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  • May 7th, 1915.

  • The great cruise liner the Lusitania is within sight of the Scottish coast.

  • Suddenly, a periscope breaks through the waves, and a German u-boat is about to rewrite the

  • history books.

  • The Lusitania was launched in 1906 as a luxury cruise liner, much like similar ships such

  • as the infamous Titanic.

  • This was the age of the luxury liner, with fierce competition- specially between Britain

  • and France- to design and launch the grandest, and fastest ships in the world.

  • Owned by Cunard Shipping Line, the Lusitania was partly funded by the British military,

  • on the condition that if war were to break out, the mighty ship would serve as a cargo

  • vessel.

  • When World War I broke out in 1914, the Lusitania was not pressed into service as expected,

  • and instead remained a passenger liner.

  • Instead, the ship was secretly retrofitted for potential wartime service, with expanded

  • cargo holds and even well camouflaged gun turrets hidden under coils of rope on her

  • deck.

  • This was before the British Admiralty had come to appreciate the threat posed by German

  • u-boats.

  • The British navy dwarfed the German navy, and the idea that it would be the Germans

  • who starved Britain into submission, instead of the other way around, was a laughable one

  • as war began.

  • However, Germany understood its tactical position far better than even the British, and knowing

  • it could not compete with the Royal Navy on the surface, took to new technology to subvert

  • it from below- the infamous U-Boat.

  • Early u-boats were less true submarines and more temporarily submerged craft.

  • Their electric batteries would allow them to cruise under the water and out of sight

  • of surface ships, but they regularly needed to surface in order to run their diesel engines

  • and recharge their batteries.

  • If they wanted to move at any significant speed, they had to do so on the surface as

  • well, where they were incredibly vulnerable to enemy fire.

  • However, u-boats could remain submerged long enough to break the British blockade in the

  • North Sea and move out into the Atlantic, where they could wreak havoc on British shipping.

  • International law mandated that u-boats followprize laws”.

  • These rules of war aimed at limiting the devastation of war.

  • Under these laws u-boats must allow a merchant ship to evacuate their vessel and get them

  • to safety- unless they were close to land, in which case they could remain in their life

  • boats.

  • More importantly, the law stated that passenger ships may not be sunk.

  • As the war progressed, the Germans obeyed these laws, but then the British changed the

  • rules.

  • An empire that depended wholly on the sea, Britain was particularly vulnerable to Germany's

  • blisteringly successful u-boat campaign against it.

  • Soon, the British began to arm merchant vessels with hidden guns.

  • Under international law, u-boats were forced to surface and warn merchants their vessel

  • was to be sunk, which gave British 'Q-ships', as they came to be called, time to unveil

  • their hidden guns and sink the u-boat.

  • This blatant exploitation of international law led to Germany declaring a war zone around

  • the British isles on February 4th, 1915.

  • This now meant that any ship entering those waters and flying the British flag was under

  • threat of German attack.

  • This move deeply angered neutral countries, specially the US, and in a bid to avoid any

  • unfortunate catastrophes, the German embassy in the United States put out ads in newspapers

  • warning that Britain had been declared a war zone, and that ships sailing to England should

  • be avoided.

  • The declaration of a war zone around British waters was an unexpected boon to the British.

  • For a long time the British Admiralty, led by young Winston Churchill, had been pushing

  • for a strategy to lure in neutral ships in the hopes they'd be attacked by the Germans.

  • As Churchill himself said, if a neutral ship should be attacked and end in tragedy, all

  • the better.

  • Arming merchant vessels wasn't the only way a desperate Britain was flouting international

  • laws however, as it was also using civilian ships to transfer desperately needed supplies

  • from the US.

  • Passenger liners were off-limits target to German u-boats, a fact the British took advantage

  • of by smuggling war supplies in their holds.

  • Germany repeatedly warned Britain and the US about this practice, but it was ignored.

  • Germany thus had no choice, and with the declaration of a war zone around Britain, unrestricted

  • submarine warfare would begin.

  • Ignoring all warnings that any ship flying the British flag would be attacked, passengers

  • boarded the Lusitania in the New York Harbor on May 1st, 1915.

  • As they boarded, several of the ship's wealthiest passengers received an emergency telegram,

  • warning them that the Lusitania was under u-boat threat.

  • The passengers ignored this telegram, laughing it off as a joke.

  • They had been reassured that the Lusitania was too fast for any u-boat, and were still

  • under the impression that even if they were attacked, the Germans would allow them to

  • board lifeboats before sinking the ship.

  • They couldn't have been more wrong, and the ominous telegram- who's origin remains a mystery

  • to this day- was no joke.

  • The British Admiralty had broken the German radio codes and been listening in on its communications

  • with its u-boats for a while now.

  • While u-boats were still incredibly difficult to locate, they had listened in as the commander

  • of u-boat U-20 departed his anchorage in north Germany, and then communicated that he had

  • arrived on station off the Scottish coast.

  • The British knew that a u-boat was in the Lusitania's path, and were keenly aware of

  • the 128 Americans onboard the ship.

  • Yet they said nothing, in the hopes that if the Americans met with tragedy, it would spur

  • them to join the war.

  • Six days after leaving New York, with the coast in sight, u-boat U-20 fired a single

  • torpedo at the Lusitania.

  • The explosion tore a massive hole in the side of the large ship and she began to take on

  • water.

  • Moments later, a second explosion rocked the cruise liner, sealing her fate.

  • Other ships had taken much greater damage than her and sunk in hours, yet the Lusitania

  • was under the waves in less than 20 minutes, dooming most of her passengers.

  • The second explosion, long believed to be the result of secret munitions being carried

  • in her hold, was actually due to a boiler exploding on contact with ice cold water,

  • adding to the damage and increasing the rate of flooding.

  • However, what truly doomed the ship was the lack of electricity, which prevented watertight

  • doors across compartments from being closed and sealing off the flooded sections.

  • In short order, nearly 1200 people were dead, including 128 Americans and over 100 children.

  • When news of her sinking spread around the world, the British Admiralty went into a panic

  • trying to conceal the real circumstances behind the sinking.

  • All evidence at the time wrongly pointed to the secondary explosion being caused by the

  • secret munitions being set off, and the truth wouldn't be discovered until nearly 80 years

  • later.

  • At the time however, the Admiralty had to suppress all evidence of the secret munitions,

  • or risk losing goodwill from the world community.

  • They had to desperately spin the event as a bloodthirsty attack on an innocent passenger

  • liner, especially in America, as the fate of the war depended on this one big lie.

  • The Admiralty however also had to ensure that the Americans never discover that they had

  • been aware of the pending attack the entire time.

  • If Washington ever found out the Admiralty had intercepted U-20's messages, they might

  • not only refuse to join the war, but might even cut off all aid completely.

  • Luckily for the British, the American public was swept up in anti-German furor over the

  • sinking of the Lusitania, and the fact that the British had been aware of the pending

  • attack wouldn't come to light for decades later.

  • Americans were angry, with many clamoring for war against Germany, but President Woodrow

  • Wilson remained reluctant to embroil the US in a European war.

  • Then in August, a German u-boat sunk yet another British ocean liner, the S.S. Arabic, which

  • also had Americans on board.

  • The Germans claimed the attack had been in self-defense, as the Arabic was attempting

  • to ram them.

  • Truthfully, British ships had been instructed to do just that if they encountered a u-boat,

  • as their massive bulk would easily cut a u-boat in half.

  • President Wilson warned Germany that if their investigation of the incident proved Germany

  • was at fault, it could lead to war.

  • Germany conceded, and announced that it would once more instruct its u-boats to warn merchant

  • ships and get their crews to safety before sinking the ship.

  • As the British were still actively arming their merchant ships- also against international

  • law- this placed German u-boats at huge risk, but for the Germans it was favorable to the

  • US entering the war on the side of the British.

  • The US would remain neutral for two more years, until British intelligence intercepted a telegram

  • from the German Foreign Minister to the German Minister to Mexico.

  • The telegram stated that Germany would once more resume unrestricted submarine warfare

  • in a bid to cut off supplies to England, and that it would begin to sink any ship flying

  • the British flag.

  • It specifically warned that this would include even ships carrying American passengers, and

  • attempted to draw up a contingency should the US enter the war.

  • In exchange for Mexico's aid against the US, the Germans would offer large amounts of financial

  • aid and help it restore its lost territories of Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona.

  • The intercepted telegram was rushed to President Wilson, who was immediately outraged.

  • In an unprecedented move, the President authorized for the telegram to be published in its entirety

  • in American newspapers, stoking anti-German sentiment to a fever pitch.

  • Just days later, the American congress approved the US's entry into the war on the side of

  • the Allies, just as Britain had always wanted and been willing to trade innocent American

  • lives for.

  • Now go watch How Did World War I Start?

  • Or click this other video instead!

May 7th, 1915.

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