BOOKS: by Michael Daniel (reviewer)News Weekly
Wilful murder: the Sinking of the Lusitania, by Diana Preston
, October 19, 2002
Lusitania myths laid to rest
WILFUL MURDER: The Sinking of the Lusitania
by Diana Preston
Rec. price: $54.95Standard histories of World War One cite the sinking of the Lusitania on May 7, 1915, off the Irish coast, by a German submarine as one of the chief catalysts in America's entry into the war.
In just 18 minutes the ship sank, killing 1195 people, 128 of whom were American citizens, including prominent people such as Alfred Vanderbilt. The event provoked moral outrage among the British and their allies, but particularly in the USA, which was then still a neutral country.
It was a powerful propaganda tool for the allies who claimed that the sinking was an unprovoked attack upon women and children, particularly citizens of a neutral country.
The sinking was successfully utilised for recruiting purposes by the pre-conscription British Army. It also led to considerable power wrangle among the German authorities and ultimately led to a decision to suspend unrestricted sinking of merchant and passenger ships by German submarines.
However, from the time of the sinking there have been many disputed questions, particularly the crucial question of the cause of the second explosion.
Was the Lusitania
, as the Germans claim, secretly carrying Canadian troops and munitions to aid the war (thereby making it a perfectly legitimate target), munitions that caused the second explosion, or did the Germans fire two torpedos as the British claimed?
Why did the British not provide sufficient naval protection, especially when they were aware of submarine activity within the vicinity of the Irish coast, through a successful cracking of the German codes?
In a largely narrative format, Diana Preston, author of numerous works of history designed for the general reader, re-examines the events surrounding the sinking of the Lusitania
, focusing in the latter sections of the book on the unanswered questions.
She argues that explorations, using sophisticated technology, within the last few years have only now been able to give some accurate answers to these questions. The aura of suspicion still surrounds the sinking, as many of the papers have either disappeared or are still classified documents.
Preston argues that the second explosion was caused neither by a second torpedo, nor by secret munitions, but instead by the steam-line rupture. The main causes of the rapid sinking were the point of impact of the torpedo, together with the structure of the ship, a structure that was not designed for such a devastating impact.
Moreover, there were no secret munitions, the cargo manifest (which had been approved for export by US customs), indicates that over half of the cargo, (e.g. munitions) was of utility to the British war effort.
It was also widely believed that the Lusitania
's speed was her greatest defence. Although she was sailing at a reduced speed of 18 knots, no ship sailing over 14 knots had hitherto been sunk by submarines.
Preston also poses the thesis that the German decision to suspend unrestricted submarine warfare in the wake of the Lusitania
was a significant factor in Germany's ultimate defeat. She argues that had it continued, the allies may have sued for a negotiated peace after Verdun and the Somme.Wilful Murder
is an extremely interesting account of one of the more controversial aspects of World War I. The author has drawn extensively on German, English and American archival material and has made a significant and balanced contribution to the debate surrounding the sinking of the Lusitania