15th January 2016

The Lusitania was launched in 1907. By the time of the First World War, an escort was deemed unnecessary because of her speed and partly because no escort warships could keep up with her.

On May 1st 1915, with William Turner as Captain, it left New York for Liverpool. On board, in addition to the 1,959 passengers and crew, was a large quantity of military hardware. Also on board was twenty one year old, George Henry Thomas, an assistant officer’s mess steward, whose parents, George and Jessie Thomas had been resident on St Thomas Green, Haverfordwest before moving to Liverpool where George was born in 1893. Just before she sailed, the German Embassy in the US placed advertisements in all leading American newspapers advising potential passengers that there was a high possibility of the ship being sunk.

On May 7th the ship was off the south western coast of Ireland, just twelve miles from the Old Head of Kinsale. The German submarine U20, Captain Schwieger commanding, had already sunk three merchant vessels and was on its way home when it spotted the ship. At 2.10 a torpedo hit the Lusitania causing a huge explosion. A second explosion happened almost immediately as the result of a boiler exploding. Within just eighteen minutes the Lusitania had disappeared.

Attempts to use the lifeboats proved catastrophic and the number that died either by drowning or through being crushed by falling debri or explosion was 1,198. George Henry Thomas had the indignity of being described as body number 138. (The ‘Victuallling Crew’ as they were called, had 306 members of whom 167 were lost.)


Top: obverse - ‘The great steam ship Lusitania sunk by a German submarine 5 May.’
Bottom: reverse - showing people queuing for tickets
The medal is the property of Alan Morgan

The Germans initially regarded the sinking of such an enormous vessel as heroic. A medal was struck to commemorate the event showing the ship sinking with military hardware falling from the decks. The legend inscribed on the medal is ‘Kein Bahnware’ which translates as, ‘No Contraband’. On the reverse are shown passengers queueing for tickets despite the warnings and there is a derisive inscription reading, ‘business above all’. The wrong date is shown on the medal of, ‘5 Mai 1915’.

Incensed that the German should produce such a medal and glorify such a deed, the British business man Harry Selfridge was commissioned to produce a replica which became available to the British public as a token of respect and mourning for the sinking. To maintain an exact copy, the wrong date was also used. It sold well, with all of the proceeds going to the Red Cross or St Dunstans.

Bodies washed up on to the Welsh coast long after the event and the deaths of over 100 American passengers was a factor that led to the US coming into the war in 1917.