BY RICHARD MADDOX
MONDAY 7 MAY 1915. A German submarine is at periscope depth off the coast of Ireland when at around 13:20 it sights a large merchant ship.
Initially the captain felt a torpedo attack wasn’t possible but the submarine continued to track the merchantman.
And then the ship changed course.
Submarine U-20 fired a single torpedo at RMS Lusitania as she was nearing the end of her voyage from New York to Liverpool.
The ship, together with almost 2,000 passengers aboard – including 128 American citizens – was doomed (1). There were less than 800 survivors (2).
Germany had renewed its declaration of unrestricted submarine warfare only a few months before on 1 February 1917. It had previously dropped the tactic in September 1915 (which had been in retaliation for the Royal Navy blockade of Germany) after protests from neutral America.
Artist Karl Goetz designed medallions for a variety of clients and he produced an initial small limited run of a medallion marking the sinking.
His intention wasn’t to praise the actions of the crew of U-20, but to draw attention to what he saw as America’s naivety in ignoring clear warnings about sailing in the waters around Britain (advertisements were published in New York newspapers on the day RMS Lusitania set sail setting pointing out the fact that Germany was at war and the risks that would-be passengers could face).
In addition he believed that passengers who chose to sail on a ship that had been taken over by the Admiralty as an armed merchant auxiliary – although her armament wasn’t fitted (3) – were displaying arrogance, that the USA was not neutral in the conflict but actively supporting Britain and that Allied eagerness for wealth through trade had contributed to the RMS Lusitania’s loss.
The face or obverse of the medal shows the sinking ship complete with an aircraft and an artillery piece on its deck – clearly intended to highlight the military connections of the ship – under the heading ‘KEINE BANNWARE’ (‘No contraband’).
The reverse of the medallion is full of symbolism. The figure of Death is shown selling tickets at a Cunard Line counter. A newspaper warns of ‘U-boat Danger’. The German Ambassador to the USA is shown raising a warning finger and the scene is entitled ‘GESCHÄFT ÜBER ALLES’ – ‘Business above all’ (4).
The medallion came to the attention of Captain Reginald ‘Blinker’ Hall (5), the first Director of Naval Intelligence. He and his colleagues noticed a mistake on its design and an opportunity for a potential propaganda coup.
It bore the wrong date for the sinking – 5 May and not the 7 May.
The depictions and the date error could be used to point to a clear German and premeditated intention to attack the ship and only some unforeseen factor had prevented it going ahead on the date planned.
And of course (in the British argument) this wasn’t an artist expressing his view through a medallion but a medal commemorating and glorifying the deaths of civilians – many from a neutral country that had clear ties with Britain.
This was in turn was seen as similar to the case when in 1914 a medal – as opposed to a medallion – was struck in anticipation of the German capture of Paris for issue to German forces. The medal was never issued as the Battle of the Marne halted the German advance on the French capital, although a few have survived. (6)
Around 300,000 British versions – they are not exact copies – of Goetz’s design were made, boxed and together with a leaflet (7) explaining the sinking as a pre-planned act.
They were sold in aid of the Red Cross and St. Dunstan’s, a charity set up in 1915 to care for blinded military personnel. Now called Blind Veterans UK it continues to support visually impaired ex-servicemen and women (8).
Although a second corrected version of Goetz’s medallion was issued in Germany the damage was done.
On 6 April 1917 after an overwhelming Senate majority (9) America entered the First World War.
Despite claims at the time and on occasions since it appears that the Lusitania was carrying munitions (10) (11) (12).