The chilling reality behind this seemingly benign photograph is that it is reputed to be the last photograph ever taken of Cunard Line’s Lusitania before she was torpedoed and sunk by a German U-boat at 2:10 pm on 8 May 1915 while approaching Queenstown for a scheduled stop on her way home to Liverpool, where she was expected to arrive on that evening’s tide. She had continued to run a monthly round trip voyage to New York at reduced speed while many other liners were withdrawn from service during the War. As a precaution against attack, Lusitania’s name and port of registry were painted over and she flew no company or national flags. All watertight doors throughout the ship’s lower decks were kept closed throughout the voyage, and as she approached the British Isles her lifeboats were swung out ready for immediate lowering if need be as an added safety precaution.
The single torpedo fired by German U-boat U-20, the last one aboard, struck a deadly blow to Lusitania, hitting the ship just below the waterline on her starboard side slightly aft of the bridge, causing an immense explosion in the vicinity of her boiler rooms. Still making headway, with her propellers turning, though out of control, the stricken ship immediately began to list, sinking within only twenty minutes with the loss of 1,198 innocent lives, including 124 Americans. Titanic had foundered only three years earlier after grazing an iceberg off Cape Race during her maiden voyage in April 1912, taking the lives of some 1,500 passengers and crew. Once again people on both sides of the Atlantic were caught up in their shock, dismay of the event and grief at the loss of family and loved ones on the high sea.
America’s decision to enter World War I against Germany and its allies in April 1917 was motivated largely by the belligerent sinkings by German U-boats of American merchant vessels and other ships carrying American citizens, particularly Lusitania.
787ft x 87ft (239.9m x 26.5m) • 30,822 tons [GRT] • Hull steel • Complement. First 560, Second 500, 3rd 1,400 • Crew 800 • Built John Brown and Co., Clydebank, Scotland, 1906
Taken from Ship, edited by Andrew Lambert.