The decade of centenaries in Ireland continues. While voters in Britain and Northern Ireland will be going to the polls, many people in Co Cork will be marking the hundredth anniversary of a war crime. For it was on 7 May 1915 – as if the news could not get any worse, amid appalling military reverses for Irish and British troops in Gallipoli and Ypres – that the Cunard luxury passenger liner Lusitania, on the latest of its many crossings from New York to Liverpool, sank to the bottom after being torpedoed by the Imperial German submarine U-20.
The sinking took place just eleven miles south of the Old Head of Kinsale, and a group of local volunteers are working to commemorate the episode. There will be a memorial service at the Old Head next Thursday, led by Simon Coveney, Ireland’s defence minister, including a two-minute silence at 2:10pm (the precise moment the torpedo struck the Lusitania). Additionally, the Lusitania Museum and Old Head of Kinsale Project are organising the restoration of the Old Head’s Signal Tower, a task that they are hopeful will be finished in time for the commemorations. The Project also have planning permission to plant a Lusitania memorial garden, and are aiming to have a sculpture incorporating the names of all of the Lusitania‘s souls on board. Finally, they hope eventually to set up a Lusitania museum by the Signal Tower. Such a museum would, however, have to be partially submerged in the ground, so that it does not obscure the view of the Tower.
Project spokesman Adrian Roche is upbeat about their work and plans. ‘Failte Ireland have provided most of the funding,’ he told me, over drinks at a Kinsale café, ‘but there is also a local fundraising drive, whereby people can sponsor a slate for the Tower.’
It is perhaps surprising that there are not more memorials to, or reminders of, the Lusitania in Co Cork, given the tragedy’s close proximity to the coast. The lifeboats despatched to the scene were rowed from Courtmacsherry, many of the survivors were taken ashore to Cobh (and many of the victims are buried there), and the inquest into the sinking was held in Kinsale Courthouse (which will be re-enacted there next Thursday afternoon). I say “perhaps surprising”, because there appear to be more prominent monuments to another sea tragedy, with a looser connection to Co Cork.
In Cobh, the town’s former ticket office of the White Star Line on Casement Square is home to the Titanic Experience. It was in Cobh harbour on 11 April 1912 that the Titanic picked up its final 123 passengers, before sailing west to history. When you pay your admission at the museum entrance your ticket bears the name of one of these passengers, and you find out at the end of your visit whether your ticketholder survived. Further along the harbour front is a memorial to the 123, most of whom did not come back.
The seafaring heritage of Cobh and the surrounding county are certainly made much of in the town. Most of its old railway station building is taken up by the Cobh Heritage Centre, in which there are fascinating panels and exhibits on the town’s experience of emigration as well as on the Titanic and the Lusitania. Many other panels go into some detail into the experience of sea travel, in general – stark reminders of a very different world, in which as recently as the 1960s the only way to go places internationally was by boat.
But back to the Lusitania. Though the tragedy’s centenary will have to jostle somewhat for media attention with the British general election, it will nonetheless be an unavoidable opportunity to re-examine the controversies surrounding Ireland’s best-known shipwreck. Quite apart from its use as an expedient propaganda tool in the ongoing drive to recruit Irishmen into the British army, there is the still-unanswered question as to why it sank so quickly. Whereas it took the Titanic nearly three hours to go to the bottom of the North Atlantic after hitting the iceberg, the Lusitania disappeared beneath the waves off the Old Head of Kinsale in less than 20 minutes. Many of the ship’s survivors recalled hearing two explosions, the second louder and more destructive than the first, yet the U-20’s commander Walther Schwieger recorded releasing just one torpedo (not two, as was claimed in the official inquiry) – and if one torpedo cannot explode twice, then there must have been something in the ship’s cargo sufficiently volatile to cause a second blast so damaging that it would doom the ship in just 18 minutes, taking with it 1,198 of the nearly 2,000 passengers on board.
It is beyond dispute that the Lusitania‘s cargo included arms and ammunition – a fact to which the German embassy in Washington pointed, in an attempt to justify the U-20’s actions, in the ensuing propaganda war. British government papers released only last year confirmed the presence of considerable amounts of war materiel on board. Was it this that caused the second blast? One of the best authorities on the Lusitania, the oceanographer Professor Robert Ballard, the same man who led the team that discovered the Titanic‘s wreck in 1985, believes not. Interviewed after he had explored the Lusitania‘s wreck in 1995, he opined that the second explosion’s source was perhaps more prosaic than had been thought:
The magazine was fine: it hadn’t exploded at all… Ironically [the torpedo] hit a coal bunker… The Lusitania was driven by an incredible amount of coal, and in her whole outer side there were these huge bins, these storage bunkers, and the Lusitania was almost here in Liverpool, so she had almost finished her voyage, so all of that coal had been consumed, and left behind were these dry rooms with layers of coal dust, and that torpedo smacked right into it – it was inches away, and it ignited.
That leaves the question as to whether or not the Lusitania was deliberately sacrificed by Britain’s Admiralty, in a bid indirectly to encourage the United States to join the war on the side of the Allies. It is certainly curious how the liner was not escorted by any Royal Navy destroyers in its voyage, despite the warnings of German U-boats in the area, and how the then First Lord, a certain Winston Churchill, was quite keen for the inquiry to ‘pursue the captain [William Turner] without check.‘ As well as being an obvious propaganda own goal, the sinking of a passenger liner containing over a hundred American citizens also harmed the Germans tactically. The Kaiser and his government were genuinely worried about the prospect of the Americans throwing their lot in with the Allies, so the Berlin junta not only issued an official apology for the sinking but also ordered an end to his government’s policy of unrestricted submarine warfare – ie, sinking, without warning, anything that floated, including American ships, as a way of tackling the Royal Navy’s blockade. Meanwhile, the blockade continued, and German soldiers and civilians continued steadily to starve over the next two years, until the government in Berlin, fearing a possible army mutiny and further food riots, ordered the resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare in April 1917, finally tipping President Wilson’s wrath over the edge. Such is the context in which the questions over how far the Allies could have anticipated this sequence of events continue to be asked.
The debate over the full truth of the Lusitania‘s final voyage will doubtless continue long after next week’s centenary-related events. Adrian Roche of the Old Head Project reckons, though, that time is running out to establish the final word on the fabled ship:
Anyone who wants to dive to find out more from the Lusitania needs to do it fast, before the ship rusts completely.
Based in Birmingham, Dan is a journalist, broadcaster and actor.