November 8, 2015


One hundred years ago, a German submarine sank the transatlantic passenger liner RMS Lusitania as it neared Liverpool. 1201 passengers died, including 128 of the 159 Americans who had set sail from New York seven days earlier, died. The event event was seen by the British as a cowardly act of German barbarity, whilst the Germans claimed the liner was carrying weapons.

German artist Karl Goetz was so incensed by the British portrayal of events, he produced a medallion that satirised the British as cynically using passengers as a human shield, mocked the allied devotion to big business and the supposed impartiality of America. On the obverse side of the medal, the ship sinks below the waves, its deck is bristling with weapons. On the reverse side, unsuspecting passengers buy their tickets from a skeleton representing Death. In the background a newspaper headline warns of the ‘U-Boat Danger’ but goes unheeded by the queue. Above this scene an inscription reads ‘business above all’.

IWM_MED_000861_A_1However, Goetz’s biting satire was taken up by the British to use against the Germans. British Naval Intelligence had 300,000 copies of the medal made and sold for a Shilling (5p) with proceeds going to military charities and the Red Cross. The British medals were packaged in a box which included the words which described the German original as, “proof positive that such crimes are not merely regarded favourably, but are given every encouragement in the land of Kultur…” A leaflet continued the narrative that the Germans were gloating at the death of so many civilians. Goetz’s had mistakenly inscribed the date of the sinking as 5 May – two days earlier than it actually happened – and this was used by the British to suggest the sinking was premeditated and not just a random act of war. Goetz did produce a second version of the medal with the correct date on.

The British Government had subsidised the construction of Lusitania and its sister ship Mauretania and made an agreement with Cunard who owned the ship and John Brown and Company who built it, that in the event of war, the British Admiralty would be able to requisition the ships for use as armed merchant cruisers. As such both ships were listed in the 1914 edition of the ‘bible’ of warship reference, Jane’s ‘All the World’s Fighting Ships’. In fact the Lusitania was carrying munitions, although they were described as butter on the ship’s manifest, disproving Adolf Hitler’s dictum that (the German) people could have either guns or butter.

IMG_0519Winston Churchill who at that time was First Lord of the Admiralty, always on the lookout for propaganda opportunities later wrote: “In spite of all its horror, we must regard the sinking of the Lusitania as an event most important and favourable to the Allies… [He was referring to the effect it would have on public opinion in the USA, which was still a neutral, non-combatant in the War] “The poor babies who perished in the ocean struck a blow at German power more deadly than could have been achieved by the sacrifice of 100,000 men.” During the Second World War, Churchill would rarely miss an opportunity to encourage U.S. entry into that conflict. When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour and U.S. President Roosevelt spoke of a “day that will go down in infamy”. Churchill wrote in a draft of his memoirs that that night, “I went to bed and slept the sleep of the saved and thankful.”


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