Sinking of Lusitania

Sinking of Lusitania

​​​The Story of Lusitania

RMS Lusitania was built in 1906 by John Brown & Co. Ltd shipyard in Clydebank.
In 1899 John Brown & Co Ltd, a Sheffield steel maker, took over the running of a ship yard in Clydebank.  

Just before the RMS Lusitania was built for the British Cunard Steamship Company Ltd, American financier and multi-millionaire, J.P Morgan had bought into the shipping market in the North Atlantic by acquiring the British company, White Star Line. He was in fierce competition with companies from Europe – mainly French and German – and with the British company, Cunard.    

Unable to provide the financial resources required to commission new, fast ships for the transatlantic trade and fearing being bought out bought by the Americans, the Chairman of Cunard, Lord Inverclyde, negotiated a loan of over £2 million from the British Government.  A deal was signed in June 1903 for two new ships to be built to Admiralty specifications so that they could be used in times of war.  One of these ships was the passenger liner Lusitania.

Lusitania was launched in Clydebank at 12.30pm on June 7th 1906 amid great celebration and a ceremonial christening led by the wife of the late Lord Inverclyde, Mary, Lady Inverclyde.
Thousands of spectators turned out to see Lusitania slide into the Clyde before she was moved on to Gourock for her funnels, superstructure and interior to be completed.
On her sea trials Lusitania achieved a record breaking speed of 26.7 knots.
The RMS Lusitania was ready to begin her career, sailing out of her home port of Liverpool.

On 7th September 1907 Lusitania completed her maiden voyage from Liverpool to New York.

During her impressive but tragically short career, the Lusitania made 202 crossings from Liverpool to New York and was the first ship to cross the Atlantic in under five days.  Billed as ‘the largest and fastest steamer now in the Atlantic service’ she could outpace any ship. 
 A First Class or Saloon ticket would have cost you in the region of $142 - $380, which in today’s money would be $3, 550 - $9, 500.

Despite the commitment in her funding arrangements it was decided that the Lusitania would remain in commercial use at the outbreak of World War One, in July 1914.  
In 1915 the liner was under command of well-respected Captain W. T Turner. 

Tragedy struck on the 7th May 1915.  As she sailed close to the Irish Coast on her return to Liverpool, Lusitania was struck just under her bridge by a single torpedo from a German U-Boat.  Shortly after impact a second explosion was heard.  It only took 18 minutes for the enormous Lusitania to sink.  The speed and angle of the ship after impact made launching lifeboats on the port side impossible. At the time very little was understood about torpedo avoidance techniques and the damage inflicted on the ship was considerable.  

Despite desperate efforts of Captain W.T Turner and his crew, 1,198 people out of a total of 1,959 on board the Lusitania lost their lives.  Captain Turner remained at his post whilst the ship sank.  He survived and he was not blamed for the tragedy.

The British public was shocked.  The tragedy fuelled anti-German campaigns and increased troop recruitment numbers in Britain.  With a substantial loss also of American lives, the sinking was a factor in America joining the War, albeit two years later.

A warning issued by the German Embassy in America that all ships were a target if they sailed into the ‘European War Zone’ was largely ignored.  
As the Lusitania was thought to be of no military value, many passengers believed it was not a realistic target.  Many famous and rich passengers were on board, reinforcing the confidence and feeling of safety for many passengers.  
The tragedy gave rise to many conspiracy theories.  At the time, the exact facts of the disaster were distorted due to wartime secrecy and the desire to fuel anti-German propaganda.
The source of such conspiracy theories was based on the fact that only one torpedo made impact with the ship whereas there had been two explosions.  It has been argued for years that Lusitania had been carrying small arms munitions, which would make the ship a legitimate target for the Germans. 

The wreck lies on her starboard side off the Irish coast at Kinsale.  After one hundred years in the sea - and being used as a target practice by the Royal Navy - the wreck is in a terrible condition.
 During one of the many diving expeditions to the wreck four million bullets were discovered in the ship’s forward cargo hold.  After years of British and American officials denying that the Lusitania was carrying weapons of war, a long-standing mystery had been solved, finally.

​​​Find Out More

Following the tragedy, German medallist Karl Goetz produced a medallion depicting the sinking.  This medallion has proved controversial as it appears to be celebrating the action which most people thought of a as a tragedy.  These first medals got the date of the sinking wrong.  This was quickly rectified and a second version released.
The medallion fuelled a newly energised and impassioned anti-German propaganda campaign which the allies used to recruit more troops.  Lord Newton who was in charge of Propaganda at the Foreign Office wanted this surge in anti-German feelings to continue, and ordered copies of the medallion to be made in Britain.  The replicas were sold amid carefully planned misconception of the truth.  The cases stated that Germany issued the medallions to ‘commemorate the sinking’ and used the wrong date to infer – wrongly - that Germany had planned the sinking. 
It is estimated that around 250,000 replica medallions were sold with the proceeds being given to the St. Dunstan’s Blinded soldiers, Sailors Hostel and the Red Cross.

To see these medallions, visit Glasgow Museums Resource Centre in Nitshill. Phone 0141 276 9300 to book a visit.  

Find the plating model of the Lusitania on display at the Riverside Museum. Plating models were an important element of the ship building design process showing how steel plates will cover the ships frame.

See the painting at Glasgow Museums Resource Centre

Find out about other great ships built by John Brown & Co at the Riverside Museum, including HMS Hood, RMS Queen Mary, RMS Queen Elizabeth and RMS Queen Elizabeth 2.


Glasgow Life Logo