BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Diana Preston, why did you write a book called "Lusitania"?
DIANA PRESTON, AUTHOR, "LUSITANIA: AN EPIC TRAGEDY": My interest was really caught. I was researching something else in the docks at Liverpool, at the Merseyside Maritime Museum, and I saw this great bronze propeller sitting on the quayside, and I went to have a look at the little label underneath it, and it said this was the propeller of the ship Lusitania, sunk in 1915 by a German submarine. And it really grew from there.
You know, I'd always heard a little bit about the Lusitania, but I didn't really realize that there was a human drama at the core of that story as poignant, as moving as anything you'd find with the Titanic, but also that it was a story which had deep political ramifications. It was a story of an event which really changed the nature of warfare.
LAMB: The Titanic was sunk in 1912.
PRESTON: That's right, just three years earlier.
LAMB: The Lusitania was owned by what company?
PRESTON: It was owned by the Cunard Company. She'd been built up in Scotland, on the River Clyde, by the John Brown Company, launched 1906, made her maiden voyage 1907, and really was the technological marvel of her age. It wasn't just that she was a uniquely beautiful, elegant ship, with suites and public rooms, you know, modeled on the grand palaces of Europe, like Versailles and Fontainebleau. She was also very technological advanced. She had revolutionary turbine engines. This was a ship that could cut through the Atlantic waters at a top speed of 25 knots. She was really the pride of Britain's merchant fleet.
LAMB: Well, go back to the May, 1915, sinking. What was the actual date?
PRESTON: The sinking was the 7th of May, 1915, just a few days after she'd sailed out of New York, 1st of May, 1915.
LAMB: Where was she sunk?
PRESTON: She was sunk about 12 to 15 miles off the southern coast of Ireland. She was getting very close to the end of her voyage. You know, at the time the attack happened, passengers were already starting to pack, ready for arrival in Liverpool the next day.
LAMB: How many people were on Lusitania?
PRESTON: Roughly 2,000. There were about 1,257 passengers. You know, one of the great ironies was that this was her largest eastbound complement since the war in Europe had begun. And as well as those passengers, there were around 700 crew.
LAMB: How many died, and how many, obviously, survived?
PRESTON: Around two thirds of the people who were on board were killed, around 1,200 people.
LAMB: Is there anybody still alive that was on that ship?
PRESTON: Yes, indeed. I've been in touch with a gentleman who now lives in Winnipeg, who was a very small baby at the time. He was saved by his mother, a very feisty, resourceful woman who managed to fight her way up above decks and get the two of them onto a lifeboat.
And there's also another lady, an American, who now lives in England, and she again was just a tiny baby at the time. And when the torpedo struck the ship, her nurse gathered this little baby up in her arms, wrapped her in a shawl around her neck, took her up on deck, couldn't find the parents anywhere. There was complete mayhem on deck in those last few minutes. And so she -- holding the baby 'round her neck, she just jumped over the side.
And luckily, the nurse had very long sort of streaming auburn hair. Somebody who was in a lifeboat put their hand into the water, grabbed the hair, pulled her up and got her and the baby into the boat. And the nice thing is that the nurse, who lived to over 100, and this old lady, Audrey Pearl, they remained friends for the whole of their life.
And this old lady still rings me up from time to time. We don't talk about the Lusitania now, we talk about other things. She's just so full of life, full of energy, and she's just been raising money back in Britain for a lifeboat in memory of her mother and members of her family who were on board.
LAMB: Who sunk the Lusitania?
PRESTON: The Lusitania was sunk by the German U-boat U-20, under the command of a 30-year-old Berliner called Walter Schwieger. He had set out from his home port of Emden on the north German coast just the very day before the Lusitania had left Liverpool. And it was just after lunch on the 7th of May that Schwieger was called to the periscope by one of his men, who had sighted the liner approaching over the horizon.
LAMB: Would we pronounce that "Shweiger"?
PRESTON: I think it would be Schwieger because it's spelled "I-E," rather than "E-I." I've always understood that the pronunciation is Schwieger.
LAMB: And how big a surprise was this when it happened?
PRESTON: It was an enormous shock to the world. If you look at the press reporting on both sides of the Atlantic, if you look at the American press, the British press -- complete shock, complete outrage, a sense of -- of a barbarous, unprecedented act. You know, here you had this ship with so many innocent men, women and children on the transatlantic run. Of course, it was wartime. You know, war had been going on in Europe since August, 1914. But nobody genuinely believed, in the mindset of that time, that an attack of that magnitude would actually be perpetrated.
LAMB: Now, how often had merchant vessels been sunk, at this point?
PRESTON: What had happened was that just a few weeks before the Lusitania disaster, Germany, which had been becoming concerned about the stalemate on the western front, had decided to, if you like, unleash her U-boats and had declared what she called an "unrestricted submarine war." And by that, Germany meant that her U-boats would attack any British or allied vessel which they encountered in the war zone which they'd declared 'round the British isles. And as a result, since the middle of February, a certain number of merchant ships had been attacked, had been sunk.
But if you actually looked at the tonnage of shipping destroyed, it was not significant. At that stage of the war, something like over 95 percent of the merchant ships that were plying between the United States of America and Europe were getting through. So one of the reasons the British admiralty wasn't really taking the submarine threat seriously.
LAMB: Again, it was about 10 to 15 miles, you say, off the coast of Ireland.
PRESTON: That's right, of southern Ireland, off County Cork. The nearest main town was then called Queenstown. We'd call it Cove today. It's since been renamed -- which was the great -- Cove was the great exit point for emigration from Ireland to America. And Cove also has another sort of significance in the maritime history of the period. It was the place where the last passengers were taken on board the Titanic.
LAMB: You've been there.
LAMB: But you were there almost on the day -- you know, the -- the year that this all happened for what reason?
PRESTON: I wanted to get a sense of place, if you like, and that was the most important thing, that Queenstown or Cove, as I should call it, was so important in the story. It was the place from which the rescue fleet set out. It was the place to which the living and the dead were brought back. There are harrowing descriptions from the survivors of bodies being piled like cordwood on the quayside.
You can still see the remains of the old Cunard wharf. You can see the hotel where many of the passengers were taken. You can see memorials to the dead of the Lusitania. You can see the mass graves beyond the town, where so many of the victims were buried.
I wanted to get some sense of the place, and it really is very little changed from 1915. You can identify all the buildings, you know, including the office where U.S. consul Wesley Frost was working when he heard the cry, "The Luse is gone!" and got on the telephone to the -- to the local British admiralty office, saying, "Is it -- is it true?" because he was concerned. He knew there were so many American citizens on board.
I wanted to get that flavor, and I also wanted to be there at that time of year to see not only what did the town look like, what would it have appeared like in May, 1915? What would the see have looked like? How would the sea have felt?
LAMB: What time of day did the Lusitania get hit?
PRESTON: It was hit just after 2:00 o'clock. The torpedo slammed into the starboard side of the ship at 10 minutes past 2:00.
LAMB: In the afternoon?
PRESTON: In the afternoon. And at 2:28 PM, the ship, 30,000 tones of shipping, was gone. All you had was drifting debris on the water...
LAMB: Eighteen minutes.
PRESTON: ... survivors, dead people in the water.
LAMB: Eighteen minutes.
PRESTON: Eighteen minutes.
LAMB: And what was the temperature of the water?
PRESTON: The temperature, according to the Irish Maritime Institute, who I asked to look back over their records, was around about 51, 52 degrees. So I mean, that temperature is -- doesn't sound cold, but imagine being in that for two to three hours, which is the situation that the survivors, you know, already traumatized from the explosion, from having to get off the ship so fast -- they were having to last two or three hours in those conditions before the first ships got to them.
LAMB: Now, did you go in the water the day you were there, to see how cold it was?
PRESTON: Yes, I did. My husband, who was with me and is very thorough about research, said, "Come on. You're describing these people coping -- coping with the cold water, the terrible effects of hypothermia." He said to me, "Just you see how that really feels." And I waded out, you know, just up to my knees on one of the beaches alongside Queenstown, and it was bitter. It cut like a knife. I -- you know, two or three minutes, and I was back out again.
LAMB: By the way, where is the Lusitania today?
PRESTON: The Lusitania is where she sunk, in about 200, 300 feet of water, about 12 miles off the coast. Her position is very well documented. Occasionally, there are dives on the wreck, but the Irish government are now very carefully controlling access to the wreck for a variety of reasons.
LAMB: You discuss, though, in your book that there've been rights to this area sold over the years. I mean, I got a whole list of the -- a number of people who've been involved, a lot of them Americans -- the ABC network, BBC...
LAMB: ... a fellow named John Light, 42 dives in 1960.
PRESTON: Yes. There's always been interest in the wreck of the Lusitania, from the immediate aftermath of the First World War, when you start to see the first schemes being proposed for, you know, trying to raise the hulk, about slicing her into sections and bringing her up using pontoons, through, as you rightly say, to '60s, '70s and '80s. Probably the most significant dives were those which were organized by Bob Ballard, who put a submersible down there and really took the best photographs of the wreck.
But one of the things which has happened was that during the 1980s, there started to be stories that divers had seen what looked like lead tubes lying on the surface of the seabed. Now, those have been associated with paintings which are thought to have been on board. One of the passengers was a very distinguished art historian called Sir Hugh Lane. He was a director of the National Gallery of Ireland. It's very clear from the ship's manifest that he had a crate of oil paintings on board.
Stories are that there was a Rembrandt, maybe a Monet, maybe a Rubens -- Rubens apparently a bit too chubby to be fashionable in the United States at the time. He was supposed to be taking it back to Britain to try and sell it there. And it's thought that the canvases were rolled up in these lead tubes. And maybe that's what people believe that they've seen on the seabed.
Now, the Irish Ministry for Heritage and Culture are very anxious not to have treasure seekers, plunderers, so they've put a preservation order on the wreck. And that's why it's now being very, very tightly controlled.
LAMB: But who owns the rights to even dive and -- and didn't people along the way have to pay money to do this?
PRESTON: That's right. You have to get a license from the Irish government. There is a gentleman called Greg Bemis who owns the hulk of the Lusitania, but not the contents which might be in the hold. But even he has to go and approach the Irish government and ask for permission, for a license to send an expedition there.
LAMB: Have you seen video of the Lusitania?
PRESTON: I've seen some of the shots that -- that Bob Ballard took, and they're absolutely tremendous. They're so atmospheric. You can see the starboard side of the ship and how it's -- the prow is twisted up where it -- it bent back as the prow dipped and hit the seabed. Absolutely dramatic pictures.
LAMB: Now, you -- you have this -- we'll show you up close here in just a second -- in the early part of your book. And it's a notice. Where was this published?
PRESTON: The notice was published in a number of United States newspapers, including "The New York Times." And it appeared the very morning that the Lusitania was due to sail out of New York, and it was warning people that a state of war existed between Britain and Germany, and it ended with -- on a rather ominous note. It said, you know, "Passengers intending to embark on a transatlantic voyage" -- you know, "they are doing this at their own risk."
So of course, you can imagine the reaction on the docks that day.
LAMB: Let me read it. And at the bottom it says, "Imperial German Embassy." Is that who paid for it?
PRESTON: Absolutely. It was placed by the German ambassador, Count Johann von Bernstorff of the German embassy in Washington, D.C.
LAMB: "Travelers intending to embark on the Atlantic voyage are reminded that a state of war exists between Germany and her allies and Great Britain and her allies, that the zone of war includes the waters adjacent to the British isles, that in accordance with formal notice given by the imperial German government, vessels flying the flag of Great Britain or of any of her allies are liable to destruction in those waters, and that travelers sailing in the war zone on ships of Great Britain or her allies do so at their own risk."
Who were we an ally of 1915? Meaning America.
PRESTON: In 1915, the United States, under the administration of President Woodrow Wilson, was a neutral country. And Wilson, working hard to preserve the position of neutrality, if you like, and having said in the early stages of the war to the American people, you know, "We must be neutral in fact, as well as in theory."
But of course, you know, does it actually work quite like that? You know, there was certainly, I think with President Wilson and other members of his administration, you know, cultural affinities with Britain. There were -- there were links there. Germany at this time -- and if you looked at her newspapers, you would have found virulent reporting of United States' pro-British stance, if you like.
LAMB: But Germany did have an embassy in Washington.
PRESTON: Yes, indeed. Indeed, had a full diplomatic staff, including two characters I found particularly interesting, the naval and the military attaches, who during the whole Lusitania saga, became quite clear that they were associated with espionage and sabotage activities in New York and elsewhere.
LAMB: Who were they?
PRESTON: They were -- there was the military attache, a man who was called Franz von Papen, and there was the naval attache, who was called Karl Boy-et.
LAMB: Now, Woodrow Wilson was president, in his first term. This was 1915.
LAMB: He was reelected in '16.
LAMB: We went to -- when did America go to war?
PRESTON: In April, 1917. So you have a period between the sinking of the Lusitania May, 1915, and the spring of 1917. Many people, you know, are under perhaps a bit of a misapprehension that it was the sinking of the Lusitania that immediately precipitated the United States into war. It wasn't like that, but the event -- it really -- it soured relations between the United States and Germany.
In the aftermath, all this business of spying and sabotage was revealed. You had all kinds of acts of what we would now call terrorism, though that word wasn't used at the time. You had, in the aftermath, bombs exploding in the capital, assassination attempts on Jack Morgan of J.P. Morgan, who was involved in financing sales of American munitions to the allies. You even had an assassination attempt on the British ambassador in Washington, all of these things in the background souring the relationship between the United States and Germany, President Wilson saying to the German kaiser, "Look, this form of warfare, deploying submarines like that, attacking merchant ships without warning -- that is against international law. This must stop."
You have the kaiser thinking about this for a while, eventually deciding to step back from that form of submarine warfare, but then bowing to the hawks in his own government, starting to resume it again in early 1917. You have more loss of American lives on the high seas. And it was that, coupled with evidence of Germany intriguing with Mexico, as revealed in the Zimmermann telegram, that was really the last straw. So April, 1917, you have the United States going to war.
And if you look at the headlines in "The New York Times," you will find reports of soldiers advancing to the battle shouting, "Remember the Lusitania." And you find the comment which I think there is, you know, great validity, saying, "Well, OK, 1915, the Lusitania failed to deliver 200 American citizens to Britain, but in 1917, she delivered two million U.S. troops to the western front."
LAMB: "Kaiser" -- what's that mean?
PRESTON: The kaiser?
LAMB: What's the title?
PRESTON: Emperor. Emperor. He was head of -- well, head of the German state. He was not a democratic ruler. He had the civil and the military wings reporting to him. He also had the formal title of Supreme Warlord. He was where in Germany in 1915 through the end of the war that the buck stopped. He was the person who took all the decisions.
LAMB: Kaiser Wilhelm II.
PRESTON: That's right, the second German kaiser.
LAMB: Who was the first?
PRESTON: His father, who had been king of Prussia.
LAMB: What's the relationship of Kaiser Wilhelm to the Brits?
PRESTON: He was Queen Victoria's grandson. He was very fond of Queen Victoria, apparently, but he did not get on well with the other members of the royal family, particularly his uncle, who became Britain's King Edward VII. He used to be very kind of affronted that -- that Edward would not call him, you know, "Your Imperial Highness" because, you know, the kaiser said, "Look, I'm an emperor. You're only at the moment Prince of Wales, and when you -- Queen Victoria dies, you're only going to be a king. You should treat me with much more respect."
And you know, according to various diaries and reports, Edward thought the kaiser was, you know, perhaps a little deranged.
LAMB: How old was the kaiser?
PRESTON: The kaiser was around 50.
LAMB: Was he deranged?
PRESTON: He was -- he was a strange personality -- vacillating, neurotic, easily swayed, very -- very proud of his -- of his dignity and his position, very open to believing he'd been slighted, particularly by his -- his British royal relations. And he took, if you like, a very childish view of -- of politics.
You know, when you have the outbreak of the First World War, you have Britain and Russia lining up against Germany, you know, he -- he sort of makes petulant comments, like, "Well, if my grandmother, Queen Victoria, had still been alive, she would never have allowed this." He saw things in very personal terms. He did not understand how public opinion operated.
LAMB: How was he the grandson of Queen Victoria? What was the relationship between Germany and -- and...
PRESTON: Queen Victoria's daughter...
LAMB: ... and England?
PRESTON: ... her favorite daughter, Princess Vickie, had married the man who was the king of Prussia. And so the kaiser was the son of that union.
LAMB: Excuse this stretch. Is there any relationship on this story with what this country went through on September the 11th?
PRESTON: I believe there is. It struck me -- I mean, long after I'd finished the research and the writing of this book, as news of those awful events on September the 11th came through to us in the U.K., strong, strong parallels. After all, if you like, the Lusitania in her day, something like the World Trade Center of her time, a technological marvel, a symbol of prestige. The point of attacking her really about making a statement, showing, you know, that Germany was technological more superior than Britain and could really get Britain's jugular. You know, attacking the Lusitania was a strategic propaganda act, if you like.
But then, of course, you have all the human aftermath, the business of all the people on board who were lost, whose bodies were never found, their relations trying to find out their fate, printing same sorts of posters which we've very sadly seen after September the 11th, photographs of people, you know, messages on them saying, "If anybody saw this person during the last minutes, if anybody knows what happened to them, please get in touch with Mrs. X or Mr. Y."
And even if you look at the actual drama of the sinking itself, I think, some of the descriptions rang horribly home for me. People recorded the sound of a torpedo slamming into the ship, the explosions which happened. Somebody said it sounded like a collapsing building.
LAMB: How many of them...
LAMB: Again, you'd say 1,300 died?
PRESTON: About 1,200 died.
LAMB: About 1,200 died.
LAMB: And about 700, 800 lived?
PRESTON: That's right. That's right. Roughly two thirds died, roughly a third survived.
LAMB: It's a piece of art you've got actually of the boats in the water alongside Lusitania.
This was on May the 7th, 1915. What -- what was the relationship between England and Germany? Were they at war?
PRESTON: England and Germany had been at war since August, 1914. And you know, imagine a situation at this stage of the war in Europe. You have trenches which are stretching from Switzerland up to the North Sea. In terms of casualties, by this stage, Britain had already lost about a fifth of her regular army. Over on the eastern front, something like three million men were dead. Austro-Hungary had already lost a couple of million men.
So the Great War already in Europe in full flood and the Lusitania coming at a particularly critical point, when the war in the west seemed to have reached stalemate. Very little progress had been made. So you have Germany looking to her submarines, to her U-boats, as a mechanism for unblocking that, in the same way that Britain was looking to her campaign in the eastern Mediterranean, in the Dardanelles, to try and move things forward.
LAMB: Where are the Dardanelles?
PRESTON: The Dardanelles at the entrance to the Black Sea.
LAMB: And you bring it up a lot in your book because of Winston Churchill. What was the issue?
PRESTON: That's right. I mean, one of the things which intrigued me was, you know, there's often been this accusation about, you know, did the British cynically put the Lusitania in harm's way as a mechanism to -- to try and bring the United States of America into the war at that stage. And specifically, was Churchill, who was then the first lord of the admiralty -- was he behind a plot like that? And the conclusion I came to from research -- letters, correspondence I looked at -- was that, no, it wasn't like that. You know, Churchill and the British admiralty were over-complacent about the Lusitania before the sinking, but there wasn't actually a plot deliberately to hazard her. They, on the other hand, were preoccupied with this campaign in the eastern Mediterranean. The idea was to try and sort of knock Turkey out of things, to -- to strike a blow at Germany that way. All the effort, all the thought, was going on big troops transports towards the Dardanelles in Turkey, to sending out misinformation to Germany about these troop movements. Everybody focused on that, nobody giving a thought to this great ship setting sail 1st of May, 1915, to cross the Atlantic, setting sail on the very day Germany published a warning...
PRESTON: ... that it might attack.
LAMB: How old was the ship when she set sail from New York on that day?
PRESTON: The ship had been built in 1906, and made...
LAMB: What's the Mauritania?
PRESTON: ... her maiden run in 1907. The Mauritania was her sister ship. And at the stage in the war we're talking about, when the Lusitania was hit, the Mauritania had been taken over from the Cunard Company by the British admiralty for use as a troop ship.
LAMB: Now, there are all kinds of controversies about Canadian military people being on this ship...
LAMB: ... and having weapons, contraband and all that.
LAMB: I mean, what's this basically also about flying the American flag, versus the British flag?
PRESTON: Oh, yes. I mean, the points you've just raised, they all relate to accusations which Germany made against Britain, you know, some of which were made with -- with justice and some of which were spurious. If we take the one you've just mentioned about flying other countries' flags to disguise the nationality of your shipping -- yes, Britain did do that. It was -- it was a well-known ruse de guerre which they were quite enthusiastically following.
There's a story about the Lusitania herself just earlier that year -- it was January -- Lusitania then sailing from the United States to Britain bringing over a special envoy of President Wilson, a man called Colonel House. And as the ship neared the British isles, it thought there might be submarines in the area, what did the captain of the Lusitania do? He ran up the Stars and Stripes. And of course, when Germany heard about this, she, you know, protested to the United States government.
And there were all kinds of other incidents of British merchant ships using other neutral flags, like the Danish flag. So the Germans were alleging that that was going on, and with justice.
The Germans also alleged that there was contraband in the Lusitania. And more than that, that amongst that contraband there was war materiel being shipped from the United States. And again, this was quite true. If you look at the ship's manifest, which was published, you know, quite openly after the sinking, you will find four million live rounds of rifle ammunition. You will find shrapnel casings. You will find percussive fuses, as well as a whole lot of other material which could have been interpreted as contraband, down to, you know, leather to make belts and material to make uniforms. So that claim was legitimate.
But the Germans also claimed that the Lusitania was carrying guns on deck, that she was armed. Now, if that could have been proved to be true, it would have given legitimacy to Germany attacking without warning because it would have changed the nature of the Lusitania. She wouldn't have been just a merchant ship any longer. She would have been the equivalent of a naval ship. But there was never any evidence that there were guns on board. You know, passengers had heard these rumors. They looked. They could never find any.
And what else did the Germans allege that the Lusitania was carrying? As you mentioned, organized Canadian troops going off to the western front. And again, if that could have been proved, it would have justified the attack without warning.
LAMB: There's a Canadian connection with -- is it Alfred Booth? Is that the -- the Cunard's owner?
PRESTON: He was the chairman of Cunard.
LAMB: And he was a Canadian originally?
PRESTON: No, I believe he was a Briton.
LAMB: Because there was a Canadian involved with the company that I read in your book.
PRESTON: Yes. That's right. That's right. But the real -- what sort of confused the issue and brought the Canadian question into the frame was really the fact that there was a Canadian soldier on board, or former soldier, I should say, from the 6th Canadian Rifles, called Robert Matthews. But he was actually running away to England with his mistress.
And his body and her body were recovered the day after the sinking, and it was reported at a little local inquest in Ireland that on her body was found a little golden badge. And when Germany read about this, they interpreted this little badge as being a regimental badge belonging to her husband. And it wasn't at all. It was, as I found in the Cunard archives, this little badge was a prize that she had won for winning second prize in the ladies' potato race on board the Lusitania.
And so that whole sort of farrago of Canadian troops on board just derived from that one story.
LAMB: A U-boat is what? What's the -- where's the name come from?
PRESTON: "Unterseeboot" in German -- German, which means a boat under the sea. So a U-boat is a submarine.
And one of the fascinating things we researched in this book was really to explore how this new technology had really come on the scene so fast. It's only around 1900 that you have the United States Navy ordering her first submarine, which was really the prototype for the submarines which Britain and Germany started to build. And yet, you know, by 1915, when the Lusitania was hit, this device has become a lethal weapon of war, and also something which is changing and challenging the very nature of the rules of war, which went back for centuries and weren't prepared for these, you know, for the slim, 200 feet, "tin fish" as people called them, slinking under the water, attacking targets as large as the Lusitania.
LAMB: How many people on board the U-20?
PRESTON: The usual complement for a U-boat of that size was around 38, 40.
LAMB: How many torpedoes did they have on board?
PRESTON: They had about seven torpedoes on board.
LAMB: And how many did they fire on that day?
PRESTON: I'm very clear that Walther Schwieger only fired one torpedo that day, despite the way in which the British government sought to manipulate evidence, which was later given to the official inquiries in London into the sinking.
LAMB: Why did they want to manipulate it?
PRESTON: They were anxious because Germany was claiming that it was the munitions in the haul of the ship, which had caused her to sink so quickly. And they were saying, "Look, this is what happened and Britain -- and by analogy her friends, United States -- are guilty of using passengers in a very hypocritical, self-serving way as mere human shields."
This accusation was starting to reverberate about exploding ammunitions hastening the ship's end. Britain anxious that that might be the case; therefore, much better from Britain's point of view, that it could be shown that there were at least two, possibly three torpedoes, and that those torpedoes alone caused the rapid sinking.
LAMB: But you're sure there was only one?
PRESTON: Absolutely sure. Because one of the things I found at the British Public Record Office was an intercepted message. You have Walther Schwieger returning from his mission, back within radio contact of the German bases and radio stations, that within 200 miles, he sent the telegram announcing, he said, "I have sunk the Lusitania with one torpedo."
The British Admiralty intercepted that message. They knew instantly the implications of it -- what it meant -- and it was that information they were so anxious to suppress. And that's why witnesses, members of the crew, passengers who were determined to get evidence about what they'd really seen and heard that day, they were not allowed to do so. Even on the BBC archives, there is reference to the helmsman being taken aside before giving evidence to the official inquiry, and being told that it would be very, in quotes, "helpful" if he would give evidence that there was only one torpedo. He said he wouldn't do that.
LAMB: Anybody alive from the U-boat?
PRESTON: Yes. The U-20 got safely back to Germany. But what you have the following year is that that particular U-boat ran aground off sand banks off the coast of Denmark. Schwieger and his men had to abandon her. They tried to blow her up.
So, the crew were then dispersed to other vessels. Some of those men survived the war. Walther Schwieger, who was transferred to an even more technologically advanced U-boat, the U-88, did not. He disappeared in 1917. It's thought that he ran into a British mine field somewhere in the North Sea. But I have -- it's quite an eerie feeling -- I have listened to recorded interviews with, for example, the radio officer of the U-20, a man called Otto Recovsky (ph). This interview was recorded in the early 1960's, and he describes what he saw and heard.
LAMB: And any of those folks, any of the German sailors alive today?
PRESTON: Not today. No. I corresponded with the widow of the torpedo officer, a man called Heiman Weissbach (ph), and she gave me her views and access to pieces of correspondence. But I was unable to speak to any of the crew of the U-20. I mean, they would be far too old now. The only people I've been directly in contact with still alive during the time I researched were people who were just children, just babies at the time.
LAMB: Are you pronouncing it Schwieger or Schwieger?
LAMB: Schwieger. Schwieger was 30.
PRESTON: That's right.
LAMB: Captain Turner, William Turner of the Lusitania, was how old?
PRESTON: He was born in 1856, so they were talking about a man coming toward the end of his career, a man in his late 50's.
LAMB: Did he survive?
PRESTON: He did survive. He was a remarkable survivor, really. He was washed off the bridge of his ship, and rescued eventually, after two or three fairly harrowing hours in the water. What happened was that one of his crewmen saw the sunlight glinting on the gold braid on the cuff of his jacket. He was rescued, picked up, put on board a fishing boat, brought into Queenstown, and within just hours of landing, this traumatized man was giving evidence to a local inquest in Ireland. And then, of course, asked to give evidence at the full official inquiry.
LAMB: Had he ever been interviewed?
PRESTON: He found it all very traumatic. He resented the fact that he had -- his professionalism had been brought into question by the official inquiry. And in his later life, he gave very few interviews. He would really only talk about what had happened to family and friends. And clearly found it very stressful to give evidence at the inquiry. Even at the inquest in Ireland, we have him breaking down in tears. But ...
LAMB: Have you heard his voice?
PRESTON: No, I haven't. I haven't. I've read his accounts of what happened, as revealed to members of his family, and I have read letters from his sons.
LAMB: Is it true that he called the passengers "little monkeys?"
PRESTON: Yes, he was an old-fashioned -- he called himself a true old-fashioned sailorman. He had a love of the sea, particularly of sailing ships. He loved to be at sea, but he had no time for the kind of social chit-chat that was expected of a captain on board a ship like the Lusitania. And he very happily left that to his staff captain.
LAMB: How did you get involved in the business of writing, and where are you from?
PRESTON: I'm from London, in the U.K. I studied history at Oxford, and I've always been interested in history from the human dimension, the human perspective. History to me has always seemed to be, if you like, a sort of a weaving together of human experience.
And I began writing, having spent some time in Germany from writing historical features and travel pieces, but I got seriously into writing narrative history, I guess, seven, eight years ago, starting to look for stories where there was a strong definitive human experience at the core, from which I felt I might learn something that others might find interesting. And also, I was looking for experiences which were very well documented, the words of the people who were there.
I like to feel, if I read a book, that I was there. I like to see something through the eyes of the people who experienced it, to feel it as they might have felt it. For me, it's a bit like when an archaeologist, you know, touches something they've dug from the ground, and that sort of tremor runs through them. For me, it was like that with words. That finding the sources and going back to that.
LAMB: What college did you go to at Oxford?
PRESTON: Saint Hilda's College.
LAMB: And what did you study?
PRESTON: Modern history.
LAMB: And your -- what book is this for you?
PRESTON: This is my fourth history book.
LAMB: What were the first three about?
PRESTON: The first was a story of Bonnie Prince Charlie and the Jacobite rebellion in the 18th century in England and Scotland. The second book was about Captain Falcon Scott and the race to the South Pole. And the one I published two years ago, was about the Boxer rebellion in China, in 1900, when you had a big peasant uprising and many foreigners besieged in Peking.
LAMB: Are you writing another book already?
PRESTON: Yes, I am. I'm deep in research at the moment for something very different to the Lusitania, but I'm already finding it compelling. It's the story of a 17th century pirate, a man called William Dampier, whose experiences were the inspiration for writers like Swift and Dafoe, for "Gulliver's Travels" and "Robinson Crusoe" -- a man who'd begun life really, you know, bluntly as a buccaneer, as a cut-throat and a pirate, but ended up as a naturalist and really one of the first true travel writers of his time. So, I'm deep in pirate journals at the moment.
LAMB: What's this cover about?
PRESTON: If that's cover -- I was absolutely staggered when I first saw that image. That is a life jacket from the Lusitania that was fished out of the Delaware River near Philadelphia five years after the Lusitania went down. So, if you just think of that journey, this life jacket was washed across around the west coast of Africa, back over the sea again, up the Eastern Seaboard of the United States. And I just find the story of that so emblematic, in the context of the whole Lusitania tragedy.
LAMB: Now, would your head go through that -- I mean, would that fit on the -- how would you put this on?
PRESTON: You put your head through the middle, and your arms through the sides. In these more safety-conscious days, you know, we think, oh yes, we know how to put life jackets on. The great tragedy of the Lusitania was, that they'd taken lessons onboard from the Titanic. They had plenty of lifeboats; they had plenty of life jackets; but in the case of the life jackets, people had not bothered to read the instructions and they hadn't had any drills.
And so, you had situations with people putting their legs through holes where arms should have been -- all kinds of crazy things -- and so when the rescuers arrived, you know, they find a lot of people whose heads had actually been pushed under the water by the life jacket, or whose legs were sticking up in the air -- complete mayhem in those 18 minutes.
LAMB: You do have a lot about people.
LAMB: And you write about their personalities and all that, and I get a sense that you heard some of them. Any of the oral history of the Canadian Broadcasting Company's tapes? Did you listen to any of that?
PRESTON: Yes, indeed. Yes, indeed. I found that there had been a program made back in the 1960's for the 50th anniversary, and that some of the survivors, including the radio officer of the U-20, had been interviewed then.
The program itself lasted some 25 minutes, but when I contacted Canadian Broadcasting, they very generously gave me access to those tapes. And there I found about eight hours of recorded interviews. And really, some of the most poignant, moving, compelling material I've ever heard. There were mothers talking about how they tried to jump over the side, holding their babies in their arms, the force of the water just tearing those children away from them. They were just whirled away in all the debris and the mayhem and the water.
And even 50 years long, that break in the voice as people were reliving that experience. And I just found that totally haunting, and I haven't forgotten some of those interviews to this day.
LAMB: There's one footnote that fascinated me about one person that was on this ship. a guy named Elbert Hubbard.
PRESTON: Oh yes, yes indeed ...
LAMB: ... who wrote "A Message to Garcia." What was that?
PRESTON: Oh, it was about -- he was very intrigued by labor relations. He really was sort of -- he was against, if you like, organized unions. He believed in sort of freedom of the individual and freedom of people, so really to determine their own destiny. And he was really sort of speaking out for independence, not sort of organized movements, but for the individual.
LAMB: In the footnotes, worth reading for people who like this kind of information, it says Elbert Hubbard, "A Message to Garcia," is fourth in the list of the world's leading copyrighted bestsellers. Fourth?
PRESTON: Yes, I was staggered by that, too. I couldn't resist putting that in as a footnote.
LAMB: If sales were surpassed only by the Guinness Book of Records, first published in 1955, the World Almanac and Book of Facts, first published in 1868, and Dr. Benjamin Spock's "The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care." Runners up, sharing position number five were Margaret Mitchell's "Gone With the Wind," Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird," Jacqueline Susann's "Valley of the Dolls," Book of Millennium Records, Virgin Publishing 1999.
Do you remember -- I think you had it in the book -- how many copies of the -- 45 million copies of "A Message to Garcia?"
PRESTON: It was something that -- it was something absolutely phenomenal, written by this man, who I guess, you know, he struck me, fascinating character. Something like a cross between Rothgen (ph) and our William Morris in the U.K.
He'd set up this sort of arts and crafts community in East Aurora. At a printing press, he produced this magazine called "The Philistine." And, you know, what was he doing on board the Lusitania? He decided to set sail with his wife to go and reason with the kaiser. And he'd written this essay called, "The Man Who'd Lifted the Lid off Hell." He was going to go and remonstrate with kaiser to stop the war.
LAMB: Did he survive?
PRESTON: He didn't. There were very sad accounts of how, when the torpedo hit, he was standing near the rail with his wife. Friends said, look, you've got to get a life jacket and you've got to get in the lifeboat. And he seemed just not to react, you know, and a friend rushed away to try and find him a life jacket. When he came back, the Hubbards weren't there.
There were various accounts. Some people said they believed they'd seen him in the water, pretty badly smashed up, but no one was really sure what had actually happened to him. But one of the things which interested me was that he was apparently a great admirer of a couple who'd been on the Titanic, Mr. and Mrs. Isadore Strauss, who were a couple who, you know, the ship was starting to sink, and they were trying to get Mrs. Strauss into a life boat, they said no, no, we've been married for 50 years, we're not going to be parted. And they went down to the cabin, lay down and sank with the ship.
And so, I wonder, in the final minutes, what was actually going through Elbert Hubbard's mind?
LAMB: A man named Charles Frohman was on board. Did he survive?
PRESTON: No, Charles Frohman didn't. Charles Frohman, the most famous theatrical producer of his day, the man who was responsible for bringing Peter Pan to the stage. He traveled regularly between New York and London. He was last seen standing on the deck, as the ship, you know, listing to starboard, bounced off to go into the water, people toppling in. He was last seen reciting some lines from Peter Pan, along the lines of, "why fear death, it's such a beautiful adventure?" He wasn't seen again.
LAMB: Alfred Vanderbilt?
LAMB: Who is he?
PRESTON: Alfred Vanderbilt, millionaire, the sort of heir. Of course, his elder brother had been disinherited. The heir of the Vanderbilt fortunes ...
LAMB: His elder brother was Cornelius Vanderbilt Jr.?
PRESTON: That's right, Cornelius Vanderbilt, Jr. And there'd been an argument within the family about his marriage, and so the bulk of the Vanderbilt fortune had come to Alfred. He was on the ship. He loved the Lusitania, one of his favorite ships.
He was coming over to England for a meeting about horses, his great love and passion, but also a meeting about -- he was providing funding for Red Cross ambulances at the front.
And he really was one of the great heroes of the sinking, for me. And having led a somewhat a rakish life, he could not have spent the last 15 minutes of his life better. There are substantiated accounts from several survivors of how he and his valet, a man called Ronald Denyer, rushed around giving lifeboats to women and children.
Vanderbilt himself couldn't swim. He was the possessor of one of the most beautiful swimming pools in America, couldn't swim. He gave his life jacket to a young nurse from Seattle. He and the valet picked up young children, tucked them under their arms, handed them to men in the lifeboats. In the last few moments, threw those children to the lifeboats; disappeared, never seen again. His body was never recovered.
LAMB: Margaret Mackworth.
PRESTON: Yes, indeed, a remarkable woman.
LAMB: Did she survive?
PRESTON: She did survive. She and her father survived. Her father was a big Welsh industrialist, a local politician. She had traveled to the United States with him. She had a lovely time in New York. She'd stayed at the Waldorf-Astoria, and she'd written about the light and the spark and the gaiety, compared to the dullness and the gloom back home in England, because of the war.
She was thoroughly enjoying the voyage on the Lusitania, but she was in the dining room when the torpedo hit, managed to get on deck, and was eventually just washed over the side, and was dragged. Someone saw her floating, pretty well clinging to a piece of wreckage, unconscious in the water. I think she was on a chair, and made sure that she was dragged onto a lifeboat.
And she was taken ashore in a terrible state. She was just by now wrapped in old blanket and completely traumatized. But there, at the end of the gangplank, her father was waiting for her. They were very, very lucky that -- so many families lost members, but the two of them survived.
And her father was always very amused, when he got back to Wales, to see the newspaper headlines, because they were hoarding, saying, "great maritime disaster." Then, underneath, it said, David Thomas saved.
LAMB: Were there enough lifeboats?
PRESTON: Yes, the great irony was that there were enough lifeboats. There were 24 wooden lifeboats, and there were also collapsible lifeboats made of canvas, with sides that you could put up -- plenty, plenty of space for 2,000 or so people on board, because the message of the Titanic had been taken very seriously.
And the Cunard had checked so that there were enough. There was enough provision for people. But what happened was, that when the torpedo hit, caused catastrophic damage. The ship began to list heavily to starboard. From the starboard side, you had the lifeboats swinging right out, so people had to jump six to eight feet to get in them. And very, very hard to lower them, they were tipping off, they were breaking off from their ropes and crushing down on the people already in the water.
On the port side, the lifeboats were swinging in over the deck. Took a mighty effort -- they're really heavy, you know -- to push them out over the rail and lower them. And when they did manage to start lowering them, they were just ripped into match sticks by the rivets protruding from the ship's side. So of all those lifeboats, only, you know, five or six got away safely.
LAMB: Charles Lauriat.
PRESTON: Yes. Charles Lauriat, another hero of the sinking. A man of letters, a Boston book seller, he did his very best to try and in the very final moments to free one of the lifeboats which was being dragged down with the ship. It was still attached by ropes, you know. Lauriat was working on one end and the steward at the other end trying to cut through these thick ropes with a pen knife, and he couldn't do it. Lauriat realized what was going to happen. He shouted to the people in the lifeboat that, for goodness sakes, they must jump into the water.
The people, you know, psychological effect of still being sort of attached to the mothership was too great, and there in utter despair, he saw this lifeboat with all those people just dragged underneath the water.
But he then managed to swim to one of the collapsible lifeboats, which was floating free, and he and a friend of his, a man from Connecticut named Spooks (ph), they managed eventually -- it was a real struggle -- to raise the canvas sides of the collapsible boat and to pull other people in. And they eventually got nearly 40 people to safety. It is a remarkable story.
LAMB: As you can see, there are four stacks here when this picture -- you say in the book that Lusitania was operating on only three of four boilers...
LAMB: Which means that it wasn't going the full 25 knots.
PRESTON: That's right. What had happened was she had 25 boilers, and on this last voyage, only 19 of those were being used. Now, the reason for this was that the ship of that size very heavy on coal consumption. So, it was an economy measure for the war, to shut down one of the full boiler rooms. And that meant that her top speed on this last voyage was 21 knots, not the 25 knots that she'd been designed to achieve.
LAMB: How fast was she going, though, when she was hit?
PRESTON: She was going 18 knots at the time the torpedo struck her.
LAMB: Can you say that the great defense they thought they had was speed over...
LAMB: The speed of the U-boat.
PRESTON: That's right. I mean, what had happened was -- and it was a very almost sort of a Greek tragedy unfolding, this series of events impacting one another. There had been fog early that morning, Captain Turner, a very precise, meticulous navigator, not quite sure of his exact position off the Irish coast, so he had, A, slowed his speed because of the fog. Secondly, keeping at a slow speed offered feigning a straight line while his officers took a four-point bearing on the coastline to determine his exact position.
And passengers themselves were puzzled. They were disconcerted by the slow speed, and they thought it was asking for trouble, you know, in waters where everybody knew that U-boats were lurking. They were known to wait in the Irish Sea. Why were they going so slowly?
But it has to be said in Captain Turner's defense that at that stage in the war, no merchant ship that was capable of doing, you know, 14, 15 knots plus had yet been successfully sank by a U-boat, so at 18 knots, he probably felt sort of he was safe.
LAMB: Who tried to blame Captain Turner for this?
PRESTON: The British Admiralty. It's very clear if you look in the files that public record offers you will see letters written by the first sea lord, a man called Admiral Jackie Fisher -- if you like, he was the professional head of the navy. He reported to Churchill, who was the politician in charge of the navy.
LAMB: Did they get along?
PRESTON: No, no. At this stage -- they had initially got on very well. The two were very powerful, magnetic, charismatic personalities. It had worked great at the early stages, but at this stage they were really starting to be loggerheads...
LAMB: How old was Winston Churchill?
PRESTON: ... in the campaign. Winston Churchill was around 50.
LAMB: Fifty at this time?
PRESTON: That's right.
LAMB: And how old was Jackie Fisher?
PRESTON: Jackie Fisher was around 70. Jackie Fisher, an elderly man, brought back by Churchill.
LAMB: And in the end, did they blame -- did they get away with blaming Turner?
PRESTON: Yes. If you look at the correspondence, you'll find memos written by Jackie Fisher saying, you know, I hope that, you know, Captain Turner is found guilty by the inquiry, and you know, I believe he's guilty, and whatever the verdict, you know, this man is a traitor.
They even had Captain Turner's background investigated to see if there was any potential for him perhaps having been a spy, you know, having been in the pay of the Germans. But part of this sort of vilify Turner campaign was a device to deflect any criticism away from the Admiralty for having been negligent with the Lusitania.
LAMB: There is another name -- I've got to get you pronounce it, because I keep -- I've kept -- kept reading it, but I don't know how to pronounce it. It's the Pope woman. The spiritualist.
PRESTON: Oh, yes, yes, she's one of my favorite, favorite personalities on board. I've always pronounced it Theodate Pope. But maybe...
LAMB: It looks that way. It looks that way.
PRESTON: I may be wrong.
LAMB: I didn't have it right.
PRESTON: I'm very open to ...
PRESTON: That's right. I believe that there is a museum in Farmington, Connecticut, where she came from, and I'm sure -- I hope very much to visit that one day, and then to check whether I had been pronouncing her name properly.
LAMB: What was her story on this? Did she survive?
PRESTON: Yes, she did. She was traveling to Britain with a companion, a 35-year-old man called Edwin Friend. Theodate herself was about 50. As you say, she was a spiritualist. She was also an advanced thinker, an architect, a very unusual woman for her time. And she was traveling to Britain with her companion, Edwin Friend, to try and persuade the British to set up a spiritualist organization.
And she and Edwin Friend, you know, when the torpedo hit, they saw the complete scramble, the mayhem on the tilting decks, get in the lifeboats. They decided very sensibly that that wasn't for them, and that they must jump. And Edwin Friend leapt into the waves first; Theodate and her maid followed. She never saw Edwin Friend again after she leapt into the water.
And she herself had a terrifying experience. She was under the water, and as she started to rise to the surface, she realized that someone had fallen on top of her, and was really sort of clinging to her, like someone was clinging to a piece of wreckage, and she had to fight to get free of him, because she was drowning, you know, under the weight of this man clinging to her. But she found something to hold onto; she lost consciousness. She was eventually dragged onto a fishing boat, which came out to rescue her. But the fishermen thought she was dead. From the description, her body was just put like a sack of wet cement amongst all the corpses piled up.
And it was a friend of hers from -- all the way from Kansas City who saw Theodate there, and said to this official on the boat, for goodness sake, try and do something, see if there's any life there. And after a big argument, they eventually said, OK, we'll try and resuscitate her. And after a while, you know, there was a flicker of an eyelash, you know, a tremble there, and she was still alive. And you know, they pulled her from this pile of bodies, they wrapped her in a blanket, they put her near a fire. She survived, but completely traumatized. And that night, like many of the survivors, she realized that her hair was starting to fall out in handfuls with the shock.
LAMB: Now, there is another famous name in here of a man who was the secretary of state of the United States at the time. He'd been a three-time presidential candidate, William Jennings Bryan...
LAMB: Who quit as secretary of state over this whole business of getting into World War I.
PRESTON: Absolutely. William Jennings Bryan, a great believer in arbitration to solve international disputes and the use of mediation.
LAMB: He's on the left in the pictures that we're seeing on the screen. Go ahead.
PRESTON: And he was very concerned that in the aftermath of the sinking, with all this outrage, you know, the death of 128 United States citizens that United States should not, if you like, overreact. He was worried by the tone of the notes which were being sent by the U.S. administration, many of them, you know, typed up by President Wilson himself. But they were taking too stern a tone with Germany. You know, he reminded President Wilson that Britain was guilty of some infringements of international law. He wanted those pointed out to Britain at the same time.
And all of this came to a head just within weeks of the sinking. It was a very powerful description I read of a Cabinet meeting, Bryan sitting at the table, listening to the arguments around the table about the wording of the next protest note that was going to be sent to the German government; Bryan clearly under great strain, and you know, his eyes half-closed, pushing back his chair from the table and, you know, saying, "gentlemen, you are not being neutral," and sort of leaving the room. And after that, his resignation was only a matter of time.
And I think his resignation, when it came, was probably something of a relief to Woodrow Wilson, because they were not seeing things the same way by that stage.
LAMB: When we finally got into World War I in 1917, posters came out that said, according to your information, "remember the Lusitania." Two years later.
LAMB: And it worked?
PRESTON: Yes. I mean, the Lusitania was an image, a memory which had never gone away. That's why you find newspaper from soldiers, you know, advancing into battle shouting, "remember the Lusitania." There are very powerful visual images on some of the recruitment posters.
There is one of a woman in the water sort of blue, green background, a woman in a white dress, her hair sort of streaming out of it, like sort of mermaid behind her. Very poignantly, she's holding a baby in her arms, and written in blood red letters along the bottoms are the words "enlist," and in the background of this drowning woman, a sinking ship.
LAMB: About out of time. Again, recapping, May 7, 1915, the Lusitania was hit by?
PRESTON: By one torpedo fired by the German U-boat U-20.
LAMB: Where was it located?
PRESTON: Just off the southern coast of Ireland.
LAMB: How many people were killed?
PRESTON: Twelve hundred people died that day.
LAMB: How many of those were Americans?
PRESTON: One hundred and twenty-eight.
LAMB: And what other? Were the rest of them mostly British?
PRESTON: They were a combination. There were many nationalities on board, but the great majority were, apart from the American citizens, were British and Canadian.
LAMB: Now, this was the same company that published Dava Sobel's "Longitude."
PRESTON: Yes, indeed.
LAMB: Walker & Co. Here's the cover of the book. Is there a movie in this for you?
PRESTON: I would very much like to think so, because I think not only the human drama, but the political context, the implications, are so fascinating that I think it will make a great story.
LAMB: Has anyone bought the rights yet?
PRESTON: Not yet, but there are discussions going on.
LAMB: Here is the cover of the book again, with the life jacket on the cover, "Lusitania," by Diana Preston. Thank you very much for joining us.
PRESTON: Oh, it's been a great pleasure. Thank you.
Copyright National Cable Satellite Corporation 2002. Personal, noncommercial use of this transcript is permitted. No commercial, political or other use may be made of this transcript without the express permission of National Cable Satellite Corporation.