British Wreck Commissioner's Inquiry

Day 1

15 June 1915.

[ Counsel Present ]

The Attorney-General:
My Lord, I appear on behalf of the Board of Trade, who have requested your Lordship to hold a formal investigation into the loss of the steamship " Lusitania " which was sunk off the Old Head of Kinsale, near the coast of Ireland, on the 7th May last.

My Lord, we have served the formal notices required upon the Captain of the ship, and also upon the owners, and I understand that my friends Mr. Aspinall and Mr. Laing and others appear on behalf of the owners and on behalf of the Captain. I do not know that there are any other appearances in the case.

Mr. Macmaster:
I appear on behalf of the Canadian Government.

The Attorney-General:
Of course, the only formal, parties are the parties upon whom the notice has been served

The Commissioner:
Those, I understand, are the Owners and the Captain?

The Attorney-General:
The Owners and the Captain.

The Commissioner:
And no one else?

The Attorney-General:
And no one else. Of course, as representing the Board of Trade, I court the fullest possible enquiry into any questions that may arise on the facts, and your Lordship will deal with them as occasion arises.

The Captain of the ship was Captain William Thomas Turner, and the Owners of the ship are the Cunard Company. They have been served with all the formal documents, including the Case representing the facts upon which the Investigation is based, and also a copy of certain questions to which at the proper time I shall have to call your Lordship's attention.

The facts I have to state I can state very briefly. The steamship "Lusitania" which was both a passenger ship and an emigrant ship-and on that I shall have to say something afterwards-belonging to the Cunard Line, was, at the end of April, at New York, and was about to sail for England on the first of May. She left New York about noon on the 1st of May with a crew, of which I will tell your Lordship the details in a few moments, a large number of passengers, and a general cargo, bound for Liverpool. Certain statements have been made which have become public, and certain allegations have been made as between the German Government and America; Notes have passed between them, and it is not inconvenient that I should tell your Lordship the statement which the United States have made as regards the requirements of their laws before the steamship "Lusitania" sailed for Liverpool. The Note states this-and this is the American Note in reply to the German Note:-

"Your Excellency's Note, in discussing the loss of American lives resulting from the sinking of the steamship "Lusitania," adverts at some length to certain information which the Imperial German Government has received with regard to the character and outfit of that vessel, and Your Excellency expresses the fear that this information has not been brought to the attention of the United States. It is stated that the 'Lusitania' was undoubtedly equipped with masked guns, that she was supplied with trained gunners with special ammunition, that she was transporting troops from Canada, that she was carrying cargo not permitted under the laws of the United States to a vessel also carrying passengers, and that she was serving, in virtual effect, as an auxiliary to the naval forces of Great Britain. Fortunately these are matters concerning which the Government of the United States is in a position to give the Imperial German Government official information. Of the facts alleged in Your Excellency's Note, if true, the Government of the United States would have been bound to take official cognizance. Performing its recognized duty as a neutral Power and enforcing its national laws, it was its duty to see to it that the 'Lusitania' was not armed for offensive action, that she was not serving as a transport, that she did not carry cargo prohibited by the statutes of the United States, and that if, in fact, she was a naval vessel of Great Britain she should not receive a clearance as a merchantman. It performed that duty. It enforced its statutes with scrupulous vigilance through its regularly constituted officials, and it is able therefore to assure the Imperial German Government that it has been misinformed. If the Imperial German Government should deem itself to be in possession of convincing evidence that the officials of the Government of the United States did not perform these duties with thoroughness, the Government of the United States sincerely hopes that it will submit that evidence for consideration. Whatever may be the contentions of the Imperial German Government regarding the carriage of contraband of war on board the "Lusitania" or regarding the explosion of that material by a torpedo, it need only be said that in the view of this Government these contentions are irrelevant to the question of the legality of the methods used by the German naval authorities in sinking the vessel."

May I say here, at the outset, that that being a statement of the enforcement of the Regulations under Statutes at the port of departure, New York, our evidence here fully confirms the statement that was made. There was no such outfitting of the vessel as is alleged and fancied or invented by the German Government; and your Lordship will have the fullest evidence of that from the witnesses we will call in confirmation of what was said by the United States Government.

My Lord, on the morning of the 6th May, having left on the 1st May, as we are informed, all the Class A lifeboats, amounting to 22, were swung outwards under the superintendence of the proper officer and were left swinging and ready for lowering. That was in consequence of the ship then approaching what may be called the war zone or the danger zone. About 10 minutes past 2 p.m. on the 7th May the vessel was off the Irish Coast. She had passed early in the morning the Fastnet Rock at the extreme corner where you turn round to come up the Irish Channel, and had arrived at 2.10 near the Old Head of Kinsale. It is not material at the moment to stop to show your Lordship the point on the map. According to the evidence the ship was about 8 to 10 miles-I think the captain himself says 15, but a good deal of the evidence puts it at less-off the Old Head of Kinsale. One of the questions which will arise on the evidence is as to whether that was, at the time and under the circumstances which your Lordship will hear, a proper place for the captain to be navigating. The weather was fine and clear and the sea was smooth and the vessel was making about 18 knots. That is not unimportant when I come to discuss as to whether everything was done that ought to have been done in relation to the particular matters. Without any warning a German submarine fired a torpedo at the " Lusitania " and she was struck between the third and fourth funnels. There is evidence that there was a second and perhaps a third torpedo fired, and the ship sank within 20 minutes. I shall give you in a few moments the details of the people who were lost. At the present moment, all I want to emphasise is that there was no warning and there was no possibility under the circumstances of making any immediate preparation to save the lives of the passengers on board. My Lord, the course adopted by the German Government was not only contrary to International law and the usages of war, but was contrary to the dictates of civilisation and humanity; and to have sunk the passengers under those circumstances and under the conditions that I have stated meant in the eye, not only of our law but of every other law that I know of in civilised countries, a deliberate attempt to murder the passengers on board that ship.

I said, my Lord, that the ship was going at 18 knots. Perhaps I ought here to explain that the average maximum at which she had travelled from New York was about 21 knots, and a question will arise as to whether the captain was right in travelling at the time at 18 knots. I ought, further, to mention this, because it is a matter that concerns the owners, that out of 25 boilers they had in use all through the voyage only 19. Six of the boilers in the No. 4 boiler space were not used at all. If they had been used the speed could have been brought up to 24 knots, as I am told, but what the owners of the ship, the Cunard Company, say is, that in consequence of the war and the decrease of passenger traffic between America and this country, they had determined, not merely as regards this ship, but as regards other ships engaged in the traffic, and on other voyages of this ship, to use only the 19 boilers with a view to economy, having regard to the passenger traffic which they anticipated, That enabled them to do with about three-fourths of the coal that would be ordinarily used, and enabled them to save a certain amount of labour. My Lord, I think that is a fact which I ought to put forward in stating the case. Whether that was right or wrong we shall probably have to inquire somewhat into. But it is right to say that even with the boiler accommodation which was in use, I understand, that the "Lusitania," making 21 knots, would be a faster ship that any other of the large trans-Atlantic liners which convey passengers from one country to another.

The torpedo which struck the ship, as I have told you, struck her on the starboard side. That caused an immediate list on the ship, which, if it did momentarily right itself, afterwards increased, and was of such a nature, as will be shown in the evidence, that it made the boats on the port side practically impossible to launch. Some of them I think were filled with passengers, but, as your Lordship will readily imagine, in the few moments that elapsed these boats with the list over fell in-board and some of them fell over upon some of the passengers on the deck. I am not going now in any wise to anticipate the evidence as to how many torpedoes struck the ship. There is some little variation in the evidence, as one would expect on an occasion of this kind.

Let me tell your Lordship the facts about the crew and the passengers, The total crew was 702, made up o f deck department 77, engineering department 314, stewards 306, the orchestra 5; that made 702. Of these, there were 677 males and 25 females. 397 males and 16 females were lost; therefore, the total loss of the crew was 413; 280 males and 9 females were saved. Those figures make up the 702.

The total passengers were 1,257, made up of saloon passengers 290, second -cabin passengers 600, third- cabin passengers 367, making a total of 1,257. Of these there were 688 adult males, 440 adult females, 51 male children, and 39 female children, and 39 infants. The number of passengers lost was 785, and the number saved 472. Of the 129 children, 94 were lost and 35 saved.

As regards the nationality of the passengers, I may tell your lordship that 944 were British including Canadians: 360 were saved and 584 were lost. There were 6 Greeks, 5 Swedes, 1 Swiss, 3 Belgians, 3 Dutch, 72 Russians, 2 Mexicans, 1 Indian, 8 French, 1 Danish, 2 Italians, 1 Spanish, 1 Finnish. 1 Norwegian, 15 Persians, 1 Hindoo, and 1 Argentine; and as I have said of the total, 472 were saved and 785 were lost. Taking the passengers and crew together on board they came to 1,959, and of these 1,198 were lost and 761 were saved.

I ought to tell your Lordship, perhaps, something about the ship. The ship was built of steel by John Brown and Company, at Clydebank, in 1907. She had a length of 769.33 feet and a breadth of 87.85, with a depth of 61.72. She was fore and aft rigged; she was fitted with six steam turbine engines of 65,000 indicated horse power, equal to a speed of 24 knots-that is, when all the boilers were working. She was registered at Liverpool, and her tonnage after deducting 17,784 tons for propelling power and crew space was 12,611. The ship was built under the special survey of the Admiralty and the Admiralty requirements. She had accommodation including the crew for over 3,000 persons. She was fitted with 15 transverse bulkheads. The longest compartment was the forward boiler room, which was over 90 feet long, and all the watertight doors and the bulkheads could by special arrangements he closed simultaneously; and I think there is evidence that that was done on this occasion. The coa1 bunkers were arranged along the sides of the ship and fitted with bulkheads, and there was a double bottom, the depth between the outer and the inner being 5 feet at the centre. I have told your Lordship already that the "Lusitania" was a passenger steamer and an emigrant ship as defined by Sections 267 and 268 of the Merchant Shipping Act, and as a passenger ship she had to be surveyed annually for the passengers' certificate, and as an emigrant ship, every voyage before clearance outwards. She had cleared outwards in the month of March from this country and had received her certificate. She also had to comply with the rules as to life-saving appliances, which had to be surveyed under the 431 st section of the Act. There were also special instructions which are not statutory which were given by the Company as regards boat drills, which your Lordship will hear evidence about.

The "Lusitania" held a passenger certificate enabling her to carry 400 passengers of each class, that would be 1,200 altogether, and a crew of 750 hands. She was certified to have, and had as a matter of fact, on board, 34 boats, capable of accommodating 1,950 persons. She had 32 lifebuoys and 2,325 life-jackets. The proper certificates which were required will be proved, and the witnesses will be called before you to show that the proper certificates were made. The vessel last cleared outwards from Liverpool as an emigrant ship, I said, in March, but it was really on the 17th April, and surveys were made by Mr. Laslett of her machinery and life-saving appliances, and an emigration survey was made by Captain Barrand, the Emigration Officer, who gave the clearance certificate on the 17th April. The ship, so far as the facts put before me go, seems in every way to have fulfilled the requirements of the law and the regulations that were laid down.

Now, my Lord, there is one other matter to which I must refer. There were, as your Lordship would expect under war conditions, certain general regulations which had been issued by the Admiralty with a view of giving directions having regard to the menace of submarines and mines when you get within what we may call the war zone. In addition to that, having regard to existing conditions on the south coast of Ireland, and what had been observed there during the two days previously, or one day at all events-May 6th, and the morning upon which these people were murdered, there were certain specific information and directions sent out by the Admiralty by wireless telegraphy to the "Lusitania," and which so far as I know reached the captain. As representing the public here, as I do, I have to state to your Lordship that, in my opinion, and upon the advice of the Admiralty, whom I have myself consulted, it is not thought desirable-indeed we are pressed very much the undesirableness of it-or, indeed, possible to state these general regulations or the communications that were made, in public. That will not relieve us from the necessity of going into them, and it will be quite evident that one of the main questions which will have to engage your Lordship's consideration is as to those instructions and those communications and how far in accordance with the circumstances the Captain acted upon them. I shall have in course of the case, subject of course to your Lordship's approval, to ask your Lordship to take that part of the inquiry in private. It is essential that we should go into it. It is essential that we should not have these matters published; it would shake I think the confidence of those who have to navigate our Mercantile Marine at this difficult time, with the kind of enemy we have to deal with, if we were to make these matters public, and I hope your Lordship will see your way to comply with the request we will make.

It is not necessary for me now I think to say any more. The case is not of the ordinary type of case into which these inquiries are held. The first question that has to be decided in an ordinary case is: how did the accident occur? Well, we know in the present case that there was no accident. We know that there was a premeditated design to murder these people on board this ship by sinking her. Everything points to that perfectly clearly and perfectly plainly, and therefore what in other cases takes a considerable time will not in the present case. I think, necessarily lead, at all events, to any very long or continued investigation. The real questions that will arise upon that are only two. The first is as to the navigation of the ship, having regard to the instructions, and the suggestions and the information from the Admiralty, and the second is as to whether everything was done that possibly could be done to save human life and alleviate human suffering after the ship had been torpedoed. That is a matter which it would serve no useful purpose for me to survey at the present time. Your Lordship can, of course, picture what the feeling on board a ship suddenly torpedoed in this way must have been. There is one thing which I might state which I think all the witnesses concur in, that there was no panic. Your Lordship will hear what was done as regards the boats and the attempts to launch them. For my own part, while I think every inquiry ought to be made, I think your Lordship will see at once that in certain circumstances of this kind, and with the number of human beings who were on board, it is not very easy to get any very accurate description of what did really happen as regards each boat, or anything of that kind. However, we will put all the necessary evidence before you. But, my Lord, I do not propose, so far as I am concerned, to protract an inquiry of this kind. There is no use as far as I can see in calling witness after witness to prove exactly the same thing, and when we have satisfied your Lordship and the Court by sufficient evidence of what are the general outlines of the facts and of the efforts that were made, of course we shall court inquiry and evidence, as is our duty, from any other person who wishes to come forward here, and if there are complaints against either the master or the owners or the crew everybody here as I understand will have the fullest opportunity of stating it. That is one of the objects of the investigation, but as I said before, this investigation differs from all others that I know of which have been held in these wreck inquiries, because, unfortunately, the cause of the loss of life is only too clear.

My Lord, with these observations I shall now proceed to call the evidence before you.

Mr. Butler Aspinall:
On behalf of the Cunard Company may I be allowed to take this early opportunity of conveying to the relatives and friends of the victims of this deplorable tragedy their sincere and heartfelt sympathy.

Mr. Cotter:
I should like to make an application at this point to appear as representing 150 men of the "Lusitania."

Mr. Rose-Innes:
I have a similar application to make on behalf of the relatives of a lady passenger who lost her life, and also on behalf of Mr. Crighton [sic], to appear with Mr. Wickham.

Mr. G. A. Scott:
I have a similar application to make on behalf of the representatives of the late Mr. Vanderbilt.

Mr. Clem Edwards:
I wish to appear on behalf of the National Sailors' and Firemen's Union, of whom about 150 men were lost.

Mr. Marshall:
I also ask permission to appear on behalf of the Marine Engineers. We have had 14 or 15 of our members lost and we desire to be represented.

The Commissioner:
The different gentlemen who have applied to me will be at liberty through me to put any questions that they think they ought to put, but I am not going to make anybody party to this Inquiry except those people who have been mentioned by Sir Edward Carson, namely, the owners and the Captain. Of course, it is understood that if at any time during the Inquiry I desire to clear the Court and to take any part of the Inquiry in private, the gentlemen who have spoken to me must retire. Mr. Attorney, will you let me have a note of the figures of the passengers, crew, and dimensions and so on of the ship.

The Attorney-General:
Certainly, my Lord.


Alexander Galbraith - Superintending Engineer - Cunard Line.

Albert Laslett - Surveyor - Board of Trade - Liverpool.

Captain O. A. Barrand - Board of Trade Emigration Officer - Liverpool.

William Thomas Turner - Captain - ss. Lusitania

The Commissioner:
Now, Sir Edward, I think the more convenient plan would be for us to adjourn into another room.

The Attorney-General:
If your Lordship pleases.

The Commissioner:
And I can tell you the gentlemen who, I think, will be there; you, Mr. Attorney, and your juniors, you, Mr. Aspinall, and your juniors, and the Court. Sir Ellis Cunliffe, of course, can come in, and the gentleman instructing Mr. Aspinall.

The Court adjourned to sit "in camera."

"In Camera" Testimony