Daniel Francis

Reading the National Narrative

Sinking of Lusitania

May 7, 2015

Today is the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the British passenger liner Lusitania, torpedoed by a German submarine on May 7, 1915. The death toll was 1,198 passengers and crew, including almost one hundred children.

The sinking violated the unwritten rules of war that said that civilian ships were immune from attack. It quickly came to epitomize the perfidy of the German enemy and was exploited by propagandists in Allied countries to stir up fervid support for the war effort. For Canadians the Lusitania disaster marked a turning point in the war. The callous murder of innocents seemed so inhuman that it created an image of the "brutal Hun" that would last for the duration and convert even pacifists to the cause.

Take for example the suffragist Nellie McClung. When the war began she was against it. But then came the sinking. "It was the Lusitania that brought me to see the whole truth," she wrote. "Then I saw that we were waging war on the very Prince of Darkness... I knew that no man could die better than in defending civilization from this ghastly thing which threatened her!"

I am going to mark the centennial by cracking open Erik Larson's new book about the sinking, Dead Wake, which a generous relation recently gave to me for my birthday.

(I've mentioned before in this space that my own family has a connection to wartime torpedoing. My mother-in-law was a passenger aboard the Athenia at the outbreak of World War II when it also was sunk by a German u-boat. I told the story in this article which appeared in Canada's History in 2006.)