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100 Years On – Lusitania

On May 7, 1915, the Lusitania, a large passenger ship of the British Cunard line, sunk off the coast of Ireland.  She had been struck by a torpedo, without warning, from a German submarine, and went down in a matter of minutes.  Of the 1,959 people aboard her, 1,195 perished, including 128 Americans.  The furor over the attack and loss of life was instant and thunderous.

Germany declared the waters around the British Isles a war zone in March, and had warned neutrals and belligerents alike that any ship near Britain or Ireland was liable to be attacked.  In fact, Germany made two attempts to specifically warn passengers of the Lusitania, including purchasing advertisements in over 50 newspapers that ran next to the advertisements for the Lusitania.  Even though Britain denied it at first, Lusitania was carrying war materials in the form of over four million rifle cartridges, which would probably make her a legitimate target.

Their protestations justifying the actions of U-20 fell, for the most part, on deaf ears.  Allies like Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire were unhappy with the sinking, and even German newspapers spoke out against it.  The sinking of the Lusitania risked bringing the United States into the war, and in fact has been sited as one of the contributing factors to our eventual entry in 1917.

The question of what is and what is not a legitimate target bedevils militaries across the globe to this day.  Is the image on your screen a command bunker or an air raid shelter?  Do the presence of known terrorists justify the bombing of a civilian facility?

Now, imagine making those kinds of decisions, in the middle of the ocean, when all you can see of your target is a grainy, blurry outline on the horizon.  If you can find a way to justify the loss of civilian life in furtherance of a military goal in recent wars, can you condemn the same decision made by a young officer, under trying circumstances, without the aid of modern intelligence?

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  1. All well and good. But remember that the folks who launched the attack were the same ones who were not above sending V-2 rockets to decidedly civilian populations. Which is why, aside from the destruction of vast library books collections, the Dresden bombing does not upset me all that much.

  2. EO is right. The Germans were intent on destroying Britain any way they could… And there are STILL questions today on the Amiriyah shelter and it’s actual use… Intelligence is NEVER perfect, and decisions get made on the best information available, for better or worse…

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