A quick search of a well known online auction site will reveal thousands of items related to the Great War. I’ve seen more artifacts made of wood from HMS Iron Duke, which sunk at Jutland, to make me think that she must have been the only ship in the British navy made entirely of teak.
Occasionally, however, with some good fortune, it’s possible to find some real gems. A few years ago, I was on business in Metzingen, Germany, and happened to have a few hours to spare one afternoon. Wandering around the town, I came across the art gallery that had a collection of a German artist’s works by the name of Karl Goetz.
Goetz wasn’t an artist I was familiar with, but the works took me in with their creativity and general subversiveness. Goetz was a sculptor and medalist who created a wide-ranging collection of satirical and propaganda based medals from before the Great War and through the Second World War, right up until he died in 1950.
One of the cases was something I recognised, but didn’t know was Goetz’s work. It was an original Lusitania medal.
At 2.15 pm, on the afternoon of the 7th May 1915, the Cunard liner “Lusitania” was off the coast of Ireland travelling back from America, when a German U-boat, U20, fired a torpedo which hit the ship, causing it to sink in a matter of minutes. Of the 2000 passengers, 1200 men, women, and children were drowned, including many American citizens.
The ship’s sinking provoked almost as much outrage as the invasion of Belgium had done, and the British wasted no time in using this as a propaganda tool against the Germans, highlighting German villainy and their indifference to human life.
Goetz cast the medallion as an attempt to display his bewilderment at the British Government and the Cunard Line for allowing the ship to have sailed when the Germans responded to the British naval blockade by announcing a period of unrestricted submarine warfare. Goetz felt that Germany had done all it good to warn its enemies of the risks faced by shipping. The Admiralty had registered the Lusitania as an armed auxiliary ship, and at the time it was sunk, the cargo included rifle and machine-gun ammunition and shrapnel shell cases.
The medal was a biting work of satire, mocking Britain and United States’ obsession with business and trade, and mocked the US’s supposed impartiality. As impressive a piece as this is, Goetz made a serious mistake with the casting, recording the date as the 5th May instead of the 7th May.
The medal was cast in bronze and on the front depicted the ship sinking, with smoke pouring from the four funnels. The bow is laden with armaments and the front of the ship is shown as being ram-shaped, possibly a reference to the Admiralty instruction that U-boats should be rammed if they were seen.
The back of the medal, depicts Death in a Cunard ticket booth selling tickets to the massed crowd. To the left a man reads a newspaper with a headline warning of the threat of U-Boats, and standing next to him a man in a top hat raises a finger in warning. The finger-raising man is believed to be the German Ambassador to the US. The significance of the action comes from a newspaper advert that the German government took out on the 1st May 1915, which appeared next to all Cunard advertisements in that days press. The Germans warned that they were at War with Britain and ships sailing within the zone of unrestricted submarine war, whether they be British or her Allies, were at risk. The medal bears the words GESCHÄFT ÜBER ALLES, or “Business above all.”
The British seized on the medallion as a tool to whip up anti-German sentiment and they produced over 300,000 replica medals, using the erroneous date to show that the sinking of the liner was pre-planned. Their intentional blurring of the subtle, but significant difference, between a medal and medallion served their propaganda purpose well. By describing the piece as medal, it led the public to believe that the item had been produced as a symbol of national celebration at the killing of civilians.
The publicity of the medal and the well orchestrated British propaganda campaign has obscured the memory that many other contemporary German artists also produced medallions commemorating the sinking of the Lusitania.
I would need to win the lottery to afford an original Lusitania medallion, but over the years I have collected a number of pieces of Goetz’s WW1 medallions.
The one above is my particular favourite – I love the subversive nature of the satire. The Kaiser, riding a hobby horse shouts “I will lead you!” and on the back, the disabled soldier, with his homeless and starving family below the words “Towards a glorious future!”
I will be writing a number of blog posts over the coming weeks about some of the more unusual items of ephemera from my collection.
If you happen to find a Lusitania medallion lying in a drawer, give me a shout and I will be more than happy to give it a good home for you.