Story of the Great War - Roland Usher

Frightfulness: The Lusitania

Much of the story of the year 1915 is connected with the first concerted attempt of the Germans to show how horrible warfare could be made under the new science. Air raids were made by Zeppelins and aŽroplanes with the intention of destroying innocent people who could not possibly be of assistance in warfare. Red Cross hospitals, clearly marked with great crosses, plainly visible from a great altitude, were frequently bombed and destroyed. Hospital ships with great crosses painted on their sides, illuminated at night by a great cross of electric lights, were sunk by submarines. There were no possible excuses for error. Besides, too many hospitals were destroyed to admit of accidents. The purpose was to frighten individuals by showing them how horrible war could be made and therefore influence them to surrender.

In the spring of 1915, the Germans determined to prove the great power of the submarine. They would sink the largest ship afloat—the Lusitania. They would give the world warning that they meant to sink her and they would then see that she went down. The German embassy in America warned Americans against sailing upon the ship, and thus gave notice of the German plans, but nobody believed that they could mean what they said. On the seventh of May at two o'clock in the afternoon, the Lusitania  was steaming along the Irish coast. It was a bright clear day; the identity of the ship was known to every German submarine; she was also known to be unarmed and unable to defend herself. There were on board no cannon and no explosives, nor was there any warning. She was torpedoed at least twice on the starboard side and began to sink at once; indeed, she floated only eighteen minutes after she was struck. There was no panic, although there was necessarily a certain degree of excitement. There was great difficulty in lowering the boats, due to the fact that the ship was leaning heavily on the starboard side into the water and that the leeward side was therefore lifted high above the sea. The ship also continued to travel fast through the water and it was difficult to lower the boats without capsizing them. How quickly the ship went down is clear from the following account by one of the survivors.

German Gas Attack, 1915


"I fell into a boat and we were slipped down into the water and over the side of the liner. The boat struck the water and after some seconds (it may have been a minute) I looked up, and cried out, 'My God! the Lusitania is gone!' The entire bulk, which had been almost upright just a few seconds before, suddenly lurched over away from us. Then she seemed to stand upright in the water and the next instant the keel of the vessel caught the keel of the boat in which we were floating and we were thrown into the water. I sank fifteen or twenty feet; however, I had my life belt around me and managed to rise again to the surface. Then I floated for possibly ten or fifteen minutes, when I saw and made a grab at a collapsible life boat at which other passengers were also grabbing. We managed to get it ship-shape and clambered in." A good many people were saved in life boats or by life preservers, but over a thousand lives were lost, over a hundred of whom were Americans. Many men of real prominence and importance went down with the ship, most of them in order to allow the women and children a chance for safety.

The Germans had thought evidently that the sinking of the ship would deter travel, frighten sailors, thus cut off England's supplies and bring the war to an end. Never were they more astonishingly disappointed. The condemnation of the act was universal throughout the world. Contrary to all rules and practices of three centuries or more, a great ship had been sunk without warning or without opportunity for her passengers and crew to escape. To sink without warning had been considered for three centuries the clearest evidence of piracy.

Six months later the Germans again astounded the world with an unparalleled act of cruelty. An English nurse, named Edith Cavell, had been arrested in Brussels on August 5. She had been the directress of a large nursing home at Brussels, where she had given aid impartially to German, Belgian, French, and English soldiers. She admitted that she had given certain assistance to Allied fugitive soldiers, with clothes and information about the roads to Holland. There was no claim that she had given any information to anybody that was of military importance or which in any way affected the issue of the war. The German charge was that of "conducting soldiers to the enemy."

According to this she was a spy and as such to be shot. Once more, as in the case of the Lusitania, they proceeded contrary to all accepted practices. While in a certain sense everybody who in any way, even by a cup of cold water, assisted any one not a German, did assist the enemies of Germany, it had been generally agreed that a man or woman was not a spy unless in disguise within the enemy lines and unless possessed of secret information of direct military value. Miss Cavell was therefore no more a spy than thousands of people during our own Civil War and all other previous wars who had performed acts of kindness for wounded and fugitive soldiers of both sides. Men had felt that to refuse simple shelter to a wounded man or a man in flight or in danger of his life was an act of inhumanity and not sufficiently dangerous to either side to be considered a crime. Nor had it been so treated.

British Charge in Gas Masks, 1915


The Germans proposed to execute this brave little woman for acts of common humanity to wounded and suffering men. But the horror of the world at her execution on October 12 was not due merely to her death for the performance of acts which the Allied world judged humane, but the manner in which the Germans conducted the whole case. They refused to allow her any legal aid or counsel. The American embassy made the most determined attempt to find out what was being done in her case and to render her assistance. Not only were they refused permission to aid her in any way, but the German officials repeatedly lied to them. Some time after she had been sentenced, in her cell behind locked doors, obviously that the fact might be secret, they denied on their honor that she had been sentenced at all. The order had been given to execute her at once during the night and it was only after the utmost pressure that the German officers were gotten to admit that the order had been given. All appeals for delay or for co-cessions of any kind were refused. She was denied at the end the common humanity of religious conference and prayer with her own chaplain. As Mr. Hugh Gibson, the secretary of the American embassy, wrote, "Her execution in the middle of the night at the conclusion of a course of trickery and deception was nothing short of an affront to civilization."

The Lusitania  and the death of Edith Cavell produced a tremendous impression in the United States and were among the prime causes which led this country to enter the war. We could not countenance for a moment the thought of victory for a nation absolutely lost to all considerations of decency, of humanity, and of civilization.