Editor’s note (4/2/2017): This week marks the 100-year anniversary of the U.S. entry into the First World War. Scientific American, founded in 1845, spent the war years covering the monumental innovations that changed the course of history, from the first tanks and aerial combat to the first widespread attacks with chemical weapons. To mark the centennial, we are republishing the article below and many others. For full access to our archival coverage of the Great War sign up for an All Access subscription today.

Reports and opinions in Scientific American on a key tragedy in World War I:
May 1, 2015

On May 7, 1915, the British civilian ocean liner Lusitania was hit by a torpedo fired by German submarine U-20, just off the coast of Ireland. Within 18 minutes, the ship sank; 1,193 people died, including 128 Americans, leaving 767 people, mostly civilians, stranded in lifeboats or floundering in the cold water. The outrage at this act was immediate and long-lasting. The editorial in the first issue of Scientific American to be published after the sinking shows clearly the tenor of the popular feeling:

“The horror following the sinking without warning of the ‘Lusitania’ only emphasizes the shocking character of the situation. Has this ceased to be a war of army against army and degenerated into a war against civilians and women and children, no matter of what nationality? This is the first instance in the history of mankind where a regular transatlantic liner, filled with civilians of many nationalities, has been deliberately sunk on the high seas, and this act was committed, not after allowing innocent women and children to escape in lifeboats, but wantonly and wickedly without allowing the victims of the weapon of destruction any chance for their lives.”

“It cannot be claimed that this act was the irresponsible whim of the commander of the submarine, for an advertisement appeared in the American press prior to the sailing of the “Lusitania” warning passengers against sailing on the high seas; It would seem evident from this warning that this horror is the result of the deliberate policy of the imperial will. During the first months of the war the imperial government sent its apologists to this country to try and explain away the crime against Belgium and the wanton destruction of some of the choicest works of art of Europe; but their arguments and pleas failed to convince, because our people felt that such matters could not be solved by the thumb rule of a lawyer’s brief.”

“Our people do not accept as a mandate the claim that ‘war is war.’ They have the highest respect for and belief in the justice of international law, but such a code has limitations which do not harmonize with the ideals of the American people, who realize that there is a higher law–the law of humanity and civilization which is being outraged and trampled upon. And it is for that reason, and in spite of the calm and generally neutral attitude of the American press, that underneath there has been a strong current of opinion among the American people, which absolutely condemns the methods of war now being conducted by the Teutonic allies.”

The dining room for first-class passengers on board the Lusitania. Image: Scientific American, September 14, 1907

“The SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN wishes to enter its protest against these acts. It fears for the future of civilization if such acts are accepted under any plea which does violence to the accepted codes of warfare.” [Scientific American, May 15, 1915]

The Imperial German government begged to differ: Its foreign minister pointed out that Lusitania‘s construction had been subsidized by the British Admiralty as an auxiliary cruiser (which is true–the British government subsidized the design of large liners to ensure they could be more easily converted to auxiliary cruisers in wartime); claimed that the ship was armed (not true although gun mounts were built into ships such as Lusitania to make it easier to convert them to auxiliary cruisers); and pointed out that the ship was carrying munitions in its cargo (which is indeed true).

That the last point is true should not cloud the fact that trade between a neutral country and a belligerent country was completely legal. Passenger ships were allowed to carry arms and ammunition (U.S. restrictions stated that such material could not be a danger to the ship or crew; cargo such as guncotton was therefore prohibited). On the manifest of the Lusitania there were more than 4,000 cases of military small arms ammunition: rifle cartridges made by Remington in .303 British caliber. At a thousand rounds a box, that’s over four million rounds (the U.S. shipped a total of about one billion rounds of small arms ammunition to the U.K. during the war, mostly in cargo ships). There was also a load of about 4,000 rounds of shrapnel shells, filled with chunks of shrapnel but not explosives. All perfectly legal. In addition there were other materials likely to be used for military purposes, such as brass sheeting that could be made into shell casings, copper wires, bronze powder and aluminum (probably powder and also sheets). All legal, but “destined for the destruction of brave German soldiers,” as the foreign minister put it [you can read on FirstWorldWar.com his response on behalf of the German government here]. The German Embassy in New York had been so sure of these facts that it placed advertisements in newspapers warning about the risks of sailing on the Lusitania before it left port. Germany, too, could legally buy and ship the same kind of armaments abroad. Except that the British Royal Navy had imposed a blockade that was vastly more effective than the occasional hazards created by the German submarine blockade, so trade to belligerents across the Atlantic was heavily in favor of the Allies.

The U.S. public, however, looked at the event as the unprovoked murder of 128 Americans and was most unsympathetic to the German claims, according to this editorial in the issue of May 22, 1915:

“The sinking, on sight, of the ‘Lusitania’ is the latest and most atrocious instance of this relapse to that gratuitous cruelty which we all thought had been relegated to a bygone and far-distant age. There are two features which render this crime peculiarly abhorrent to the civilized world: The first is its magnitude; the other is the cold-blooded premeditation and careful deliberation with which it was planned. One of the most remarkable psychological phenomena of the present war is the specious sophistry with which Germany has attempted to justify her multitudinous breaches of the above-mentioned humanitarian laws of war; and surely the most amazing instance of this is the fact that to-day, at this very hour, Germany is justifying this slaughter of innocent non-combatants by stating that she gave them full warning that she was going to perpetrate the deed. This is a new philosophy, indeed! Our laws in America have never considered that, because a gunman gave warning to a citizen that he was armed and was going to shoot him on sight, the slayer was thereby absolved from all responsibility. On the contrary, such warning is considered by the law as evidence of criminal intent.”

But there are twists in the story that have resulted in questions that linger. Large ships that are torpedoed sometimes do go down quickly. HMS Hawke, a British protected cruiser, was hit on October 15, 1914, by a single torpedo and capsized within 10 minutes. The French armored cruiser L?on Gambetta was hit with one torpedo by an Austrian submarine on April 27, 1915, and that, too, sank within 10 minutes. Other ships went down faster if their ammunition magazines were hit. Some crewmen on the Lusitania claimed to have seen two torpedoes coming at the ship. There were, in fact, many witnesses who heard two explosions: a loud initial one and a more muffled second one right afterward. But out of those frantic 18 minutes between the time the torpedo hit and the ship sank, questions have arisen. Our concluding installment next week will look at these questions and their related accusations, and see what Scientific American had to say about them.


Our full archive of the war, called Scientific American Chronicles: World War I, has many articles from 1914-1918 on artillery. It is available for purchase at www.scientificamerican.com/products/world-war-i/

Outside links: County Cork’s centenary commemorations website is at http://visitcorkcounty.com/Lusitania100Cork/