In the early 20th century, the passenger trade on the Atlantic was booming. Immigration from Europe to the US was most of the cause of the rise in transatlantic travel. There were many major players on the Atlantic lines. England’s presence with the Cunard Line and White Star Line inspired other nations to build fast liners of their own. Germany flexed its muscles with their four very quick, very large liners with the soon to become iconic four funnels. Cunard saw these ships as a threat, and planned their own superliners. These ships would be large, fast, and luxurious. They would also be fitted with the latest engine technology called turbines. Steam turbines were first tested by a very small ship called Turbinia. The success of the trials of Turbinia led to this new type of propulsion to be fitted onto Cunard’s two new superships. These new engines would be able to drive a ship at much higher speeds with much greater efficiency. American financier J. P. Morgan’s International Mercantile Marine Co. was attempting to monopolize the shipping trade, and had already acquired Britain’s other major transatlantic line White Star. In the face of these threats the Cunard Line was determined to regain the prestige of ocean travel back not only to the company, but also to the United Kingdom. In 1903, Cunard Line and the British government reached an agreement to build two superliners, Lusitania and Mauretania, With talks of war in Europe, the English government agreed to subsidize Cunard’s new builds with the stipulation that if Europe did come to war, their ships could be turned into troop ships and armed merchant cruisers. Little did anyone know how important these ships would become as tension mounted on the world stage. the largest ship the world. Enter Lusitania in June of 1906. Lusitania was named after an ancient Roman province including approximately all of modern Portugal south of the Douro river and part of modern Spain. Built in Clyde Bank in Scotland by John Brown and Company, she was at the time had yet seen. Following the success of the German greyhounds, ships would continue to increase in size over the next several decades. Lusitania was tested at speeds in excess of 24 knots, easily making her the fastest liner yet. Lusitania was 31,550 GRT and 787 ft long. Her interiors were sumptuous with a First Class dining room rising three decks and topped with an ornate dome. Her interiors were considered brighter than most liners due to the extensive use of plaster instead of wood. She was designed to carry 2,198 passengers and 827 crew members. The accommodations in third class (or steerage) were markedly improved compared to immigrant liners previous. This larger ship design meant more room for the masses of third class passengers making their way to Ellis Island.
Lusitania was Scottish built. Other significant Cunard liners would be as well. Lusitania did not break the speed record on her maiden voyage due to fog, but she did later on. Her fastest recorded speed was 26.7 knots. She was immediately popular.
The next year, Lusitania’s running mate Mauretania was completed in 1907. Mauretania’s 31,938 GRT was slightly larger than Lusitania’s 31,550 GRT. Mauretania was also faster, after installing new propellers. Mauretania and Lusitania ran opposite each other on the Atlantic passenger trade, with one ship heading to New York while the other headed to Southampton. This was an efficient way to have continuous trade between the US and Europe. The reduction in travel time by use of high speed made both of these ships quite popular with the immigrants and Americans traveling to Europe. It was a momentous time for Great Britain with these two ships dominating the Atlantic service.
Hostilities between Germany and the rest of Europe came to a head in 1914 and Germany declared war on Great Britain. Mauretania was called on by the Admiralty to be transformed into an armed merchant cruiser. Eventually, she and Lusitania were released from duties and Mauretania was laid up due to falling immigrant trade during the war, while Lusitania resumed passenger service. The decision to have Lusitania run passenger trade during war-time would have dire consequences.
Lusitania was painted dark gray and black to mask the nation she belonged to, but was still required to fly the British flag. In November of 1914, Germany declared the North Sea a war zone. Without warning, Germans would sing ANY Allied ships. On 17 April 1915, a warning was published a warning in Allied newspapers:
Notice! Travellers 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 waters adjacent to the British Isles; that, in accordance with formal notice given by 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 travellers sailing in the war zone on the ships of Great Britain or her allies do so at their own risk. Imperial German Embassy Washington, D.C., April 22, 1915.
This warning notice was printed opposite the advertisement for Lusitania’s return voyage back to the UK. A few passengers heeded this warning and cancelled their crossing. However, 1,959 boarded the ship for the voyage.
The Germans decided to break out of the tradition of warning non-military ships and allowing people to escape. This marked the first time human beings would engage in all out war. Even civilians were targets. The U-20 was patrolling the North Sea off the coast of Ireland on May 7. Lusitania was headed past the Old Head of Kinsale. There had been telegraph warnings of enemy activity nearby, but Lusitania was not running at top speed. The British Admiralty ordered six of her boilers to be shut down due to coal rationing for the warships. Lusitania was also not granted an armed escort to the Irish shore.
Just before 1:30pm, the German submarine spotted something in the distance that appeared to be smoke. As the Lusitania drew closer, it became obvious they had spotted a very large ship. U-20 was ordered to dive.
There was one torpedo shot. Lusitania’s survivors tell of seeing the torpedo come at them through the water. The torpedo hit on the starboard side, just behind the bridge. Passengers and crew were shocked that the Germans would have the gall to attack a ship that wasn’t part of the military, knowing it was carrying civilians, most importantly, Americans. When the torpedo hit, the damage didn’t seem to be too severe at first.
Then there was a second, enormous explosion. To this day, the exact cause of this explosion is unknown. There were rumors that Lusitania was carrying ammunition to the Allies. Some say it was a boiler explosion. Whatever it was, it spelled certain doom. *Note: Upon exploring the wreck of the Lusitania, Robert Ballard discovered the secondary explosion was likely caused by combustible coal dust in an empty bunker.
Lusitania immediately developed a pronounced list to starboard. This list prevented many of the lifeboats from being able to be used. Eighteen minutes after being struck by the torpedo, Lusitania slipped beneath the sea, taking 1,198 people with her, including 114 American citizens.
While Lusitania was built in Scotland, Mauretania was built in England. Completed in 1907, Mauretania was named for an ancient Roman province on the northwest African coast. She was big and she was fast. Immediately, she captured the speed record for both east and westbound Atlantic crossings. She would hold this record for over twenty years. Sumptuous interiors and speedy travel made Mauretania loved by the traveling masses. At the outbreak of The Great War, the Mauretania was called on to be first an armed merchant cruiser. It was later decided she would be better suited as a troop ship. She was painted battleship gray and began carrying soldiers to the front lines. After Lusitania was torpedoed and sunk, she was painted in hospital ship livery and became a floating hospital ship. She then carried over 15,000 wounded soldiers back home.
After the loss of Lusitania, a running mate was needed for Mauretania. Cunard answered this need with another four funneled liner named Aquitania. More on her on another entry.
Mauretania continued carrying transatlantic passengers until 1923 when she was painted white and sent out cruising. By this time, she had served as a speedy ocean liner, an armed merchant cruiser, a hospital ship, a troop transport, and now a cruise ship. She maintained her popularity with the public and gained the nickname ‘The Grand Old Lady.’
In 1929, Mauretania’s speed was bested by a new German liner named Bremen. A few attempts were made to regain this record, but this old ship had pretty much seen her day as the fastest in the world. She began ‘booze cruises’ during the prohibition, solidly retaining her popularity. Mauretania was retired in 1934. She joined the aging Olympic at the scrapyard in Rosyth.