With the German shipping lines dominating transatlantic travel by the turn of the 20th Century; Cunard found itself in unfamiliar territory. The line had been eclipsed by Germany in terms of speed and prestige. At the same time the American financier, JP. Morgan, had acquired White Star Line providing a much needed cash injection into Cunard’s long term rival.
The British Government were concerned about the newfound dominance of German transatlantic shipping; while at the same time were aware that White Star Line was now an American company.
With national pride on the line, the British Government agreed to assist Cunard in the construction of two giant liners. A £2,600,000 loan was provided and the two ships; Lusitania & Mauretania; were built.
With dimensions approaching 800 ft in length and a top speed of over 24 knots, these liners were to be fast, smart and powerful. However, as a caveat for the loan given to Cunard, the British Government specified that these two liners were to be designed for easy conversion into armed merchant cruisers (should the need arise).
Lusitania was constructed at the John Brown shipyard in Clydebank, Scotland. At the same time, Mauretania was constructed at the English Swan Hunter yard. While both built off the same general schematic, the split build contract meant that the liners; while generally similar in appearance; were easily distinguishable due to the rival ship yards attempting to out-do each other and build the better ship.
As such, Lusitania was slightly smaller than her fleet mate; while her top decks were clutter-free thanks to the use of a novel ‘barrel-style’ ventilation system.
Internally, Lusitania’s decor was light, bright and airy; juxtaposed with Mauretania’s darker internal appearance.
Of the pair, Lusitania was completed first and on 7 September 1907 she set sail on her maiden voyage. Over 200,000 spectators witnessed the ship’s departure; and on her second voyage the captured the transatlantic speed record from the German liner Deutschland.
Though eclipsed in speed by Mauretania, Lusitania was a very fast ship. The liners were fondly referred to as ‘Atlantic Greyhounds’, ‘Ocean Greyhounds’ and ‘Thoroughbreds’ throughout their career.
In August 1914, World War I started and the Admiralty requisitioned Lusitania for war service. Plans to convert the ship into an armed merchant cruiser never eventuated and the ship was returned to Cunard.
As the war worsened, Cunard was under immense pressure to maintain a transatlantic passenger (and cargo) service, and to that end, Lusitania was used on a reduced monthly schedule.
It was widely believed that Lusitania’s speed was sufficient to protect her from enemy shipping and submarines; despite the closure of one of her boiler rooms to conserve coal. The liner made several successful voyages on this service until May 1915.
Having departed New York on 1 May, Lusitania was approaching the coast of Ireland on 7 May 1915 when she was rocked by two explosions as a torpedo fired from the German U-20 hit the ship. The first was described as “a door slamming” – however this was followed by a large, violent explosion which rocked the ship.
Lusitania immediately took on a dangerous list and started to sink some 10 miles off Old Head of Kinsale, Ireland. The ship’s Captain remained on the bridge, giving orders which included launching the lifeboats. Lusitania foundered after only 20 minutes taking 1,198 lives. Currents caused many of the survivors not in lifeboats to wash up on shore.
Much controversy surrounded the loss of Lusitania. The presence of a second explosion was used as wartime propaganda by both Germany (who claimed the Lusitania was carrying illegal ammunition) and Britain (who claimed the German U-boat had purposely fired multiple times on the ship).
The sinking had the unintended consequence of outraging the United States, which lost 106 people in the disaster, and this as well as many other factors contributed to America entering the war on the side of the allies.
Today the Lusitania rests on the sea bed in less than 300ft of water. Contemporary belief is the torpedo likely ignited coal dust in the ship’s bunkers, or struck a high pressure steam pipe, which could account for the second explosion.
2015 marked the 100th anniversary of the ship’s loss.
Image source: Simplon Post Cards