Co. Cork and a Tale of Two Sea Tragedies

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 Old Head of Kinsale, looking south

The Old Head of Kinsale, looking south

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.’

The Old Head Signal Tower under restoration, pictured here in March 2015

The Old Head Signal Tower under restoration, pictured here in March 2015

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.

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  • Turgon

    Dan it is important to mark the Lusitania though few now would call the actions of U-20 a war crime.

    Your possible conspiracy theory is, however, utter nonsense.

    The reason the Titanic sank slowly was because the damage was much less. The iceberg had a shearing effect opening up relatively small holes and buckling plates on the ship. The water came trough these multiple smaller breaches and sank the ship. Remember that higher bulkheads or a slightly shorter line of impact would have allowed her to stay afloat.

    A torpedo impact is fundamentally different. It creates a huge pressure wave effect from the explosion (ideally the device is designed to explode just prior to hitting the ship – though that was not well know in the 1914-18 war). It is the underwater impact of the explosion and resulting pressure wave which creates massive damage. That is why in the second world war there was a major emphasis on torpedo bombers: torpedoes are very, very dangerous to ships: proportionally more so than large calibre gunfire and bombs (incidentally why Jellicoe turned away from torpedoes at Jutland which probably prevented him achieving a Trafalgar like victory).

    Torpedo impacts are unpredictable but can cause massive damage. Some ships survived but others sank quickly such as HMS Barham in 1941 (even without the final magazine explosion she was sinking fast) or USS Indianapolis in 1945 and both of those were major warships designed to withstand significant damage – unlike Lusitania a commercial liner.

    The cause of a secondary explosion is unclear but in the unpredictable situation of a huge ship sinking fast sudden pressure changes as well as volatile chemicals can easily cause explosions (the Titanic seems to have suffered underwater explosions as she fell down through the ocean which were from pressure effects).

    The issue of lack of escorts is also a red herring. Ships like Lusitania were fast, much faster than German submarines on or underwater (remember German submarines were woefully slow especially underwater). As such it was thought highly unlikely they could catch liners. The Lusitania disaster was a surprise.

    On the issue of escorts the Admiralty was very sceptical on escorts. They thought that merchant navy ships’ captains would not be able to hold course in convoys and opposed them on those gruonds. It was only after the resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare in 1917 (after the Germans tactical minor victory and massive strategic defeat at Jutland) that convoys were imposed on the Admiralty (I think by Churchill but cannot remember exactly). Convoys were a huge success in both wars often simply by keeping U boats submerged and hence, unable to keep up with ships.

    So yes a terrible tragedy and yes the British had war supplies on Lusitania but no there was no conspiracy. In this case the simplest explanation is best: mistakes and bad luck.

  • T.E.Lawrence

    Great Post Dan – Well Done.

  • Gopher

    The “German soldiers and civilians continuing to starve” is interesting. The “Silent dictatorship” of Ludendorff and Hindenburg, the Kaiser being a rubber stamp by this stage ensured the soldiers got most of what food there was and some 800,000 “civilians” died from the effects of starvation. Lets not forget the savage terms of Brest Livtosk.

    @Turgon. The Naval crisis 1917 by Sir John Jellicoe is online and free, it is quite technical rather than a great narrative. Always hard to get at the truth about the convoys because Jutland and the accrimonious debate surrounding it casts such a big shadow over subsequent events, It still rages to this day. Though it (the debate) probably had the greatest cast list in history; Fisher, Beatty, Jellicoe, Loyd George, Churchill and Carson on one side Wilhelm II, Ludendorff, Tirpitz and Scheer on the other. 1917 was an odd year in the Great War almost an outlier and from an Entente perspective. Defeat and disaster are always orphans.

    Great to see the Republic are doing something round the story of the Lusitania I wish we could do more with the Caroline.

  • jonlivesey

    I don’t think it is all that important, but your story about the sinking of the Lusitania is incorrect in some critical details.

    You wonder why the ship was not escorted by destroyers. Here is a quote from the wiki page:

    “The Admiralty issued her specific instructions on how to avoid submarines. Admiral Henry Oliver ordered HMS Louis and Laverock to escort Lusitania, and took the further precaution of sending the Q-ship Lyons to patrol Liverpool Bay.[c] The destroyer commander attempted to discover the whereabouts of Lusitania by telephoning Cunard, who refused to give out any information and referred him to the Admiralty. At sea, the ships contacted Lusitania by radio, but did not have the codes used to communicate with merchant ships. Captain Dow of Lusitania refused to give his own position except in code, and since he was, in any case, some distance from the positions they gave, continued to Liverpool unescorted.”
    I would say that the version of the story you posted has been “tweaked” a bit to make it more plausible.

  • tmitch57

    A very good post. I intend to put Erik Larson’s “Dead Wake” on my Christmas list. The Lusitania sinking was infinitely more consequential than the Titanic sinking because, combined with the Zimmermann telegraph, it brought the United States into the war, which provided much of the change in the balance of power that allowed the Allies to finally prevail over the Central Powers in the First World War. The Titanic disaster led to a change in regulations on life boats and the creation of a North Atlantic international ice patrol.

    But I agree with Turgon that calling it a war crime is a bit of a stretch. The German Embassy posted notices next to the sailing announcements warning Americans that the ships sailing into Britain were subject to submarine attack. Cork should exploit the Lusitania in the same manner that Belfast has exploited the connection with the Titanic.

  • Enjoyable article Dan. Thank you.