'The Lusitania sank about eighteen minutes - certainly not more than twenty - after she was struck. As she went down I saw a number of people jump from the topmost deck into the sea. One of them, I think, was a woman. I heard no screaming at the last, but a long, wailing, mournful, despairing, beseeching cry.'

Dr Moore, an American passenger on the ship, as quoted in the Times, 10 May, 1915

On 1 May, 1915, the great Cunard liner, the Lusitania, set sail from New York down the Hudson River on its way to Liverpool. Known as the 'Greyhound of the Seas', the ship had been developed for speed, and had won a Blue Ribbon for the fastest Atlantic crossing. That same day, notices had been placed in American newspapers by the German Embassy, reminding passengers that a state of war existed between Germany and Great Britain, and that they travelled into British waters at their own risk. And yet the Lusitania was clearly a passenger steamer, loaded with civilian men, women and children. Surely she would never be attacked?

On 7 May, the unthinkable happened. Many of the Lusitania's passengers had just finished eating lunch as the ship steamed slowly towards England on the last leg of her voyage. The orchestra was playing 'The Blue Danube' and it was a beautiful spring afternoon as the south coast of Ireland came into view. Unknown to those strolling on the viewing deck, however, the ship had been sighted by a German submarine, the U-20, captained by Walter Schwieger. Shortly after two o'clock, the look-outs on board saw a large bubble followed by two white streaks running along the top of the water. A torpedo! There was a huge explosion as it hit the ship which lifted the bows right out of the water, with a second almost immediately afterwards, and then a violent rush of water, steam, fumes and debris.

The Lusitania sank in eighteen minutes. Of the 1,906 people on board, 1,098 died, of whom 128 were Americans; Alfred Vanderbilt, one of the world's richest men, was among them. The captain, William Turner, survived, to explain at the inquest in Ireland how his ship had been leaning so heavily to starboard that it had been impossible to launch the lifeboats safely, especially as he hadn't been able to stop the engines. Some lifeboats and fishing smacks set out from the Irish coast to help those struggling in the water, but two larger freighters sailed past after reports that other torpedoes had been seen, and it was not until 6 o'clock that evening that a proper rescue fleet began ferrying the few survivors back to the Irish port of Queenstown. 

The disaster caused a huge outcry when news reached Britain and America. Such a wave of anti-German feeling swept the United States that it probably encouraged this country to enter the war on the Allies' side, which eventually happened in April 1917. The Germans, however, claimed that the Lusitania had been loaded with weapons and gun emplacements, and that it was this ammunition which caused the second explosion. (Captain Schwieger insisted he had only fired one torpedo.) They even maintained that Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty, had deliberately sacrificed the Lusitania to persuade America to join the war.

At home, questions were asked. Why had such a fast ship been sailing so slowly on a dead straight course through a war zone, after having been warned about the presence of enemy submarines? Why did she sink so quickly? How could so many people have died within sight of land? Such questions have never been properly answered.