May 7, 1915: A German U-boat sinks the RMS Lusitania.
The sinking of the British ocean liner Lusitania was one of the most infamous events of World War I, carried out by the SM U-20 as part of Germany’s policy of unrestricted submarine warfare against Great Britain and its allies. The event, which took the lives of nearly 1,200 people (including 128 American citizens), enraged the British and Americans, provided the basis for effective war and recruitment propaganda in the future, and turned public opinion in the United States against Germany so quickly that the country’s carefully preserved neutrality threatened to collapse. It did not, at least not until 1917, when Germany declared its intention to resume its practice of unrestricted submarine warfare, which reignited Americans’ lingering anger over the Lusitania.
At the time of its sinking, the Lusitania had officially been carrying as cargo war materials (ammunition, fuses, artillery shells), making it, in the eyes of the Germans, a legitimate military target, despite the fact that the ship was also at the time carrying 1,959 people. Of that number, 1,198 died when the ship was torpedoed off the coast of Ireland. The ship sank in 18 minutes, as opposed to the 2 hours 40 minutes it took for Lusitania’s White Star Line Rival, RMS Titanic, to sink, but like with Titanic, most of the deaths probably resulted from hypothermia, as survivors of the initial torpedoing awaited rescue floating for hours in the waters of the North Atlantic. In addition, the manner in which the Lusitania sank rendered most of its lifeboats unusable. The commander of the German U-boat, Walther Schwieger, was labeled by some a war criminal, although despite sparking outrage in the United States, the attack was not on its own enough to bring the country into the war. Three days later President Wilson made this comment in a speech:
There is such a thing as a man being too proud to fight. There is such a thing as a nation being so right that it does not need to convince others by force that it is right.