One of the Britain's best-loved writers for children.He has written more than 100 books and won many prizes, including the Smarties Prize, the Blue Peter Book Award and the Whitebread Award. Over the next four years of the centenary of the First World War there will be one or two well-known dates, a few anniversaries of iconic battles, thoughts of some names and places, Ypres, Arras, Loos, maybe; or a familiar object will surface in the house, a medal perhaps, with a story to go with it. One date, as we all know, has come and gone already: August 4, 2014, the centenary of the declaration of war at 11 oa€™clock at night. A date less familiar to many will come next year, on May 7, 2015, one hundred years after the sinking by a German U-boat of the Lusitania. I know about this only because I have just written a story about it, a novel I should never have thought of writing in the first place, had I not, years ago, come across a medal handed down through the family.
None of this was of any interest whatsoever to a small child of six years old, who, in the summer of 1948, had caught chickenpox. I know all this, because some years later when she and I met and married, her father gave us that chest of drawers to help us to set up home. It was, I soon discovered, one of 300,000 such medals produced by Selfridges of London, to be sold widely for charity, deliberately to counter the German claim that the Lusitania had been carrying armaments as well as passengers as she crossed the Atlantic, and that as a ship of war they had every right to sink her.
The British cleverly turned this triumphalist sentiment on its head, citing it as evidence yet again of German callousness and barbarism. I wanted answers to questions, to sort out the facts of a history so corrupted by propaganda. The dominance of the seas by the surface ships of the Royal Navy in 1914 was such that the blockade of German ports was almost total, depriving Germany of much of the food and materials she needed to keep her people fed, and to conduct the war effectively. As the struggle intensified at sea, the Germans declared a a€?War Zonea€? around the coast of Britain and Ireland. One of the ships was HM auxiliary cruiser Bayano, which was torpedoed on March 11, 1915, and sank within three minutes. At the beginning of May, the Middlesbrough steamer Edale was torpedoed off Scilly, but in this instance the U-boat captain gave warning so that the crew could get off before she was torpedoed.
There were casualties though when the American oil tanker the Gulflight was torpedoed off the Bishopa€™s Lighthouse.
On April 23, 1915 the German embassy put a notice in several newspapers in New York, often alongside advertisements for the Lusitaniaa€™s next Atlantic crossing. Despite these warnings, RMS Lusitania, commanded by Captain William Turner, sailed from New York at noon on May 1, with 1,959 passengers and crew on board.
One passenger later reported that when the torpedo hit, a€?it sounded like a million-ton hammer hitting a steam boiler a hundred feet higha€?. The second, more powerful explosion sent a geyser of water, coal and dust and debris into the sky. That Walther Swieger knew what he was doing when he fired that torpedo there can be little doubt.
The printed warning that had appeared in American papers before the sailing, however, acquired an ominous tone in retrospect. There followed claims and counter claims, the Germans insisting the Lusitania was a€?carrying large quantities of war material in her cargoa€?, and that she was classed officially as a€?an auxiliary cruisera€?.
This animation, produced in 1918 by the influential American cartoonist Winsor McCay, shows the depth of American feeling about the sinking of the Lusitania, and its role in bringing the country into World War One.


And all of these will be markers for us, pointers, reminders, a hundred years later, of lives lived then, of deeds done, of deaths died. For some, the next significant date may well be the morning of July 1, 2016, one hundred years since the first day of the Battle of the Somme. It happened 12 miles south of the Old Head of Kinsale, off the coast of Ireland, in bright sunshine and calm seas. It is not a medal for bravery, but rather a badge of shame, a medal designed and produced by the German side, to celebrate and proclaim a great and destructive naval triumph. Finding herself isolated in the guest room far from the rest of the household, and already feeling better, she was becoming increasingly bored. The German sculptor, Karl Goetz, enraged that a passenger ship should have been used by the British in this underhand way, and that Germany should find herself condemned by the whole world for the terrible loss of life, had produced 500 medals to celebrate the sinking of the great liner, making it quite explicit in the design that she was carrying weapons of war, that Cunard, the shipa€™s owners, knew this, and that in selling tickets for the crossing they were putting business before the lives of their passengers.
To do this I needed to know all I could of the German U-boat campaign in the Atlantic in the first years of World War One, and to find out as much as I could about the sinking of the Lusitania. The port of Ostend was her only access to the Channel, the North Sea and the Atlantic, and it was largely from here that the Imperial German Navy sent out her U-boats. She was a grand ship a€” and had once held the Blue Riband for fastest crossing of the Atlantic. Precautions were taken as they entered the War Zone: watertight doors were closed, lookouts posted, a blackout was imposed on the night of May 6, and the life-boats were swung out on their davits, and made ready, in case. Many had already drowned in the cold water, but 764 passengers and crew were rescued and landed at Queenstown. Some will be personal: the date of a great grandfathera€™s death, a faded photo of his name under his Portland stone at the Bedford Cemetery near Ypres, a stained letter scribbled in pencil, or one of those brass Christmas boxes, full of chocolate or cigarettes, presented by Princess Mary to the troops at the front in Christmas 1914, and passed down through the family from some distant but now long-forgotten relative. It was then produced in vast numbers by our side, as evidence of German brutality, in a war that was full of propaganda and counter propaganda a€“ as wars of course have always been.
She climbed naughtily out of her sick-bed, and, for no good reason, began to rummage around in the back of the chest of drawers. It turned up from time to time after that, an uncomfortable and disturbing presence, but one that would not be ignored. In the end this was to prove vital to the Allied cause, and make a significant contribution to final victory. Her aim was to do to Britain what Britain was doing to her, to starve the country of the supplies she needed to sustain her people and to conduct the war effort. Amongst them were over 120 American citizens, amongst them: writer Justin Forman, millionaire Alfred Vanderbilt, philosopher Elbert Hubbard. It is certainly true that RMS Lusitania had once been classified as an auxiliary cruiser at the beginning of the war, but she had been declassified, and the Germans knew it. I myself have often asked a different kind of question: why was that medal hidden away in a sock-drawer in my wifea€™s family home? It is the story of one survivor from the sinking of the Lusitania, a young girl, who manages to swim to the shipa€™s piano and use it as a life raft. And many of us will know when the guns at last fell silent, at 11 oa€™clock on the morning of November 11, 1918.
She was the one who discovered the medal, hidden away under some of her fathera€™s old socks.


It was, she says, a large dark-looking medal, a thing of gloomy shadows, heavy to hold in a small hand, and rather rusty. Archive material of the time, newspapers, even film, helped hugely, but were often tainted with the prejudices of the time, on either side.
By 1915, the U-boats were threatening to cut Britain off from her supply line and bring her to her knees.
The fact is that two years after this tragedy, the Unites States joined the war on the Allied side.
Nearly a hundred years later the truth still lies deep in murky waters off the Old Head of Kinsale.
The early U-boats were few in number and slow, blind also under the surface, but they were undetectable.
Close now to the Irish coast, the fog horn was sounded, which alarmed some of the passengers a€” many were well aware that there was a danger of attack by submarines and this might reveal to an enemy where the ship was.
There were 48 lifeboats on board, enough for everyone, but there was not time to fill them and get everyone safely into the water. But he must have known there were nearly 2,000 people on board, women, children, families, British and American.
These munitions were on the manifest, but this was not made known at the time to the public in Britain. Had they not done so, it is likely that the outcome of the First World War would have been very different. Three hours or so after the Lusitania went down, the grand piano from that luxurious liner was found floating in the sea a€” and in some reports, with a child still clinging on. On one side of the medal, depicted in relief, was a great ship going down under the waves, a scene of dreadful devastation to her.
They very soon began to wreak havoc amongst naval and merchant shipping, causing appalling losses in men and ships.
Lt Commander John Lane, beloved brother of Clarea€™s father Allen Lane, was killed six months after Clare was born. The convention a€” not always adhered to a€” was that unarmed ships should be warned before they were sunk, so that passengers and a crew had a chance to get away in lifeboats. Passengers were queueing up to buy their tickets for the ship from the skeletal figure of Death, a skull for a head. The words above this hideous image: Geschaft uber alles (business above everything), would of course have meant nothing to her at the time. She was as fascinated as she was horrified, and would hide this grim discovery back under her fathera€™s socks, taking it out to look at it again only when she could summon up the courage to do so.



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