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The Blame Game
(Court of Inquiry into The Lusitania Sinking)

This lesson is designed to help students investigate the sinking of the RMS Lusitania on May 7, 1915, by a German submarine while en route from the United States to England. Students will take various roles and act as an "international board of inquiry" to determine fault and responsibility for the sinking of the Lusitania.

Historical Background
The Lusitania, targeted by a German U-Boat, was hit with one small torpedo, which caused an explosion on board. Most survivors agree that a second, more massive explosion that caused the ship to sink within minutes followed the first explosion. See the Lusitania screen on this Web site for more information.

While the actual cause of the second explosion has never been determined, there have been repeated contentions that the second explosion was due to the detonation of munitions carried on board the Lusitania. Other sources assert that the cause of the explosion was possibly due to the detonation of a second or third torpedo. More than 85 years after the sinking, many official files are still sealed to public review.

While it is obvious that a German U-Boat did in fact fire a torpedo at the liner, the question remains of whether the sinking was justified, because the Lusitania was carrying contraband (weapons and ammunition). Therefore the "board of inquiry" must determine whether the British government or the Cunard Line was culpable for allowing the Lusitania to sail with contraband onboard.

For the purposes of this lesson, the typical format for a "board of inquiry" must be altered. Normally, the board itself would make the decision as to responsibility. However, in an attempt to involve as many students as possible in the lesson, the teacher may elect to have the remaining students in the class act as a "jury" to determine a "winner" (in other words, what conclusion is most acceptable).

Students will have the opportunity to:

  • conduct research into a historical event and develop conclusions.
  • develop a logical argument supporting a specific position regarding the event.
  • conduct Internet and non-Internet related research.
  • develop an appreciation for principles of International Law and the rights of non-combatants in war.

Estimated Time
11/2 - 2 hours, plus time to view any video segments

Necessary Materials

  • Lost Liners video
  • TV and VCR
  • Computers and Internet connection (optional)
Relevant National Standards
This lesson addresses the following national history standards established by Mid-Continent Research for Education and Learning, http://www.mcrel.org/standards-benchmarks/
  • Understands the changing role of the United States in world affairs through World War I.
  • Understands the importance of the rule of law in establishing limits on both those who govern and the governed, protecting individual rights, and promoting the common good
  • Understands criteria for evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of a rule or law by determining if it is understandable (i.e., clearly written with explicit requirements), possible to follow (i.e., does not demand the impossible), fair, well designed to achieve its purposes, and designed to protect individual rights and to promote the common good
  • Understands the basic concept of due process of law (i.e., government must use fair procedures to gather information and make decisions in order to protect the rights of individuals and the interests of society)
  • Understands how the rule of law makes possible a system of ordered liberty that protects the basic rights of citizens
  • Understands how the individual's rights to life, liberty, and property are protected by the trial and appellate levels of the judicial process and by the principal varieties of law (e.g., constitutional, criminal, and civil law)
Teaching Procedure
  1. The teacher shows Lost Liners to the class, with specific emphasis on the segment dealing with the Lusitania. (Fast forward to 14:35 for an introduction, and use the video segment 50:00 - 1:12:00 for the main story of Lusitania.) While this lesson focuses mainly on that ship, the teacher may wish to show other aspects of the program as a comparison of how liability cases were handled in other instances. (An example of this might be the case of the Empress of Ireland, which was struck by the Norwegian ship Storstad in 1914.)

  2. After viewing the video, the teacher should lead a class discussion on concepts and issues regarding the First World War. Examples can include the idea of freedom of the seas, international law, unrestricted submarine warfare, and the lack of an international organization to maintain world peace. Depending on the age and level of the class, the teacher might also use a World History or US History textbook to highlight other issues relating to the sinking. These might include the British food blockade of German ports, the British practice of flying flags of neutral vessels (including the United States) on their ships, as well as the practice of carrying weapons and ammunition on passenger vessels.

  3. Following this initial discussion, the teacher should also instruct the class on the purpose of a "Court of Inquiry." For the purposes of a classroom lesson, the "court" will be set up in a debate format. The teacher should have the students decide which side of the "court" they want to represent; those who would hold that the Germans were solely responsible and those who believed the British should shoulder at least some of the blame for the disaster. In addition, the teacher may also wish to appoint someone to actually be a "judge," who would function in a manner similar to a courtroom judge by acting on rules of evidence, and so on. A comprehensive Web site including court procedures and the rules of evidence can be found at http://www.law.cornell.edu/rules/

  4. Other students might serve as witnesses, depending on how detailed the teacher wishes to make the simulation and on how large or small the class is. Witnesses whom the students could portray might include the captain of the German U-Boat, surviving passengers and crew of the Lusitania, and observers on shore who saw the ship hit by the torpedo and saw the actual sinking.

  5. In addition, the teacher may wish to assign roles to other students including "timekeeper" and "bailiff." Students not specifically involved in the court of inquiry might be enlisted to act as jury members, or outside persons (local attorneys or school administrators, for example) might be utilized to render a decision.

  6. Once roles are assigned, students should be permitted time to research their roles by utilizing the Online Resources cited below, by doing further research on their own, and by reviewing the interviews of survivors and others in the segment in Lost Liners.

  7. If desired, the teacher may elect to run the court of inquiry similar to an interscholastic debate using the following format:

    • First affirmative constructive speech (8 minutes)
    • Cross-examination (negative asks questions of the 1st affirmative speaker) (3 minutes)
    • First negative constructive speech (8 minutes)
    • Cross-examination (affirmative asks questions of the 1st negative speaker) (3 minutes)
    • Second affirmative constructive speech (8 minutes)
    • Cross-examination of second affirmative speech (3 minutes)
    • Second negative constructive speech (3 minutes)
    • Cross-examination of second negative speech (3 minutes)
    • First negative rebuttal (4 minutes)
    • First affirmative rebuttal (4 minutes)
    • Second negative rebuttal (4 minutes)
    • Second affirmative rebuttal (4 minutes)

    (NOTE: This is the standard format for contest debate as set by the National Forensics League, which is the national organization for interscholastic speech and debate competitions across the United States. Teachers who wish to utilize a formal debate structure can find information regarding competitive debates at http://debate.uvm.edu/default.html. A less formal debate format can be found at http://7-12educators.about.com/education/

    The format for the court can be designed in various, alternative ways. For example, the teacher may wish to model a trial format after the "Goals of the Minnesota Mock Trial Competition" Web site at: http://www2.mnbar.org/mocktrial/

  8. The teacher should determine beforehand what sort of time frame the activity should encompass. This would be dependent on the length of the class period, the amount of research the students have completed, and the level of participation in the activity.

Assessment Recommendation
The following rubric may be used to evaluate student research and participation:

  1. Knowledge of the subject material (maximum 20 points): How much research did the participant do toward the discussion? How effective was the research used?
  2. Participation (maximum 20 points): How often did the participant speak? Was the participation worthwhile?
  3. Development of logic skills (maximum 20 points): How well did the participant utilize logic skills in making points and demonstrating viewpoints?
  4. Speaking ability (maximum 20 points): Did the participant make points well? Use correct grammar? Were they able to be heard by the audience?
  5. Cooperation (maximum 20 points): Did the participant act in a manner of cooperation toward the leader and other members of their group? Did the participant tend to monopolize the simulation, or did they contribute significantly to the final solution?

Online Resources
(Note: This list of resources is a partial list of available online links on the Lusitania sinking. It is strongly recommended that students not only use these resources, but conduct further research of their own as they develop their "cases.")


The Blame Game

Bigger, Faster, Stronger . . . Higher

Titanic Artifact Activity

Hypothermia on the High Seas

Lost Liners Scavenger Hunt

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