What Was the Lusitania?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

The Lusitania was an ocean liner owned by the Cunard Steamship Company, which was based in England. It is most well-known for being sunk by a German U-Boat during the First World War, causing over 1,100 deaths and marking a turning point in the war. At the time it was launched in 1907, the Lusitania was the largest ship in the world, and set several speed records for Atlantic crossings. It not only greatly improved stock in the Cunard company but it also paved the way for a growing number of large and elaborate ships.

The sinking of the Lusitania and other neutral ships was part of the reason the U.S. entered World War 1.
The sinking of the Lusitania and other neutral ships was part of the reason the U.S. entered World War 1.

Individuals who wanted to cross the Atlantic at the turn of the twentieth century had to travel by ship. Ocean liners, at the time, were often lavishly and elegantly decorated to attract upper class passengers, although they also had sizable third class sections for immigrants interested in making a new life overseas. In addition to passengers, ocean liners also carried shipments of goods across the Atlantic. While civilian ships were not supposed to carry military supplies, many did. The Lusitania was no different. It carried all of these types of cargo, including upper and lower class passengers, commercial goods, and it has even been suggested that the Lusitania had military cargo onboard its last voyage.

In 1915, the German government declared that any ship transporting goods to Allied nations was at risk of attack. This broke with traditional rules of engagement, which permitted searches of civilian ships versus preemptive attacks. Germany made good on the promise to attack ships with military cargo, sinking numerous boats with the assistance of their submarines, or U-Boats. In response, many Allied governments made various recommendations to help captains protect their seagoing vessels.

To reduce the risk of attack, it was recommended that civilian ships keep to the deeper waters and avoid the shoreline. In addition, captains were encouraged to steer their ships in a zigzag pattern, which would help to deflect straightlined U-Boat attacks. Ships were also encouraged to move rapidly through dangerous waters, which included the ocean along the South of Ireland.

On 7 May 1915, the Lusitania was reaching the end of a journey from New York to Liverpool. The captain of the ship actually slowed the vessel due to thick fog even though he was entering waters known to be infested by U-Boats. The German U-Boat U-20 saw the liner and fired a single torpedo at it, sinking the Lusitania in 18 minutes. A second explosion was reported, the cause of which has never been determined. During the chaos of the sinking, many of the passengers and crew died.

The sinking of the Lusitania caused a radical shift in public opinion in the United States, which entered the First World War in 1917. It also resulted in a public outcry in Europe. Shortly after the sinking, President Woodrow Wilson sent a letter to the German government condemning the attack, suggesting that the United States would take any steps necessary to ensure the safety of shipping. When America entered the war, it cited repeated German attacks on neutral shipping as one of the causes.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


One reason the Lusitania sank so quickly is because she was carrying gun cotton, which explodes upon contact with water. This is the most likely explanation for the second explosion.

The other issue with the Titanic sinking, however, is that, while women and children were certainly the first ones into the lifeboats, they were by and large the first and second class passengers. The steerage passengers were not allowed on the main deck until the last several minutes the ship was afloat. Many of the lifeboats also left the ship half empty, and more lives could have been saved, had the class distinctions been less rigidly enforced.

As GardenTurtle noted, the Lusitania sank in about 18 minutes, which left little time for observing such niceties.

The Lusitania wreck is in fairly shallow waters, rather like the USS Arizona, and can be seen from the surface.


@christym: The sinking of the Titanic and Lusitania claimed more than 2,700 lives three years apart. It took the Titanic 2 hours and 40 minutes to sink. The Lusitania sank in 18 minutes. The Titanic hit an iceberg, but the Lusitania was torpedoed by a German U-boat.

When the Titanic was sinking, the maritime maxim of “women and children first” was famously obeyed. Women and children were the most likely to be saved, while young men between the ages of 16 and 35 were the least likely to survive.

When the Lusitania was torpedoed, the majority of survivors were young men and women. Since the Lusitania sank quickly, it was a survival of the fittest to get to the lifeboats. They filled up quickly and people’s survival instinct kicked in.


What were the differences in the Lusitania and Titanic sinking?

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