The Century Girl and the Lusitania

We are just about at the end of the Broadway season in 1916, and our last stop will be a project called The Century Girl, referred to in Norton’s Chronology as “a Musical Entertainment (Revue) in Three Acts, 19 scenes. Music by Victor Herbert, Irving Berlin.” However, before we start to delve into this show, we need to go back to August 1914.

We have been discussing the years 1914-1916 as peaceful years in America; and, in the sense of a slumbering giant, comprised of many ethnicities, the nation was at peace, even if the peace was artificial and restive in nature. We need to explain the historical context in order to explain the changes that were about occur in Broadway shows, such as The Century Girl and the Ziegfeld Follies of 1917.

In 1912, Woodrow Wilson had been elected President of the United States; and in August 1914, when the various alliances in Europe started to force countries to choose sides in a conflict that would come to be known as WWI, Wilson was able to keep America neutral.

The word neutrality needs to be better understood. Wilson kept us from becoming an armed combatant in 1914, but we acted in a manner that was inconsistent with the posture of a neutral country. America supplied arms to a war-ravaged set of allies, from England to Italy to Russia. In fact, during this period of time, America became the manufacturing engine for the countries allied against Germany, while Germany remained the manufacturing powerhouse for the rest of Europe.

At this point, Great Britain still ruled the seas and formed a naval blockade around Germany and Austria-Hungary. However, Germany ruled the waters under the seas through its U-boats (submarines). Germany’s strategy in both WWI and WWII was to starve England and France by denying them access to commercial shipping from America.

Furthermore, Germany knew that America was sending arms to its friends in Europe in the cargo holds of transatlantic passenger liners. There were all kinds of definitions concerning what Germany regarded as “armaments.” Small-arm ammunition was not on the list; casings for artillery shells was on the list.

The German U-boats were a deadly threat to all shipping; thus, civilians travelling to and from Europe were warned of the risk of torpedo attacks. It must be remembered that German-Americans in 1915 comprised the largest ethnic group of Americans.

On April 17, 1915, Wikipedia informs us that the Cunard liner, Lusitania, left Liverpool on her 201st transatlantic voyage, arriving in New York on April 24th.

“A group of German-Americans, hoping to avoid controversy if Lusitania were attacked by a U-boat, discussed their concerns with a representative of the German Embassy. The embassy decided to warn passengers before her next crossing not to sail aboard Lusitania, and on April 22 placed a warning advertisement in 50 American newspapers, including those in New York:


TRAVELERS intending to embark on the Atlantic voyage are reminded that a state of war exists between Germany and her allies and Great Britain and her allies; that the zone of war includes the water adjacent to the British Isles; that, in accordance with formal notice given the Imperial German Government, vessels flying the flag of Great Britain, or any of her allies, are liable to destruction in those waters and that travelers sailing in the war zone on the ships of Great Britain or her allies do so at their own risk.


Washington, D.C. 22 April 1915

Notwithstanding this warning, the return voyage of the Lusitania carried 1,265 passengers and a crew of 694, a total of 1,959 people. Of these, 128 were Americans. In the early afternoon of May 6th, the U-20 torpedoed the Lusitania about 12 miles off the Old Head of Kinsale (southern Ireland). The radio SOS signal went out on emergency battery power, but the electric power failed, leaving passengers trapped below. Even worse, the ship immediately listed severely to starboard, making the launch of lifeboats from both sides of the sinking ship very difficult.

According to Wikipedia, “Lusitania sank in only 18 minutes… It took several hours for help to arrive from the Irish coast, but by the time help had arrived, many in the 52-degree water had succumbed to the cold. By the days’ end, 764 passengers and crew from Lusitania had been rescued…”

While Germany had given fair-warning and felt justified in sinking the Lusitania, it was a strategic blunder of monumental proportions, because it turned American public opinion against Germany. Wilson was successful in keeping the United States out of the war in 1915 and 1916 because he succeeded in persuading Germany to temporarily halt its unrestricted submarine warfare; however, in late January 1917, Germany decided that it could win the war if it resumed unrestricted submarine attacks. Again, Germany miscalculated.

When he was informed by Germany that unrestricted U-boat activity would recommence as of February 1, 1917, Wilson promptly broke off diplomatic relations; and on April 6, 1917 Congress declared war on Germany.

According to C.E. Black and C. Helmreich in their text, Twentieth Century Europe, “The Germans, on the other hand, lost half of their submarines during the entire duration of the war. In the end, their gamble with unrestricted submarine warfare also cost them the war itself.”

In conclusion, while America technically was neutral until April 6, 1917, America was far from neutral in its sentiment. From May 1915, American sentiment had shifted from wanting to stay out of this European conflict to a more active, anti-German belligerency. We will see this attitude surface shortly in one of the Herbert musical numbers in The Century Girl.

As a footnote, Jerome Kern and one of his major producers, Charles Froman, were booked on the return voyage of the Lusitania. Froman boarded on time, but Kern was late. Froman died at sea; Kern lived and was able to write some glorious music until his untimely death in 1945.