Some twenty miles south and west of Cork, the Old Head of Kinsale juts into the sea. At the end of a lane that runs between lines of wire fencing, through fields of close-cropped grass sloping down to the sea, there is a golf course. Beyond the greens and fairways stands a lighthouse and about 11 miles beyond this picturesque spot there occurred one of the great tragedies of the twentieth century: the sinking of the Cunard liner RMS Lusitania. Lusitania had been launched on 7 June 1906, at the yard of John Brown & Co. on the Clyde. At the start of the twentieth century the transatlantic route was dominated by German lines, Norddeutscher Lloyd and Hamburg-Amerika, and Lusitania was designed to be fast enough and luxurious enough to win back the top spot for Britain and the Cunard Line. Her contract specified a minimum average speed of 24½ knots; an architect designed her interiors; and she was big enough that 14 miles of the Clyde had to be dredged to get her from John Brown’s yard to the open sea, as were 20 square miles of the Mersey so she could use the Prince’s Landing Stage in Liverpool, Cunard’s home port.
Her final voyage, crossing no. 202, departed from New York’s Pier 54 on the misty morning of 1 May 1915. In that day’s newspapers was a black-bordered advertisement signed ‘Imperial German Embassy’ warning those who were due to sail that British-flagged ships were liable to be sunk in the waters around the British Isles, and that travellers crossed at their own risk. Nevertheless, on leaving New York, Lusitania was carrying 1,959 passengers and crew, as well as cargo including 4.2 million rounds of rifle ammunition and over 1,000 empty shrapnel shells. The German war zone around Britain had been declared as a response to Britain’s own naval blockade of Germany. On 4 February 1915, the Germans had announced a two-week period of grace before the new blockade was put into force: this was to give neutral shipping time to evacuate the area because the German U-boats now had orders to sink any enemy shipping found there, be it a merchant vessel or a warship, and although the U-boat captains also had orders to avoid neutral shipping their safety could not be guaranteed. On Friday 7 May, Lusitania arrived in Irish waters. There were warnings that a German submarine was active in the area and had sunk several ships; orders were in place for shipping to avoid coastal waters. However, when the Lusitania’s captain spotted the Old Head of Kinsale, he seemed unsure of his position and ordered a four-point bearing to be taken, which required steaming in a straight line at a consistent speed for forty minutes. This process began at 1.50 p.m. U-20 had spotted Lusitania at 1.00 and had been watching her. At 2.09 torpedoes were spotted in the water to starboard. The lookout shouted a single warning to the bridge and ran below to warn his brother. By the time the Captain was aware of the danger, it was too late; the torpedo hit at exactly 2:10, striking a coal bunker at about 45 mph.
The ship immediately began to list to starboard; the incoming water pulled the bow down too. A rumbling roar built up inside the ship and there was another explosion that almost tore her in half. The increasingly heavy list made it difficult to launch the lifeboats; they almost all capsized or sank. Time was also a problem: Lusitania was sinking fast, and would be gone within twenty minutes of being hit. In the end, only 761 survivors were picked up and brought to Queenstown, now Cobh. The deaths of almost 1,200 civilians aboard an unarmed ship caused outrage in Britain. There was outrage too in the US: 128 Americans had died. A German spokesman announced that the ammunition, listed on Lusitania’s manifest, and the ship’s status as an auxiliary warship justified the sinking. Conspiracy theories have argued that Lusitania was carrying more war material that wasn’t listed and that this was covered up; there is another theory that Lusitania was deliberately exposed to danger to provoke the US into joining the Allies. Whatever the truth of it is, a lot of lives were lost, a wonderful artefact of the gilded age was destroyed and to the wider public in both Britain and the US unrestricted submarine warfare came of age as a weapon.