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To what extent were the British culpable for the sinking of the Lusitania on May 7, 1915?

Grace Lee
February 21, 2006
IB History 2, Pd. 2
Mr. Hines
To what extent were the British culpable for the sinking of the Lusitania on May 7, 1915?

Part A: Plan of Investigation

The Lusitania was one of a pair of huge, fast, and technologically advanced luxury liners that were created by the Cunard Line of Britain for use as passenger ships, but which could be easily converted into warships[1]. During World War I, the Lusitania continued its regular voyages across the Atlantic Ocean, sparking rumors that it was carrying illicit munitions from America to Great Britain. On May 7, 1915, the German submarine U-20 sank the Lusitania off the coast of Ireland, killing 1,195 people, including 123 Americans[2]. However, controversy surrounds the factors that led the Germans to sink the Lusitania. To what extent were the British culpable for the sinking of the Lusitania? Some historians theorize that Winston Churchill, First Lord of the British Admiralty, purposefully provoked the Germans to sink the Lusitania. For example, Churchill commissioned a report to determine how other nations would react to the German sinking of a passenger ship, and he ordered British ships to be threatening so that passengers would not be allowed to disembark before the ship was sunk[3]. Other historians believe that British culpability was minimal and the sinking was primarily due to Germany’s desire for military and naval superiority. This investigation will cover Britain’s alleged involvement in the plot through a comparative study of Lusitania: An Epic Tragedy, by Diana Preston, and The Lusitania: Finally, the Startling Truth about One of the Most Fateful of All Disasters of the Sea, by Colin Simpson. Most of the research will be from books written by modern historians, either on the Lusitania in particular or on infamous ship disasters of the twentieth century, which incorporate many primary sources, including telegrams between government officials, government documents, and newspapers published during World War I.

Part B: Summary of Evidence

Some historians attribute the sinking of the Lusitania to many other factors besides British involvement, focusing on Germany’s goals and intelligence in the United States. One of Germany’s primary reasons for sinking the Lusitania was to establish naval supremacy, which they believed would be a key factor in winning World War I[4]. The British Royal Navy had already asserted its power by establishing an illegal blockade of Germany. In retaliation, Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany declared a policy of “unrestricted submarine warfare” around the British Isles in January 1915[5], meaning that all British ships would be sunk and that neutral ships sailing in the Isles could not be guaranteed protection[6]. The United States government immediately warned Germany that it would be held accountable for any American lives lost due to submarine warfare. Nevertheless, the Germans assumed that the United States would not be able to mobilize quickly enough to make a difference in the war. Germany also wanted to show the United States that they would not tolerate a neutral country funneling war materials to Britain. The Germans were well aware of American aid to the Allies[7], and a spy ring, led by the German military and naval attachés, Franz von Papen and Karl Boy-Ed, uncovered that the Lusitania in particular would be carrying arms to Britain on her May 1, 1915 voyage[8].

The sinking of the Lusitania was also partly due to the personality of Walther Schwieger (U-20 commander). Schwieger believed in taking advantage of any opportunities that arise, even if they diverged with orders. For example, the day before he torpedoed the Lusitania, Schwieger tried to sink an unmarked passenger steamer[9]. Historian Diana Preston acknowledged that the British could...
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