Remember the Lusitania
In this episode of Consolation Prize, we investigate the role of consuls in dealing with wartime disasters and the toll they took on them. Consul Wesley Frost was stationed in Queenstown, Ireland during the early years of World War I. As part of his responsibilities, Frost assisted survivors from more than 80 German submarine attacks including the SS Lusitania, which at the time resulted in the greatest loss of civilian lives. Frost’s response to these attacks helped establish the processes the United States Department of State still uses today in crises involving civilians.
Thomas Faith is a historian of World War I, who has worked at the U.S. Department of State’s Office of the Historian for the past 10 years. He co-authored “War, Neutrality, and Humanitarian Relief: The Expansion of U.S. Diplomatic Activity during the Great War, 1914–1917,” which describes how Department of State personnel responded to the unprecedented challenges they faced during WWI, as they attempted to protect U.S. citizens, facilitate humanitarian relief efforts, and represent the interests of belligerent states in enemy territory during the period of U.S. neutrality.
Matthew Novosad is a second-year MA student at the University of Connecticut studying the First World War, with a research focus on submarine warfare.
134 just landed not many Americans, 70 were passengers, other boats will come slowly. Officers think less than half of total are saved. She sank by stern heeling starboard. No notice. 18 Minutes.WESLEY FROST (Read by Lincoln Mullen), American Consul, Queenstown to American Ambassador, London May 7, 1915, 9:29 pm.
ABBY MULLEN: This is how Consul Wesley Frost described the situation at 9:29 pm on May 7, 1915, a few hours after the SS Lusitania was torpedoed by a German submarine. From his station in Queenstown, Ireland, Frost had to try to help the survivors of this terrible attack. But the Lusitania wasn’t the only shipwreck Frost had to deal with.
MULLEN: I’m Abby Mullen and this is Consolation Prize, a podcast about the United States in the world through the eyes of its consuls. Today we’re going to investigate Wesley Frost, the role of consuls in dealing with wartime disasters, and the toll it took on them.
MULLEN: Wesley Frost was a lifelong diplomat. His first consular post was in Charlottetown on Prince Edward Island in eastern Canada. In 1914, he became the consul at Queenstown, Ireland. Which today we call Cobh. For the first little while, Frost’s work was rather typical for a consul.
Queenstown proved to be a busy consular post. The inspection of emigrants, the invoicing of Irish whiskey, mackerel and tweeds, and the issuance of bills of health to the passenger liners-most of which still touched at the port-provided a substantial office routine; and a great deal of consular notarial and legal work arose from the fact that the South of Ireland is saturated with people who have American ties.FROST (Read by Lincoln Mullen), German submarine warfare; a study of its methods and spirit, including the crime of the “Lusitania,” a record of observations and evidence, New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1918.
MULLEN: But pretty soon, whiskey and mackerel took a back seat to much more complicated problems.
This was the place which, little as we could then guess it, within a single turn of the seasons was to plunge into a species of waking-nightmare unimaginably trying. It was to be known no longer as the world’s most stately harbor, but as ‘the port of horrors.’FROST (Read by Lincoln Mullen), German submarine warfare.
MULLEN: Only six and a half weeks after Frost landed at Queenstown, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, and his wife Duchess Sofie of Hohenberg were assassinated by Bosnian Serb nationalist Gavrilo Princip. On July 28, 1914, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. Soon, other nations had to choose sides in this fight. Germany supported Austria-Hungary. Russia, France, and Great Britain joined Serbia. The United States, under President Woodrow Wilson, remained neutral.
MULLEN: Even for a consul from a neutral nation, the job changed significantly during the war. Here is Thomas Faith from the US Department of State’s Office of the Historian to tell us more.
THOMAS FAITH: For US consoles and other diplomatic personnel overseas, World War One dramatically increase the reporting requirements, and it necessitated vast relief efforts related to the war. It also forced the department to wrestle with definitions and categories of citizenship in ways that it hadn’t before. US consoles and diplomats throughout Europe are reporting on lots of different aspects of the war, military aspects of the war, commercial aspects of the war, what shortages are, like in various European countries, how the political situation has changed. They’re also reporting on the status of US citizens and expatriates, travelers, people who were in Europe at the time that the war began and what’s happening with them now. Where they are, are they safe? Questions like that. They’re also acting as the representatives of belligerent governments in countries that are at war. If you are, for example, US Embassy London, you’re now also responsible for issues related to Germany and Austria-Hungary, since those countries no longer have representation within that nation, and that opens up a whole new level of reporting requirements, particularly since those countries at war. US diplomats and consoles are in many cases responsible for touring POW camps and making sure that conditions there are humane. Writing reports on that, writing reports on the management, finances of POWs people whose bank accounts have been frozen or whose assets have been seized in other ways. So there’s a lot of new stuff for consoles and for diplomats to do.
MULLEN: Wesley Frost is one of the consuls whose role changed during the war. There were fewer American travelers and ships for him to process. But he took on the responsibility of monitoring the status of German POWs in Ireland. And as more people tried to get in and out of war zones, Frost–and his many fellow consuls–had to deal with the tricky issue of who could get an American passport and who couldn’t. How do you sort out who is a true ex-patriate and who can still claim American protection? Frost had to figure that out.
MULLEN: At the start of the war, about 100,000 US citizens lived, worked, or traveled in Europe. Many of them–understandably–wanted to leave. But there weren’t enough ships to get them back to the United States as fast as they wanted. So a panic broke out. And then it got even harder to get out of Europe. In 1915, Germany declared a policy of unrestricted submarine warfare–in other words, German subs would shoot first and ask questions later. Unsurprisingly, many commercial shipping companies, both from belligerent and from neutral nations, didn’t want to operate in this environment.
MULLEN: But that doesn’t mean that there were no ships traveling between Europe and the United States. And if there were ships, then–just as the Germans had promised–there would be attacks. Even though American ships were technically safe from attacks by German submarines, Americans traveling on other ships weren’t.
MULLEN: So let’s talk for just a sec about what submarines are. If you’re like me, and the Hunt for Red October is one of your favorite movies, you may think you have a pretty good idea of what they are and why they’re useful. But submarines during World War I weren’t quite like the nuclear subs of the late Cold War. Matthew Novosad, a graduate student studying the history of submarines in World War I, gave me a great definition for submarines:
MATTHEW NOVOSAD: A submarine in essence is a vessel that can go under the waves and come back up and not, you know, be permanently sunk.
MULLEN: Matthew told me that during World War I, both sides used a number of different types of submarines: some were for coastal defense. Some laid mines. Some tried to run blockades. But the ones that we think of are the big ones, the overseas ones.
NOVOSAD: which are able to operate much further out from their ports and their bases and are able to be out for weeks. And even months in some cases, especially as you go later on into the war. Cruiser submarines were these really long range, heavily armed submarines that could be out for months and make their way to United States. And you also had like submarine monitors, which had, like giant battleship guns attached to them or a single battleship got attached to them and be able to surface and fire shot off quickly and then submerge and go off elsewhere. And that is where the concept of the fleet submarine started to really take form in this period. So these were submarines that had a high enough surface speed to where they could operate with the surface fleet, act as a screening force, be able to go up ahead of the fleet and attack, any enemy vessels before they came in contact with the main battle fleet. They tried, it didn’t really work out, then this concept really becomes vindicated in World War Two, but the first steps are being taken during the First World War
MULLEN: Submarine warfare seems like the perfect mechanism for large-scale marine warfare. But there were some drawbacks–submarines can’t stay underwater forever. The longer you’re down, the worse the conditions get.
NOVOSAD: It is going to be very, very uncomfortable for the crew. Air gets really stuffy, the boat gets very cold, and there’s no climate control inside these submarines. It’s a very, very awful environment to live in. The boats constantly moving even when you’re submerged, you’re still subject to the water column. And so you’re moving next side to side, but also up and down, especially in storms. Not a fun place to be. there were just people who ended up either getting over some of these afflictions. A lot of sailors got seasick. There are even cases of sailors in really bad weather when they’re so seasick having to be strapped down to their bunks, because they were so sick, and the boat was rolling so much that they would fall out of their bunk otherwise, so they had to be strapped down in certain positions. Because otherwise it was just too dangerous.
MULLEN: There was one way to make it so that submarines didn’t need to stay submerged for too long–they could stalk their prey in places where there were likely to be a lot of ships in one smallish area. That’s why a lot of German submarines found their way to the waters off the British coast–in particular, the waters off Ireland.
MULLEN: The German submarines that patrolled these waters had a couple of goals: one, to prevent goods from getting to and from Britain, and two, to discourage shipping. But even the submarines weren’t fighting under the water, most of the time. They were acting much more like surface warships.
NOVOSAD: A lot of submarines ended up having a depth gun attached to them. But essentially, this is, you know, a cannon that they can use to engage surface vessels with. So especially when they’re actually stopping and searching vessels on the surface, that’s what they’ll be using, as opposed to a torpedo. Partly because for torpedos are expensive, and you only have so many of them, you don’t want to waste them. So if you’re using your deck gun you have a lot more shells for that and it’s much easier to either intimidate a ship or to actually try to sink it using your deck gun. And also too if you end up boarding a ship, you might end up actually using explosive charges to sink it or opening the seacocks and flooding the ship.
MULLEN: In 1915, unrestricted submarine warfare started for the first time. Remember that this strategy simply meant that submarines weren’t stopping ships and checking papers–they were firing first and then asking questions about the ship they had attacked.
NOVOSAD: The German leadership was allowing their submarines to attack British vessels, French vessels, and so on, without warning, and it technically wasn’t supposed to harm neutral vessels.
MULLEN: On March 28, 1915, the Falaba was torpedoed off the coast of England. Leon Thrasher, an American citizen on board, died. He was the first American casualty of unrestricted submarine warfare, but he wasn’t the last.
MULLEN: On May 7, 1915, there was another much more serious attack: against the SS Lusitania. Here’s how Frost pieced together the story from survivors’ accounts.
Suddenly, at eight minutes past two o’clock a torpedo was seen leaping swiftly through the surface from the seaward-cutting the water like a razor and some of the passengers even discerned the conning tower of a submarine about three hundred yards off the starboard bow. The torpedo struck between the third and fourth funnels, and by its exploding crash converted that splendid scene into the most hideous and criminal catastrophe that human history has known.
Within thirty seconds of the impact a second explosion took place; presumably an engine-room explosion, since the engines were immediately put out of control and the lights went out all through the interior of the ship. Captain Turner had every reason for believing that his fine ship would remain afloat much longer than she did. A little later, when the speed was flagging, he ordered the starboard boats to be lower; but the confusion had by that time become great.
The overwhelming testimony is that the catastrophe was a large-scale proof of the innate courage of the human heart.
But of confusion, of chaos, of disorder, there were inevitably superabundant evidences. Unskilled persons in attempting to handle the falls or pulleys which lowered the lifeboats made awful failures; and several boats were released at one end only, spilling their occupants out into the sea. Other boats were never freed from the davits at all, and were therefore dragged down with their occupants when the ship sank. Still, other boats were broken by lurching inboard or against the side of the vessel. For example, the second port boat swung in against the deck wall of the smoking-room, and crushed to death or hopelessly crippled some thirty or forth passengers who were huddled together waiting for its preparation.
The multiplication of murder does not make it any the less murder.
Men with broken limbs calmly strove in the water to preserve not only their own lives but of others. Little children drowned in speechless terror while looking into the very eyes of their powerless mothers.
The vessel steadied herself onto a fairly even keel about ten minutes after the torpedo explosion, presumably because the water broke its way across into the port side. But before the sinking she gradually resumed her list to starboard, and in disappearing she lurched heavily in this direction. More than one-half, probably, of her occupants were at this time still on her decks or seated in unlaunched lifeboats; although perhaps this estimate should include part of the numerous people who were swimming in the water in the lee of the stagnating hull. At all events a large number of men and women were hurled into the water by the lurch which just preceded the foundering, or flung themselves into the sea just previously to it; and they were followed by a shower of chairs, and various deck-litter which stunned and killed many of them.
The Lusitania sank bow foremost, and her propellers were even at one time slightly above the water. At the last, the weight of evidence shows, the stern projected at an abrupt angle. One survivor told me very vividly of standing high on the stern after the bow had partly disappeared and gazing down sixty feet or more upon the impotent swarms of human creatures twisting crazily like flies underneath and upon the surface of the clear green sea.FROST (Read by Lincoln Mullen), German submarine warfare.
FAITH: The Lusitania got off a wireless message right after the attack that managed to alert the shipping company in the British military that they had been torpedoed. Luckily, and that was what initiated the search after that people in Kinsale in the Irish town of Kinsale near the attack, looking through binoculars could see that the ship had disappeared.
MULLEN: There were 1,959 people on board the Lusitania. 1,195 of them died. But that left several hundred people who made it to shore, and when they did, they needed a lot of help.
MULLEN: Both civilian and government organizations got involved in relief: the Cunard Line, the company that owned the Lusitania, did a lot to assist survivors. So did the British civil and naval authorities. And then of course there were just the normal people in the town of Queenstown and other Irish towns, who prepared hospitals and offered up food and clothing and places to stay. Consul Frost and his team jumped into the relief effort as well.
FAITH: Frost realizes the scope of the disaster and he wants to assist in every way that he can. At the same time, though, providing aid in the aftermath of such an attack is unprecedented for the Department of State. Frost has had no experience or instruction in what to do. And the speed of telegraphic communication across the Atlantic Ocean meant that frost wouldn’t receive any orders or directions from Washington for many hours at least.
FAITH: In the days that followed, Frost continues to collect the names and survivor statements so that he could keep the Department of State informed of what was going on. He also assists them in a variety of ways: providing funds to those who needed them, as well as clothing and other items, especially I should say to those who were hospitalized. Frost also works to obtain documents and transportation for those who are leaving Queenstown.
MULLEN: One of Frost’s most important jobs was identifying people who were missing or dead.
FAITH: The Department of State is flooded with phone calls and telegrams after news of the disaster reaches the United States. People wanting to know if their loved ones were rescued, the fate of family members or friends. And the department tries to answer this question as much as it can, based again on what counsel Wesley Frost is reporting back to them, about who made it and who didn’t. But there are descriptions of family members that the department can tell Frost give him those descriptions, what they were wearing, what they had with them, general physical description, stuff like that. And Frost can use that to try to make a determination about about who survived and who didn’t.
MULLEN: Frost was still identifying bodies for weeks after the attack.
FAITH: His relief efforts helped countless Americans recover from the Lusitania disaster. And Frost reporting on this unprecedented event helps the Wilson administration make these critical foreign policy decisions in the days that followed
MULLEN: The Lusitania was not an American vessel, but there were American citizens on board–189 of them. Of those, 128 were killed. This was a huge tragedy, something that the US government couldn’t even imagine.
FAITH: There’s a memo that the counselor of the Department of State writes to Secretary William Jennings Bryan, before this attack occurs. And he says what would the department’s response be if 10 Americans died in an attack? And that’s, essentially, that’s the worst situation that he can think of just in the abstract, and this, obviously, 128 Americans are killed on the Lusitania. So this is far worse than even the worst-case scenario that the Department of State is considering at the time.
FAITH: One of the things that really shocked people about this attack was the fact that the Lusitania was such a famous ship before the sinking. It was, you know, the holder of the Atlantic speed record. And it was one of the largest passenger liners that existed, there was a sense in diplomatic and military quarters that there was no way that the submarine that carried out this attack had confused it with something else, they knew for sure that what they were doing, and it was a deliberate act.
MULLEN: The Lusitania was the most high-profile sinking by German submarines, but it wasn’t the only one that affected the United States. In each case, Frost and his team in the consulate had to take statements and investigate whether the Germans had acted unlawfully.
MULLEN: The Germans suspended unrestricted submarine warfare after the Lusitania–and after significant pressure from the United States and other nations–but in 1917 they started it up again. In fact, while stationed in Queenstown, Wesley Frost assisted survivors from at least 80 vessels.
NOVOSAD: The 1917 campaign, that was instituted in February of that year, that was just carte blanche, any ship that enters this war zone, belligerent or neutral is liable to be sunk. Without warning. We’re not going to check papers, we’re just going to sink it, and people die in the process.
In a single day, between midnight and midnight, in March of 1917, when the campaign was at its worst, we saw the survivors landed from no less than six different torpedoed ships! We began to get repeats, or men whom we had interviewed in previous cases. We saw a dozen different men who had ‘been torpedoed’ as many as three times; and a heard of men who had figured four or even five submarine incidents. One stoker witness came to the consulate in excellent clothing, so that I remarked casually, ‘I see you have been to the stores already for your new outfit.’ ‘Not at all, Sir,’ he answered; ‘this was my third time at being torpedoed; and so when she sighted the submarine I went below and put on all my good clothes, knowing we should save only what we stood up in.’FROST (Read by Lincoln Mullen), German submarine warfare.
MULLEN: As Frost dealt with attack after attack, he developed a system as to how to handle them.
FAITH: Hesitant to call it routine, but Frost claims that by the end of his career, he’s dealt with some 80 of these similar attacks. They’re all different. Varying, I would say severity. Sometimes the ships that are torpedoed can make it back to port on their own. And then you just have to deal with you know, the injured or you know, the loss of property, which isn’t so bad. Other times they can’t and then you have to help the survivors who make it back in, in lifeboats or on rescue ships. But it becomes more commonplace and console Frost and I’d say his fellow US consoles, in other places in Europe start to get better at this. They know what they have to do now. Take statements from the survivors. Make sure that the US government knows what happened and why. Try to account for the disaster what caused it and how to sort of mitigate it for those who are left behind. Making sure that everyone who arrived is safe and can make it someplace else where they can be safer.
MULLEN: All of these systems that Frost created started with his relief efforts from the Lusitania.
FAITH: Even though this attack at the time is occurring without precedent, this is one of the first if not the first example in history of what today might be called a mass casualty incident involving us civilians overseas. Frost doesn’t receive instructions from the Department of State about what to do until the next day, telegraphic communication is so slow, there’s no training that he’s undergoing no preparations in advance, that said, he does a great job with what he has to work with. He does almost everything that we would do today, frankly, in a similar situation, within the Department of State in a similar incident, making sure that you have enough funds on hand to take care of, any contingency that survivors might need. Establishing the facts of the incident to report them back to your superiors at the embassy or at the department, making sure that the survivors are safe and well cared for at least in the near term, that they’re receiving medical attention and that they’re clothed and that they’re that they have a place to stay for the night. And then just you know, helping them find members of their family afterwards, helping them manage with the grief and, when you find out that their if their loved ones are have been harmed and if if if members of their family or friends have been killed, helping them manage end of life issues also. These are all things that the department does today and in more or less the same fashion.
MULLEN: Frost helped to create a precedent for how the State Department still deals with similar tragedies today. He even wrote a book called German submarine warfare; a study of its methods and spirit, including the crime of the “Lusitania,” a record of observations and evidence. This book goes into a lot of detail about the tragedies Frost witnessed during his time in Queenstown, and today it helps us understand the frequency and severity of German submarine attacks on American citizens. It also gives us some insight into how Frost supported the victims of those attacks.
MULLEN: This support work took a real toll on Frost.
FAITH: Frost writes, that after the rescue, he and the other volunteers contracted a temporary horror he calls it. It’s almost certainly what we would diagnose today as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder causes he and the other volunteers to very vividly re-experience the trauma of working with the victims that night, even weeks afterwards.
MULLEN: In June of 1917, Frost left Ireland. A San Francisco newspaper reported that
Nervous breakdown following the many pathetic scenes resulting from German submarine warfare caused Wesley Frost, United States consul at Queenstown, Ireland, to return with his family to his native land today for a period of rest. The consul declared on his arrival that he can not sleep on account of the shrieks of dying women and children, which still ring in his ears. In his official capacity he was compelled to witness the results of eighty-one steamship disasters. The U boats will soon begin another campaign against American, English, and French ships, he said.SAN FRANCISCO CALL, JUNE 1917 (Read by Jeanette Patrick)
MULLEN: And of course, Frost was right. Another round of unrestricted submarine warfare had already started. But this time, things were different. The United States had officially declared war on Germany in April 1917. President Wilson had cited submarine attacks as a primary cause of the declaration. Frost’s successor in Queenstown would have a whole new way of dealing with the war: in 1918 the U.S. Navy moved into Queenstown and built a naval air station, bringing Queenstown to the very front of military operations. In November 1918, peace was declared, and the war was over.
MULLEN: Consolation Prize is coming to a close, believe it or not! And we want to hear what has been your favorite part. Go to our website and leave us a voicemail telling us your name and what has stuck with you from our show, and your voice might end up on our final episode!
Producer: Jeanette Patrick
Experts: Thomas Faith and Matthew Novosad
Voice actors: Lincoln Mullen and Jeanette Patrick
Music: Andrew Cote
Cart, Doran. “Home Before the Leaves Fall.” The National World War I Museum and Memorial.
McAllister, William B., Seth Rotramel, Charles Hawley, and Thomas Faith. “War, Neutrality, and Humanitarian Relief: The Expansion of U.S. Diplomatic Activity during the Great War, 1914–1917.” U.S. Department of State Office of the Historian Foreign Service Institute, 2020.
Sondhaus, Lawrence. German Submarine Warfare in World War I: The Onset of Total War at Sea. Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2017.