Exactly one hundred years ago, a civilian passenger liner, the RMS Lusitania, was torpedoed by a German sub. It took just eighteen minutes to sink off the coast of Kinsale on 7th May, 1915. My Irish grandma and aunt were just six and four years old when it happened. Slightly younger than my own children are now, the two little girls stood atop the Old Head of Kinsale and witnessed the dead being brought to shore.
The drowned bodies of men, women, children and babies.
As a small child, I sat and listened to my aunt and grandma’s stories. I reached across an entire century of history by knowing witnesses to the actual event. It felt surreal, until I saw a Pinterest board of the victims of the Lusitania. The reality finally hit me, seeing photos of the children, one only nine months old. A survivor witnessed a heavily pregnant woman give birth in the freezing waters after the explosion. Mother and baby were never seen again.
The tragedy could so easily have been avoided. As early as February 2015, Germany declared the water surrounding the British Isles a war zone and warned all Allied ships will be attacked. The Germans always claimed there were munitions aboard the Lusitania, but this was denied for decades.
Then in 1982, a salvage operation was warned by the Ministry of Defence that there could be “danger to life and limb” for the divers if the wreckage of The Lusitania was disturbed, due to previously undeclared munitions and explosives. Even 70 years on, the Foreign Office voiced concerns that there still could be “serious political repercussions” with America if the British finally admitted the ship was carrying high explosives.
This goes some way to explain why the Captain of the Lusitania ignored repeated German Embassy warnings in several newspapers. The New York Tribune ran an announcement just 6 days before the bombing, stating that passengers travelled on Allied ships “at their own risk”. The Lusitania was mentioned specifically in discussions during the week leading up to its departure. A week before the sinking of the Lusitania, Winston Churchill wrote to Walter Runciman, President of the Board of Trade, stating that it is “most important to attract neutral shipping to our shores, in the hope especially of embroiling the United States with Germany.” As Admiral of the Fleet, did Churchill know about munitions aboard the Lusitania? The Germans certainly did.
After the sinking, the Lusitania’s Captain Turner stayed on the bridge until he was washed overboard, still clinging to the ship’s logbook. Three hours later, he was pulled unconscious from the water. Captain Turner died a bitter man in 1933, unable to bear the public scorn for losing his ship. He never forgave the Admiralty, or Winston Churchill, for their attempts to exonerate themselves at his expense. They even suggested Captain Turner was a German sympathizer.
The loss of 1,198 civilian lives did a lot to sway the American public’s opinion to join the Allies in the First World War. But the children and babies on that doomed ship were lambs to the slaughter. A survivor witnessed one passenger, eight months pregnant, giving birth in the freezing waters. Mother and baby were never seen again.
To my mind, the fault lies equally with government. How could they knowingly risk and ultimately sacrifice innocent lives that way?
It’s not even borne out of sheer desperation, the way a pregnant Palestinian woman might walk into a crowded marketplace with a bomb strapped to her belly. No, this was an own goal with a motive. A means to an end. Pre-meditated murder.
It appears that governments have been doing this for decades. It certainly throws harsh light on a number of incidents that have occurred since The Lusitania, including the bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma.
Twenty years ago, I was at a barbeque in Fort Pierce, Florida, a small coastal town with a proud military history; the birthplace of the Navy Seals. There, I met a young man who told me ‘something big’ was being planned in Oklahoma. His name was Timothy McVeigh.
On April 19, 1995, 168 people were killed in a massive explosion which took out the front of the Murrah Federal Building. A nursery was situated at the front of the building. Nineteen of the victims were infants. I saw McVeigh’s face on TV after the Oklahoma bombings and my blood ran cold. I had chatted with him just a few weeks before. In his own way, McVeigh must have hinted to several people about his plan. He had been under observation for years; even recorded on CCTV at a Tulsa strip club, boasting to an exotic dancer, “After April 19th, you’ll remember me for the rest of your life.” I wonder if that woman feels the same strange mixture of guilt and sadness as I do.
Prior to the bombing, a raid at McVeigh’s terrorist compound at Elohim City was called off by the FBI, despite several alarming reports by an informant. Had McVeigh been detained there and then, the lives of all those toddlers might have been saved. I look at their photos and wonder what they might have become, had they been allowed to grow up. A photo of a fireman carrying a dying infant from the carnage pervaded the public consciousness and won a Pulitzer prize. One hundred and sixty-eight empty chairs now stand as a memorial to those that died.
It would be easy to dismiss Tim McVeigh as a loner and a drifter with an unhealthy obsession with guns; but what’s frightening is that he was home-grown in the US: how were his conditions favourable enough to produce a mass murderer? McVeigh was your average teen growing up, a beloved babysitter to the neighbourhood kids. He’d seen active service in Desert Storm. He was a decorated war hero. So how did a man like McVeigh become a ‘terrorist’? He claimed the bombing was retaliation for the dreadful US government handling of events at Waco. The Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Firearms and Tobacco gassed and set fire to the compound of the Branch Davidians. Their leader David Koresh was branded in the media as a meth manufacturer and paedophile, despite there being no solid evidence of either. Twenty-two of the 76 fatalities were children, babies and a pregnant seventeen year -old girl.
The date? April 19th 1993. Exactly two years before the Oklahoma bombing.
Once you bloody the bully’s nose, and he knows he’s going to be punched again, he’s not coming back around.
McVeigh’s final statement was Henley’s poem Invictus, meaning ‘unconquered,’ written by hand just before his death by lethal injection. “I am the Master of my Fate/I am the Captain of my Soul.” His original execution date was postponed, as the FBI admitted they withheld evidence from McVeigh’s defence attorneys during the trial. Several witness reports of a second bomber, a Middle-Eastern man, were also dismissed. McVeigh was not granted the live broadcast he requested at his execution by lethal injection on June 11, 2001.
Coincidentally, that date happens to be my birthday. That very day, I went with my husband to explore near the Old Head of Kinsale in County Cork. We saw the very place where, as small children, my Nana and Auntie Kitty witnessed their friends and family bringing up the bodies from the wreckage of the Lusitania in May 1915.
Conspiracies abound, regarding second explosions at both the Lusitania and the Oklahoma bombing. But the evidence suggests that in both cases children were used as a human shield. On death row, McVeigh talked about the children he killed as ‘collateral damage.’ It appears that certain government organisations think about them in the same way.
And that makes them no better than the so-called bad guys.