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Collection Newspaper Pictorials: World War I Rotogravures, 1914 to 1919

The Lusitania Disaster

On May 7, 1915, the German submarine (U-boat) U-20 torpedoed and sank the Lusitania, a swift-moving British cruise liner traveling from New York to Liverpool, England. Of the 1,959 men, women, and children on board, 1,195 perished, including 123 Americans. A headline in the New York Times the following day—"Divergent Views of the Sinking of The Lusitania"—sums up the initial public response to the disaster. Some saw it as a blatant act of evil and transgression against the conventions of war. Others understood that Germany previously had unambiguously alerted all neutral passengers of Atlantic vessels to the potential for submarine attacks on British ships and that Germany considered the Lusitania a British, and therefore an "enemy ship."

Newspaper page featuring views of the Lusitania
[Detail] "The Sinking of the Lusitania." War of the Nations, 358.

The sinking of the Lusitania was not the single largest factor contributing to the entrance of the United States into the war two years later, but it certainly solidified the public's opinions towards Germany. President Woodrow Wilson, who guided the U.S. through its isolationist foreign policy, held his position of neutrality for almost two more years. Many, though, consider the sinking a turning point—technologically, ideologically, and strategically—in the history of modern warfare, signaling the end of the "gentlemanly" war practices of the nineteenth century and the beginning of a more ominous and vicious era of total warfare.

Newspaper page featuring portraits of the Vanderbilt family
[Detail] "Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt." New York Times, May 16, 1915, [7].

Throughout the war, the first few pages of the Sunday New York Times rotogravure section were filled with photographs from the battlefront, training camps, and war effort at home. In the weeks following May 7, many photos of victims of the disaster were run, including a two-page spread in the May 16 edition entitled: "Prominent Americans Who Lost Their Lives on the S. S. Lusitania." Another two-page spread in the May 30 edition carried the banner: "Burying The Lusitania's Dead—And Succoring Her Survivors." The images on these spreads reflect a panorama of responses to the disaster—sorrow, heroism, ambivalence, consolation, and anger.

Newspaper page featuring photographs of the Lusitania disaster
[Detail] "Some of the Sixty-Six Coffins Buried in One of the Huge Graves in the Queenstown Churchyard." New York Times, May 30, 1915, [7].

Remarkably, this event dominated the headlines for only about a week before being overtaken by a newer story. Functioning more as a "week in review" section than as a "breaking news" outlet, the rotogravure section illustrates a snapshot of world events—the sinking of the Lusitania shared page space with photographs of soldiers fighting along the Russian frontier, breadlines forming in Berlin, and various European leaders.