The loss of the RMS Lusitania one hundred years ago this week is one of the many World War I tragedies to resonate with war historians and the wider public. Uncertainties regarding the ship’s cargo and the role of its sinking in influencing America to enter the conflict have divided opinion.
The impact of the disaster and the familiar image of the stricken ship were not lost on the Department of Recruiting in Ireland who quickly used it to appeal to Irishmen to join the ranks of the army and avenge this wrongdoing.
Less well publicised however is the history of the passenger ship before the conflict. When launched in June 1906 RMS Lusitania was the largest and fastest ship in the world. By 1915 it had crossed the Atlantic over 200 times carrying ca.240,000 passengers. The current display in the Berkeley foyer features a reprint from Engineering which is in itself a fascinating account of the ship’s construction in Clydebank from 1904 onwards.
The display also includes two works by former US Consul, Wesley Frost. His role in Ireland during the war included the compilation of reports for the US authorities on submarine warfare in Irish waters. The prevalence of these attacks was noted by Frost – ‘As Consul at Queenstown for the three years ending last June, I reported to our Government on the destruction by submarines of eighty-one different ships carrying American citizens’. Traveling the length of the Irish south coast, Frost devoted much time to recording the legal testimonies of survivors of such U-boat attacks. He was later recalled, unfairly, in 1917 from his post in Ireland following an alleged complaint by Admiral Sims of his reporting of British destroyers at Queenstown. Tragically, Frost was to lose his only brother Cleveland in 1918 to submarine warfare as the USS Ticonderoga was torpedoed with the loss of 213 lives.
The RMS Lusitania was hit on 7 May 1915, off the coast of Kinsale, by a single torpedo from submarine U-20, killing 1,197 of the 1,960 passengers and crew. Frost helped coordinate relief operations for the survivors as they arrived traumatised on the quayside of Cobh. This experience was to have a profound lifelong effect on him. SM U-20 was responsible for the fate of 36 other ships during the conflict before being grounded in late 1916.