The 'Lusitania' Helped Push America Into WWI & Remains One Of The World's Most Dangerous Dive Wrecks
On May 7, 1915, the RMS Lusitania, a British passenger liner, sank after a German U-boat torpedoed it. Over a thousand people died in the catastrophe, making it one of the most dramatic, contentious moments in the first year of World War I. Along with the sinking of the Titanic, the loss of the Lusitania is one of the 20th century's most significant maritime disasters.
Germany and the United Kingdom were enemy nations during World War I, and the Atlantic Ocean - especially the waters around the United Kingdom - became a war zone. As a result, German submarines (known as U-boats) patrolled the waters to bring down the ships they deemed threats - and one apparently saw the Lusitania as enough of a threat to fire on it without warning. Politically, the sinking had very real ramifications and is often cited as ushering the United States into World War I.
More than a century after its shocking demise, the ship still sits at the bottom of the ocean. The story of the Lusitania wreck is just as compelling as the story of its sinking. Researchers continue to search the wreckage for clues to the ship's final minutes and what exactly happened after the German torpedo tore into it.
- Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
Germany Claimed The 'Lusitania' Was Fair Game Because It Was Transporting War Materials
The German attack on the Lusitania was a political act - and reactions to the event were likewise political. Despite the public outcry, Germany defended its actions by claiming the ship was transporting contraband war materials from America to Great Britain. As such, destroying the ship was an act of war, and the German U-boat was arguably under no obligation to fire a warning shot. The United Kingdom vehemently denied Germany's claims, insisting the ship was carrying only small cartridges.
Though no large-scale explosives have been found, the owner of the wreckage believes the ship may have been carrying highly explosive war materials like nitrocellulose. In 2014, files were released that suggested the British government knew that ammunition might have been on board.
- Photo: German Government / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0
A Mysterious Explosion Rocked The Ship
The German torpedo was not the only thing to rock the ship. Shortly after the torpedo hit, passengers and crew members felt a second terrifying explosion. To this day, nobody knows for sure what caused the second explosion. Some theorize coal dust in the bowels of the ship produced it. Others think it could have been caused by war munitions or the ship's boilers.
It's believed this second explosion may have quickened the ship's demise.
- Photo: George Grantham Bain / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
The Ship Sank In Just 18 Minutes
The Lusitania went under astonishingly fast. Only 18 minutes passed from the time the torpedo hit until the ship was completely submerged. This meant passengers had less time to make it to lifeboats, some of which broke apart or were otherwise unusable.
The ship's quick sinking time undoubtedly led to more casualties.
- Photo: John Singer Sargent / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
Some Believe That Priceless Works Of Art Might Be Buried In The Wreckage
Among the victims of the attack on the Lusitania was Sir Hugh Lane, a prominent Irish art collector. Returning to Europe aboard the Lusitania, he may have been traveling with artwork. Some believe he had works by European masters like Rubens and Titian in his possession, a suspicion heightened by the fact that a box containing "oil paintings" appears on the ship's manifest.
Though some dismiss these claims as unsubstantiated rumors, $60 million worth of art may very well be sitting at the bottom of the ocean.
Years After The Sinking, The UK All But Admitted That War Materials Were On The 'Lusitania'
For decades, the British government repeatedly denied that the Lusitania was carrying explosives when it was sunk. In 1982 the government changed its tune. Shortly before divers embarked on a salvage expedition, British government officials warned the divers of the risk involved. According to the Foreign Office:
The facts are that there is a large amount of ammunition in the wreck, some of which is highly dangerous. The Treasury [has] decided that they must inform the salvage company of this fact in the interests of the safety of all concerned. Although there have been rumours in the press that the previous denial of the presence of munitions was untrue, this would be the first acknowledgement of the facts by [Her Majesty's Government].
- Photo: Peter Southwood / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 3.0
An American Businessman Owns The Rights To The Wreck
When the Lusitania was torpedoed in May 1915, it sank in Irish waters. In subsequent years, Ireland's Cultural Ministry limited access to the wreck in a bid to protect it. However, although Ireland owns the waters around the wreck, an American venture capitalist owns the salvage rights to it.
Gregg Bemis essentially purchased the wreck because he hoped to salvage about $12 million worth of scrap metal from the remains of the ship. Rather than stripping the vessel, however, Bemis has since become obsessed with exploring the wreck to gain a better understanding of what caused the second explosion. Unfortunately, the Irish government continues to place strict limits on his plans.