Books, Life

The Power of First Person

I’ve long enjoyed reading novels written in first-person, especially the noir tales of complex, atypical moral codes. Telling readers your story from the main character’s perspective, from inside their head, is an immensely powerful weapon that draws the audience in for the long haul. I may toy with writing the first-person point of view someday, but some recent research brought me into (digital) contact with the most gobsmacking personal account I’ve read in a long time, maybe ever. I know I previously told you how Herman Melville’s Moby Dick has compelled me to go back and revisit that epic tale, but Call me Ishmael has nothing on this…

I traipsed through the National Archives website this week (don’t worry about why, yet…) and I had no idea of the depth and breadth of the treasures preserved there. Just in case you’ve not yet heard the name Lusitania, it’s a passenger ship with a storied life and tragic demise. I first heard the name in 1991 when my English teacher explained how her British mother decided to name her after a ship. Owned by the Cunard Steamship Company, Limited, out of Britain, she was a massive transatlantic cruise liner that frequently ferried folks between Europe and the US. Lusitania arrived first at Titanic’s last known coordinates to begin rescuing those few survivors in 1912.

This little conflict now known as World War I began in August 1914 when Austria’s response to the assassination of its Archduke Franz Ferdinand ignited long-simmering tensions across Europe. That November, Germany declared unrestricted submarine warfare against all Allied vessels in the Atlantic. Five months later, German embassy staff in the US tried in vain to dissuade American passengers from boarding Lusitania in New York for its return across the Atlantic. For those keeping track at home, you’ll likely recall the US didn’t officially enter the Allied war effort until 1917…

At 2:10 pm GMT on May 7, 1915, Lusitania was off the coast of Ireland when a German submarine designated U-20 fired on it without warning. The torpedo attack snuffed out more than a thousand lives within the next few hours, and the sinking brought the US closer to entering what was then a European conflict.

Within the National Archive’s stores is THE log book from U-20. Digital images of this document are available online, alongside its English translation, and offer Lieutenant Walter Schweiger’s powerful first-hand account of what he saw after ordering the fatal attack:

“3:10 p.m. Clear bow shot at 700 m (w. torpedo set 3 m. for depth)…Shot struck starboard close behind the bridge. An extraordinarily heavy detonation followed, with a very large cloud of smoke…A second explosion must have followed that of the torpedo (boiler or coal or powder!). The superstructure above the point of impact and the bridge tore apart; fire broke out; light smoke veiled the high bridge. The ship stopped immediately and quickly listed sharply to starboard, sinking deeper by the head at the same time. It appeared as if it would capsize in a short time. Great confusion arose on the ship; some of the [lifeboats] were swung clear and lowered into the water. Many people must have lost their heads; several boats loaded with people rushed downward, struck the water bow or stern first and filled at once…at the bow the name ‘Lusitania’ in golden letters was visible. The funnels were painted black; stern flag not in place. Since it seemed as if the steamer could only remain above water for a short time, went to 24m…[I could not] have fired a second torpedo into this swarm of people who were trying to save themselves.”

German High Command later recalled Schweiger and compelled him to publicly apologize for not having attempted to rescue Lusitania’s passengers, but they needed experienced captains so badly that he returned to his boat. Schweiger’s written testament on the Lusitania’s sinking, however grim, remains the most unique and unimperiled perspective of all known and available eye witnesses to that heinous act.

Kapitänleutnant Schwieger, Walther (gefallen Sept. 1917)

The secondary explosion Schweiger reports seeing is long alleged to have been a second torpedo fired almost simultaneous to the first. Reading through this and some documents related to it make me wonder what moral objections, if any, were raised within German High Command and its U-boat captains regarding the issuance of Germany’s declaration of unrestricted submarine warfare on November 4, 1914? How many captains adhered to this order, and what did their diaries and journals have to say about it? Were they “just following orders” like their children a generation later?

Like many U-boats, U-20 didn’t live to see the armistice; in November 1916, damaged engines forced her aground in Denmark. The crew failed in scuttling or destroying the sub, so she stayed beached there until the Danish government finally destroyed its remains in 1925. The turret gun and the conning tower are both still on display in Denmark if you want to see the periscope Schweiger used to watch the death of Lusitania.

Schweiger, assigned to different sub by then, U-88, sank with that boat and crew on September 5, 1917. It seems subs and mines don’t get along so well. Before his demise, Schweiger and his various crews reported sinking 190,000 tons of Allied freight, which made him only the sixth most successful U-boat commander in that war. Germany bestowed its Pour le Merite upon him, which was the nation’s highest honor at that time.

What personal accounts have you run across that made you hold your breath and your heart skip a beat?

I owe a debt of gratitude and credit to Zach Kopin, a previous National Archives intern who wrote a summary that contributed to this blog. Just in case the day you’re reading this is National Thank A Historian Day, please thank one for their efforts to help keep us from reliving our pasts.

Be safe out there.


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