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Today -- May 7 -- marks the 90th anniversary of the single most dramatic incidents in World War I submarine warfare: the sinking of the Cunard liner Lusitania by a German U-boat, with the loss of 1,201 lives.

The Lusitania had begun her North Atlantic career less than ten years before on the Liverpool to New York run. She became very popular with her passengers due to her speed and her luxurious accomodations, often called a "floating palace." By 1915, the seas became a precarious place for passenger liners because of the dominance of the German submarines. The Lusitania's owners felt the ship was "safe" because her reserve speeds would enable her to outrun any attack.

On May 1, 1915, the ship departed New York headed for England despite threats of sinking published in the press by German authorities. Six days later, on May 7, the Lusitania -- off the coast of Ireland -- was too slow in noticing both the periscope and the torpedo of a German submarine to escape her fate. She took a solid hit whose sound was described by passengers as a "peal of thunder," a "dull thud-like sound," or "like a million-ton hammer hitting a steel boiler a hundred feet high and a hundred feet long." Although they did not explode, water rushed into the first and second boiler rooms and caused the ship to shake from side to side. She then rose a little before a second massive explosion took her down into the sea.

The exact cause of the second explosion is a point of contention. The wreckage of the Lusitania shows evidence that she may have been torpedoed a second or even a third time -- but the second, most destructive, explosion may not have been caused by a German torpedo, but rather have come from inside the ship. The reason behind this speculation is that the Lusitania's cargo can be called into question. She had originally said she would take, along with her passengers, platinum, bullion, diamonds and various other precious stones, but these things were never found and port records do not list them either. She is believed to have instead carried, under the guise of bales of fur and cheese boxes, 3-inch shells and millions of rounds of rifle ammunition. If true, these materials comprised "a contraband and explosive cargo which was forbidden by American law and... should never have been placed on a passenger liner."

Whether the torpedoes completed the destruction of the ship by their own power or they were aided by internal ammunition explosions, the German submarine attack devastated the Lusitania. The ship sank within twenty minutes of when she was hit and took with her 1,201 lives -- and left only 764 to be saved by those who responded to her SOS. Many American lives were lost as a result of the sinking, and because the Lusitania was never officially in government service, the United States believed the attack on her "was contrary to international law and the conventions of all civilized nations". The sinking of the Lusitania caused serious tension between the United States and Germany and was one of the contributing factors for America's entry into World War I.

Jim Kalifus and Mike Poirier have just published an interesting article, "Lest We Forget" detailing some of the lesser-known human interest stories of the disaster, on the Encyclopedia Titanica website. If you're interested in learning more about the ship, I recommend Diana Preston's Lusitania: An Epic Tragedy (2002).