, some recruitment posters called upon Americans to “Remember the Lusitania!” Or, as The New Yorker noted in 2002, “One poster simply showed a woman submerged in blue-green water with a baby clasped in her arms, above the single blood-red word ‘Enlist.’”
The tragedy of the Titanic was an all too human mingling of bravado and failure, tragedy, and heroism.
The Lusitania, with its full story still unknown, leaves space for something far more sinister than hubris or carelessness.
*Originally published in 2015, updated in May 2023.