May 1, 1915. The RMS Lusitania, the fastest, most luxurious passenger liner in service, sets sail from New York City. Aboard are 1,959 passengers and crew. The morning papers carry a warning from the German Embassy reminding travelers about the risks of passing through a war zone, but passengers remain cheerful, even nonchalant. Unbeknownst to those aboard the steamship, a German unterseeboot, the U-20, has left Emden harbor bound for Liverpool. On May 5 and 6 she sinks three British ships off the southern Irish coast. May 7, low on fuel, the U-20 starts to turn for home when the Lusitania appears in her sights. Although steaming at 18 knots, fast enough to escape, the ocean liner makes an unfortunate turn toward the submerged u-boat. One torpedo and a mysterious second explosion take the great ship to the bottom in a mere 18 minutes.
The loss of the Lusitania is often cited as the reason the United States entered World War I. The popular narrative tells of a passenger liner ferrying troops and munitions to England when intercepted and torpedoed by a German U-boat. In fact, the US did not declare war for almost two years after the sinking, the only Allied troops aboard were men whose enlistments were in the future, and it has never been determined exactly what caused the mysterious second explosion deemed responsible for her rapid demise.
On display through mid-September, 2015 in Villanova’s Falvey Memorial Library, “Too Fast for Any Submarine,” The Last Voyage of the Lusitania uses materials from Special Collections and the Digital Library to tell the story of the liner, her passengers, reaction to the great ship’s demise, and of the “damned un-English weapon” that sank her. Items from the great ship accompany survivor Charles Lauriat’s memoir and casualty Elbert Hubbard’s diatribe against the Kaiser. Contemporary headlines read like chapter titles of the popular novels and stories responsible for shaping the public’s opinion of submarines. The debate over “Freedom of the Seas” frames the sinking, much like the question of German culpability for the 1,198 deaths and the torn allegiance felt by German-Americans. “Too Fast for Any Submarine” represents the multi-dimensional story of the RMS Lusitania’s last crossing.
Episode 3 of the Mail Call podcast is also available! This episode covers April to May 1915 and features several articles about the sinking of the RMS Lusitania.