When the Cunard Company launched its latest passenger liner at Clydebank in Scotland on June 7 1906, RMS Lusitania was the last word in luxury maritime travel. The first British civilian ship to be built with four funnels, the Lucy, as she was affectionately known, had also been designed with the power and speed to win back for Britain the Blue Riband for the fastest trans-Atlantic crossing. The ship duly did so on only its second voyage, in October 1907, sharing the record with its sister ship the Mauretania for the next 22 years.
When war broke out between Britain and Germany in August 194 the Admiralty did not requisition the Lusitania for military use and the liner continued to ply the Atlantic in monthly crossings to North America. It left New York on its fateful final journey on May 1915, with a full complement of almost 2,000, the paying passengers on board undeterred by German warnings issued in the American press shortly beforehand that anyone travelling on Allied ships in the European war zone did so at their own risk.
The voyage passed without incident until, on May 7, the ship was in sight of the southern Irish coast. The threat of German submarines had made the coastal waters around the British Isles especially perilous, so the captain doubled the look-outs and maintained high steam pressure as the Lusitania approached Queenstown (modern-day Cobh in County Cork). Unfortunately, they had been sighted by a German U-boat; the torpedo it fired struck the Lusitania on the starboard side. A second explosion followed, generally thought now to have been one of the ship’s boilers exploding, and the great vessel sank in just 20 minutes.
When: May 7 1915
Where: Off the coast at Kinsale, County Cork, Ireland
Death toll: 1,198 people died when the Lusitania sank, including 291 women and 94 children. There were 761 survivors.
You should know: Although the Germans claimed that the liner had been a legitimate target because it had been covertly carrying munitions for the war effort, this was denied by the Allies and there was widespread condemnation of the German action on both sides of the Atlantic. The tragedy undoubtedly contributed to die USA’s decision to enter World War l in April 1917.