Watch the Sinking of the Lusitania Animated in Real Time (1915)

If you are a grad­u­ate of a U.S. school sys­tem, the words “Remem­ber the Lusi­ta­nia” may be as vague­ly famil­iar to you as “Remem­ber the Alamo.” And you may be just as fuzzy about the details. We learn rough­ly that the sink­ing of the British lux­u­ry lin­er was an act of Ger­man aggres­sion that moved the U.S. to enter World War I. That les­son is large­ly the result of a pro­pa­gan­da effort launched at the time to inflame anti-Ger­man sen­ti­ments and push the U.S. out of iso­la­tion­ism. But it would take almost two years after the attack before the coun­try entered the war. The Lusi­ta­nia did not change Pres­i­dent Woodrow Wilson’s posi­tion. While the “sink­ing of the Lusi­ta­nia was a cru­cial moment in help­ing to sway the Amer­i­can pub­lic in sup­port of the Allied cause,” it was only kept in the pub­lic eye by those who want­ed the U.S. in the war.

Main­stream U.S. cov­er­age imme­di­ate­ly after­ward was not over­ly bel­liger­ent. A week after the dis­as­ter, in a May 16th, 1915 issue, the Sun­day New York Times ran a two-page spread enti­tled “Promi­nent Amer­i­cans Who Lost Their Lives on the S.S. Lusi­ta­nia.” Two weeks lat­er, anoth­er pho­to spread hon­ored the ship’s dead, reflect­ing a “panora­ma of respons­es to the dis­as­ter,” the Library of Con­gress writes, includ­ing “sor­row, hero­ism, ambiva­lence, con­so­la­tion, and anger.”

These were emo­tion­al sur­veys of a tragedy, not inves­tiga­tive jour­nal­ism of an act of war. “Remark­ably,” the attack had “dom­i­nat­ed the head­lines for only about a week before being over­tak­en by a new­er sto­ry.” We might com­pare this to news of the Titan­ic dis­as­ter three years ear­li­er, cred­it­ed as “one of the first and most sig­nif­i­cant inter­na­tion­al news sto­ries of the 20th cen­tu­ry.” There is much about the Lusi­ta­nia the pub­lic did not learn, lead­ing to lat­er accu­sa­tions of a British Naval Intel­li­gence cov­er-up.

For one thing, sto­ries report­ed that the ship had been hit by two tor­pe­does when there was only one. Imme­di­ate­ly after its impact, how­ev­er, a sec­ondary explo­sion from inside the ship caused the Lusi­ta­nia to list per­ilous­ly to one side (ren­der­ing most lifeboats use­less) and take on water. Where the Titan­ic had tak­en 2 hours and 40 min­utes to go down, the Lusi­ta­nia sank in 18 min­utes — as you can see in the real-time ani­ma­tion above — killing approx­i­mate­ly 1,200 pas­sen­gers includ­ing around 120 Amer­i­cans. The sec­ond explo­sion lent cred­i­bil­i­ty to Ger­man accu­sa­tions that the pas­sen­ger ship was car­ry­ing muni­tions from New York to Britain. (Divers in a 1993 Nation­al Geo­graph­ic expe­di­tion found four mil­lion U.S.-made Rem­ing­ton bul­lets on board.) While this could not be proven at the time, the British had tak­en to hid­ing arms on pas­sen­ger ships, and the Lusi­ta­nia was out­fit­ted to be com­man­deered for war.

Not only did British author­i­ties put the Lusi­ta­nia in har­m’s way by allow­ing civil­ian pas­sen­gers to sail through block­ad­ed waters in which Ger­man sub­marines had been sink­ing mer­chant ships, but pas­sen­gers know­ing­ly put them­selves in dan­ger. The Ger­man High Com­mand had warned of attacks in Amer­i­can news­pa­pers in days before the ship set sail. Yet “only a cou­ple of peo­ple actu­al­ly can­celed,” says Erik Lar­son, author of the book Dead Wake: The Last Cross­ing of the Lusi­ta­nia. No war at sea or recent mem­o­ry of the Titan­ic could dis­suade them.

They saw this ship as so fast it could out­run any sub­ma­rine. They saw it as being so immense, so well built, so safe, and so well equipped with lifeboats in the wake of the Titan­ic dis­as­ter that even if it were hit by a tor­pe­do, no one imag­ined this thing actu­al­ly sink­ing. But no one could imag­ine a sub­ma­rine going after the Lusi­ta­nia in the first place.

Lar­son­’s last point sig­nals the crit­i­cal dif­fer­ence between this attack and all of those pre­vi­ous: the sink­ing of the Lusi­ta­nia was a shock­ing turn­ing point in the war, even if it did­n’t force Wilson’s hand as Churchill hoped. No one had expect­ed it. “In the his­to­ry of mod­ern war­fare,” the Library of Con­gress notes, the Lusi­ta­nia sig­naled “the end of the ‘gen­tle­man­ly’ war prac­tice of the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry and the begin­ning of a more omi­nous and vicious era of total war­fare.” While the Ger­mans ceased the prac­tice after British out­cry, they resumed the tar­get­ing of pas­sen­ger and mer­chant ships in 1917, final­ly prompt­ing U.S. involve­ment. The era that began with the Lusi­ta­nia con­tin­ues over a cen­tu­ry lat­er. Indeed, the wan­ton destruc­tion of civil­ian life no longer seems like trag­ic col­lat­er­al dam­age in cur­rent war zones, but the very point of wag­ing mod­ern war.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Watch the Titan­ic Sink in Real Time in a New 2‑Hour, 40 Minute Ani­ma­tion

Titan­ic Sur­vivor Inter­views: What It Was Like to Flee the Sink­ing Lux­u­ry Lin­er

The First Col­or Pho­tos From World War I: The Ger­man Front

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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