Yesterday was the 100th anniversary of the day the Lusitania sank, torpedoed by the German submarine U-20, under the command of Kapitänleutnant Walther Schwieger, a 29-year-old officer in the Kaiserliche Marine.
Lusitania was the flagship of the Cunard Line, a magnificent vessel of 44,000 tons capable of nearly 27 knots and devouring 800 tons of coal a day to produce the steam that drove its four turbines. Not only did it have no equal in opulence, with even the third-class passengers enjoying a level of luxury they had never experienced at home, but it also had no equal in the military world. Lusitania could outrun any enemy vessel, whether on the surface or beneath the sea.
That was no coincidence, since the British Admiralty had a major involvement in the ship’s design, and as a consequence, when war broke out Lusitania was designated as an auxiliary naval vessel. Lusitania was funded by British government money, with the understanding that in the event of war breaking out, the ship would be converted to an auxiliary cruiser. That was the agreement Cunard had with the government and that was the basis on which they received the money to build the Lusitania.
Lusitania was equipped with a new power plant, the Parsons turbine that produced almost twice the power of the latest battlecruisers in the Navy fleet. Was that fair? Who knows? That was what Cunard agreed to, though it’s far from certain that they informed their passengers of the arrangement.
What is certain is that Lusitania was designated as a warship from the moment the contract was signed, and was recognised as such by all foreign governments from then on.
This is all the information Walther Schwieger had available to him on the 7th May 1915 when he chose to launch a torpedo at a ship filled with civilians, though you would have to ask yourself what was going on in this man’s head. He must have known that he was about to kill thousands of innocent people.
Is it possible that indoctrination had rendered him incapable of making moral judgements for himself? Was Kapitänleutnant Walther Schwieger in some way a precursor of the horrors that his countrymen would inflict on the word a quarter century later?
Perhaps, but if we engage in this sort of speculation, we find ourselves drawn into much more difficult questions and the reasons are obvious.
If Schwieger was a mass murderer for sinking the Lusitania in time of war, then what was Sir Arthur “Bomber” Harris who destroyed the city of Dresden, a place of immense architectural merit but no military relevance, and what was Curtis Le May, who directed the fire-bombing of Tokyo and the nuclear attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki?
Are our morals perhaps a little elastic?
Maybe, but our souls remain human and we can still share the suffering of our fellow human beings which is why our nation held the Lusitania commemoration at Cobh yesterday.
People came from all over the world, but principally from Britain, Canada and the USA, to honour the family members they lost in this disaster. They came to acknowledge not only the loss of their family but also the commitment of people from Queenstown, as it was known in those days, who abandoned their daily work to go out on the water and save survivors if they could, but also to bring the dead to land in a respectful way.
It isn’t easy to find a respectful place for the dead as anyone will tell you who has experience of maritime matters. And as anyone with experience of such matters will tell you, that is all that should be said about it.
Here are some pictures from a commemoration that took place between those who lost family, those whose relatives cared for the victims and representatives of those who fought a war that caused the disaster.
All of them found peace.