Replica Commemorative German Medal
Today’s object is a British copy of a German medal commemorating the sinking of the Ocean Liner RMS Lusitania on the 7th May 1915. This event did much to shock America out of its isolationist stance and lean it more towards favouring the British over the Germans in World War 1.
The RMS Lusitania set sail on its last voyage on the 1st May 1915 from New York. Earlier the Germans had declared the seas around the United Kingdom to be a War Zone where U Boats would operate aggressively. Concerned about the international fallout that would occur if a passenger liner was sunk the German government had issued a warning, printed in US newspapers, about the state of war that existed between Britain and Germany, and thus the dangers if US citizens decided to sail on the Lusitania. Despite this the ship was near full of passengers when, on the 7th May 1915, she was torpedoed by U-20. Eighteen minutes later she sank with the loss of 1,191 out of 1,962 passengers, including 128 American citizens.
Built as a direct response to the German Cruise Line companies Norddeutscher Lloyd and Hamburg America Line stranglehold on the lucrative Transatlantic passenger service, the Lusitania was, briefly, the largest and fastest ship afloat when she was launched on the 7th June 1906. Partly designed by Cunards own designers, and partly built to the specifications of the Royal Navy, the Lusitania used state of the art turbine technology to comfortably achieve over 25 knots during her sea trials, an unheard of speed at the time. On her second voyage, her first having been delayed by bad weather, the Lusitania smashed the record for the fastest Atlantic crossing, taking just four days, nineteen hours and fifty three minutes. From that moment on the coveted Blue Ribband, the award for the fastest crossing of the Atlantic, would be held by The Cunard Line, owners of the Lusitania and her sister ship the Mauretania, until 1929.
When war was declared in 1914 there was concern amongst passengers that the massive cruise liners would be targets, the sinking of the Titanic just two years earlier was still fresh in everyone’s minds. To pacify this fear the Cruiser Rules had earlier been created whereby passenger ships operating in a non-military fashion would be eligible for stop and search procedures by enemy ships but were safe from sinking. The Lusitania though had been built on the understanding that it could be converted into an armed merchant cruiser in the event of a war, and as such contained a secret compartment that could be filled with munitions and other war supplies. This put the vessel into a grey area, somewhere between a civilian and a war vessel. Indeed the 1914 copy of Janes All The Worlds Fighting Ships put the Lusitania and the Mauritania in the Auxiliary Cruiser section of the Royal Navy’s strength.
BY 1915 the initial fears of a rampant German navy sinking vessels in the Atlantic had failed to materialise and, to a certain extent, passengers began to relax about the idea of crossing the Atlantic. Although several of the large passenger liners had been mothballed for the duration of the conflict, the Lusitania was kept running due to passenger demand. In February of that year though the Germans gave out an ominous warning that German U-Boats would operate a sink without warning policy in the waters around the United Kingdom.
The Lusitania, her speed reduced to a still impressive 21 knots by war time coal rationing, set sail from Pier 54 in New York Harbour at 12:20 pm on the 1st May 1915 on her 202nd transatlantic voyage. Steaming unescorted by Royal Navy destroyers all seemed well until on the 7th May, some 11 miles of the Old Head of Kinnsale in Ireland, she crossed the bows of the German submarine U-20. It would appear that this was bad luck as there was no way the submarine could have been shadowing the Lusitania, their relative speed differences made this impossible. Recognising the vessel for what she was, the profile of the Lusitania was well known across the world, such had been her pre-war publicity, Walther Schwieger, the U-Boat commander gave the order to launch one torpedo. This struck the Lusitania on the starboard bow, just beneath the wheelhouse. Moments later a second, more violent, explosion occurred deep within the ship, most likely caused by igniting coal dust, and soon the vessel began listing steeply to starboard. Even given the fact that there were not enough life boats on board, it is unlikely that many more lives could have been saved, given the violence and speed of the sinking. Within 18 minutes of the torpedoes striking, the vessel had disappeared beneath the waves.
Almost as soon as the vessel had vanished there were howls of outrage from the American government and newspapers. The British, wanting America in the war with them pushed the propaganda element of the sinking to its maximum, and the German government were forced to defend their actions. German Foreign Minister Von Jagow managed to successfully argue that the ship was carrying munitions and that as an Auxiliary Cruiser she was a legitimate target. This seems to have swayed Woodrow Wilson, the President of the United States, and Congress, who though demanding an apology for the loss of American lives, compensation and a promise that it would never happen again, stopped very short of declaring war. The incident was not forgotten though and when, two years later, Germany again declared unrestricted submarine warfare within the waters of the United Kingdom this, along with the famous Zimmerman Telegram, pushed public opinion in the United States towards war with Germany, and on the 6th April 1917 war between the US and Germany was declared.