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045 Alfred Vanderbilt and all the kiddies his boy could find

Alfred Vanderbilt

Alfred Vanderbilt

Lusitania costs Germany sympathy

It is Sunday 2 May 1915. It is the 45th week after the shooting at Sarajevo.

 At Boezinge, near Ypres, Canadian army doctor John McCrae writes his poem ‘In Flanders Fields’.

 The wife of Fritz Haber, the man behind the German attacks with warfare gasses, commits suicide.

The Germans recapture Hill 60 in the Flemish Westhoek with the help of gas.

A German-Austrian offensive at Gorlice and Tarnów in Galicia forces the Russians back.

 Italy distances itself from the Triple Alliance with Germany and Austria-Hungary.

News about Russian victories over the Turks on Armenian territory is filtering through.

The Battle of St. Julien ends when general Herbert Plumer withdraws his troops, but ‘Ypres II’ quickly continues with the Battle of Frezenberg.

Upon the pretext of ill-health British general Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien is dismissed by Sir John French.

At Gallipoli Sir Ian Hamilton sends a telegram to Lord Kitchener: ‘Two new divisions, please’.

And off the coast of Ireland oceanliner Lusitania is sunk by only one German torpedo, causing the deaths of 1,198 people, among whom the fabulously wealthy American Alfred Vanderbilt.

There they lie on dry land. A handful of rusty bullets, eaten away by the salt of the Atlantic Ocean. Remington .303s. It is September 2008 and thanks to an Irish team of divers we are now absolutely sure Lusitania did not only carry passengers. She also transported a considerable war cargo from the United States.

Did that justify the torpedo which on 7 May 1915 accurately led to the deaths of 1,198 people, among whom 35 babies? Who would dare take the responsibility for that? And yet we have to be serious about the German argument behind the attack: Lusitania served the British army.

At ten past two in the afternoon of that fatal day U-20’s Captain-Commander Walther Schwieger can see the ship with her four black funnels slowly move into view. One torpedo is enough to carry out his death sentence. When it strikes, an enormous explosion in the inside of Lusitania quickly follows.

When Schwieger himself forever goes under, north of the Dutch island of Terschelling in 1917, Lusitania is the biggest trophy of the 49 ships he has sent down. Here and there you can read: ‘It was the beginning of the end of the war’. That is a point you can undoubtedly mark sooner or later, but there is certainly a reasoning underpinning this. When Germany has lost the war because of the weight America carried, then the tilting of the balance has started on 7 May 1915, fifteen kilometres away from Kinsale lighthouse, Ireland.

The United States are still a long way short of the war, much longer than the eighteen minutes it took Lusitania to go down with all hands. American president Woodrow Wilson calls for calm three days after the disaster: ‘There is such a thing as a man being too proud to fight. There is such a thing as a nation being so right that it does not need to convince others by force that it is right.’

So for the  time being Wilson was going to keep his country out of the war, but on that 7 May of the year 1915 American public opinion definitely chose sides: against Germany. Among the victims of Lusitania were no fewer than 128 American citizens. The American press wondered whether Germany had gone crazy.

They are eighteen horrible minutes. While the ship sails on, but is listed on starboard, crew and passengers desperately fight for their lives – or destiny makes them drown petrified of fear.

A man tells his wife to jump. She refuses. She wants to stay with him. But he frees himself of her and then drops her in a lifeboat. When the woman looks back a little later, she sees her husband, still waving at her, disappear into the cold ocean with Lusitania.

Children tumble from lifeboats which are crushed against the hull of the ship, while she tilts and experiences her rigor mortis. A steward tries to cut the ropes of lifeboat 7 with a knife. It turns out to be in vain when also number 7 is pulled into the deep and the water awfully quickly smothers the cries and whimpering of the women and children who had sought refuge.

That was hell, and now for the hero.

That day Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt is the richest passenger on Lusitania, which counted a total of 1,959 persons on board. He is a son of Cornelius Vanderbilt, who made a fortune in the nineteenth century with transportation by rail and ship. Another five generations before Cornelius, a certain Jan Aertszoon had left his native town of De Bilt near Utrecht in the Netherlands to go to America, where possibilities would appear to be limitless.

Alfred is a sportsman, who especially loves the foxhunt and driving a chariot. His lovelife is not without excitement either. Alfred’s first marriage ends in divorce after a one-night stand with the wife of the Cuban attaché had become public. Even worse is that the Cuban lady’s marriage also floundered, after which the poor woman took her own life.

On 1 May 1915 Alfred Vanderbilt, 37 years old, boards Lusitania in New York, destination Liverpool. Among other things he is going to inspect his riding stables in England. He is only accompanied by his man-servant, Ronald Denyer.

In the pure panic after the torpedo has hit, Vanderbilt calls out the following to him: ‘Find all the kiddies you can, boy’. This is based on an article which appeared in The New York Times eight days after the disaster. The newspaper talked to a Canadian woman who survived the catastrophe. She is quoted to have said: ‘People will not talk of Mr Vanderbilt in future as a millionaire sportsman and a man of pleasure. He will be remembered as the children’s hero and men and women will salute his name. When death was nearing him, he showed gallantry which no word of mine can describe.’

And then follows the story of the ’kiddies’ his ‘boy’ has to find. When he returns with two, Vanderbilt takes them under his arms and hurries to a lifeboat. When they could not find any children any more, Vanderbilt apparently started helping women. There are other witnesses who testify that Vanderbilt gave his own lifejacket to a woman. She recognized him as the man who had given her five dollars the night before during a charity concert on Lusitania.

The New York Times continues: ‘He looked around on the scene of horror and despair with pitying eyes.’ And then the Canadian woman finishes by saying: ‘I hope the young men of Britain will act with the same cool bravery for their country that Mr Vanderbilt showed for somebody’s little ones.’

And via Lusitania we are back again at the war and its armies. On the eve of the Great War Lusitania’s history tells us about the thin line that runs between civil society and military reality. The oceanliner was built in 1902, named after the Roman province of Lusitania in what is now Portugal. She started to commute between the old and the new world,  but already when she was designed a possible war assignment was taken into account. In 1913 the shipowner was ordered by the British government also to adapt Lusitania for use as an auxiliary cruiser. In September 1914 this was followed by the designation to have Lusitania transport goods for the army.

Before the war the maritime arms race between Germany and Great Britain was also reflected on both sides in the construction of increasingly bigger and faster oceanliners. In 1907 it had been Lusitania that broke the world sea speed record when crossing the Atlantic. This came with an award, the Blue Riband. It had been in the hands of the owner of the German Großdampfer Kaiser Wilhelm II for three years.

Lusitania’s average speed during her record race had been over 23 knots, which is more than enough to outsail any submarine. However, the May 1915 voyage was not made at full speed ahead. Ordered by the admiralty Captain Turner also stated to have refrained from the prescribed zigzag course. That fact frequently crops up in what some people might consider a conspiracy theory but which by others is thought to be more than probable. Lusitania is said to have deliberately been exposed to the threats of the German U-boats in order to ready America for the war. Winston Churchill himself is supposed to have decided to let Lusitania approach Ireland without an escort, fully realizing that the German U-boats were lurking around.

In any case Captain-Commander Schwieger was surprised at the ease with which he could sentence Lusitania to death. He wrote the following in his diary: ‘Unexplainable that Lusitania did not take the North Channel’. This North Channel is the seaway between Northern Ireland and Scotland.

There is another reason to be suspicious. In his memoirs personal assistant to president Wilson, Colonel House, mentions a meeting with both the British Foreign Secretary, Sir Edward Grey, and King George V. Both are reputed to have asked him how the United States would react to the sinking of an ocean liner by the Germans. Apparently George even explicitly mentioned the name Lusitania.

One thing is certain, the British fully exploited the propaganda potential of the Lusitania disaster. There was also widespread indignation among the German population regarding the merciless attack on civilians, but the British papers did not mention this. Instead there was the fable that German children were given time off from school to celebrate the sinking of Lusitania, which started to lead a life of its own.

Then there is the bronze commemorative medal, put on the market by a Munich businessman in August 1915, which conveniently leads to functional mudslinging. The British immediately start producing cast iron replicas and distribute these among their own people. The suggestion is that the Germans delight themselves in the death of 1,198 innocent people.

The medal can be interpreted in a different way. Its maker could have wanted to ridicule the unscrupulous greed for money of the shipowner, Cunard Line. On one side of the medal we can see Lusitania going down, with the cynical motto ‘keine Bannware’, ‘no contraband’. On the other side there is a skeleton selling tickets for Lusitania and the words ‘Geschäft über alles’, ‘Business first’.

And this whilst the German embassy had printed a warning in American papers just before Lusitania left. ‘Notice’, it said over this advertisement, which was placed next to an advert of Cunard Line. The message was loud and clear that whoever intended to make an Atlantic voyage should be aware that the waters around the British Isles were war territory.

Alfred Vanderbilt had even received a telegram with the ominous words: ‘The Lusitania is doomed. Do not sail on her.’ The telegram was signed ‘Morte’. Vanderbilt must have thought somebody had wanted to play a joke on him.

Of all shipping disasters only Titanic, three years earlier in peace time, left a deeper impression than Lusitania. Yet a lot of questions regarding her loss still remain unanswered. Did the British army try to make the wreck of Lusitania inaccessible in the fifties for divers by using depth charges? If so, what needed to be hidden? But most of all, did high British circles give the go-ahead for the mass killing on Lusitania? Did the end, winning the war with America, justify the means, losing one single ship packed full with people?

Next week: François Faber

Tom Tacken (translation Peter Veltman)

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