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Anniversary of the Lusitania sinking

30 April 2015

On 1 May 1915 the Cunard liner Lusitania left New York for Liverpool via Queenstown (now Cobh), Ireland. Capable of carrying over 2,000 passengers and at one point the fastest passenger ship in the world, Liverpool-New York was her usual route.

Two months earlier, Imperial Germany had declared an "exclusion zone" in the waters around Britain and France, stating that any civilian vessel flying Entente colours could be attacked in the zone without warning.

Lusitania arrived off the coast of Ireland on 7 May and was spotted at 1.20pm by the crew of U20, a German submarine lurking off the Irish coast near the Old Head of Kinsale.

At 2.10pm U20 fired a single torpedo at Lusitania hitting her starboard bow, just beneath the wheelhouse, causing a small explosion. Moments later a second much larger explosion ripped open her bow. Lusitania began to sink, listing severely, which greatly hampered the attempts of her passengers and crew to escape.

In all, only six out of 48 lifeboats were launched successfully. Lusitania sank in just 18 minutes.

Of nearly 2,000 passengers and crew aboard, close to 1,200 were lost despite valiant rescue attempts by local lifeboatmen and fishermen. Among those who died were over 100 US citizens, and the incident caused outcry in the press on both sides of the Atlantic.

In the days following the disaster, efforts were made to recover bodies floating in the Irish Sea and washed up on the coast. The dead - both passengers and crew - can be found in several cemeteries and churchyards in Ireland and the UK. Killed by enemy action, the crew of Lusitania are considered war dead and therefore commemorated by the CWGC.

The bodies of 49 of her merchant marine personnel were recovered from the sea or the shore. The largest group, 34 men and women, are buried in Old Church Cemetery in Cobh.

Those Lusitania crew members missing at sea - some 353 people - are commemorated by name on the CWGC's Tower Hill Memorial in London.

This memorial bears the names of the men and women of the Merchant Navy and Fishing Fleets who died in both world wars and who have no known graves. The CWGC commemorates at least 16 women from the Lusitania - stewardesses, matrons and a typist- buried in Cobh and Belfast. Ten are recorded on the Tower Hill Memorial.

Image: Sinking of the Lusitania. Engraving by Norman Wilkinson, The Illustrated London News, May 15, 1915.