‘It was 2 p.m on the afternoon of May 7th, 1915. The Lusitania had been struck by two torpedoes in succession and was sinking rapidly, while the boats were being launched with all possible speed. The women and children were being lined up awaiting their turn. Some still clung desperately to husbands and fathers; others clutched their children closely to their breasts. One girl stood alone, slightly apart from the rest. She was quite young, not more than eighteen. She did not seem afraid, and her grave, steadfast eyes looked straight ahead’
The Secret Adversary begins with a scene in the aftermath of the shinking liner, in which an American man trusts a stranger, his fellow citizen, with a highly confidential document. Tommy and Tuppence then are involved in the hunt of it, which, if the enemy gets it first, would bring down the incumbent Tory government.
British newspapers condemn the tragedy as ‘The Hun’s Most Ghastly Crime’ and Woodrow Wilson is also quick to state: ‘no warning, that an unlawful and inhumane act will be committed can possibly be accepted as an excuse or palliation of that act.’ Among the deads are 128 Americans.
Likewise, Christie’s aforementioned words are filled with the sentiment against Germans. The pain is still raw when the book is published in 1922. It is a little wonder the copies have been sold like hot cakes, despite the hardship most people in Britain have experienced in the post-war years.
Over a century later, Saul David, a historian, asks: can the blame be pointed entirely to Germans?
In his article for May’s History magazine he argues that British government should also be held responsible for the loss of 1,198 lives including 94 children (out of 1,959 passengers and crews).
On 1st May 1915, the German embassy in Washington D.C. advertises in the New York Times to remind ‘travellers intending to embark on the Atlantic voyage’ that ‘vessels flying the flag of Great Britain, or ay of her allies, are liable to destruction’ in the war zone ‘adjacent to the British Isles’ and that any travellers who crossed by such means did so ‘at their own risk.’
1,257 people who have embarked on the Lusitania on the same day from Liverpool ignore it.
Meanwhile, the British Admiralty has issued secret guidelines to merchant skippers: to ‘avoid headlands, near which submarines routinely lurked and found their best hunting’; to steer ‘a mid-channel course’; to operate at ‘full speed’ and to zigzag rather than sail in in a straight line.
On 5th May at 10.30 pm The British Admiralty begins to broadcasting a messae at regular intervals to all ships that a U-boat is active in the Irish Channel. Few hours earlier U-20 has sunk a small three-masted schooner off the south coast of Ireland. The next day it sinks two merchant ships off Ireland.
On 6th Mayat 7.52 pm Captain Turner of the Lusitania receives a wireless signal that submarines are ‘active off south coast Ireland.’ Five more warnings are then received.
On 7th May at 8 am he orders the speed to be decreased from 21 to 18 knots, and then to 15 due to the fog.
As the fog is cleared, at 10 am the speed is increased to 18 knots instead of the maximum 21 knots.
At 1 pm the captain orders the fixing of the ship’s position, a laborious process that takes two hours and requires a steady course, constant speed and proximity to land.
At 2.10 pm Kapitanleutnant Scwieger strikes the starboard side of the Lusitania beloow the bridge, causing two explosions. The Lusitania sinks in 18 minutes.
Watching through his periscope, Schwieger remembers ‘an unusually heavy detonation’ followed by ‘very strong explosion cloud.’ In his diary he writes:
‘The ship stops immediately and quickly heels to starboard, at the same time diving deeper in the bows. She has the appearance of being about to capsize. Great confusion on board, bots being cleared and part lowered to water. They must have lost their heads. Many boats crowded come down bow first or stern first in the water, and immediately fill and sink…Submerge to 24 metres and got to sea. I could not have fired a second torpedo into this throng of humanity attempting to save themselves’
If his words are taken into account, is the above prologue possible to occur? Eighteen minutes are very quick from the moment the torpedo hits the ship; there wouldn’t have been enough warning for every passengers, let alone a brief conversation between Jane Finn and Danvers. For Scwieger’s notes imply that 761 survivors are rescued by the boats in the water. And therefore Danvers might have died before he met Finn whilst Finn could not have stood on the ship awaiting the rescue.
Furthermore is the fact that only one torpedo launched. Apologising to the loss of life of the U.S. citizens, the kaiser’s government states that such action is justified in response to the royal Navy’s blockade of the German coast (causing starvation) and because the Lusitania carries large quantities of war materials in her cargo. The latter is strongly denied by the British government and its successors.
In 2008 it is confirmed more than 4 million .303 rifle bullets and tons of munitions -shells, powders, fuses and gun cotton- found in ‘unrefrigerated cargo holds that were dubiously marked cheese, butter and oysters.’ Some conclude that these have caused the second explosion, although in 2012 scientific tests at a US government-funded research facility in California challenge the deduction. The second explosion might be a boiler explosion which does not bring about significant damage.
Is Christie a victim of either of a propaganda or trial by the press? What would be her views had she read the contrasting facts?
For all its worth, it has given the desired effect to persuade the American public in favour of the US declaring war on Germany in April 1917.
At the end of the day, it remains that the UK government ought to own up for their part in the unnecessary casualties. As David remarks: ‘A German U-Boat may have fired the fatal shot. But it was British actions that both justified that aggression and helped the torpedo find its mark.’
What do you think?