A Propaganda Victory: The Lusitania Medallion

The market for commemorative collectables was a large one during World War One, with many manufacturers and artists producing patriotic items for mass market sale. Among these were commemorative medallions for events during the war. The French produced a wide range of souvenirs marking their victory at Verdun, and post-war, most of the Allies manufactured medallions to mark the victory. One of the more bizarre footnotes in the field of commemorative medallions is the Lusitania Medallion, released in 1915. 

Image: [Left to right] “Lusitania “[British][no date], “Lusitania” [Karl X. Goetz, German][1915]. Collections CCGW/CCGG 2014.09.19.01-.02

The sinking of the Lusitania by a German U-Boat was vilified in the British and American press as the act of a country that showed little regard for the “rules of war”; however, the German press claimed the ship was carrying munitions in addition to civilian passengers, and accused the British of using civilians as human shields to smuggle weapons across the Atlantic under the guise of non-military shipping.

After the sinking became public, the German medallist Karl Goetz created a small run of medallions that commemorated the sinking of the ship. Like other German satirical art of the period, the medallion was a comment on the events surrounding the attack, placing blame on the British and the Cunard Shipping Line for their decision to allow the ship to sail after the German declaration of unrestricted submarine warfare in February 1915.

The medallion shows the sinking ship on the front, with the obverse side showing Death (personified as a skeleton) selling tickets to a crowd of people while a man in the background reads a newspaper with the headline U Boot Gehfar (U-Boat Danger). The original medallion was also mis-dated on the front, showing the sinking at 5 Mai 1915 and not 7 May.

Goetz’ mistake in the date became the basis of the rumour that Germany had made prior plans to sink the Lusitania, and that the U-boat attacking her had not just stumbled upon the ship. When the medallion was publicly released it became a sensation, with the Allied press claiming that the Germans were glorifying in the death of innocent civilians, and had pre-planned the attack.

Seeing an opportunity, Captain Reginald Hall of Royal Naval Intelligence ordered that 300 000 copies be cast and sold for propaganda purposes. The copies were distributed in a small box with an accompanying text describing the savagery of the Germans and the righteousness of the Allied cause. In the face of the scandal, all German copies were suppressed and Goetz was not permitted to make more, though he did cast a second medallion with the correct date.

The events surrounding the sinking of the Lusitania went on the become the rallying cry for the American entry into the war and was a continued presence throughout the Allied war effort.

 

 

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