Wilful Murder: The Sinking of the Lusitania


An investigation of that other great ocean-liner tragedy: the sinking of the Lusitania.

On May 7th, 1915, a passenger ship crossing the Atlantic sank with the loss of 1200 lives. On board were some world-famous figures, including multimillionaire Alfred Vanderbilt. But this wasn't the Titanic and there was no iceberg. The liner was the Lusitania and it was torpedoed by a ...
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An investigation of that other great ocean-liner tragedy: the sinking of the Lusitania.

On May 7th, 1915, a passenger ship crossing the Atlantic sank with the loss of 1200 lives. On board were some world-famous figures, including multimillionaire Alfred Vanderbilt. But this wasn't the Titanic and there was no iceberg. The liner was the Lusitania and it was torpedoed by a German U-boat.

Using first-hand accounts of the tragedy, the author brings the characters to life, recreating the splendour of the liner as it set sail, and the horror of its final moments. Using British, American and German research material, the book answers many of the outstanding and controversial questions surrounding the Lusitania: why didn't Cunard listen to warnings that the ship would be a target of the Germans? Was the Lusitania sacrificed to bring the Americans into the War? What was really in the Lusitania's hold? Had Cunard's offices been infiltrated by German agents? And did the Kaiser's decision to cease unrestricted U-boat warfare -- in response to international outrage -- effectively change the outcome of WW1?
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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Very good. . . . Preston has done an extraordinary amount of work, particularly in tracing the memories of survivors.”
Sunday Times

“It is not easy, nowadays, to write an original book on the First World War . . . but Preston has succeeded.”
Sunday Times

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780552154611
  • Publisher: Transworld Publishers Limited
  • Publication date: 6/26/2007
  • Pages: 608

Meet the Author

Diana Preston is an Oxford-trained historian, writer and broadcaster who lives in London. She is the author of, among other works, The Road to Culloden Moor: Bonnie Prince Charlie and the ‘45 Rebellion, and A First Rate Tragedy: Robert Falcon Scott and the Race to the South Pole.
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Read an Excerpt



In the space of just over twenty-four hours 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, he rose to address a packed and expectant Reichstag. He informed them that German troops, advancing on France, had occupied Luxembourg and were 'already in Belgium'. Then 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 von 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'. In his agitation and indignation 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 — just for a scrap of paper 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. Sir Edward replied stiffly 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'. 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, von Bethmann Hollweg had highlighted two issues that would recur throughout the 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 neutral minds that she would never fully recover. Goschen duly reported to the Foreign Office in London what von Bethmann Hollweg later claimed to have been a privileged and personal conversation, including the disparaging reference to the 'scrap of paper'. Goschen perhaps disingenuously claimed he had had little idea of how the phrase would resonate. For his part, von 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 of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo and of Austro-Hungary's subsequent declaration of war on Serbia. David Lloyd George, then British Chancellor of the Exchequer, later suggested that there was a general slide into a war no nation really wanted. Others have argued that military mobilisation, once begun, achieved a momentum of its own, even that 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 — and German officers were entertaining their guests with great bonhomie when news of the assassination reached them both 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 1870-1871 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 dampener 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 pre-eminence in maritime trade.

By 1914, Anglo-German naval rivalry was well established and dominated on both sides by strong, charismatic personalities. 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 their 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. One evening he attended a dinner at Kiel Castle presided over by the Kaiser with Army Chief of Staff General von Moltke and several senior admirals and generals in attendance. 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 deployed at the time. 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 then Secretary of State for the Navy Admiral von Hollmann, whom Tirpitz typically and rudely wrote off as a 'high-minded man who was never quite clear as to the direction to be followed'.

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