Chapter 8
The Gulflight and the Lusitania

     On May 1 German submarine U-30 torpedoed the American oil tanker Gulflight,  The tanker had been following two British patrol boats into the port of St. Mary's in the Scilly Islands off the southern coast of Great Britain.  The torpedo exploded but caused only superficial damage and there were no fires.  After the torpedo impacted, two members of the Gulflight crew panicked, jumped overboard, and drowned.  Later that evening the captain of the tanker suffered a fatal heart attack.  This was the second time American citizens had died as a result of German submarine attacks, albeit indirectly.1
     Word of the incident reached Secretary of State Bryan on May 3, and he cabled Ambassador Page the same day for a detailed report.  He heard back from Page the next day.  The ambassador said that the British Admiralty was holding the tanker in the Scilly Islands but was about to turn it over to a salvage company.  Depositions of the tanker's officers and crew were being taken in Penzance and Page was awaiting the results of an investigation.2
     Bryan cabled Page again on May 6 to request information on the activity of the Gulflight at the time of the attack.  He said that the Gulf Refining Company, managing owner of the tanker, had informed him that she had been torpedoed without warning while "following British patrol boats to Bishop."  Bryan wanted Page to find out from the tanker's officers and crew whether the Gulflight was under convoy or protection of patrol boats.  If she was not, he was supposed to ascertain what communication passed between the patrol boats and the Gulflight and why the tanker was following them.3
     Colin Simpson noted in his book The Lusitania that the Gulflight was forced to follow the British patrol boats.  He concluded that the British steam drifter Clara Alice had spotted U-30 and proceeded to contact Royal Navy patrol boats the Filey and Iago, which then began a search for the German submarine.  On the way back to their last position, Filey and Iago stopped the Gulflight to examine her papers.  Unsatisfied with them and suspicious that the tanker was there to refuel the German submarine, the British commander had ordered the Gulflight to follow the two craft to the nearest port, which was St. Mary's in the Scilly Islands.  On their way into port they spotted the U-30 surfacing ahead of them.  The captain of U-30 mistook the tanker to be British and under convoy.  The captain of the Filey then attempted to ram U-30 with his vessel.  The submarine then dove quickly and fired the torpedo that struck the Gulflight.4
     Gerard cabled Bryan on the 6th with a memorandum from the German Foreign Office.  This reminded Washington that during the previous weeks neutral ships had repeatedly fallen victim to German attacks in waters designated as a war zone.  Berlin asked that Washington give its full attention to these facts and strongly suggested that American shipping be warned against traversing the danger areas.  If the American vessels absolutely had to enter the war zone, Berlin recommended they make their neutral markings as plain as possible and illuminate them at night.5
     Gerard cabled Bryan on May 7 saying that the German Admiralty had no information on the Gulflight incident.  He promised to cable again as soon as information was forthcoming.6  It did not matter as May 7 was the day of the Lusitania disaster.  Gerard cabled Bryan that day with news of the loss of the Lusitania, but no information on passenger casualties.
     Bryan cabled back the next day asking Gerard to secure a German Government report on the Lusitania.  He mentioned the latest reports in the United States placing the loss of life at more than a thousand people, many of them Americans.7
     Gerard cabled Bryan on May 10 with a message from German State Secretary of the Foreign Office Gottlieb von Jagow.  The German secretary's tone in the memorandum was almost cynical.  He began by expressing Berlin's deepest sympathy at the loss of American life aboard the Lusitania, but he placed responsibility with London.  It was the British who had forced Berlin into retaliatory measures by stopping foodstuffs from entering Germany.  He also brought up the fact that British merchant ships were armed and often tried to ram German submarines, making it impossible to treat the ships as true merchantmen.  Von Jagow called Washington's attention to the fact that the Lusitania had, on previous voyages, carried war materiel.  Finally, he stated that the Lusitania was liable to destruction and London should have assessed the risk.  In spite of sympathy for Americans lost, the German Government was forced to conclude that Washington preferred to listen to British promises rather than pay attention to German warnings.8
     Gerard understood the German Government better than any other American in the Foreign Service.  His memoirs show that he had by this time lost faith in Berlin's capability to keep the peace with the United States.  He wrote that "Kaiserism" was capable of trying anything in the hope of victory while showing a special disillusionment with the Kaiser himself.  Gerard wrote that Kaiser Wilhelm II was "the centre of the system which has brought the world to a despair and misery such as it never has known since the dawn of history."  The Kaiser had the soul of a conqueror whose "eyes were so blinded with the sheen of his own glory that they do not see the mutilated corpses, the crime, the pestilence, the hunger, the incalculable sorrow that sweeps the earth. . . ."  Gerard blamed the Kaiser alone for the war: "everywhere he has brought the dark angel of mourning to millions upon millions of desolate homes."9
     By sinking the Lusitania Germany had caused irreparable damage to relations with Washington.  This time the loss of American life was high enough to alarm the American public and unite it against Germany.  On May 17 Gerard cabled Bryan with a section of an article published in the Lokal Anzeiger newspaper.  It stated that Germany would continue to fight the war as it was currently fighting it and that it would be done with a clear conscience.10  Bryan obviously read this as a crisis, because he cabled Gerard the next day and warned him to remain in constant contact with American consuls in Germany.  He also told Gerard to remind the consuls to keep constant communication with the American citizens in their districts, so that they would be prepared for prompt instructions.11  He obviously foresaw serious problems in getting President Wilson to ignore the torpedoing of the Lusitania.


1.    Colin Simpson, The Lusitania (Boston:  Little, Brown and Company, 1972), p. 118.
2.    Papers Relating to the Foreign Relations of the United States, 1915 Supplement (Washington D.C.:  U.S.
       Government Printing Office, 1928), File No. 300.115G95, p. 378.
3.    Ibid., p. 381.
4.    Simpson, The Lusitania., pp. 118-19.
5.    Foreign Relations Papers, 1915 Supplement, File No. 763.72/1743, p. 384.
6.    Ibid., File No. 300.115G95/9, p. 384.
7.    Ibid., File No. 857L97/4a, p. 385.
8.    Ibid., File No. 841.857L97/8, p. 389.
9.    James Watson Gerard, Face to Face with Kaiserism (New York: George H. Doran Company, 1918), pp. 47-49.
10.  Foreign Relations Papers. 1915 Supplement, File No. 763.72/1771., pp. 398-99.
11.  Ibid., File No. 763.72/1770, p. 398.

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