Echoes of the Lusitania


You probably saw the headline proclaiming that no direct link was found connecting Russia with the downing of a Malaysian airliner over the eastern part of Ukraine on July 17. All 298 people on board the plane were killed, their bodies left to rot on the ground while pro-Russian separatists looted the wreckage and tried to think of ways to weasel out of responsibility for the appalling mass murder.

The finding of "no direct link" is probably the most tortured politically-inspired euphemism since Neville Chamberlain came back from Munich and said that people needn’t be all that concerned with German imperialism. It is a little like saying that the person who touched the match to the fuse isn’t responsible for the explosion.

In keeping with the embarrassing shirtless narcissism that seems to be a key component of his own personality, Vladimir Putin wants history to recall him as the giant who restored Russia to its former glory. The 298 innocent people aboard Flight 17, 80 of whom were children, were all victims of Putin’s unchecked megalomania, whether the Russian government can hide behind the smokescreen of "no direct link" or not.

Putin has encouraged and supported the destabilization of Ukraine, a country on Russia’s eastern border. The Russian government armed and trained a motley collection of misfits, convicted criminals, and thugs to bully and beat the Ukraine back into the Motherland’s embrace.

The catastrophic meeting of a Russian-supplied SA-11 missile with a commercial plane 33,000 feet above the Ukraine was reminiscent of another tragedy that is coming upon its centennial. The death count was even greater and the victims were equally undeserving of their fate.

Captain Walter Schwieger could hardly believe his good fortune. Schwieger was the commanding officer of the U-20, a German submarine that had been stalking the waters around Ireland. His position, on the pleasant, early spring afternoon of May 7, 1915, was about 10 miles off the Old Head of Kinsale, the southernmost tip of the country (where a family of picnickers would watch the ensuing tragedy in horror).

The captain had seen the huge, four-stacker earlier, but her speed and the distance between the two vessels made it impossible for him to attack. Then the ship turned towards the coastline and the distance between them began to diminish. Schwieger, evidently still not aware that he had one of the world’s two fastest passenger liners in his sights, fired one torpedo.

The Lusitania and her sister ship, Mauretania, were the crown jewels of the Cunard Line. They were built, ironically, to compete with German transatlantic passenger ships. The Lucy, as she was affectionately called, was launched in 1906 and completed her maiden voyage to New York a year later. The Mauretaina, which was slightly larger, also began service in 1907. Both liners boasted four propellers (Titanic only had three) that were powered by revolutionary direct-drive steam turbine engines and could reach speeds up to 25 knots. Between them, the sisters would hold the prestigious Blue Riband for crossing the ocean in record time until 1929.

The Lucy was due to dock later that afternoon in Liverpool, completing her two hundred and first roundtrip crossing. The 1,959 passengers and crew had been on edge since the trip began, partially because of a small notice placed by the German embassy that warned Atlantic travelers that the waters around the British Isles were considered war zones.

The single torpedo fired by the U-20 hit its mark. The initial detonation probably would not have been fatal to a ship as large as the Lusitania. It was followed almost immediately by a second, much larger blast emanating from within the hull. The ship heeled to starboard while its powerful engines drove it forward. The picnickers on the Old Head of Kinsale would later recall that the big ship "just sailed under the water." Only six of the liner’s 48 lifeboats were launched successfully. The death toll was 1,195. Of the 139 Americans on board, 11 survived the disaster.

The people whose lives ended in the cold waters off Ireland, like the ones who died far above the ground over the Ukraine, were all victims of mankind’s seemingly unquenchable thrust to kill each other in order to make some grand statement without leaving too many direct links. The reasons and the methods may be more complex and sophisticated, but the results continue to serve as grim reminders that we really haven’t progressed all that far from living in caves.

Alden Graves is a Banner columnist.


If you'd like to leave a comment (or a tip or a question) about this story with the editors, please email us. We also welcome letters to the editor for publication; you can do that by filling out our letters form and submitting it to the newsroom.

Powered by Creative Circle Media Solutions