Was Captain Turner Negligent In The Torpedoing Of The Lusitania?

IBDP History Internal Assessment

Examination Session: May 2013
Word Count: 1,982


A.    Plan of the Investigation
Was Captain Turner To Blame For The Torpedoing of the Lusitania? To answer this, books published then and now will be consulted, which discuss the events leading to the sinking and the messages sent from the Admiralty to the Captain of the Lusitania on that day will be used. The actions and decisions made by the Admiralty will also be researched to examine Turner’s actions during the end of the Lusitania’s voyage. This investigation will not consider the various conspiracies associated with the sinking.
A critical source used is the minutes of the Mersey Inquiry as it documents the events leading up to the sinking and shows the immediate answers to questions about the activity on the Lusitania before and during the sinking. The second crucial source is ‘The Lusitania’s Last Voyage’ by Charles E. Lauriat, Jr., an American passenger aboard the ship, whose personal experience and perspective will be used to compare with the official inquiry’s conclusions.

B.    Summary of Evidence
The RMS Lusitania was a British Cunard luxury liner, the “largest and fastest vessel of its time” and like the Titanic “…the ship line [believed it] … unsinkable.” The Lusitania began her last voyage on the 1st of May 1915 from New York to Liverpool with William Turner as her captain.
On the 6th of May, at 19:50pm, the Lusitania received the first of many submarine warnings. The ship had been sailing at 21 knots, however due to heavy fog around 6:00am, it slowed to 15 knots. At 11:00am the fog cleared and the ship sped up to 18 knots, which though not her top speed, was still faster than German submarines. After coming out of the fog, Captain Turner changed course to a 4 point-bearing to find their exact location as he didn’t “…navigate a ship on guess-work.” In addition, if faster they would reach the Liverpool bar before it could be crossed due to tidal conditions, making them a target to submarines.
The Admiralty’s order to sail a mid-channel course wasn’t followed as the Lusitania hadn’t reached a channel yet, but was in the Celtic Sea. Also, in previews wartimes cruisers escorted merchant ships to safety and Turner was told the Juno would be their escort. However, shortly after noon, May 7th, the Juno was signaled to abandon her duty by the Admiralty. Admiral Coke in Queenstown, Ireland was instructed to warn the Lusitania, however failed to do so, leaving the Lusitania without knowing they were alone. A message was also sent to Turner about a zigzagging course used to escape submarines. However it wasn’t clear and therefore Turner thought it was only to be done once a submarine was spotted.
At 2:10 pm the Lusitania “…turned into the path of a…German submarine off the coast of Ireland…” and was struck on her starboard bow. Captain Turner tried to get the ship closer to shore, however when he tried to, he found the hydraulics had failed, the rudder was stuck and the engine wasn’t responding. Due to its tilt, only 6 out of 48 lifeboats were successfully launched. Like the Titanic, the Lusitania’s stern stuck above the water’s surface, rose and then slid under. In 18 minutes she was on the seabed, 18km away from Old Head of Kinsale, Ireland with 472 of the 1,257 saved.

C.    Evaluation of Sources
The Mersey Inquiry, started on the 15th of June 1915 in Central Hall, Westminster, London.
The Mersey Inquiry was conducted to find out what exactly happened and who is culpable for the sinking. As the minutes were taken during the five-day court, eight days after the sinking of the ship, it documents the questioning by the Attorney General and the immediate answers from Turner and other survivors about the sinking of the Lusitania. It’s critical to this investigation as it clearly illustrates the events before and during the sinking of the ship. Because it was conducted in the middle of the war, it must be considered in light of the Government’s vulnerability in regards to any perceived negligence or its role in carrying munitions from a declared neutral country. Furthermore, one must realize that the only information gained is from the answers to the lawyer’s questions. The only witnesses questioned, were ones the Admiralty knew didn’t have condemning information in regards to them, and documents and orders were manipulated so that the blame would not fall on the Admiralty. Some documents are still classified to the public and researchers today, which leads one to believe them to being incriminating.

‘The Lusitania’s Last Voyage’ by Charles E. Lauriat, Jr., a 2nd class passenger aboard the Lusitania, was published by the Houghton Mifflin Company in Boston and New York in 1915.
    Written as a reflection of the sinking, as well to publically criticize the Mersey Inquiry, Lauriat, being American, was not prevented by the British government from openly criticizing the Mersey Inquiry. The first part accounts the five days prior to the sinking, written before reading the official inquiry so as not to be influenced by outside opinions when coming to his own conclusions. The second part, most importantly for this investigation, contains his reflections on the events whilst fresh in his mind and written to ‘add details…to…answer questions…from reading Part One.’ A republication of a translated article from the Frankfurter Zeitung is in the third part, for the purpose of showing, what Lauriat felt was a typical German perspective of the sinking and their opinions on it. Lastly was the full written report from the Mersey Inquiry accompanied by Lauriat’s disagreements with the court’s decisions of blaming the Germans instead of Turner. His criticism of the Inquiry has been vital for this investigation as Lauriat gives opinions on the Inquiry and Turner’s sailing not tainted by politics.  His account of the events during the sinking may however not be accurate due to panic and confusion from the passengers during the sinking, affecting his perception of the Captain and his actions.

D.    Analysis
As commander of the Lusitania, Captain Turner came in for special attack for his handling of the disaster in the subsequent Mersey Inquiry, defending himself from the Admiralty’s accusation that he disobeyed their orders saying: “I consider I followed them as well as I could.” While Turner did not follow all of the Admiralty’s orders, Lord Mersey felt “[Turner] exercised his judgment for the best. It was the judgment of a skilled and experienced man…”
One charge was that Turner did not travel a mid-channel course which, while true, ignores the fact she had not reached St. Georges Channel yet, but remained in the Celtic Sea; the Lusitania was not sunk in a channel.  Turner, a skilled seaman, argued he had not disobeyed orders due to their geographical position.
    A second accusation concerned Turner’s failure to sail at a zigzag course causing the ship to be sunk. Again true, but Turner had still to find the ship’s position while misinterpreting the message he had received from the Admiralty about that course of action, believing he was only to follow that course if submarines were spotted. During the inquiry a message was read to Turner, which was different and clearer to understand than the one he had received explaining the zigzag course; the message had been rewritten for the inquiry to exonerate the Admiralty.  When the fog lifted Turner needed to find the ship’s position thus taking a four-point bearing, which Lauriat was told would take 30 to 40 minutes. The Lusitania was struck during this operation. Though this accusation was emphasized during the inquiry, Lauriat stated in his book: “It may be (though I seriously doubt it) that had he done so his ship would have reached Liverpool in safety.”  Lauriat criticizes Turner throughout his book, however states that he doubts the zigzagging would have guaranteed a safe journey.
A third accusation was that Turner had not sailed at full speed (21 knots). The Lusitania had in fact slowed down to 15 knots due to fog and not wanting to run aground. Once the fog cleared, their speed increased to a steady18 knots as Turner wanted to verify their exact location. Turner also estimated that a faster speed would miss the crossing at the bars at Liverpool due to tidal conditions, resulting in circling for hours and becoming an easy target to submarines. The Admiralty focus on the Lusitania’s speed was again dismissed by Lauriat: “…the steamer’s speed was of no significance and was proper in the circumstances.”  as the ship was still one of the fastest ships at the time.
Though the inquiry stated Turner was a skilled seaman, acquitting him, Lauriat argued “It would seem that Lord Mersey measures ‘skill and judgment’ by the number that were lost…” and concluded that Turner and his crew acted and negligently. Turner himself admitted he didn’t follow all the orders, however felt he did the best he could. The orders the Admiralty gave didn’t leave room for leeway and did not consider natural conditions such as tide and fog, which affected Turner’s sailing significantly.

E.    Conclusion
Captain Turner was not responsible for the sinking of the Lusitania and the deaths of her passengers. He was an expert sailor affected by unsuspected fog that slowed him down, the lack of clear information from the British Admiralty and the inexperienced sailors he had. The Captain was further more confused by the lack of escorts supposed to be waiting for them which he was told would be there to guide the Lusitania safely into port.
He was forced to disobey the Admiralty by decreasing the ship’s speed out of necessity so as not to run aground and to not reach the Liverpool bar at low tide, which would have made them an easy target for submarines.
After being torpedoed, the Lusitania was going to sink whether the crew and its captain were skilled or not. During the inquiry the Admiralty continuously tried to make Turner the scapegoat while ignoring its own culpability through providing a lack of information and guidance. This investigation thus concludes that Turner is therefore not guilty for the sinking of the Lusitania and the deaths aboard.











F.    Works Cited

Bain, George G. ‘Lusitania.’ Digital image. Library of Congress. Library of Congress, n.d. Web.
‘British Wreck Commissioner’s Inquiry (Day 1): Captain William Turner – Recalled.’ Lusitania Inquiry Project. 2004-2006. Lusitania Inquiry. 1915. Web.
Bruskiewich, Patrick. Lucy, the Shell Crisis and Special Intelligence. n.p.n.d. Print.
Denson, John V. A Century of War: Lincoln, Wilson and Roosevelt. Auburn, Ala.: Ludwig Von Mises Institute, 2006. Print.
Freedman, Russell. The War to End All Wars – World War 1. New York: Clarion Books, 2010. Print.
Hickey, Des and Gus Smith. Seven Days to Disaster, The Sinking of the Lusitania. Collins, 1981. Print.
Jackson, Jack. The Wreck of the Lusitania. London. 2007.Print.
Lauriat Jr., Charles E. The Lusitania’s Last Voyage. Houghton Mifflin   Company,1915. Print.
‘Secret Lusitania Evidence Shows Captain Admitted He Disobeyed Admiralty
     Orders’ The New York Times. November 5, 1919.
 ‘The Lusitania.’ The Lusitania Resource. Ren-Horng James WangWeb. 2003-2012. Web. November 5, 2012.
‘The Lusitania Sunk Off The Irish Coast By German Pirates’ The New York Herald. European Edition – Paris. Saturday, May 8, 1915.



G.    Appendix


The Lusitania was sunk at point 5 on the map above. The Lusitania’s journey is shown by the dotted line and the German submarine’s route by the solid line.

Bruskiewich, Patrick. ‘The Tracks of U –20 and Lusitania 5 to 7 May, 1915’ (Taken from Room 40). Lucy, the Shell Crisis and Special Intelligence’