Churchill and the Sinking of the Lusitania

Published: 2016-12-14

If you are looking for a good book to give as a Christmas present I would recommend Dead Wake The Last Crossing of the Lusitania by Erik Larson.

The book is, as the title suggests, a very readable account of events surrounding the last

Winston Churchill

voyage of the Lusitania. The Lusitania was the Cunard Line ocean liner sunk by a German submarine on May 7, 1915. The sinking caused a storm of protest in the United States since 128 American citizens were among the dead. 

The sinking helped shift public opinion in the United States against Germany, and was a factor in the United States' declaration of war nearly two years later.

Larson gives a fascinating description of the Lusitania as a technological wonder possessing the most luxurious, spacious and comfortable interiors afloat. 

The tension grows as Larson marks the seemingly inextricable steps that lead to the catastrophic sinking off the coast of Ireland.

But Larson also gives a remarkable insight into British policies relating to secret code breaking, the use of propaganda, and the efforts of the British "to attract neutral shipping to our shores, in hopes especially of embroiling the United States with Germany."

The words are Winston Churchill's, sent in a letter to Walter Runciman, the head of England's Board of Trade.

While the German U-boat captain, Walther Schwieger and the German high command are heavily criticized, it is First Lord of the Admiralty Winston  Churchill's role in the affair which is most surprising. Churchill comes across as a duplicitous schemer, ready to sacrifice women and children and his own countrymen to create a propaganda incident. 

He then covered his tracks with brazen lies or the concealment of evidence. 

Larson's argument is summarized in a quote of Patrick Beesley, a British naval intelligence officer himself:

"on the basis of the considerable volume of information which is now available, I am reluctantly compelled to state that on balance, the most likely explanation is that there was indeed a plot, however imperfect, to endanger the Lusitania in order to involve the United States in the war."

Larson carefully and effectively marshals the evidence in support of this claim.

Besides the damning letter from Churchill to Runciman, British Naval decisions are described.   

They were:

Allowing the Lusitania to travel directly into the area where the First Lord knew a German submarine was sinking ships; Not diverting the Lusitania to the safer North Channel route;Not providing the customary escorts despite the fact that several destroyers were available; Ignoring Cunard chairman Booth's desperate requests for escorts or information regarding German submarine activity; Not instructing the Lusitania to increase is speed; Recalling the ship sent to rescue the people on the sinking Lusitania.

After the sinking, Churchill brazenly lied about important facts and led the  scapegoating of Lusitania's captain Turner.

A surprisingly unfavorable picture of Winston Churchill as thoroughly devious person emerges.

Additional information about this document
Property Value
Author(s): David Merlin
Title: Churchill and the Sinking of the Lusitania
Published: 2016-12-14
First posted on CODOH: Dec. 14, 2016, 11:25 p.m.
Last revision:
Appears In: