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Lusitania Sunk, Breakthrough on Eastern Front

The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that shaped our modern world. Erik Sass is covering the events of the war exactly 100 years after they happened. This is the 181st installment in the series.  

May 7, 1915: Lusitania Sunk, Breakthrough on Eastern Front 

One of the worst maritime disasters in history, the sinking of the Cunard ocean liner Lusitania by the German submarine U-20 on May 7, 1915 sparked international outrage and almost embroiled the United States in the war, helping set the stage for its eventual entry into the conflict two years later. Above all the incident reflected the utter ruthlessness and spiraling brutality of the struggle, as supposedly civilized European nations prosecuted the war to the very limit of their powers – and far beyond the limits of traditional morality. 

This tragedy, involving the deaths of 1,198 passengers and crew out of a total 1,959 on board, was the direct result of the German Admiralty’s decision in February 1915 to adopt unrestricted U-boat warfare, which in turn followed the British government’s order authorizing British merchant ships to fly neutral flags in a bid to frustrate the German submarine campaign. Neutral nations including the U.S. protested against both the British order and the German response, but were politely ignored. 

In a typically ham-handed PR move, the Germans tried to shift responsibility for the consequences of unrestricted submarine warfare to the citizens of neutral countries by publishing warnings in newspapers, including a specific warning about the threat to the Lusitania (see below) – but many people dismissed it as bluff, figuring that the Germans wouldn’t risk angering the powerful U.S. and alienating world opinion generally. 

They figured wrong.  Although German decision makers understood the risks they ran, they were even more indignant over American exports of weapons to the Allies for use against German soldiers, while Germany’s own commercial ties with the U.S. were severed by the British blockade. Faced with this one-sided situation, the Germans dismissed American claims to neutrality as hypocritical and disingenuous: in their view the U.S. was openly aiding the Allied war effort, and its official belligerent status was a technicality. 

On May 1 the Lusitania set sail on her final journey from New York City for Liverpool; the previous day the German U-boat U-20, under commander Walther Schwieger, departed from Germany and headed northwest through the North Sea, eventually passing between Scotland and Iceland to patrol the North Atlantic. Thanks to captured German naval codes the British Admiralty was aware of U-20’s general location, but British naval intelligence didn’t want the Germans to figure out that the code was compromised, so the Admiralty only issued vague warnings to commercial ships. 

On the other side the Germans had cracked the code used by the Admiralty to communicate with merchant ships, giving U-boats a big advantage when it came to locating their targets. On May 5-6, U-20 sank three ships, including the merchant steamers Candidate and Centurion, both 6,000 tons; the Admiralty learned of these attacks by the early morning of May 7, and broadcast another warning about U-boat activity in the Irish Channel around 11am, but again without specific details. 

By this time U-20 was running low on supplies and Schwieger decided to head home, but first conduct one last sweep of the waters off southern Ireland. Meanwhile as the Lusitania approached the war zone around the British Isles, captain William Thomas Turner ordered the U.S. flag flown even though she was a British liner, in keeping with the Admiralty’s orders. However this didn’t deter Schwieger, who spotted the Lusitania around 1:20pm in the afternoon and fired a single torpedo into the ship’s starboard bow at 2:10pm.  

Shortly after the torpedo detonated, a second mysterious explosion shook the ship, which rapidly began listing. An eyewitness account of what happened next was left by Margaret Mackworth, later the 2nd Viscountess Rhondda, who was traveling on the Lusitania with her father the Welsh industrialist David Alfred Thomas, later the Minister for Food Control, and his secretary Arnold Rhys-Evans. Mackworth had just stepped into an elevator with her father when the torpedo hit: 

There was a dull, thud-like, not very loud but unmistakable explosion… I turned and came out of the lift; somehow, the stairs seemed safer… As I ran up the stairs, the boat was already heeling over… The side further from the submarine was also the higher out of the water, as the boat had listed over towards the side on which she had been hit and the deck was now slanting at a considerable angle… 

After hurrying to her cabin to fetch “life belts” for her father and herself, Mackworth returned to the first deck only to encounter a chaotic scene. Poor passengers from steerage, doubtless aware of the fate of poor passengers on the Titanic, had no intention of being caught below deck when the ship sank. Unlike the Titanic the Lusitania had enough lifeboats, but in the confusion many of them were not deployed correctly: 

Just as I reached the deck a stream of steerage passengers came rushing up from below and fought their way into the boat nearest us, which was being lowered. They were white-faced and terrified; I think they were shrieking; there was no kind of order – the strongest got there first, the weak were pushed aside… They rushed a boat before it was ready for them… Two seamen began to lower the boat, which was full to overflowing… One man lowered his end quickly, the other lowered his end slowly; the boat was in an almost perpendicular position when it reached the water. Half the people fell out, but the boat did not capsize, and I think most of them scrambled back afterwards.

After becoming separated from her father, and more frightened of the frantic mob than drowning, Mackworth stayed on deck as the ship went under: 

I saw the water green just about up to my knees. I do not remember its coming up further; that must have all happened in a second. The ship sank and I was sucked right down with her. The next thing I can remember was being deep down under the water. It was very dark, nearly black. I fought to come up. I was terrified of being caught on some part of the ship and kept down… When I came to the surface I found that I formed part of a large, round, floating island composed of people and debris of all sorts… People, boats, hencoops, chairs, rafts, boards, and goodness knows what besides, all floating cheek by jowl. 

Mackworth then floated in the cold water for a number of hours, using her “life belt” and a piece of wood for buoyancy, but eventually became separated from the other survivors and lost consciousness. However by a stroke of incredible good luck she somehow came to be floating on top of a wicker chair, which raised her body out of the water so rescuers could spot it: 

The swell of the sea had the effect of causing the close-packed island of wreckage and people to drift apart. Presently I was a hundred yards or more away from anyone else… The next thing I remember is lying naked between blankets on a deck in the dark… Every now and then a sailor came and looked at me and said, “That’s better.”… The sailor said he thought I had better go below, as it would be warmer. “We left you up here to begin with,” he explained, “as we thought you were dead, and it did not seem worth while cumbering up the cabin with you.” 

World Reaction 

Predictably, public opinion in Allied and neutral countries was outraged by the “barbaric” attack on the Lusitania, which went down with over 100 children on board, not to mention a wide swathe of the transatlantic Anglo-American elite. The list of “the great and good” who died included Arthur Henry Adams, the president of the United States Rubber Company; Charles Frohman, an American theatrical producer; Elbert Hubbard, a philosopher; and Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt, an American millionaire.  

Over the next month the public outcry pushed the U.S. to the brink of war with Germany, and also precipitated the final political falling out between President Wilson and his pacifist Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan, who believed the U.S. was compromising its neutrality and provoking Germany by supply weapons to the Allies. In the meantime American diplomats tried to prevent the worst-case scenario by persuading the German government to abandon unrestricted U-boat warfare.

The first American diplomatic note, on May 13, argued that the German submarine campaign was “disregarding those rules of fairness, reason, justice, and humanity, which all modern opinion regards as imperative,” and warned that the U.S. government would not “omit any word or any act necessary to the performance of its sacred duty of maintaining the rights of the United States and its citizens and of safeguarding their free exercise and enjoyment” – a thinly veiled reference to war. 

However the Germans were intransigent at first. James Watson Gerard, the American ambassador to Germany, remembered a bizarre conversation with undersecretary of state Arthur Zimmerman, who would later help bring America into the war with the famous Zimmerman Telegram: 

I believed myself that we would immediately break diplomatic relations, and prepared to leave Germany… During this period I had constant conversations with [foreign secretary] von Jagow and Zimmerman, and it was during these conversations that Zimmerman on one occasion said to me: “The United States does not dare to do anything against Germany because we have five hundred thousand German reservists in America who will rise in arms against your government if your government should dare to take any action against Germany.”… I told him that we had five hundred and one thousand lamp posts in America, and that was where the German reservists would find themselves if they tried any uprising… 

The fallout was hardly confined to diplomatic channels, of course. Around this time Evelyn Blucher, an Englishwoman married to a German nobleman, noted the reaction of Americans living in Berlin to the Lusitania: “The Americans openly avoided the Germans… Friendly intercourse was absolutely out of the question… One German turned to me and said, ‘You and other English ladies here have self-control, but these American ladies, once they are roused, do not care how or where they express their feelings.’”

Lasting Controversy 

The controversy over the sinking of the Lusitania continues to this day. The second explosion suggests that the ship was indeed carrying weapons, making it a legitimate target, apparently including four to six million rifle cartridges destined for the British army. Seizing on these facts, German propaganda tried to depict the sinking in a heroic light, but not everyone was convinced that the presence of weapons, or the German government’s warnings to passengers, could justify killing over a thousand civilians. 

In his play The Last Days of Mankind, published in 1918-1919, the Austrian critic and playwright Karl Kraus – a sort of Viennese counterpart to H.L. Mencken – voiced his opinion through the character of The Grumbler, a thinly disguised stand-in for Kraus himself (typically paired with another character, the reliably patriotic Optimist, for contrast). When The Optimist points out that Germany warned travelers not to board the Lusitania, The Grumbler tears this argument apart: 

The warning against the danger was the threat of a crime; consequently, the murder was preceded by blackmail. To exonerate himself, the blackmailer can never claim that he had previously threatened to commit the crime he then did commit. If I threaten to kill you in case you refuse to do, or not to do, something on which I have no claim, I am extortioning, not warning. After the deed I am a murderer, not an executioner. 

Breakthrough on the Eastern Front 

With the Western Front stalemated following the failure of the Schlieffen Plan in fall 1914, in spring 1915 the German and Austrian high commands embraced a new strategy, turning to the Eastern Front in hopes of knocking Russia out of the war. No one seriously entertained the idea of conquering the vast eastern empire, as the Nazis tried to do in the Second World War; instead they hoped to conquer enough territory and inflict enough casualties that the Russians felt compelled to abandon their Western Allies, Britain and France, and make a separate peace. This pivot resulted in a spectacular breakthrough followed by an advance deep into Tsarist territory – but failed to achieve its goal of removing Russia from the game. 

After a preliminary agreement at a meeting on New Year’s Day, Kaiser Wilhelm II and German War Minister Falkenhayn agreed to a detailed plan presented by the German generals at a second meeting on April 13; just over a week later, the Germans would unleash poison gas on the Allied lines in Flanders, beginning the Second Battle of Ypres, in order to cover the removal from the Western Front of eight divisions destined for the Eastern Front, where they would form the core of a new Austro-German Eleventh Army, commanded by the rising star August von Mackensen (below), a protégé of the Eastern Front commanders Hindenburg and Ludendorff. 

The attack began on the night of May 1-2 with a huge bombardment by the Eleventh Army’s artillery, targeting the trenches of the Russian Third Army between the Austrian Polish villages of Gorlice and Tarnów. The attack relied on sheer overwhelming force, as the German guns flattened the Russian defensive works, blowing whole regiments out of existence, followed by massed infantry assaults which overran the remaining Russian defenses, although at great cost. On May 3, British war correspondent Bernard Pares, who was observing Russian operations, described the onslaught in his diary:

We crouched behind the houses amid a constant roar of shells bursting all around us, and firing some of the neighboring huts. The telephones worked incessantly. Now each of the battalion commanders reported in turn – one, that his machine guns had been put out of action, another that there were gaps in his line, a third that he was holding good, but hard put to it. The Colonel explained that his last reserves were engaged… The R telephone gave no answer at all. Life there was unlivable, the trenches were destroyed… 

One soldier told Pares “the whole area was covered with shells till trenches and men were levelled out of existence.” Needless to say, the town of Gorlice itself – the focus of the initial bombardment – was almost totally destroyed (below). 

Over the next few days, as the Eleventh Army pushed forward, widening the gap in the Russian lines, the neighboring Austro-Hungarian Third and Fourth Armies also began to advance, threatening the Russian flanks. The Russian Third Army withdrew to new defensive positions where it put up a stiff resistance, but was unable to hold these as the Germans and Austrians brought up their artillery and resumed the bombardment, followed yet again by massed infantry assaults. 

By May 7 the breakthrough was complete: the Russian line was unraveling, with no prospect of reinforcements to fill the gap. The road to the key fortress town of Przemyśl, captured by the Russians less than two months previously, was open. The Russians now had no choice to withdraw all their armies to new defensive lines, the beginning of what became known as the Great Retreat, lasting from May-September 1915. 

The cost of the breakthrough was heavy for both sides, but especially the Russians, who would lose a staggering 412,000 men in May alone, including 170,000 taken prisoner by the middle of the month. On May 10, 1915, Pares confided in his diary: 

Of some regiments the news was that they were practically all gone; in one case the answer was “The regiment does not exist.” Some one asked of one of the O’s [a regimental soldier] where his regiment was to be found: he answered “In the other world.” I learned that three hundred men of this regiment with the colonel had fought their way back; later, I learned that only seventy-one were left. 

Of another division, Pares wrote: “Of forty officers and four thousand men, in the end two hundred and fifty were left.”

See the previous installment or all entries.

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Comics
10 Things You Might Not Know About Hägar the Horrible
King Features Syndicate
King Features Syndicate

For 45 years, the anachronistic adventures of a Scandinavian Viking named Hägar have populated the funny papers. Created by cartoonist Dik Browne, Hagar the Horrible is less about raiding and pillaging and more about Hägar’s domestic squabbles with wife Helga. If you’re a fan of this red-bearded savage with a surprisingly gentle demeanor, check out some facts about the strip’s history, Hägar’s status as a soda pitchman, and his stint as a college football mascot.

1. HÄGAR IS NAMED AFTER HIS CREATOR.

Richard Arthur “Dik” Browne got his start drawing courtroom sketches for New York newspapers; he debuted a military strip, Ginny Jeep, for servicemen after entering the Army in 1942. Following an advertising stint where he created the Chiquita Banana logo, he was asked to tackle art duties on the 1954 Beetle Bailey spinoff strip Hi and Lois. When he felt an urge to create his own strip in 1973, Browne thought back to how his children called him “Hägar the Horrible” when he would playfully chase them around the house. “Immediately, I thought Viking,” he told People in 1978. Hägar was soon the fastest-growing strip in history, appearing over 1000 papers.

2. HE COULD HAVE BEEN BULBAR THE BARBARIAN.

A Hägar the Horrible comic strip
King Features Syndicate

Working on Hi and Lois with cartoonist Mort Walker (Beetle Bailey) gave Browne an opportunity to solicit advice on Hägar from his more experienced colleague. As Walker recalled, he thought “Hägar” would be too hard for people to pronounce or spell and suggested Browne go with “Bulbar the Barbarian” instead. Browne brushed off the suggestion, preferring his own alliterative title.

3. A HEART ATTACK COULD HAVE CHANGED HÄGAR’S FATE.

When Browne came up with Hägar, he sent it along to a syndicate editor he knew from his work on Hi and Lois. According to Chris Browne, Dik’s son and the eventual artist for Hägar after his father passed away in 1989, the man originally promised to look at it after he got back from his vacation. He changed his mind at the last minute, reviewing and accepting the strip before leaving. Just days later, while on his ski vacation, the editor had a heart attack and died. If he hadn’t approved the strip prior to his passing, Browne said, Hägar may never have seen print.

4. THE STRIP HELPED BROWNE AVOID VANDALS.

A Hägar the Horrible comic strip
King Features Syndicate

Chris Browne recalled that Halloween in his Connecticut neighborhood was a time for kids to show their appreciation for his father’s work. While trick-or-treaters were busy covering nearby houses in toilet paper or spray paint, they spared the Browne residence. The only evidence of their vandalism was a spray-painted sign that read, “Mr. Browne, We Love Hägar.”

5. BROWNE’S DAUGHTER TALKED HIM OUT OF KIDNAPPING PLOTS.

Vikings were not known for being advocates for human rights. Hägar, despite his relatively genteel persona, still exhibited some barbaric traits, such as running off with “maidens” after a plundering session. Speaking with the Associated Press in 1983, Browne admitted he toned down the more lecherous side of Hägar after getting complaints from his daughter. “Running off with a maiden isn’t funny,” she told him. “It’s a crime.”

6. HÄGAR ENDORSED SODA.

A soda can featuring Hägar the Horrible
Amazon

Despite his preference for alcohol, Hägar apparently had a bit of a sweet tooth as well. In the 1970s, King Features licensed out a line of soda cans featuring some of their most popular comic strip characters, including Popeye, Blondie, and Hägar. The Viking also shilled for Mug Root Beer in the 1990s.

7. HE WAS A COLLEGE MASCOT.

In 1965, Cleveland State University students voted in the name “Vikings” for their collegiate basketball team. After using a mascot dubbed Viktorious Vike, the school adopted Hägar in the 1980s. Both Hägar and wife Helga appeared at several of the school’s sporting events before being replaced by an original character named Vike.

8. HE EVENTUALLY SOBERED UP.

A Hägar the Horrible comic strip
King Features Syndicate

When Dik Browne was working on Hägar, the Viking was prone to bouts of excessive drinking. When Chris Browne took over the strip, he made a deliberate decision to minimize Hägar’s imbibing. "When my father was doing the strip, he did an awful lot of gags about Hägar falling down drunk and coming home in a wheelbarrow, and as times go on that doesn't strike me as that funny anymore,” Brown told the Chicago Tribune in 1993. “Just about everybody I know has had somebody hurt by alcoholism or substance abuse.”

9. HE HAD HIS OWN HANNA-BARBERA CARTOON.

It took some time, but Hägar was finally honored with the animated special treatment in 1989. Cartoon powerhouse Hanna-Barbera created the 30-minute special, Hägar the Horrible: Hägar Knows Best, and cast the Viking as being out of his element after returning home for the first time in years. The voice of Optimus Prime, Peter Cullen, performed the title character. It was later released on DVD as part of a comic strip cartoon collection.

10. HE SAILED INTO THE WIZARD OF ID.

A Wizard of Id comic strip
King Features Syndicate

In 2014, Hägar made an appearance in the late Johnny Hart’s Wizard of Id comic strip, with the two characters looking confused at the idea they’ve run into one another at sea. Hägar also made a cameo in Blondie to celebrate that character’s 75th birthday in 2005.

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13 Great Jack Nicholson Quotes
Kevin Winter/Getty Images for AFI
Kevin Winter/Getty Images for AFI

Jack Nicholson turns 81 today. Let's celebrate with some of the actor's wit and wisdom.

1. ON ADVICE

"I hate advice unless I'm giving it. I hate giving advice, because people won't take it."

From Esquire's "What I Learned"

2. ON REGRETS

"Not that I can think of. I’m sure there are some, but my mind doesn’t go there. When you look at life retrospectively you rarely regret anything that you did, but you might regret things that you didn’t do."

From an interview with The Talks

3. ON DEATH

"I'm Irish. I think about death all the time. Back in the days when I thought of myself as a serious academic writer, I used to think that the only real theme was a fear of death, and that all the other themes were just that same fear, translated into fear of closeness, fear of loneliness, fear of dissolving values. Then I heard old John Huston talking about death. Somebody was quizzing him about the subject, you know, and here he is with the open-heart surgery a few years ago, and the emphysema, but he's bounced back fit as a fiddle, and he's talking about theories of death, and the other fella says, 'Well, great, John, that's great ... but how am I supposed to feel about it when you pass on?' And John says, 'Just treat it as your own.' As for me, I like that line I wrote that, we used in The Border, where I said, 'I just want to do something good before I die.' Isn't that what we all want?"

From an interview with Roger Ebert

4. ON NERVES

''There's a period of time just before you start a movie when you start thinking, I don't know what in the world I'm going to do. It's free-floating anxiety. In my case, though, this is over by lunch the first day of shooting.''

From an interview with The New York Times

5. ON ACTING

"Almost anyone can give a good representative performance when you're unknown. It's just easier. The real pro game of acting is after you're known—to 'un-Jack' that character, in my case, and get the audience to reinvest in a new and specific, fictional person."

From an interview with The Age

6. ON MARRIAGE

"I never had a policy about marriage. I got married very young in life and I always think in all relationships, I've always thought that it's counterproductive to have a theory on that. It's hard enough to get to know yourself and as most of you have probably found, once you get to know two people in tandem it's even more difficult. If it's going to be successful, it's going to have to be very specific and real and immediate so the more ideas you have about it before you start, it seems to me the less likely you are to be successful."

From an interview with About.com

7. ON LYING

“You only lie to two people in your life: your girlfriend and the police. Everybody else you tell the truth to.”

From a 1994 interview with Vanity Fair

8. ON HIS SUNGLASSES

"They're prescription. That's why I wear them. A long time ago, the Middle American in me may have thought it was a bit affected maybe. But the light is very strong in southern California. And once you've experienced negative territory in public life, you begin to accept the notion of shields. I am a person who is trained to look other people in the eye. But I can't look into the eyes of everyone who wants to look into mine; I can't emotionally cope with that kind of volume. Sunglasses are part of my armor."

From Esquire's "What I Learned"

9. ON MISCONCEPTIONS

"I think people think I'm more physical than I am, I suppose. I'm not really confrontational. Of course, I have a temper, but that's sort of blown out of proportion."

From an interview with ESPN

10. ON DIRECTING

"I'm a different person when suddenly it's my responsibility. I'm not very inhibited in that way. I would show up [on the set of The Two Jakes] one day, and we'd scouted an orange grove and it had been cut down. You're out in the middle of nowhere and they forget to cast an actor. These are the sort of things I kind of like about directing. Of course, at the time you blow your stack a little bit. ... I'm a Roger Corman baby. Just keep rolling, baby. You've got to get something on there. Maybe it's right. Maybe it's wrong. Maybe you can fix it later. Maybe you can't. You can't imagine the things that come up when you're making a movie where you've got to adjust on the spot."

From an interview with MTV

11. ON ROGER CORMAN

"There's nobody in there, that he didn't, in the most important way support. He was my life blood to whatever I thought I was going to be as a person. And I hope he knows that this is not all hot air. I'm going to cry now."

From the documentary Corman's World

12. ON PLAYING THE JOKER

"This would be the character, whose core—while totally determinate of the part—was the least limiting of any I would ever encounter. This is a more literary way of approaching than I might have had as a kid reading the comics, but you have to get specific. ... He's not wired up the same way. This guy has survived nuclear waste immersion here. Even in my own life, people have said, 'There's nothing sacred to you in the area of humor, Jack. Sometimes, Jack, relax with the humor.' This does not apply to the Joker, in fact, just the opposite. Things even the wildest comics might be afraid to find funny: burning somebody's face into oblivion, destroying a masterpiece in a museum—a subject as an art person even made me a little scared. Not this character. And I love that."

From The Making of Batman

13. ON BASKETBALL

"I've always thought basketball was the best sport, although it wasn't the sport I was best at. It was just the most fun to watch. ... Even as a kid it appealed to me. The basketball players were out at night. They had great overcoats. There was this certain nighttime juvenile-delinquent thing about it that got your blood going."

From Esquire's "What I Learned"

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