On the afternoon of May 7, 1915, a German U-Boat captained by Walther von Schweiger spotted a four-stacked ocean liner off the coast of Ireland. Schweiger’s submarine, the U-20, had left Germany a week earlier, skirting Scotland and then heading south towards Ireland, to hunt English ships transporting troops from Liverpool. Schweiger was young – just 30-years old – and had only received his command a year earlier. On this particular voyage, he hit paydirt right away, boarding and then sinking a small schooner south of Cork. But that was nothing compared to the bounty he saw through his binoculars. U-20 dove and for a while the Captain believed the ship he had eyed was too fast, too far out of reach. Yet, when the ocean liner changed course and headed unaware towards U-20, the gap quickly closed. With only four hundred yards between him and his prey, Schweiger fired a torpedo into the ship’s starboard side.
This ocean liner was, of course, the Lusitania. Unlike the Titanic, which sank just three years earlier, the Lusitania did not linger on the surface in a dramatic fashion. No, she was underwater in 18 minutes. Over 1200 people died, including 128 Americans, some with names like Vanderbilt and Frohman.
This attack was not entirely unexpected. The German government had warned passengers that travelling aboard British ocean liners was a dangerous proposition. Several Americans had already died aboard British vessels, and two American ships, the Cushing and the Gunflight, had been attacked earlier that year. The Germans argued the Lusitania was a legitimate wartime target. After all, it was carrying ammunition.
The magnitude of the attack shocked the American public. Former President Theodore Roosevelt compared it to Barbary Coast Piracy. However President Woodrow Wilson would not marshal the troops over the torpedoed vessel. He declared: “Peace is the healing and elevating influence of the world.”
Many Americans disagreed with Wilson’s neutrality, showing their willingness to fight through the familiar medium of the propaganda poster. Yes, propaganda posters: those crude calls for war bonds and volunteerism. H. R. Hopps’s enlistment poster Destroy This Mad Brute, for example, showed a gorilla wearing a German helmet and holding a bloodied club. He carried a topless white woman onto the shores of America. Not only did the poster dehumanize Germans, it also conjured American fears of the “Black Male Rapist.”
But not all propaganda took the coarse road. In fact, the sinking of the Lusitania spurred one of the era’s most haunting posters, a work of romantic art. It came from the paintbrush of Fred Spear. His poster Enlist did not explicitly refer to the Lusitania. He didn’t have to. It was tattooed on the public’s consciousness. Instead, he showed a familiar Madonna and child image. The mother, dressed in white, clutches her baby as they sink to the ocean floor. Bubbles float from her mouth, paralleling her outstretched hair, as if is she is still alive, as if there is a chance to save her and her child. Meanwhile, the ocean life in the background shows there is little hope for a happy outcome. Yet, all was not lost. There was something men could do: Enlist.
In June of 1915, just a month after the sinking of the Lusitania, the Boston Committee of Public Safety published Spear’s poster. It would be one of the first of many such American images not only to use the sinking of the Lusitania as a battle cry, but to do so, like Destroy this Mad Brute, with an image of the feminine victim. However, unlike the horror of the latter, Enlist used Christian imagery, turning the sinking of the Lusitania into a religious cause, one that forced its audience to empathize for the victims rather than simply demonize the perpetrators. There was no mention of U-20, no call for the head of Walther von Schweiger or his Kaiser leader. None of that. It was simple. A woman and child are drowning, so act not out of fear but out of grace.
Or as Roosevelt put it mere days after the attack, in a call evoking similar Christian imagery: “We earn as a nation measureless scorn and contempt if we follow the lead of those who exalt peace above righteousness, if we heed the voices of those feeble folk who bleat to high Heaven that there is peace when there is no peace. For many months our government has preserved between right and wrong a ‘neutrality’ which would have excited the emulous admiration of Pontius Pilate – the arch-typical neutral of all time.”