However, try as he might, Wilson could not stop America from entering the war in 1917. The turning point of American attitudes toward the European matter was the sinking of the 1915 RMS Lusitania, where 128 Americans (many of them prominent citizens) lost their lives.
However, this was not just a random act of war by Germany on America, it appears that Churchill knew that if Americans kept hitching rides on British vessels, such an incident would occur and America would have to enter the war. It seems that Churchill used this knowledge to his advantage.
Prior to America’s entry into World War I, it was a common practice of the British to disguise naval vessels as passenger or merchant ships. It was even common for Britain to modify existing passenger and merchant ships with secret cargo holds and hidden guns. It is with these modifications that the Lusitania started her career in the Royal Navy.
Eugene Windchy, author of Twelve American Wars: Nine of Them Avoidable, states that the Lusitania’s modifications included, “refitted as a cargo ship with hidden compartments to hold shells and other munitions. By all accounts there were installed revolving gun mounts.” (2)
On top of these secret modifications,the Royal Navy instructed the crew of the Lusitania to not fly any flags in waters declared as a war zone. These instructions were in direct violation of the Cruiser Rules of the day.
Luring German Subs
Ships such as the Lusitania were used to lure the German submarines to the surface. During the start of the German implementation of the submarine, they would rise to the surface and warn ships of the impending attack. The reason was to conserve munitions.
However, this warning also gave time for crews to abandon ship. Therefore, Churchill’s plan was to use the Lusitania (and ships like her) to lure the Germans to the surface. Once surfaced, the disguise ships would reveal their guns and unleash a barrage on the submarines.
Knowing exactly what he was doing, Churchill quipped about the Lusitania, “just another 45,000 tons of live bait.” (2) Churchill knowingly put the Lusitania and her passengers in danger.
Churchill also preyed on the naivety of Wilson when it came to maritime warfare. Even though the American president was forewarned by German diplomats of the danger posed to Americans if they continued to travel on British vessels, he did nothing to deter it.
This danger was largely due to the fact that German submariners began torpedoing British ships on sight in response to Churchill’s exploitation of the German’s surfacing to sink ships. Yet, with all of this knowledge and forewarning, Wilson refused to issue a public statement warning Americans to stay off of the decks of British sailing vessels.
With no warning coming from the president, the Lusitania left the New York Harbor with a large number of American passengers who had no idea that beneath the deck, stashed in secret cargo holds, were also 173 tons of munitions. The American civilians shared the deck with a number of Canadian troops disguised as civilians, as well. Essentially, the Americans unwittingly boarded a British Royal Naval vessel during wartime that was fair game for the Germans to attack.
Leading America into WWI
Though the Lusitania was scheduled to sail North, she sailed in a southerly direction; toward waters infested with trigger happy German submarine Captains with orders to fire on British vessels on sight.
That is exactly what happened on May 7, 1915. The Lusitania encountered a German submarine, which fired on sight. A torpedo fired likely hit one of the secret munitions holds on board and a second explosion occurred.
All in all, the Lusitania sank in less than 20 minutes and 1,198 of the 1,959 people on board died, including 128 Americans.
It would be these deaths that would lead America into World War I and provide Churchill with a much needed ally.