In a new book on the 1915 sinking of the ocean liner Lusitania, historian Diana Preston presents fresh findings about the atrocity and draws on recently discovered interviews with survivors to bring the terrible human drama to life

Smithsonian Magazine | Subscribe

(Continued from page 4)


2.25 p.m. Since it seems as if the steamer can only remain afloat a short while longer, dive to 24 meters and head out to sea. 



Schwieger later told a friend: “It was the most terrible sight I have ever seen. It was impossible for me to give any help. I could have saved only a handful. . . . I gave orders to dive to twenty meters and away.”


After rushed into the Lusitania’s collapsing stacks. A clergyman’s wife, Margaret Gwyer, was sucked deep inside the cavernous vent of a funnel. Moments later she was amazed to be shot out again in a huge column of ashes, soot and oily black water. Most of her clothing had been torn off. One passenger struggling amid the debris in the water glanced back and saw the Lusitania about to take her final plunge. He forgot his own plight for a moment, transfixed by the shocking, almost incredible sight. To theatrical designer Oliver Bernard it had “something of picturesque grandeur about it, even though we knew that many hundreds of helpless souls, caught like rats in a gilded trap, were in her.” Lifeboats were still hanging lopsidedly and futilely from the davits. A man dangling from a rope over the ship’s stern was heard to shriek as a still-revolving propeller sliced off his leg. The stern itself, Bernard recalled, “was crowded with people who seemed to make for the last piece of the wreck left above water; while others, unsuccessful in their efforts to gain this temporary safe place, were falling over the side. All around were wreckage and human beings struggling for life.” 



Holton, the bellboy, “heard a roar like thunder inside the ship as if the vital parts had broken loose.” To James Brooks, it sounded like “the collapse of a great building during a fire.” As the Lusitania slid down into the water, some onlookers thought she nearly righted herself. Then the “mighty crescendo of screams and cries of fear died away to a whisper” as the ship turned slowly onto her starboard side “and went under the water.” At 2:28 p.m., a mere 18 minutes after the U-20 had attacked, the Lusitania disappeared beneath the surface of the Atlantic. Steward Robert Barnes and Seaman Thomas O’Mahoney felt a “violent underwater explosion.” Holton saw “clouds of steam and surging water” over the spot where the ship had gone down. The ocean seethed like “a boiling wilderness that rose up as if a volcanic disturbance had occurred beneath a placid sea.” The mound of foaming water sent “swimmers, corpses, deckchairs, oars, and wreckage churning upwards to the surface.” Survivors instinctively shielded their heads with their hands as a tidal wave of debris surged toward them.

Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus