How did Britain react to the sinking of the Lusitania?

The sinking of the passenger liner Lusitania by an Imperial submarine was the tinder that ignited months of German ill-feeling in Britain during World War I - with consequences for all foreign nationals and even the Royal Family

The Cunard liner Lusitania

As the battles of World War I raged on mainland Europe, a conflict of a different sorts was brewing back in Britain.

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Anti-German sentiment, steadily on the rise since the British declaration of war in August 1914, bloomed into open violence in May 1915. Riots rippled across Liverpool and Manchester before spreading to London. German-owned shops and businesses were attacked, and mobs terrorised German families, chasing them into the streets and in some instances even ripping the clothes off their backs.

The flashpoint for this unruly xenophobia was one of the most infamous off-battlefield episodes of the war, the sinking of the RMS Lusitania in May 1915. On 7 May, the unarmed British passenger liner was sailing from Liverpool to New York when it was torpedoed off the Irish coast by a German submarine.

Why was the Lusitania sunk?

It sank within 20 minutes; 1,198 people onboard were killed. The German submarine commander justified the attack because the Lusitania was carrying a cargo of war munitions, and because Germany had declared the waters around the British Isles a war zone earlier that year.

Germans were one of the largest minority communities in London and many had well-established businesses, but even before the sinking they were being made into pariahs.

People who had lived in Britain for decades suddenly found themselves shunned by neighbours and prevented from buying goods in markets they had visited for years. German businesses were boycotted, national newspapers ran campaigns that led to the dismissal of German staff in restaurants and hotels, and rumours had begun to spread that all Germans living in Britain must be spies.

When the fate of the Lusitania made headline news, the fires of ill feeling were stoked anew. People were shocked at the unprovoked attack, and the German community bore the brunt of their anger. In just 24 hours, the London riots caused more damage than had been inflicted over the course of several days elsewhere in the country. In fact, almost all police districts in London reported violence and disorder in the days following the sinking.

More was to come. On 31 May 1915, Germany carried out its first Zeppelin raid on London, killing seven people and encouraging yet more violence against businesses and families with Germanic-sounding names.

By November 1915, more than 30,000 foreign nationals, Germans among them, had been interned in camps, the result of laws passed in 1914 giving the government the power to intern or deport adult male foreign nationals. The laws also required all foreign citizens living in Britain to register with the police and restricted to where they could live.

So strong was the hatred towards Germany that it even affected the British Royal family, who were of German ancestry. On 17 July 1917, George V was persuaded to appease the public and change the royal family’s house name from Saxe-Coburg and Gotha to Windsor and relinquish their German titles.

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This content first appeared in the Christmas 2019 issue of BBC History Revealed