1915 Sinking of the Lusitania
If you wonder whether “the Hun”, the popular nickname for Germans in the First World War, was justified, you have only to look at the behaviour of their armed forces over a six-week period in 1915.
The nickname initially sprang from Kaiser Wilhelm II’s instructions to his troops departing for the Boxer Rebellion in China. He licensed their atrocities by urging them to act in the same way that the real Hunnic horde had and to make sure that the Chinese would remember the Germans a thousand years hence. By the time World War I broke out, his country — which had given the world Dürer, Handel, Bach, Beethoven, Heine and Goethe – had a well-deserved reputation for militarism and brutality.
The unprovoked German invasion of neutral Belgium in August 1914 was marked by the usual outrages that attend such affairs – rape, looting, and murder of civilians – but the Kaiser’s High Command hoped that this surprise attack would bring a swift victory. Instead, the war on the Western Front bogged down in static trench warfare which produced massive casualties but no breakthrough. Seeking solutions to this stalemate led the German military to undertake decisive actions in contravention of the rules of warfare.
The first of these steps was to use poison gas against Allied troops. On April 22, 1915 waves of phosgene gas billowed around Canadian and French troops at Ypres. This “higher form of killing”, as a German scientist called it, caused a panic which just about succeeded in affording the desired collapse of the line. It encouraged the Germans to try even more deadly gases and encouraged the British and French to employ their own poisonous aerosols.
The second step was to declare a “maritime exclusion zone” around the British Isles and to warn that any ships, neutral or hostile, venturing into it would be subject to submarine attack. A notice was sent to American newspapers:
TRAVELLERS intending to embark on the Atlantic voyage are reminded that a state of war exists between Germany and her allies and Great Britain and her allies; that the zone of war includes the waters adjacent to the British Isles; that, in accordance with formal notice given by the Imperial German Government, vessels flying the flag of Great Britain, or any of her allies, are liable to destruction in those waters and that travellers sailing in the war zone on the ships of Great Britain or her allies do so at their own risk.
IMPERIAL GERMAN EMBASSY
Washington, D.C., 22 April 1915.
R.M.S. Lusitania, a Cunard ocean liner, set sail from New York for Liverpool nine days later. On May 7, off the coast of Ireland, Lusitania was spotted by submarine U-20 of the Imperial German Navy which fired one torpedo at the passenger vessel. It struck the Lusitania on the starboard bow and precipitated a second explosion within the ship. Within 18 minutes the liner had sunk, taking almost 1,200 passengers and crew with it, mostly British and Canadians but 128 Americans as well, including some prominent public figures.
There was wide-spread outrage on both sides of the Atlantic but Germany maintained that the vessel was carrying munitions (it was, despite British denials) and that passengers had been warned. Nonetheless, the publicity caused the Germans to forbid any further attacks on passenger vessels until the resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare in January 1917. One historian has described the ultimate consequence of the sinking of the Lusitania: it had failed to bring two hundred American civilians to Liverpool in 1915 but had brought 2 million American troops in 1917.
Germany followed up this outrage with another innovation in May 1915, the aerial bombardment of civilians. German dirigible balloons, dubbed Zeppelins, began attacks on London and coastal cities, the forerunner of the hideous bombardments 25 years later that began with the Blitz, and led to the incineration of Hamburg, Berlin, Dresden, Nagasaki and Hiroshima.