Americans All! – The Sinking of the Lusitania

The cables had started to stream in during the early afternoon. A passenger ship crossing the Atlantic sank with the loss of 1,200 lives – including 128 Americans. Chaos had erupted on board as the ocean steamer began to list. Prominent captains of industry and working class folks alike perished in the chilly water.

No, this ship isn’t the Titanic. And instead of an iceberg, the culprit was much smaller: a German torpedo.

This week marked the centennial of America’s entry into the First World War. On May 7, 1915 – two years prior to the April 1917 declaration – the U.S. had very nearly “joined in.”

The cause? The sinking of the British ocean liner RMS Lusitania, knocked out by a German submarine off the Old Head of Kinsale, south of Ireland.

Detail from Charles Lauriat’s The Lusitania’s Last Voyage (1915)

Touted as the “Fastest and Largest Steamer in Atlantic Service”, the Blue Ribbon winner was launched by the Cunard line in 1906. As it waited to steam from New York back to Liverpool, the Lusitania was on the verge of its 101st roundtrip voyage across the Atlantic.

21 Philadelphians lost their lives in the attack, including the entire Crompton family – Paul, Gladys, and their six children.

Samuel Knox, the head of the New York Shipbuilding Company and resident of Germantown, and two other Philadelphia natives managed to survive by clinging to debris.

Detail from Charles Lauriat’s The Lusitania’s Last Voyage (1915)

In the days leading up to the Lusitania’s voyage, the Imperial German Embassy took out ads in the shipping pages of major newspapers, including the Philadelphia Inquirer.

“Travelers intending to embark on the Atlantic voyage are reminded that a state of war exists between Germany … and Great Britain; that the zone of war includes the waters adjacent to the British Isles… and that travelers sailing in the war zone on ships of Great Britain or her allies do so at their own risk.”

Still, the attack challenged President Wilson’s avowed policy of neutrality.

At the outbreak of the conflict in Europe in 1914, a majority of Americans had supported this position. Many believed the Atlantic to act like a medieval moat, keeping at bay the irrelevant squabbles of aging empires “over there”.

Indeed, Wilson had been re-elected on a the campaign platform of “He Kept Us Out of the War!”

Presidential campaign poster depicting Woodrow Wilson  and his running mate, Thomas R. Marshall. From the Historical Society of Pennsylvania war posters collection [V95]

Germany’s decision to enact a naval blockade changed this calculus. To prevent materiel from reaching her enemies, Germany let loose U-boots, abbreviation of Unterseeboot (“undersea boat”) off the coasts of the British Isles, northern France, and Holland.

These submarines targeted vessels carrying supplies to Allied powers – including those with American passengers.

Three days after the attack, on a balmy May Day, President Wilson was in Philadelphia. He was to give an address to 4,000 newly naturalized citizens at Carpenter’s Hall. Over 15,000 people gathered to hear him speak.

“The example of America must be a special example. The example of America must be the example not merely of peace because it will not fight, but of peace because peace is the healing and elevating influence of the world and strife is not. There is such a thing as a man being too proud to fight. There is such a thing as a nation being so right that it does not need to convince others by force that it is right.”

The speech did not mention the Lusitania by name, but Wilson spoke to his vision of America’s place in the world (it was titled “Americanism and the Foreign Born”).

Undated exterior photograph of Carpenters’ Hall at 320 Chestnut Street. From the Historical Society of Pennsylvania photograph collection [V59]

Wilson’s address produced the 1915 equivalent of a soundbite: the claim that the United States was “too proud to fight.”

Yet, Wilson mistook shifting sentiments.

While many Americans initially supported neutrality, public opinion began to list in support of Britain and her allies after the sinking of the Lusitania. Though the U.S. would not formally enter the war for another two years, the loss of Americans aboard the ocean liner did much to stoke fears of “Kaiserism.”

Ca. 1918 Poster produced by the National War Savings Committee promoting the sale of war savings stamps to help crush “Kaiserism.” From the Historical Society of Pennsylvania war posters collection [V95]

Covered in seaweed and with one arm strap broken, a life vest from the ship was found floating off the end of a pier at the foot of Race St. in July 1920.

During the First World War, foreign-born soldiers represented nearly 1 out of 5 servicemen in the U.S. Army. Explore their legacy in HSP’s FREE program on April 12, “Americans All!”


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