Diana Preston traces her investigation of the sinking of the Lusitania, the British passenger liner torpedoed in May of 1915 by a German submarine off the coast of Ireland, to the day in 1998 that she came across the ship’s “giant bronze propeller, stark as a dinosaur bone, sitting on the quayside in Liverpool’s docks.”
The relic so intrigued Preston, a noted historian and author of The Boxer Rebellion, that she would devote three years to investigating the incident and conduct dozens of interviews, trying to better understand “how a ship carrying civilian men, women and children could have been sunk without warning.” She tracked down passengers’ families, pored over military documents in England, Germany and the United States, plunged into the files of the ocean liner’s company, Cunard, and listened to interviews with survivors and witnesses recorded decades ago by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. “It was an extraordinary sensation to hear those voices speaking out across the years, sometimes so choked with emotion as they described losing hold of parents or children in the cold water,” says Preston.
She unearthed evidence that sheds new light on the attack, which killed 1,201 of the 1,962 people aboard and, in her view, heralded the brutality that would characterize World War I. “The sinking of the Lusitania signaled a sea-change in the nature of warfare,” she writes in Lusitania: An Epic Tragedy, published this month. Following world condemnation after the sinking, German authorities recanted their initial boasts that they had deliberately torpedoed the ocean liner, saying that the captain of the submarine that launched the two torpedoes—one of which struck home—didn’t know what he was firing at. Though historians have differed on the degree of Germany’s culpability, Preston, analyzing documents in a German military archive, found evidence that the attack was “premeditated and that German U-boats had, in fact, been stalking the liner for months.” Moreover, Preston writes that the German submarine’s logbook was doctored after the event, “probably when the Kaiser began to fear defeat and the potential for war crimes charges.”
Preston’s research bears directly on questions about the incident that spark debate to this day. Though the attack helped draw the United States into the war, she found no evidence that the British had, in any way, allowed the Lusitania to be sunk as a ploy to recruit American support, contrary to conspiracy theories. At the same time, she documents that British officials largely ignored warnings by the Imperial German Embassy in Washington—published in 50 American newspapers—that vessels flying the British flag were “liable to destruction.”