Was the Lusitania Britain's war crime? 1,198 passengers died in 1915 when the liner sank - but was a German torpedo really to blame?
Within seconds of the initial shock, the great passenger liner listed and began to sink, her four funnels belching smoke.
Women and children shrieked in panic, and lifeboats half-full of people swung drunkenly from their davits, some crashing on to the deck, crushing other passengers.
A familiar picture yet this is not the Titanic going down, but her lookalike, rival trans-Atlantic liner, Cunards RMS Lusitania, which sank off the Irish coast with the loss of 1,198 lives on 7 May 1915, three years after the Titanic went down.
Disaster: A 1915 sketch of the Lusitania passenger ship tragedy in which 1,198 people were drowned
Mystery at the bottom of the ocean: The Lusitania, which sank of the Irish coast in 1915
And while the Titanics end had a
natural cause a collision with an iceberg the Lusitania was sunk by a
German U-boat torpedo. Or was it?
In the century since the catastrophe,
debate has raged about what exactly caused the liner, among the largest
in the world, to sink in just 18 minutes the Titanic took almost three
hours to go down.
Although the Lusitania was certainly struck by a
German torpedo, survivors reported hearing a second explosion, which
caused the fatal damage. Now, as part of a TV documentary, a diving team
has visited the wreck to find out what caused this mysterious second
The Lusitania, which
had left New York bound for Liverpool six days earlier with almost 2,000
passengers and crew on board, had been known to be carrying small-arms
ammunition to supply the British Army, then grappling with the Germans
in Flanders in the midst of World War I.
All aboard: The Lusitania arriving in New York City circa 1907
But soon after the sinking, rumours
circulated that the ship had also been carrying explosives destined for
the front. Endangering innocent civilians in such a way if proved
could constitute a war crime almost as serious as the U-boats targeting
of the passenger liner, an atrocity that helped bring the US into the
war against Germany in revenge for the many Americans who died.
time, the sinking of the Lusitania had all the shock impact of 9/11. Today,
the ship lies 300ft down, 12 miles off the south coast of Ireland near
the port of Cobh.
In 1968 American businessman Gregg Bemis became a
co-owner of the wreck, which had been bought the previous year by a US
diver for £1,000. Bemis, who subsequently became sole owner, fought a
long battle in the courts for the right to dive and explore the ship,
which still contains the remains of hundreds of victims.
The Lusitania: The ship sank in just 18 minutes and still lies at the bottom of the ocean off the coast of Cork in Ireand
Murky waters: American Greg Bemis bought the ship's wreckage - which still contains the remains of hundreds of victims - in 1968
It also holds valuable items, but Bemis, now 83, says, When I was younger it was the monetary value that most interested me. But today its the history all the people on board had lives like you and me that were brutally cut off on that May day.
Bemis is certain that the Lusitania was carrying an illicit cargo of high-explosive gun-cotton which, he believes, caused the blast that sank her so quickly.
The expedition he joins for the documentary aims to prove whether he is right.
The diving team plan to cut out a section of the liners hull, locate where any explosive was stored and find evidence of what caused the second explosion. But just getting down to the Lusitania is hard.
The water is incredibly murky, says Eoin McGarry, one of the dive team. Although the Lusitania lies in much shallower water than the Titanic, which is 12,000ft down, its still difficult to see your hand in front of your face.
There is also an emotional aspect to diving to the wreck, which McGarry describes as like travelling back in time to visit a graveyard.
To add to their problems, the divers have only a narrow window of opportunity before worsening weather forces their ship back to port.
First, they have to pinpoint the position of the liners magazine, the room set aside for explosive material (the ship had been built on the understanding she might be converted for military use, but never was), then clean off the sediment on the exterior and cut their way into the wreck
Promising beginnings: A diagram of the Lusitania Cunard liner which sank in May 1915
They manage it with just minutes to spare, and crawl deeper into the liners interior than anyone before. They find the small-arms ammunition the Lusitania had been known to be carrying and gather enough photographic data for experts at a California lab to make an informed guess about what caused the blast that sent the ship to the bottom.
There are only three possibilities, says Bemis. Either the torpedo ruptured one or more of the ships 25 boilers, causing an explosion; or it set off a coal dust explosion in the coal bunkers; or it triggered a gun-cotton or aluminium-powder explosion which would mean the Lusitania was carrying dangerous high-explosives, unknown to the passengers who died. And that would have been a war crime on a par with the action of the U-boat that fired the fatal torpedo.
So what did the scientists at the laboratory decide? Youll have to watch the documentary to find out.
Dark Secrets Of The Lusitania, tomorrow, 7pm, National Geographic.
An unavoidable war is called justice.
When brutality is the only option left,
it is holy.
Machiavelli - The Prince 1513.
"You miss 100% of the shots you don't take"
I'm not American, I'm from Flanders.