WW1 SINKING OF THE LUSITANIA MEDALLION.
The sinking of the Cunard ocean liner RMS Lustania occurred on Friday, 7 May 1915 during WW1, as Germany waged submarine warfare against the UK and Ireland and the British Royal Navy blockaded Germany. The ship was identified and torpedoed by the German U-boat U-20 and sank in 18 minutes. The vessel went down 11 miles (18 km) off the Old head of kinsale, Ireland, killing 1,198 and leaving 761 survivors. The sinking turned public opinion in many countries against Germany, contributed to the US entry into WW1 and became an iconic symbol in military recruiting campaigns of why the war was being fought.
Lusitania had the misfortune to fall victim to torpedo attack relatively early in the First World War, before tactics for evading submarines were properly implemented or understood. The contemporary investigations in both the UK and the United States into the precise causes of the ship's loss were obstructed by the needs of wartime secrecy and a propaganda campaign to ensure all blame fell upon Germany. Argument over whether the ship was a legitimate military target raged back and forth throughout the war as both sides made misleading claims about the ship. At the time she was sunk, she was carrying a large quantity of rifle cartridges and non-explosive shell casings, as well as civilian passengers. Several attempts have been made over the years since the sinking to dive to the wreck seeking information about precisely how the ship sank, and argument continues to the present day.
The sinking of RMS Lusitania on 7 May 1915 was a hugely significant event during the First World War. The ship was sunk by a torpedo, a fact indicative of the increased use of submarines in marine warfare, which helped it become even more dangerous than it had been previously. The tragedy of the loss of life that included civilian passengers had global repercussions that contributed to the eventual decision taken by the United States to enter the conflict. It also sparked something of a medallic propaganda war.
Bronze Lusitania medal, by Karl Goetz (1916,0707.9), obverse
The German artist Karl Goetz was so incensed by the mere idea that a passenger liner might have been used for military purposes that he decided to produce a medal satirising the subject. He mistakenly stated on the medal that the date of the sinking was 5 May – two days earlier than the actual event. This caused an outcry in Britain and accusations that the sinking had been premeditated by the Germans. This use of the wrong date was in fact a mistake, but copies of the medal were made and distributed in Britain in protest against the Germans’ use of medallic art to effectively celebrate a tragedy. The British copy had its own presentation box that also included a document detailing the reasons behind its production. Many of these medals have since found their way into the collections of museums across the country and will be featuring in commemorative displays this year and in 2015.
Bronze Lusitania medal, by Karl Goetz (1916,0707.9), reverse
The medal itself is a fascinating object that is laced with satirical symbolism. On the obverse, the ship is depicted sinking under the waves. Weapons appear on the deck, a direct accusation that the ship had been carrying munitions, thus putting the lives of its passengers at risk, the notion that had so infuriated Goetz. The reverse shows unsuspecting passengers queuing up to buy their tickets from a personification of Death who sits inside the ticket booth. The warnings of a German man stood in the background and the ‘U-Boat Danger’ headline on a newspaper go unnoticed by the crowd. The inscription above the scene means ‘business above all’ and makes the message of the medal doubly clear. The presence of Death playing an active and malevolent role in the events is a theme that pervaded German medallic art during the First World War and this will be explored in the exhibition.
The medal on sale today is the British version with its original box and copy of the letter issued with it. The box hinge tape is broken.