- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 26, 2002

By Diana Preston
Walker & Co, $28, 532 pages, illus.

The sinking of the Cunard luxury liner Lusitania took only 18 minutes from the time the single torpedo of U-20, a German submarine, struck her iron plating amidships 87 years ago.
Yet in the masterful hands of Diana Preston this single violent act, mechanical, exact, and resulting in the deaths of more than 1,200 civilians, becomes a signal warning us that the world was even then speeding down the long slide toward the bombing of civilian populations, toward the napalming of villages, toward the suicide bombing of malls.
Something happened certainly, that May 7 of 1915, which makes the name of the great straight-stemmed ship which was so easily destroyed ever memorable. In "Lusitania: An Epic Tragedy," it is the author's job to explain, in widening circles of reference, what makes this so.
Her approach does not fail to face the dreadfulness of "modern" weapons those not wielded by a warrior, but by his mechanical extensions. Her analysis of the submarine, one great example of the breed, goes back to Horatio Nelson, the hero of Trafalgar, who commented wonderfully on the idea of submarine attack, that it was "burglarious … sneak dodges down below."
Yet Nelson himself was killed by an ambush bullet fired from the distant mizzen crosstrees of a French ship that famous day. Submarine warfare, the author presses home, is all about ambush; and she argues that the Lusitania story begins the whole horrid chapter of inhuman weaponry aimed at innocent lives that is still far from closed.
"The concept of a clean 'no hard feelings' war which had prompted the fraternization and games of football between opposing troops on the Western Front, mainly at the instigation of German soldiers singing 'Silent Night' at Christmas 1914 was banished. Instead the events of the spring and early summer of 1915, including the destruction of the Lusitania, were signposts on the path to Guernica, Hiroshima, and beyond."
Why did the Germans attack a ship they knew was a noncombatant? First, as the author thoroughly documents, to take advantage of a superior weapon in the struggle with Britain. And second, because they had reason to believe (from spies) that the Lusitania had a secret cargo of weapons bound for the Allied armies.
This was true but only partially. The 1,250 cases of shrapnel shells in the hold were unassembled, the millions of small arms rounds for British troopers' rifles were legal under U.S. law and were stamped "non-explosive in bulk."
Few could argue that these war materials were not "contraband," and under international law might be seized by a combatant who stopped and searched the ship. But were the munitions a license to sink the Lusitania?
World opinion has forever argued that they were no such license, and that the torpedoing and subsequent deaths of over 1,200, including many women and children was a barbarous crime which hardened American attitudes against Germany, and ironically, caused the German high command to restrict its successful submarine campaign.
German officials, after first maintaining that the ship was a legitimate target, later responded to worldwide vilification by suspending unrestricted attacks by U-boats. Most affected by the world's censure was Germany's mercurial emperor, Wilhelm II, grandson of Queen Victoria of Britain.
The author argues thus that the war of propoganda, as well as that of dreadful weapons, gained its largest victory here. Even Winston Churchill proclaimed that the deaths of the women and children of the Lusitania helped win the war, while the author adds, "Germany's great mistake, having sunk the Lusitania, was to edge slowly away from unrestricted submarine warfare … by calling a halt, she was losing her best chance of winning the war."
And why, lastly, did the Lusitania slow considerably off the Irish coast, making her a sitting target for the waiting U-boat?
The answer to this long pondered mystery is that she was still traveling at a speed most ship captains believed was above the submarine's ability to manuever and aim accurately. It turned out that U-20s crew was exceptionally skilled.
The author spends many pages of this long book on a detailed accounting of the individual fates of the Lusitania's passengers. This has come to be standard stuff in the recounting of disaster in today's nonfiction; story after story meticulously pieced together from letters and sources to give a repetitive augmenting of horror from the point of view of the individual passengers.
In this, the author is exhaustive and detailed, running down every available archive, recording every comment committed to paper. Yet, as she reveals, there was no such care give to the passengers at the time scores of bodies were never found, scores of names were simply unaccounted for, and many of the found dead were simply unknown, to be buried in a mass grave, after the tragedy.
But equally interesting, perhaps, is her inclusion of new information gleaned by undersea explorers who have located the wreck of the Lusitania off the Head of Kinsale in Ireland (the ship was in sight of land when she sank) and have explored what the diving fraternity calls "the best wreck in the world."
Their discoveries amount to details which confirm the basic story that the Lusitania was sunk by a single, perfectly aimed torpedo; that she was carring munitions; that as far as anyone knows, a fortune in gold and jewelry, plus a lead case with paintings by important artists, including a Monet and a Rubens, are still on board and undiscovered.
Systematically looted by divers over the years, the Lusitania's parts sometimes came to ludicrous ends. One of her gigantic propellers was melted down and turned into 3,500 sets of golf clubs. The other rests near the waterside at Liverpool.
As for U-20, her story, too, is meticulously spun out here. Aground on a Danish sandbank during a later mission, her captain blew her up rather than let her fall into enemy hands. Her conning tower rests in a shipwrecks museum at West Jutland. Her commander, Walther Schwieger, was lost with all hands on U-88 in 1917. His body was never recovered. But his thoughts about the Lusitiana attack, recorded in his war diary, are repeated here. He was sickened by the sight of the desperate victims and turned his ship away.

Duncan Spencer is a writer in Washington.

Copyright © 2019 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide