The Lusitania and Submarine Warfare

By 1915 the Auckland Weekly News Supplement was becoming a sophisticated propaganda organ. Editorial policies determined what readers would see and how they would interpret photographs, in a campaign to make them accept the need to win this ‘Great War for civilisation’ against a barbaric enemy. They were led to believe this was so even if it must be fought at the great human cost shown each week in the Weekly News Roll of Honour.

As casualties on the Gallipoli Peninsula began to mount, photo editors inserted reminders in the magazine showing readers just why we were fighting this war. They often did this by repeating photos and drawings about the Horrible Hun’s new and ungentlemanly ‘total war’ against civilians (especially women and children) through the evil menace of submarines lurking underwater to wreak death and destruction on the high seas.

In February 1915 the Germans declared the waters around the British Isles a war zone where all Allied and neutral vessels risked being sunk by their submarines. Then on 7 May 1915 the transatlantic liner Lusitania was torpedoed off Southern Ireland with the loss of 1198 men, women and children (including 128 neutral Americans.) Following is a photograph of the Lusitania off the Old Head of Kinsale.

Allied newspapers went into overdrive, fulminating about the dastardliness of enemies who would kill civilians, women, children and neutrals. How un-British! The Weekly News explored the Hun’s new and unnatural form of warfare with submarines lurking in the deep. Here is a cross-section of his new and not so secret weapon.

The loss of life in the Lusitania disaster was made greater because the ship sank after only 18 minutes. When the Lusitania was torpedoed she was also travelling so fast that it took 10 minutes to slow down enough to safely lower the lifeboats. During this time the ship also listed to starboard so much it was difficult for passengers to jump into the lifeboats safely, and many fell overboard. When the electric generators failed, watertight doors could not be closed and the ship rapidly flooded with water. Then only 8 minutes after the lifeboats were launched the Lusitania sank.

Many lifeboat davits had jammed, throwing passengers out of the descending boats into the sea. Only six lifeboats got away successfully. Some lifeboats were only half-full of people when they were launched. However these boats were able to rescue other passengers struggling in the cold water.

Among those drowned were ex-Devonport mayor Joseph Macky and his wife Mary. Sir George Grey Special Collections holds a letter (in NZMS 935) written by their son-in-law containing eyewitness accounts of the Mackys’ last moments. It took several hours for help to arrive and by that time many passengers had succumbed in the cold sea. Only 289 bodies were recovered from the water and the other 909 were never found. The next photo shows the funeral for 148 who were buried in the Old Church Cemetery at Queenstown in Southern Ireland.

In fact the Lusitania was not the first ship sunk by a German submarine. On 28 March 1915 the Elder Dempster liner Falaba was stopped by U28 (not U36 as reported in the Weekly News) in the Bristol Channel. Baron Horstner, captain of U28, gave the passengers and crew of the Falaba 23 minutes to abandon ship but cut that time to 7 minutes when the crew started sending SOS signals and firing distress rockets. Here the Falaba has been torpedoed by U28.

Then the unsportsmanlike Germans reportedly compounded their crime by jeering at the passengers and crew in their lifeboats or struggling in the water. Afterwards the U28 submerged and left the survivors to row to safety. Here are lifeboats from the Falaba, with other boats overturned among drowning men and women.

The Germans were truly demonic. Their natural (and national) depravity meant they did not hesitate to kill or drown defenceless women and children. In the next cartoon the Devil is shown as the captain of U666. This German Devil has just sunk the steamer in the background and now gloats over the drowned women floating around his submarine.

One American drowned when the Falaba sank and although this caused moral outrage in the United States, it was not enough to bring them into the war. American forbearance was tested even further when 128 Americans went down with the Lusitania. British propagandists (who wanted the US to join the Allies) made sure that British and American citizens did not forget the German atrocity with recruiting posters like this.

Throughout the war, the imagery of the drowned civilians from the Lusitania was used and re-used to underline German savagery and bestiality. The next poster was created by the New York artist Fred Spear for the Boston Committee of Public Safety. Spear based his poster on a newspaper story about a drowned mother washed ashore in Ireland with her baby clasped tightly in her arms. Mother and child became a symbol of German brutality and a rallying cry for American involvement in the war.

Two years later in April 1917 the United States declared war on Germany. The caption for the next drawing from the Weekly News has American troops charging into battle with the war cry ‘Lusitania, Lusitania,’ as they helped win final Allied victory on the Western Front.

After the war was over Weekly News readers were again reminded it had been fought at extreme cost to make the world safe from German barbarity. The following picture reappeared on 23 November 1918.

Now it was time to squeeze the German lemon until the pips squeaked.

Author: Chris Paxton, Sir George Grey Special Collections