Military history



THE AMERICAN CONSULATE IN QUEENSTOWN, IRELAND, was located in a suite of rooms above a bar, overlooking the harbor. Behind the building stood the great spire of St. Colman’s Cathedral, which dwarfed every other structure in town. That afternoon, Consul Wesley Frost was at work revising his annual report on commercial conditions in various Irish counties when, at 2:30, his vice-consul came pounding up the stairs to report a fast-spreading rumor that a submarine had attacked the Lusitania.

Frost walked to the windows and saw an unusual surge of activity in the harbor below. Every vessel, of every size, seemed to be leaving, including the big cruiser Juno, which had arrived only a short while earlier. Frost counted two dozen craft in all.

He went to his telephone and called the office of Adm. Charles Henry Coke, the senior naval officer for Queenstown, and spoke to the admiral’s secretary. Frost chose his words with care, not wishing to appear to be a dupe of someone’s practical joke. He said, “I hear there is some sort of street rumor that the Lusitania has been attacked.”

The secretary replied, “It’s true, Mr. Frost. We fear she is gone.”

Frost listened in a daze as the secretary told him about the SOS messages and the report from eyewitnesses on Kinsale Head confirming the disappearance of the ship.

After hanging up, Frost paced his office, trying to absorb what had occurred and thinking about what to do next. He telegraphed the news to U.S. ambassador Page in London.

ADMIRAL COKE had dispatched all the rescue craft he could, including the Juno, and telegraphed the Admiralty that he had done so.

The Juno was the fastest ship available. Queenstown was two dozen miles from the reported site of the attack. Most of the smaller vessels would be lucky to cover that distance in three or four hours; given the calm air, sail-powered craft would take even longer. The Juno, capable of making 18 knots, or 20 miles an hour, could do it in just over one hour. Its crew moved with great haste, and soon the old cruiser was under way.

But the Admiralty fired back a reply: “Urgent: Recall Juno.” The order was a direct offspring of the Aboukir, Cressy, and Hogue disaster: no large warship was to go to the aid of victims of a U-boat attack. The risk was too great that the submarine might still be present, waiting to sink ships coming to the rescue.

Coke apparently had second thoughts of his own, for even before the Admiralty’s message arrived he ordered the Juno back into port. His rationale for deciding to recall the ship did not conform to the Admiralty’s, however. After dispatching the Juno, he explained, “I then received a telegram stating that the Lusitania had sunk. The urgent necessity for the Juno no longer obtaining I recalled her.”

This was curious logic, for the “urgent necessity” was if anything far greater, with hundreds of passengers and crew now adrift in 55-degree waters. It testified to the importance the Admiralty placed on protecting its big warships and heeding the hard lesson taught by the Aboukir disaster, to never go to the aid of submarine victims.

IN LONDON, at four o’clock that afternoon, U.S. ambassador Walter H. Page learned for the first time that the Lusitania had been attacked and sunk, but, in an eerie echo of the Titanic disaster, initial reports also indicated that all passengers and crew had been saved. Since no lives had been lost, there seemed little reason to call off a dinner party the ambassador and his wife had scheduled for that evening to honor President Wilson’s personal emissary, Colonel House.

By the time Page got home at seven o’clock that night, the news from Queenstown had grown darker, but by then it was too late to cancel dinner. The guests arrived and spoke of nothing but the sinking. The telephone rang repeatedly. Each call brought fresh reports from Page’s staff at the embassy, which were delivered to the ambassador on small slips of yellow paper. He read each aloud to his guests. The news grew steadily more dire, until it became clear that this was a disaster of historic proportions. The guests spoke in quiet tones and debated the potential consequences.

Colonel House told the group, “We shall be at war with Germany within a month.”

THAT MORNING, in New York, where the time was far behind that in London, Jack Lawrence, the ship-news reporter for the New York Evening Mail, went to a bar on Whitehall Street in Lower Manhattan frequented by sailors, harbor pilots, and the like and ordered a gin daisy, which the bartender delivered to him in a stone mug. Daisy was a bastardization of “doozy.” Lawrence saw a harbor pilot whom he knew. The pilot, just back from docking a small freighter in Hoboken, New Jersey, suggested they move to the quiet end of the bar, where he told Lawrence something he had overheard that morning.

The pilot explained that he had docked the freighter next to the Vaterland, the big German ocean liner interned for the war. After disembarking, he went to a nearby sidewalk café that was full of the Vaterland’s crewmen, all clearly in high spirits, slapping one another on the back and speaking animated German. A woman tending the bar, who spoke English and German, told the pilot that the Vaterland had just received a message, via wireless, that the Lusitania had been torpedoed off Ireland and had sunk rapidly.

Lawrence set his drink aside and left the bar. The Cunard offices were a short walk away, on State Street. As soon as he walked in, he concluded that the pilot’s report had been false. The bureau operated just as it always had, with typewriters clacking and passengers buying tickets. A clerk who knew Lawrence commented on the weather. The reporter continued past and climbed a stairway to the next floor, where he walked unannounced into the office of Charles Sumner, Cunard’s New York manager. The heavy carpet on Sumner’s floor suppressed the sound of his entry.

Sumner was a tall man who dressed well and always wore a white carnation in his lapel. “My first glimpse of him told me that something was wrong,” Lawrence recalled. “He was slumped over his desk. He looked all caved in.” Lawrence moved closer and saw two telegrams on Sumner’s desk, one in code, the other apparently a decoded copy. Lawrence read it over Sumner’s shoulder.

Sumner looked up. “She’s gone,” he said. It was more gasp than declaration. “They’ve torpedoed the Lusitania.” The message said the ship had gone down in fifteen minutes (though this would later be revised to eighteen). Sumner had no illusions. “I doubt if they saved anybody. What in God’s name am I to do?”

Lawrence agreed to wait one hour before telephoning the news to his editor. Fifteen minutes later, he was on the phone. This news was too big to hold.

THE FIRST REPORT reached President Wilson in Washington at about one o’clock, as he was about to leave for his daily round of golf. The report bore no mention of casualties, but he canceled his game anyway. He waited in the White House, by himself, for more news to arrive. At one point he left to take a drive in the Pierce-Arrow, his tried-and-true way of easing inner tension.

The day had begun clear and warm, but by evening a light rain was falling. Wilson had dinner at home and had just finished when, at 7:55 P.M., he received a cable from Consul Frost in Queenstown warning, for the first time, that it was likely that many of theLusitania’s passengers had lost their lives.

At this, Wilson left the White House, on his own, telling no one, and took a walk in the rain. “I was pacing the streets to get my mind in hand,” he wrote later, to Edith Galt.

He walked across Lafayette Square past the cannon-surrounded statue of Andrew Jackson on a rearing horse, then continued up Sixteenth Street toward Dupont Circle, Edith’s neighborhood. He passed newsboys hawking fresh “Extra” editions of the city’s newspapers that already carried reports of the sinking. At Corcoran Street, Wilson made a right turn, then headed back down Fifteenth to return to the White House, where he went to his study.

At ten o’clock the worst news arrived: an estimate that the Lusitania attack had taken as many as one thousand lives. That some of the dead would prove to be Americans seemed certain. The thing Wilson had feared had come to pass.

AS U-20 traveled west, Schwieger took a final look back through his periscope.

He wrote in his War Log: “Astern in the distance, a number of lifeboats active; nothing more seen of the Lusitania. The wreck must have sunk.” He gave the location as 14 sea miles from the Old Head of Kinsale, 27 sea miles from Queenstown, in waters 90 meters deep, about 300 feet.

What he did not know was that among his many victims were the three German stowaways arrested on the first morning of the Lusitania’s voyage. The men were still locked away in the ship’s improvised brig.

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