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On May 7, 1915, toward the end of her 101st eastbound crossing, from New York to Liverpool, England, R.M.S. Lusitania — pride of the Cunard Line and one of the greatest ocean liners afloat — became the target of a terrifying new weapon and a casualty of a terrible new kind of war. Sunk off the southern coast of Ireland by a torpedo fired from the German submarine U-20, she exploded and sank in eighteen minutes, taking with her some twelve hundred people, more than half of the passengers and crew. Cold-blooded, ...

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On May 7, 1915, toward the end of her 101st eastbound crossing, from New York to Liverpool, England, R.M.S. Lusitania — pride of the Cunard Line and one of the greatest ocean liners afloat — became the target of a terrifying new weapon and a casualty of a terrible new kind of war. Sunk off the southern coast of Ireland by a torpedo fired from the German submarine U-20, she exploded and sank in eighteen minutes, taking with her some twelve hundred people, more than half of the passengers and crew. Cold-blooded, deliberate, and unprecedented in the annals of war, the sinking of the Lusitania shocked the world. It also jolted the United States out of its neutrality — 128 Americans were among the dead — and hastened the nation's entry into World War I.

In her account of this enormous and controversial tragedy, Diana Preston recalls both a pivotal moment in history and a remarkable human drama. The story of the Lusitania is a window on the maritime world of the early twentieth century: the heyday of the luxury liner, the first days of the modern submarine, and the climax of the decades-long German-British rivalry for supremacy of the Atlantic. It is a criticalchapter in the progress of World War I and in the political biographies of Woodrow Wilson, William Jennings Bryan, Kaiser Wilhelm II, andFirst Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill. Above all, it is the story of the passengers and crew on that fateful voyage — a story of terror and cowardice, of self-sacrifice and heroism, of death and miraculous survival.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
When RMS Lusitania was sunk by a German U-20 sub in May 1915, the world changed forever. With 128 Americans among the casualties, the United States was shaken in its commitment to neutrality and moved closer to entering World War I. Author Diana Preston brings the reader aboard the ill-fated ocean liner for a ride through history that won't be soon forgotten.
From the Publisher
"Unforgettable...the definitive account of the Lusitania."
—The Philadelphia Inquirer

"As majestic as its subject...extraordinarily readable."
Chicago Sun Times

"Broad in scope and rich in devastating detail."
New York Magazine

"Tugs at the emotions...substantial and colorful."
—The Washington Post Book World

"Compelling and comprehensive."
—The Wall Street Journal

A captivating and conscientious narrative of the disaster and its consequences.
Publishers Weekly
Following her previous title for Walker, The Boxer Rebellion, Preston, an Oxford-trained historian, writer and broadcaster, provides more thrills and chills with this tale of the May 1915 sinking of the Lusitania, one of the jewels of Cunard's fleet of ocean liners, during a crossing from New York to Liverpool. Hit by a German submarine's torpedo, it sank in 18 minutes, with 1,200 casualties. The tragedy was a major motivation for America's entering WWI against Germany, as 124 U.S. citizens were among the dead. Preston offers myriad details to recreate the look and feel of the Lusitania's last voyage. Beyond that, she judiciously marshals German accounts at the time of the sinking and since to "justify" the attack, such as the charge that the Lusitania was carrying Canadian soldiers or contraband weapons, but she finds no evidence that soldiers were present, although a cache of weapons was carried. With a realistic view of the tangle of world politics in the WWI era, she concludes: "... no government, British, German, or American, was entirely free of blame for the situation leading up to the attack. Nor, in its wake, was any government hesitant to twist the facts, or use the disaster, to its own political ends." (May) Forecast: With human details to back up the political analysis, this fluently written item would seem a natural for history buffs. Analogies between the WTC attacks and the ill-fated ship may be drawn by some reviewers. Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
In a lively narrative, Preston (A First-Rate Tragedy) examines the torpedoing of the British liner Lusitania by the German U-20 in 1915. Preston re-creates the physical conditions of ship life aboard both the Lusitania and the U-boat as well as the political and military context that led to the Lusitania's destruction, with the loss of over 1200 people. Perhaps Preston's greatest contribution to the historical record is helping to debunk some of the conspiracy theories associated with the event. For example, the British were quick to realize the propaganda potential in the tragedy and tried to suppress any significant investigation into the event for fear that they might be blamed, thus detracting from the moral outrage felt in the neutral United States. As such the Royal Navy's shortcomings, especially the confusion caused by the fog of war, were never revealed, helping fuel the notion that the Lusitania was sacrificed by the British and especially Winston Churchill to induce America into joining the Allied side. Meanwhile, Preston's reconstruction of the path of the U-20 is revealing, especially in detailing the submarine captain's willingness to attack civilian targets without clear orders. This book is effectively written, researched, and argued. Recommended for all libraries. Frederic Krome, Jacob Rader Marcus Ctr. of the American Jewish Archives, Cincinnati Copyright 2002 Cahners Business Information.
For her third historical account, Preston tells the story of the British luxury liner sunk by a German U-boat in the Irish Sea in May 1915. She looks at the design and building of the ship, the dangers of transatlantic passage during World War I, the voyage and sinking, and the political aftermath. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (
Kirkus Reviews
A vivid reconstruction of the famed ocean liner's demise and its history-altering consequences. The Cunard liner Lusitania was a veritable floating city, capable of carrying thousands of passengers who, on a typical crossing from Liverpool to New York, consumed "40,000 eggs, 4,000 pounds of fresh fish, two tons of bacon and ham, 4,000 pounds of coffee, 1,000 pineapples, 500 pounds of grapes, 1,000 lemons, 25,000 pounds of meat, nearly 3,000 gallons of milk, over 500 gallons of cream, and 30,000 loaves of bread." Telling details such as these are the stuff in which popular historian Preston (The Boxer Rebellion) trades. She is equally devoted to small touches when it comes to writing about major players in the Lusitania's unfortunate end; her brief portrait of the petulant but gentlemanly Kaiser Wilhelm, for instance, is well worth the price of admission and does much to illuminate German conduct in WWI. Though standard histories often use the sinking of the Lusitania as a quick way to explain how the US came to shed its neutrality and enter the war on the side of the Allies, it was no sneak attack; as Preston writes, the German embassy in New York issued written warning to all passengers that the vessel was subject to sinking, inasmuch as the Royal Navy had pressed it into reserve service as a troop and materiel-transport vessel. On its ill-fated final voyage, the Lusitania was in fact carrying armaments along with other contraband, though Preston reckons that it would have been more civilized for the Germans to board and evacuate the ship before sinking it. Instead, nearly 1,200 civilians died as a result of the German attack. Its aftermath ultimately changed the outcome ofthe war for reasons that Preston does a characteristically fine job of explaining. Top-drawer military history, engagingly told.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780425189986
  • Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 5/1/2003
  • Edition description: Reissue
  • Pages: 544
  • Product dimensions: 6.07 (w) x 9.02 (h) x 1.19 (d)

Meet the Author

Diana Preston is the author of The Boxer Rebellion: A First Rate Tragedy; and The Road to Culloden Moor. A "fascinating" storyteller "with an obvious addiction to the details of history" (The Washington Post), she lives in London, England, with her husband, Michael.

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Read an Excerpt


A Scrap of Paper

At the outset of the First World War, German chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg handed the Allies the moral high ground and an unassailable propaganda advantage. At 3 p.m. on 3 August 1914, the day Germany declared war on France and two days after she declared war on Russia, he rose to address a packed and expectant Reichstag. He informed his fellow countrymen that German troops, advancing on France, had occupied Luxembourg and were "already in Belgium." Then, in a moment of candor he would almost immediately regret, he added: "Our invasion of Belgium is contrary to international law but the wrong-I speak openly-that we are committing we will make good as soon as our military goal has been reached."

The next day the British ambassador to Berlin, Sir Edward Goschen, called on Bethmann Hollweg to present the British ultimatum: Quit Belgium or face Britain's entry into the war. Germany had until midnight to decide. Goschen found the chancellor "excited" and "very agitated"; he complained that Britain was committing an "unthinkable" act, "like striking a man from behind while he was fighting for his life against two assailants." Britain, the chancellor said, would be responsible for all the dreadful events that must follow, and it was all "just for a word-'neutrality,' a word which in war time had so often been disregarded"-all just "for a scrap of paper that Great Britain was going to make war on a kindred nation." This "scrap of paper" was the Treaty of London, signed by the European powers, including Prussia, in 1839 and guaranteeing Belgian neutrality. Goschen replied that if it was strategically a matter of life or death for Germany to advance through Belgium, it was equally a matter of life or death for Britain to keep her solemn compact.

It was still some hours before midnight and the expiry of the ultimatum when Goschen left to find newspaper billboards in the streets already proclaiming Britain's entry into the war. According to one of the diplomats within, a mob "of quite well-dressed individuals, including a number of women," gathered to stone the British embassy, smashing many of the windows. The crowd, stirred by the accusations of propagandists and the press, "seemed mad with rage and was howling 'Death to the English pedlar nation!' " that was guilty of Rassen-verrat!-race treason-against Germany, which, unlike Britain's allies, France and Russia, shared her origins. As the British diplomats prepared to depart, the embassy's three German servants, who had been paid off with a month's wages, "took off their liveries, spat and trampled on them and refused to help carry the trunks down to the taxi cabs."

In his unfortunate comments, Bethmann Hollweg had raised two issues that would be hotly debated throughout the Great War, issues of respect for international law and the balance between expediency and the rights of neutrals. In so doing he had placed Germany at such a disadvantage in the battle for the minds of neutral countries that she would never fully recover. Goschen duly reported to the foreign office in London what Bethmann Hollweg later claimed to have been a privileged and personal conversation, including the disparaging reference to the "scrap of paper." Goschen perhaps disingenuously said he had little idea of how the phrase would resonate. For his part, Bethmann Hollweg later commented: "My blood boiled at his hypocritical harping on Belgian neutrality, which was not the thing that had driven England into the war." Anglo-Saxon hypocrisy would soon become a familiar German charge against both Britain and America.

Many argued at the time, and many have argued since, that world war was not the inevitable consequence of the assassination in Sarajevo of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and of the empire's subsequent declaration of war on Serbia. David Lloyd George, then British chancellor of the Exchequer, later suggested that there was a general slide to a war that no nation really wanted. Others have argued that military mobilization, once begun, achieved a momentum of its own, even that summer holidays and consequent unfortunate delays in communication played a part in provoking war that summer of 1914 when tensions between the powers seemed, if anything, to have eased. A British battleship squadron was paying a courtesy visit to the Kiel Week regatta-a celebration of the imperial navy. The German officers were entertaining their guests with great bonhomie when news of the Sarajevo assassination reached both parties courtesy of the kaiser. He had learned of it himself while competing in one of the races aboard his yacht, the Meteor.

Other contemporaries and historians believed that war could not have been long delayed. There was tension between Austria and Serbia over borders; Russia, Germany, and Austria were at loggerheads over Slav rights; France was aching for revenge for her defeat by Prussia in the war of 1870-71 and to regain her lost provinces of Alsace and Lorraine; Germany was feeling hemmed in and deprived of the colonies and international status to which she felt her commercial and military strength entitled her. Her conservative leaders saw expansion abroad as a useful damper on liberal and socialist reforming aspirations at home. In seeking such expansion Germany was bound eventually to challenge Britain, either directly, by taking a portion of the Flanders coast (which was one of her later declared war aims), or indirectly, by challenging Britain's command of the seas and preeminence in maritime trade.

By 1914, the naval rivalry between Britain and Germany was well established. Since the turn of the century their dramatically increasing expenditure had accelerated technical development and exacerbated international tensions. Strong, charismatic personalities dominated the Admiralties of both nations. The sixty-five-year-old secretary of state for the imperial German navy, Alfred von Tirpitz, had been born plain Alfred Tirpitz, son of a lawyer and a physician's daughter. He joined the navy not out of enthusiasm but because he was "very mediocre" at school. Hearing that a friend was to join, he decided that "it might mean a certain relief for [his] parents" if he too "were to take up the idea." During his early years at sea he came into close contact with the British navy and admired its methods. While a gunnery officer in 1877, he reported enthusiastically on a visit to the Whitehead Torpedo Company in Fiume and was immediately put in charge of torpedo development for the German navy. He tried to render the wildly unstable torpedoes more reliable. "I worked on them," he later recalled, like "a tinker with my own hands."

Tirpitz's success was rewarded by appointment as chief of staff of the Baltic Squadron in 1890. A few months later he attended a dinner at Kiel Castle with the army chief of staff, General Helmuth von Moltke, along with several admirals and generals. Their host, the kaiser, was seeking advice on the future of the navy. Tirpitz kept silent throughout a long, desultory, and inconclusive discussion but eventually, at a sign from his senior officer, gave a spirited exposition of his vision of a stronger navy, one equipped with battleships rather than the cruisers currently deployed. His views coincided exactly with the kaiser's aspirations.

As a result, Tirpitz was soon in Berlin as chief of staff to the navy high command, where, at the kaiser's personal behest, he was to devise a strategy for a German high seas fleet. His forthright views, bluntly expressed, brought him into conflict with much of the naval establishment. In particular he irked the secretary of state for the navy, Admiral Friedrich Hollmann, whom Tirpitz wrote off as a "high-minded man who was never quite clear as to the direction to be followed!"

For a time Tirpitz seemed likely to lose out in this power struggle, but in January 1896 his memorandum calling for a German fleet of seventeen battleships reached the kaiser. It was excellent timing. The kaiser was bitterly regretting his impotence to influence events in South Africa following the Jameson raid precisely because of his lack of a high seas fleet. Hollmann did not last long thereafter. On 6 June 1897 Tirpitz replaced him as secretary of state for the navy, the post he still held in August 1914. Just nine days after his appointment he presented a 2,500- word top-secret memorandum claiming that "for Germany at the moment the most dangerous naval enemy is England. . . . the strategy against England demands battleships in as great a number as possible." He went on to argue for nineteen such vessels. By March 1898 a naval bill had passed through the Reichstag but only after Tirpitz had secured the support of former chancellor Otto von Bismarck, the armaments magnate Gustav Krupp, and Albert Ballin, president of the Hamburg- Amerika Line, whose ships were becoming a force on the transatlantic route. A second naval bill followed in 1900, at the height of the Anglo- Boer War. The kaiser awarded Tirpitz his ennobling "von," and Britain began to worry that Germany might rival her naval supremacy.

Prime among those doing the worrying was Admiral "Jackie" Fisher. In the spring of 1902 his successful three-year tour of duty in command of Britain's Mediterranean Fleet was coming to an end, and his future looked uncertain. He felt he had been "tabooed" by the Admiralty for his radical ideas and that, at sixty-one, he had no further chance of advancement. This did not prevent him from arguing to everyone who would listen that "the Germans are our natural enemies everywhere. We ought to unite with France and Russia."

John Arbuthnot Fisher in some ways resembled Tirpitz. Both men combined passionate beliefs with a facility for winning converts to them. Fisher was born in January 1841 in Sri Lanka; his father was an ex-army officer and failed coffee planter, his mother the daughter of a failed wine merchant. He was brought up from the age of six in London by his maternal grandfather and never lost the sense of being abandoned by his parents. He later claimed, not entirely accurately, that when he joined the navy he was "penniless, friendless and forlorn." He was more correct in describing the arcane entrance tests of the time: "I wrote out the Lord's Prayer and the doctor made me jump over a chair naked and I was given a glass of sherry."

Once in, he made swift progress. He became a great advocate of torpedoes. Upon his promotion to captain at age thirty-three, he became commander of the newly established torpedo school at Portsmouth. After that his rise was even faster, interrupted only by periodic bouts of dysentery and malaria. The latter left him with a sallow, yellow complexion that his enemies, imbued with the racist sentiments of their day, maliciously attributed to Malay or Singhalese blood-a charge which wounded Fisher and which he took pains to refute in his memoirs.

To his credit, Fisher was at least as good at making friends as enemies. He was a man of great charisma, intelligence, frankness, and humor. He was also a superb dancer. The czar's sister, Grand Duchess Olga, wrote to him: "I believe, dear Admiral, that I would walk to England to have another waltz with you." He made other eminent conquests, including Queen Victoria, and through her won the ear of the Prince of Wales. Fisher lectured him ebulliently and forcefully about the right way to run a navy. His plan was simple: less bureaucracy, less ship painting, and far fewer time-wasting drills; far more training, far better gunnery, heavier armaments. a broader officer-recruitment base, and a new emphasis on torpedoes and defenses against them. Once, when he was in full flow, the Prince of Wales asked plaintively, "Would you kindly leave off shaking your fist in my face?"

Fisher's language was exaggerated and colorful. He signed letters "Yours till hell freezes" and "Yours till charcoal sprouts." He was often tactless and execrated his enemies in the vilest terms. The existence of politicians had "deepened his faith in Providence. How else could one explain Britain's continued existence as a nation?" His temperament was mercurial, his laughter infectious, but his anger quiveringly awesome. He wrote as he spoke-impetuously-and never revised his words. His large, bold scrawl was peppered with exclamation marks, double and triple underlinings, and frequent admonitions to the reader to burn his letters after a quick scan to protect his confidences. Fortunately for the historian, few followed his advice. If Fisher's good characteristics, his decisiveness and ability to command, grew more pronounced with age and increased power, then so did his bad ones, particularly his lack of patience and restraint. In May 1899 he was appointed a member of the British delegation to the first Hague Peace Conference, called by the czar to try to limit arms, to define a code to mitigate the horrors of war, and to develop a system of arbitration that would solve international disputes and thus render war obsolete.

Fisher charmed his fellow delegates and "danced down everyone else in the ballroom." His influence on the conference was mostly exercised through informal conversations. At every opportunity he derided the objective of humanizing war as naive: "The humanizing of war? You might as well talk about humanizing Hell! The essence of war is violence! Moderation in war is imbecility! . . . I am not for war, I am for peace. That is why I am for a supreme Navy. The supremacy of the British Navy is the best security for the peace of the world. . . . If you rub it in both at home and abroad that you are ready for instant war . . . and intend to be first in and hit your enemy in the belly and kick him when he is down and boil your prisoners in oil (if you take any) . . . and torture his women and children, then people will keep clear of you." An enemy's realization of the horrors of war, coupled with conviction about Britain's readiness to fight, was the best deterrent. It was his duty, Fisher said, to see that his country, and in particular her navy, was prepared.

Fisher was equally impatient with the delegates' debate about the theoretical rights of "neutral shipping" carrying supplies to the enemy: "Suppose that war breaks out, and I am expecting to fight a new Trafalgar on the morrow. Some neutral colliers try to steam past us into the enemy's waters. If the enemy gets their coal into his bunkers, it may make all the difference in the coming fight. You tell me I must not seize these colliers. I tell you that nothing that you, or any power on earth, can say will stop me from sending them to the bottom, if I can in no other way keep their coal out of the enemy's hands; for tomorrow I am to fight the battle which will save or wreck the Empire. If I win it, I shall be far too big a man to be affected about protests about the neutral colliers; if I lose it, I shall go down with my ship into the deep and then protests will affect me still less."

Fisher's next posting, and the one which in 1902 he had believed would be his last, was to command the Mediterranean Fleet. But then, much to his surprise, he was offered the post of second sea lord at the Admiralty. He so excelled that he was soon made commander in chief, Portsmouth. Fisher now argued ever more passionately in favor of submarines, promoting them against opposition from what he called reactionary "fossil" admirals. He predicted "these invisible demons" would have an awesome effect on troop transports, whose frightened human cargoes would confront the prospect of "Death near-momentarily- sudden-awful-invisible-unavoidable!"

On 21 October 1904, Trafalgar Day, Fisher became first sea lord, the professional head of the Royal Navy. Now he was in a position to implement all his plans. He went at it with a will and with little regard for the enemies he made within the navy. He scrapped ninety obsolete ships, useful only for showing the flag and providing a comfortable billet for elderly admirals on foreign stations. Other ships were transferred unmanned to the reserve. In accordance with his belief that the enemy was Germany, he concentrated the fleet in home waters. He ordered submarines. Above all he built the world's first all-big-gun battleship, HMS Dreadnought, which rendered all others obsolete at a stroke. She took only fourteen months from the laying of her keel to her acceptance into the Royal Navy in December 1906. Among her many advanced features were steam turbines, like those incorporated in the Lusitania, also launched in that year.

Tirpitz and the German navy responded by announcing both an increased battleship building program and plans to enlarge the Kiel Canal to allow their new battleships to make their way easily and swiftly from the Baltic to the North Sea. Fisher accurately predicted both the cost and timetable for the canal widening and that Germany would go to war after bringing in the harvest in the year of its completion: 1914.

Fisher by now had many opponents in the British navy, chief among them Admiral Lord Charles Beresford, a generally amiable but obstinate, rich, aristocratic Anglo-Irish officer. He was rumored to have been the lover of the murdered Empress Elizabeth of Austria. He shared her passion for riding to hounds, surpassing it to the extent of having a hunting scene tattooed across his buttocks with the fox disappearing into the cleft. In naval matters he had a high opinion of his own abilities and a low one of Fisher's. He considered Fisher's very existence a threat to his own prospects for promotion. He opposed anything Fisher advocated, whether it was submarines, emphasis on gunnery, or concentration of forces, and he made unrestrained use of press and political contacts. Such was the support for Beresford's opinions that Fisher rushed ever more quickly at his reforms with ever less concern for the feelings of others, so that he could complete them quickly in case Beresford ousted him.

Eventually, Beresford's insubordination became both so blatant and so well publicized that in March 1909, following a confrontation with Fisher's ally Rear Admiral Sir Percy Scott, he was forced to retire. Their argument was over the relative merits of gunnery practice, about which Scott was fanatical, and Beresford's alleged preference for preserving pristine paintwork. It was an unseemly and very public squabble. As it turned out, Scott also had to retire, and, not long after, so too did Fisher, despite an inquiry into the conduct of naval affairs that broadly exonerated him.

The navy's wounds needed time to heal away from the public spotlight. Fisher was not a conciliator; nor was he at his best when not playing to an audience, preferably an appreciative one. He was now raised to the peerage as Lord Fisher of Kilverstone, with the apposite motto Fear God and Dread Nought. Lord Charles Beresford became a Conservative member of Parliament and a thorn in the flesh of whoever was responsible for the Admiralty.

Meanwhile, the naval race between Britain and Germany had been accelerating. In 1912, Tirpitz secured an additional 15,000 men for what was now a very substantial German navy. Britain adjusted her own plans and encouraged the Russians' ambitions to augment their Baltic Fleet. Since October 1911, Britain's Liberal government had had a new first lord of the Admiralty: Winston Churchill.

It is difficult to view Churchill in 1911 free of hindsight about what he became in 1940. He was then a young man in a hurry who had already been home secretary. He was born in November 1874 to Randolph Churchill, the duke of Marlborough's second son, and his wife, the beautiful twenty-year-old American Jennie Jerome, a Wall Street heiress. Randolph soon discovered symptoms of syphilis and no longer slept with his wife but concentrated on politics while she discreetly took lovers. Neither of them showed any interest in their son and never visited him during his wretchedly unsuccessful school days, despite his pleadings and pathetic attempts to attract their attention. His father died when Churchill was twenty-one. So too did his nanny, to whom he was devoted as the only consistent source of affection during his childhood.

After Sandhurst, Churchill went both as an army officer and a successful reporter wherever the military action was: Cuba, the northwest frontier in India, the last-ever cavalry charge of the British army at Omdurman in the Sudan, and, of course, South Africa, where he was captured in a Boer attack on an armored train. His spectacular escape, and his thrilling first-person account of it for the Morning Post, made him a national hero, and for the first time his mother took notice and promoted his career. In September 1900 he was elected a member of Parliament, which he was to remain, almost uninterrupted, until just before his death sixty-five years later. "Restless, egotistical, bumptious, shallow-minded and reactionary but with a certain personal magnetism, great pluck and some originality"-that is how the socialist Beatrice Webb described him during his early years in Parliament. Originally a Conservative, he crossed the floor to join the Liberals, serving as trade secretary before being appointed home secretary and then first lord.

The first lord was the cabinet minister responsible for the navy. The first sea lord, as the senior professional sailor, was directly answerable to him. In theory there was a clear distinction between the professional role of naval strategy, tactics, and operations and the political one. In practice Fisher had often ignored the bounds, crossing into the political sphere just as Churchill now crossed into strictly naval matters. The German naval attaché in London, Captain Erich von Müller, reported to the kaiser that "the sea-officers of the British Navy are often enraged against Mr. Churchill in spite of their unlimited appreciation of his merits in Navy politics, for the youthful civilian Churchill . . . puts on the air of a military superior. Through his curt behaviour he offends the older officers in their feeling of rank and personal pride. And thus . . . through his lack of tact he injures discipline by his ambition for popularity with the lower ranks, especially the 'Lower Deck.' " The kaiser noted against this paragraph: "Thus, even in England civilians and the military don't get along!"

Churchill had settled in quickly at the Admiralty and adopted a reforming program. This was at least in part due to the advice he had wisely sought from Fisher and which the admiral had given in great quantity. Lord Charles Beresford was predictably as fierce a critic of Churchill as he had been of Fisher. Churchill brushed his labored parliamentary questions and rambling interventions aside, once saying of Beresford's performance as an M.P. that before he got up to speak he did not know what he was going to say, that when he was on his feet he did not know what he was saying, and that when he sat down he did not know what he had said.

Despite the British and German ordering and counterordering of new ships, both Churchill and the German administration were conscious of the cost and the potential threat to world peace. They held inconclusive discussions in 1911 and 1912 about a pause in the naval race. In June 1913, Churchill tried again through private conversations with Captain Müller. Müller, who disliked the British, sought advice direct from Tirpitz rather than from his ambassador. Tirpitz suggested he make a brief report through his formal diplomatic reporting chain to the German foreign office noting Churchill's proposal but suggesting that it was a mere ploy to delay Germany's naval plans. He did so, and the initiative foundered.

Müller's actions in consulting Tirpitz about how best to manipulate the foreign office were symptomatic of the conflict between the kaiser's civilian ministers and his immensely influential professional military and naval advisers. This conflict was crucial both to the slide to war and to the conduct of naval and in particular submarine operations thereafter. Put simply, the tall, imposing, chain-smoking chancellor, Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg, and the diminutive foreign minister, Gottlieb von Jagow, were more inclined to caution and to acquiring a better appreciation of the likely reactions of other nations than the military and naval staff who advocated confrontation and, later, unrestrained action. Unfortunately for Germany, the key battleground for these sparring factions was the uncertain, troubled, and shifting ground of the kaiser's mind.

The kaiser, formally Wilhelm II, emperor of Germany and king of Prussia, was born on 27 January 1859, the first grandchild of Queen Victoria, then only thirty-nine herself. His mother was Queen Victoria's eldest daughter, Victoria, whose nickname was Vicky, and his father the Prussian heir Frederick, known to the British royal family as Fritz. To Queen Victoria he was "our darling grandchild . . . a fine fat child with beautiful white soft skin, very fine shoulders and limbs." In fact, he had a damaged left arm due to a birth injury for which his mother felt responsible. It was Princess Victoria's aim to make her son a liberal, constitutional ruler. When he was only twelve she wrote home with surprising candor: "He is not possessed of brilliant abilities, nor of any strength of character or talents, but he is a dear boy and I hope and trust will grow up a useful man . . . there is little of his Papa or the family of Prussia about him."

Over time, following his marriage to Princess Auguste Viktoria of Schleswig-Holstein, known to her family as Dona, and under the growing influence of his grandfather Kaiser Wilhelm I and the Bismarcks, the young Wilhelm began to grow away from his parents and their liberal views. In 1886 his father objected to his involvement in foreign office business: "Considering the unripeness and inexperience of my eldest son, together with his leaning towards vanity and presumption, and his overweening estimate of himself, I must frankly express my opinion that it is dangerous as yet to bring him into touch with foreign affairs." Wilhelm became almost totally estranged from his parents. Then, in March 1888, his grandfather died. His father, terminally ill with cancer of the throat, ruled for only three months. Wilhelm became emperor on 15 June 1888, when he was just twenty-nine. Within two years he had dropped his pilot Bismarck. He wrote triumphantly: "The position of officer of the watch on the ship of state has fallen to me. The course remains the same. Full steam ahead!"

Wilhelm loved ships in fact as well as in metaphor, and it was for this reason, as well as for political and commercial considerations, that Tirpitz's naval vision and Albert Ballin's Hamburg-Amerika ocean liners captured his imagination. He was always bombarding Tirpitz with suggestions for new ship designs following any discussion he had aboard ship with naval officers. Tirpitz wrote: "I could never discover how to ward off the frequent interference of the Emperor whose imagination, once it had fixed on shipbuilding, was fed by all manner of impressions. . . . Suggestions are cheap in the Navy and change like a kaleidoscope."

Wilhelm was a complex and contradictory character. Bismarck had convinced him that it was the emperor's prerogative to rule. Ministers were responsible to him and not the Reichstag, and he could dismiss them at will. Furthermore, the Reichstag could exercise only limited budgetary powers. The kaiser was also head of the armed forces, with the title "supreme warlord." He involved himself in military and naval decisions at all levels, although he could play only a limited part in exercises since his staff took the view that "as Kaiser he cannot be beaten by one of his generals." He was disdainful of democracy and, in consequence, failed to understand both the power of public opinion in Britain and America and how to manipulate it-a failing that severely damaged his country's relations with both those powers.

The young kaiser had, however, been deeply devoted to his British grandmother. He rushed to Victoria's bedside when she was dying in 1901 and is said to have held her in his arms as she passed away. He believed that good relations between ruling monarchs meant that they could between them arbitrate the destiny of the world. On the very eve of war, in late July 1914, he placed great credence in an account from his brother Henry, then yachting in England at Cowes, of a conversation with King George V in which the latter said that Britain would remain neutral. He told a skeptical Tirpitz: "I have the word of a King and that is good enough for me." When Britain declared war, he complained, childishly and pathetically, "George [George V of England] and Nicky [the czar] have played me false! If my grandmother had been alive she would never have allowed it."

The kaiser's relationship with Britain was his most ambivalent. He admired not only his grandmother but much else about the country, especially its might, but felt this was not reciprocated. At a personal level he complained that his uncle Edward VII, whom he loathed, while only Prince of Wales had treated him, already an emperor, too lightly. He formally requested Edward to call him "Your Imperial Highness" rather than "nephew." Edward wondered privately whether his nephew was a little deranged. Similarly, Wilhelm believed that Britain treated Germany too lightly and that she should recognize Germany's new position in the world and share power with the country that shared her race. Together they could order the world.

Initially rebuffed, Wilhelm misread the British character. He thought that building a powerful rival navy would compel Britain to concede some of her power and that she would at least remain aloof while Germany "sorted out" Europe. Bismarck had shared his view of the British, writing: "I have had all through my life sympathy for England and its inhabitants but these people do not want to let themselves be liked by us." Tirpitz also was something of an Anglophile; he spoke fluent English, read English books, sent his daughters to Cheltenham Ladies College, and admired the British navy wholeheartedly. But he too had come to feel patronized, complaining at the outbreak of war that "the English think they can treat us like Portugal." Nevertheless, when a distressed and weary Bethmann Hollweg told the German cabinet on 3 August that Britain's entry into the war was inevitable, Tirpitz is said to have cried, "All is then lost!" James Gerard, American ambassador to Berlin, described just what a terrible blow it was: "The army and all Germany believed . . . that Great Britain would remain neutral, and that Germany would consequently become, if not the actual owner, at least dictator of the world."

Resentment of years of being patronized, mingled with feelings of inferiority and "race betrayal," focused German hatred on Britain more than on any other belligerent nation. But as the early months of the war progressed and the German push through Belgium into France was halted at the Marne River and before Paris, German bitterness grew toward neutral America as well. The United States not only was seen as linked to Britain through culture, language, and history but was fast becoming the Allies' armory. Ambassador Gerard described the hostility he encountered even in the opening phases of the war as he was driven through an angry crowd and was "assailed by the peculiar hissing word that the Germans use when they are especially angry, and which is supposed to convey the utmost contempt. This word is 'Pfui,' and has a peculiar effect when hissed out from thousands of Teutonic throats."

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Table of Contents

Part One: Troubled Waters
One: A Scrap of Paper
Two: The Weapon of the Weaker Nation
Three: More Beautiful Than Solomon's Temple
Four: Gott Strafe England!
Five: The American Armory

Part Two: Final Crossing
Six: The Warning
Seven: Leaving Harbor
Eight: The Ostrich Club
Nine: Fellow Passengers
Ten: Inside the U-20
Eleven: "The Miraculous Draught of Fishes"
Twelve: Into the War Zone
Thirteen: "Suppose They Should Sink the Lusitania?"

Part Three: An Ocean Red with Blood
Fourteen: "My God, We Are Lost"
Fifteen: "Come at Once!"
Sixteen: A Bizarre Orchestra of Death
Seventeen: Wave upon Wave
Eighteen: A Long Lingering Moan
Nineteen: Rescues and Recoveries
Twenty: The Town of the Dead
Twenty-one: A Sad and Horrible Task

Part Four: "Remember the Lusitania!"
Twenty-two: The Hun's Most Ghastly Crime
Twenty-three: Fool or Traitor?
Twenty-four: No Longer Neutral Spectators
Twenty-five: German Agents Are Everywhere
Twenty-six: The Kaiser's Business Only
Twenty-seven: "That Story Is Forever Disposed Of"
Twenty-eight: Diving into the Wreck

Part Five: Wilful Murder?
Twenty-nine: A Legitimate Target
Thirty: Harm's Way
Thirty-one: Anglo-Saxon Attitudes
Thirty-two: The U-Boat Diary
Thirty-three: A New Barbarism

Appendix A: The Lusitania in Facts and Figures
Appendix B: A Technical Account of the Sinking
Notes and Sources
Art Credits

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"This is the most comprehensive account of the sinking of the Lusitania that I have ever seen. Anyone seeking a full explanation of its historical importance need look no further."-- Dan van der Vat, author of Pearl Harbor: The Day of Infamy

On May 7, 1915, toward the end of her 101st eastbound crossing, from New York to Liverpool, England, R.M.S. Lusitania-- pride of the Cunard Line and one of the greatest ocean liners afloat-- became the target of a terrifying new weapon and a casualty of a terrible new kind of war. Sunk off the southern coast of Ireland by a torpedo fired from the German submarine U-20, she exploded and sank in eighteen minutes, taking with her some twelve hundred people, more than half of the passengers and crew. Cold-blooded, deliberate, and unprecedented in the annals of war, the sinking of the Lusitania shocked the world. It also jolted the United States out of its neutrality-- 128 Americans were among the dead-- and hastened the nation's entry into World War I.

In her riveting account of this enormous and controversial tragedy, Diana Preston recalls both a pivotal moment in history and a remarkable human drama. The story of the Lusitania is a window on the maritime world of the early twentieth century: the heyday of the luxury liner, the first days of the modern submarine, and the climax of the decades-long German-British rivalry for supremacy of the Atlantic. It is a critical chapter in the progress of World War I and in the political biographies of Woodrow Wilson, William Jennings Bryan, Kaiser Wilhelm II, and First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill. Above all, it is the story of the passengers and crew on thatfateful voyage-- a story of terror and cowardice, of self-sacrifice and heroism, of death and miraculous survival.

With a historian's insight and a novelist's gift for characterization and detail, Preston re-creates the events surrounding the Lusitania's last voyage, from the behind-the-scenes politics in each country and the German spy ring in New York, to the extraordinary scene as the ship sank and the survivors awaited rescue, to the controversial inquests in Britain and the United States into how the ship came to be hit and why she sank so quickly. Captain William Turner, steadfast and trustworthy but overconfident, believed that "a torpedo can't get the Lusitania-- she runs too fast."

The passenger list included the rich and powerful (American millionaire Alfred Vanderbilt, theater producer Charles Frohman, Boston bookseller Charles Lauriat) as well as newlyweds and nursemaids, galley cooks and stokers, Quakers and cardsharps, ship's detectives and German stowaways. Preston weaves their voices throughout her compelling narrative, giving it a powerful immediacy.

Drawing on a vast array of sources-- including interviews with survivors, letters and memoirs, recently released American and Admiralty archives, and previously untranslated German documents-- Diana Preston has resolved the controversies surrounding the Lusitania and written the definitive account of this pivotal event in western history.

Diana Preston is the author of The Boxer Rebellion: A First Rate Tragedy; and The Road to Culloden Moor. A "fascinating" storyteller "with an obvious addiction to the details of history" (The Washington Post), she lives in London, England, with her husband, Michael.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 18, 2004

    A brilliant account of a national tragedy

    Diana Preston's fact-filled, heartbreaking account of the sinking of the Lusitania is a hard book to put down. Her descriptions are so vivid that you will feel as if you are there among the many trying to survive. You will not forget this book.

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    Posted October 27, 2008

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