Sunday, May 17, 2015

RMS Lusitania

When you decide to immerse yourself fin history you never quite know what you’ll learn in the process. Maybe you want to learn more about your ancestral home, and you discover that you’re family lived in the same town in Italy where Napoleon was born. Perhaps you discover that your someone in your family was good friends with Paul Revere. Or perhaps you learn, as I did, that your family simply happened to travel among one of the most famous ships in history.

In my specific case I have a tie to the RMS Lusitania. My great grandmother emigrated to the United States with her family on the RMS Lusitania. This obviously happened sometime before May 7, 1915 because on that date the ship was torpedoed by a German U Boat and sunk, killing 1,198 passengers and crewmembers.

When the ship set sail on its maiden voyage in 1906 it was briefly the largest ship in the world. This boat was meant to be a passenger ship, and it boasted a spacious and comfortable interior. But really, history knows this ship for a completely different reason.

The Paris Declaration Respecting Maritime Law, established in 1856, codified the rules of engagements involving civilian vessels, granting all passengers and crew members of civilian ships safe voyages so long as they could be boarded and checked and did not transport any items of war.

In early 1915 the Germans began using submarines to attack naval vessels achieving occasional successes. In February of 1915 the North Sea around the British Isles was declared a war zone.

The Lusitania was nearing the end of her crossing bound for Liverpool from New York when she was struck. Unfortunately conditions made the usage of lifeboats difficult or impossible. Of the 1,962 passengers and crew 1,191 lost their lives.

Most who died were British and Canadians, but 128 American lives were lost, enraging the then-neutral country.

The Lusitania was sunk because the Germans believed the ship “carried contraband of war” and thus Germany had a right to destroy her regardless of the passengers. Germany was relieved of any responsibility of the 128 American lives because of the existence of “war zones.”

Despite the outrage felt by many Americans, it would take two more years for the United States to become involved in WWI. When Germany re-instituted their unrestricted submarine warfare in 1917 this event pushed the US over the edge and brought the country into the war. This event solidified the importance of submarines in modern warfare. While only one of the many ships sunk during the war, I suppose this stands out because of my own personal tie.

Happy history!