May 2015 marks the anniversary of two significant military events — the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915, and victory in Europe in 1945.
Launched in 1906, passenger liner RMS Lusitania had been built partly through government funding, with the proviso that she could be converted to an armed merchant cruiser (AMC) if need arose.
Few people at her launch could have predicted the full extent of Germany’s future militarisation, with the Great War and the invention of U-boats. People needed to travel and, although by 1914 Lusitania was listed as an auxiliary AMC, she was still carrying passengers to Europe and America in 1915.
Naval war zone
When, in February that year, Germany declared the seas around the north of England a naval war zone, fears were expressed for Lusitania’s safety, along with other Cunard liners.
The threat was so great that, when she arrived in New York on 24 April 1915, the German embassy placed an advert in 50 American newspapers warning people not to board her, at the risk of accidental torpedoing.
Passenger list figures vary, but it is claimed that 1,959 people, including 159 Americans and approximately 129 children, boarded the vessel. Unknown to them, she was carrying thousands of rounds of live ammunition, in contravention of the Cruiser Rules. Even up to the 1980s, the British government denied the presence of these munitions.
The admiralty ordered the Lusitania not to fly a flag — again a contravention of the Rules. And, like the Titanic three earlier, the ship was not carrying enough lifeboats.
She was hit by just one torpedo, from U-20, on the afternoon of 7 May 1915, off the Irish coast. Minutes later, the munitions in the hull exploded, with disastrous effect.
In the 18 minutes it took to sink, only six out of 48 lifeboats deployed. 1,198 people died, mostly from hypothermia or drowning while waiting for rescue, 128 of them American citizens. Only four children were saved.
Shock and rage
Shock, followed by rage, swept across the North American continent. Commonwealth Canada renewed its calls for its US neighbour to enter the war. To the Americans, this was the ‘high water-mark of German atrocity — higher even than the invasion of Belgium and the use of gas warfare at Ypres in 1915’, according to Gordon Heath in his book Canadian churches and the First World War.
The British put pressure on US president, Woodrow Wilson, to enter the war. But it was not until 1917, when the German navy once again declared the North Atlantic waters near Britain a war zone, that Wilson declared war on Germany.
But, 30 years after this powerful shock for USA, it was Germany — the nation that had considered itself to be invincible — that was suffering its final blow.
On 7 May 1945, almost a year since the D-Day landings, senior figures watched as General Gustav Jodl signed the unconditional surrender of Germany.
Many of the senior Allied and German commanders who were gathered in that otherwise unremarkable schoolhouse in Reims had fought in the trenches in the Great War, and had seen once again the devastation that war could bring to Europe.
On 8 May, joint declarations in London, Washington and Moscow declared the war in Europe to be over and the 2-3-day celebration of Victory in Europe (VE Day) began.
But so too did the post-war clean-up and rebuilding operations, with all the ensuing grief, horror, debt and guilt that would take many more years to overcome.
In the aftermath of VE day, many Christian humanitarian and missionary organisations were born as part of the churches’ response to the suffering in Europe. A number of Western nations that had fought political and military tyranny were now in the forefront of missionary outreach to the vanquished.
There have been 100 years since the Lusitania’s sinking and 70 since the first VE Day. Yet wars still rage on. Ships, planes and buildings are still destroyed, with great loss of life. While the world has not yet been plunged into a third World War, we remain in deeply troubled times.
As Jesus predicted: ‘You will hear of wars and rumours of wars. See that you are not troubled; for all these things must come to pass, but the end is not yet. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. And there will be famines, pestilences, and earthquakes in various places’.
But one day the Saviour will return: ‘They will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. And he will send his angels with a great sound of a trumpet, and they will gather together his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other’ (Matthew 24:6-7, 30-31).
From that day on, there will never again be war. And all who have trusted in the Saviour will be standing shoulder to shoulder, no longer traumatised by the divisions of this life, but co-heirs with Christ and brothers and sisters together.