Saturday, 1 May 1915 dawned in New York City depressingly overcast, drizzly, and decidedly not like the spring weather the calendar indicated it should have been. At the Lower West Side of Manhattan's Chelsea Piers, partially obscured by yet towering over the blocks-long face of the pier buildings, stood a quartet of dark smokestacks. Locals knew better than anyone else what liner they belonged to: the mighty British speedster Lusitania. The great liner, the largest and fastest then in service on the North Atlantic, had arrived the previous Saturday, having sailed across the Atlantic from her home port in Liverpool, England just as she had one hundred times before.

The Lusitania had become a fixture in New York during the preceding seven-and-a-half years, dependably spending several days at a stretch at one of the Cunard piers once every three weeks. She had entered service in September of 1907, and in the intervening months and years, she had always seemed to come through whatever the capricious North Atlantic could throw at her. At times, she had come through a little bruised and battered, but nevertheless, she had always come through. She had become like an old and reliable friend not only to passengers – many of whom were repeat customers and took passage on her time and again – but to the populations of her primary ports, New York and Liverpool, England.

Image credited to J Kent Layton.

The waterfront was busy that morning, for the Lusitania was scheduled to sail on her 202nd crossing, the return leg of her 101st round-trip voyage, at 10:00 a.m. Passengers for her upcoming trip were beginning to arrive, slowly at first, and then in growing numbers. There was the sound of automobiles driving in over the cobblestone street, pulling up out front of the pier, discharging their passengers and all of the accompanying luggage—this was a sign of changed times, for when the Lusitania made her earliest arrivals and departures from the port, the passengers had arrived and departed the scene in horse-drawn carriages. But the porters were still there to help the passengers get aboard. Cab drivers also still needed to be paid, regardless of whether they held the reins of a horse in their hand or the steering wheel of an automobile.

It might have seemed to be a typical sailing day to the average observer who had not stuck his nose into a newspaper during the last nine months. However, it was to prove anything but ordinary. The Great War had been raging in Europe since the previous August. Hundreds of thousands of fresh-faced soldiers had already met a grisly end on the battlefields; new technology was being employed as it never had been before, making armies into far more effective killing machines. Old rules of warfare were being cast aside by both sides as they become increasingly restrictive and inconvenient.

The Europe that the Lusitania was returning to was a very different place than it had been the previous spring. The world had changed, even though few liked to admit it. And on this morning, a new – if disembodied – threat hung menacingly over the Lusitania as surely as the damp drizzle and gray mists: the threat of German U-boats.

A 'friendly warning', as the German Ambassador would call it, had been placed in the shipping pages of American newspapers; although it had been intended to print the previous week, it had been held up and had only run this very morning. In many cases, it appeared uncomfortably close to the Cunard listings advertising this sailing of the Lusitania, and it openly discussed the dangers of traveling on a liner flying the flag of an Allied nation due to the possibility of an attack. A number of passengers, or their friends and relatives, began to show signs of nervousness.

Image credit to artist Tom Lear.

The Germans had been 'blockading' England for a couple of months now, but it was not really proving terribly effective. Their unterseeboots were picking off some small- to medium-sized ships, mostly ones steaming very slowly, and they had encountered a few seeming 'strokes of luck' beyond that. The Lusitania, however, was the largest, fastest liner on the Atlantic, and was also touted as the safest. She had a sterling reputation as a great passenger liner, and many felt that the Germans wouldn't have the unmitigated gall to attack her.

Cunard's New York Manager, C. P. Sumner, arrived on the pierside and reassured passengers. He faced the growing number of reporters, and even the relative novelty of a camera crew, who had suddenly appeared to document what some were joking might be the Lusitania's last voyage. Her skipper, Captain William Thomas Turner, laughed: “I wonder what the Germans will do next. Well, it doesn't seem as if they had scared many people from going on the ship by the look of the pier and the passenger list.”

Indeed, the Lusitania's passenger list was going to be the longest east-bound list since the war's outbreak. Her First and Third Class spaces were well booked, and Second Class was actually booked to over capacity. Despite all of the rumors and the nerves, Cunard personnel assured reporters that no one actually canceled their passage because of the German warning. The long passenger list had been aided somewhat when another liner in New York, the Cameronia, was requisitioned by the British Government. As a result, some of her passengers were transferred to the Lusitania, delaying the sailing by over two hours.

Yet eventually, as the sun just began to peek out from behind the clouds and dry the morning drizzle, the Lusitania cast off from Pier 54 for the 101st time. Captain Turner eased himself into the inner curve of the starboard Bridge wing and glanced over his left shoulder; he seemed surprised to see the camera crew had come out onto the roof of Pier 54, and were filming the departure from a unique perspective—actually slightly above his own very high perch. Then he continued to carefully watch his ship glide out into the North River. She was turned, and steamed past the interred German behemoth Vaterland at her Hoboken pier across the river.

The Lusitania towers over New York’s Pier 54 immediately after her maiden arrival. (Copyright Stuart Williams 2011)

What no one knew as the liner steamed toward the open sea, leaving behind an emptier waterfront scene, was that it really had been the last departure of the Lusitania. She would be sunk on Friday, 7 May, off the coast of Ireland—a victim of a German torpedo. 1,198 innocent men, women and children would go with her.

The Lusitania had been one of the greatest liners of the 20th Century; she was already legendary as she started out on her 202nd crossing. Yet in the future, her history would be synonymous with tragedy. She would be remembered as a victim, a symbol of lost innocence. She would be used as a political football, and the fallout from her sinking, and the American lives lost in the disaster, would become a single stepping stone – one of many – on the path to American involvement in the Great War, which would then truly become a World War.

One hundred years have now passed since the Lusitania's last departure. This week, on both sides of the Atlantic, commemorations will be held in honor of the memory of the Lusitania. This week, we remember a very human, and very preventable, tragedy: a tragedy that goes beyond the loss of 1,198 lives, but goes to the very core of how people can be moved to justify foolish, even dastardly, things in the heat of war. It is a lesson that the world has never truly learned.

The stern of the Lusitania rises from the sea as her bow plunges beneath the waves. (Copyright Stuart Williamson 2011)

In the months after the sinking, the Lusitania was used as a rallying cry: “Remember the Lusitania” could be seen on posters for recruitment into the armed forces. Today we also remember the Lusitania, but we do so for different reasons. This week, as we celebrate the centennial of the Lusitania's last voyage and sinking, we pause to honor those who died that awful spring day, the seventh of May. We pause to reflect and to hope that we never repeat the mistakes of those involved in the Lusitania's last, tragic story.

We pause and reflect on a world that has never recovered from that four-year, but wholly unprecedented, war. And we hope that, instead of viewing the Lusitania as a veritable candy store of conspiracy theories, half-researched books, documentaries, and sensationalised news stories, we can remember the good times of her seven-and-a-half-year career along with those last and awful 18 minutes … and that we can learn from the horrors of what happened that sad day, and never repeat those mistakes.


J Kent Layton

Author of 'Lusitania: An Illustrated Biography'

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