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The Sinking of the Lusitania at 100: Passenger Ships in World War I

On the 100th anniversary of its sinking, Lusitania remains the most well-known passenger ship to be lost during World War I. However, it was not the first liner to be sunk when it was torpedoed on May 7, 1915, nor was it the largest.

From 1914 to 1918, almost 50 large passenger ships were hunted down and destroyed by the German navy through direct attack or mining operations. Most of these vessels had been reconfigured to serve as hospital ships or troop transports (often painted with dazzle camouflage), but there were also several incidents involving unarmed liners carrying civilian passengers.

The following is a list of a few notable incidents during the war that involving passenger ships. Most of the images come from a collection of over 3,000 original ship postcards that were recently donated to the archives of the U.S. Naval Institute.

SS Vandyke

The British passenger ship Vandyke was heading towards New York from Buenos Aires when it was captured off the coast of Brazil by the German cruiser SMS Karlsrühe on October 26, 1914. All cargo was seized and the passengers and crew were transferred to another ship before the Germans planted and detonated charges that sank the Vandyke. The Vandyke would be the last ship sunk by the Karlsrühe during a short but effective career in which it claimed 15 vessels over a two month period before it too sank following an internal explosion.

SS Arabic

The White Star liner had just left Ireland for New York on August 19, 1915 when it was torpedoed and sunk by a German U-boat, killing 44 people. The captain of the U-boat alleged that the Arabic attempted to ram his sub so he attacked in retaliation. Outrage in the U.S. over the sinking of another passenger liner so soon after the Lusitania incident forced Germany to scale back attacks on commercial vessels. After the war, Germany would give White Star the ocean liner Berlin as reparations for the loss of the Arabic.

RMS Hesperian

The same U-boat that sank the Lusitania struck again when it torpedoed the passenger ship Hesperian in September of 1915. Travelling from Liverpool to Quebec, the ship was carrying about one thousand civilians and many wounded Canadian soldiers (as well as the body of a Lusitania victim) when it was attacked by the infamous U-20. The ship was abandoned with minimal casualties and remained afloat for two days before it sank while being towed to Ireland. Fearing additional backlash from the U.S., German officials forced the U-boat’s captain to apologize for his actions.

SS Sussex

sussex1The Sussex was a French-flagged passenger ferry torpedoed by a German U-boat in the English Channel in 1916. Casualty figures were not reliably documented, but 50 to 100 passengers/crew members of the 375 aboard died. None of the several American passengers travelling on the ship lost their lives, but the attack on the Sussex combined with the sinking of the Lusitania and Arabic further strained U.S.-German relations and helped precipitate U.S. entry into the war. Germany tried to make amends by issuing the “Sussex pledge” not to target passenger ships or sink unarmed vessels without warning, but the pledge was rescinded in early 1917 when the Germans decided to reinstate the policy of unrestricted submarine warfare.

SS Cymric

Cymric1Launched in 1897 as a passenger and livestock ship (the animal pens were later turned into third class accommodations), the Cymric had already seen service as a troopship during the Boer War when it was again requisitioned during WWI as a supply ship. The Cymric would become yet another victim of U-20 when the sub spotted the ship heading to Liverpool from New York on May 8, 1916. One day removed from the first anniversary of the sinking of the Lusitania, the Cymric was doomed by three torpedoes fired by the U-20. Although it was an attack on an unarmed ship, there was little public reaction since there were only five casualties and no nationals from neutral countries were involved.

HMHS Britannic

The younger sister of White Star’s Titanic and Olympic, the Britannic was requisitioned and converted into a hospital ship in November of 1915. Almost exactly one year after being formally being put into military service, the Britannic was sailing near the Greek island of Kea when it was rocked by an violent explosion caused by either a mine or torpedo. The ship was the largest ship sunk during the war, though only 30 of the 1,066 people on board were lost. Among the survivors was nurse Violet Jessup who had also survived the Titanic disaster and a major accident on the Olympic, earning her the moniker “Miss Unsinkable.”

RMS Olympic

The transatlantic ocean liner Olympic somewhat avenged the loss of sister ship Britannic when it sank a German U-boat. The liner had been painted with dazzle camouflage and armed with deck guns when it was converted into a troopship in 1915. As the Olympic was transporting American doughboys to France in May of 1918, the captain spotted a lurking U-boat and took immediate action. He quickly maneuvered the ship and fatally crippled the U-boat by ramming it before the sub could dive or fire torpedoes. By Armistice Day, the Olympic had transported over 200,000 people as part of the war effort.

HMHS Llandovery Castle

Llandovery Castle1
The British-built LLandovery Castle was launched in 1913 as an ocean liner and then converted into a hospital ship to serve Canadian Forces in 1916. After transporting wounded soldiers to Halifax in June of 1918, the ship was returning to Europe with its complement of medical staff including 14 nurses when it was torpedoed by U-86 captain Helmut Patzig. After realizing he violated international law by attacking a marked hospital ship with no evidence of it carrying contraband, Patzig ordered his crew to machine gun and ram all lifeboats to eliminate potential witnesses of his crime. Only one lifeboat with 24 survivors managed to escape. Patzig later defeated all attempts to bring him to trial for war atrocities until he was ultimately given amnesty by German courts in 1931.