The Sinking of the Lusitania
Frameworks for America's Past
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German submarine warfare

   As World War I began in Europe in 1914, both sides tried to block war supplies from getting to the other side.  Great Britain, with the largest navy, easily stopped ships carrying food and supplies to Germany.  (This is called a blockade.)

   Germany decided to use its U-boats (submarines) to try to stop ships carrying supplies to Great Britain.

   International law said that civilian (non-military) ships could not be attacked unless the people on board were given time to get to safety in lifeboats.

   At first, German U-boats followed that rule.  In 1915, however, Germany declared that it would attack without warning any enemy ships operating in the waters around Great Britain.

A German U-boat on a beach

   The photo shows a German U-boat (submarine) that washed ashore in Great Britain after the war in a storm.  U-boats attacked while underwater by firing a torpedo at an enemy ship.  You can see the round doors of the torpedo firing tubes at the front of the submarine, on the left side of the photo.

The Lusitania was attacked and sunk by a U-boat

   The Lusitania was a British ocean liner on a return trip from New York City back to England.  The ship was just off the coast of Great Britain when it was attacked by a German U-boat in May of 1915. 

   The ship sank very quickly after being hit by a torpedo. 
No warning was given by the U-boat.  1,198 passengers died.  That number included 128 Americans.

   Alfred Vanderbilt, listed in the newspaper as one of the passengers, was a wealthy grandson of Cornelius Vanderbilt.  As the ship was sinking, Alfred Vanderbilt saw a woman holding an infant child.  He took off his own life jacket, and tied it around her.  He was among those who died as the ship went down.


The photo shows men carrying the body of one of the Americans who died
in the attack on the Lusitania.

Germany's response: We warned you!

    The British and Americans were outraged by the attack.  Germany, however, responded that the passenger ship was also carrying large amounts of ammunition and other war supplies as cargo.

   Germany had also placed this notice in many American newspapers.  The notice warned travelers that any British ships in the war zone around Great Britain might be attacked.
   The people who bought tickets to travel to England on the Lusitania apparently felt safe because up to that time there had been no attacks on passenger ships by German submarines.

   A newspaper ad for the Lusitania's departure times, together with the notice from the German government, are shown below.


President Woodrow Wilson wanted the U.S. to stay neutral

    The British hoped the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915 would bring the U.S. into the war on their side.  Many Americans wanted the country to declare war immediately.  The attack was certainly turning public opinion against Germany.

   President Woodrow Wilson, however, argued that the U.S. should try to remain neutral.  He began talks with German officials.  The U.S. demanded that Germany promise to follow the international law that protects passengers and crews on unarmed ships.

   Germany agreed to order its U-boat commanders to follow the law.  Based on Germany's pledge, America remained neutral.

   The newspaper below carried the story on the front page.


President Woodrow Wilson

Click here to see this newspaper page in a larger size

All images except the newspaper notice courtesy the Library of Congress. 
Newspaper notice courtesy Wiki Commons.
The map is by David Burns.
Some images have been edited or resized for this page.

Copyright Notice

   Copyright 2009, 2016 by David Burns.  All rights reserved.  As a guide to the Virginia Standards of Learning, some pages necessarily include phrases or sentences from that document, which is available online from the Virginia Department of Education.  The author's copyright extends to the original text and graphics, unique design and layout, and related material.