Remembering the Great War (1914 – 1918)

The Sinking of RMS Lusitania, a Disaster for Liverpool

As we arrive at the centenary of the outbreak of the Great War (1914-1918), our blogs for the next few weeks focuses on some of the defining moments for Liverpool during those terrible years.

RMS Lusitania arriving in New York on her maiden voyage

RMS Lusitania arriving in New York on her maiden voyage

With Liverpool’s status as a leading UK port, it’s inevitable that many of her tragedies during war as well as peace-time involve the sea. One such event was the sinking of the steamship RMS Lusitania, a British ocean liner owned and operated by Cunard. At the time of her launch in 1906, Lusitania took the prize as the fastest and most luxurious ship in the world; and she sailed regularly between Liverpool and New York, until the fateful day of 7 May 1915, when she was torpedoed by German submarine U-20 off the coast of Ireland.

Struck in the hull, this magnificent, proud ship sank within just 18 minutes with a massive loss of life. Of the 1,198 people known to have died that day, 785 were civilian passengers and 413 were crew. Poignantly for Liverpool, many of the crew came from close-knit Irish communities living in the north of the city. In fact, recent research has shown that altogether, around 600 people aboard had links with Liverpool, the Wirral and the wider region that is now Merseyside.

Significantly in terms of the course of WWI, 128 of the deceased passengers were US citizens, which had a dramatic effect on America’s view of Germany. Although not a direct result of the Lusitania’s sinking, it was a contributory factor to the United States joining the Allies against Germany in 1917 – which in turn was a decisive moment in the eventual Allied victory over the Central Powers of Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Many victims of the disaster were buried in mass graves in the Old Church Cemetery, Queenstown, Ireland, not far from the site of the wreck.  

Among the memorials in Liverpool to those who lost their lives in this impressive ship’s sinking, an annual memorial service takes place each year in front of a salvaged propeller from this tragic ship, held by the Merseyside Maritime Museum on the dockside between the Museum itself and the Museum of Liverpool. Next year, of course, will see the 100th anniversary of the catastrophe. There is also a memorial constructed in glass in St James’ Church, Mill Lane, West Derby in Liverpool.

Louise McTigue is a freelance researcher and writer, writing on behalf of Sarsfield Memorials Liverpool.