Wednesday, May 06, 2015

Remembering the Lusitania (repost from 2013)

On this date in 1915 the RMS Lusitania was torpedoed and sunk by a German U Boat. Endless controversy has surrounded this atrocity ever since. For the record the British aided and abetted by the Wilson Administration lied through their teeth and tried to whitewash the fact that the ship was carrying war contraband from supposedly neutral America. Not that it was a massive amount, but it was there. And of course that doesn't excuse the German's who attacked an unarmed passenger ship that they knew damn well was packed with civilians including women and children. But that's not the point of today's commemoration, which I expect to get a lot more attention in two years.

Today I want to pay tribute to the ship itself.

At the turn of the 20th century steam ships were what connected the globe in the way airplanes do today. Then as now speed, and for those who could afford it, comfort were paramount. Lusitania was a  product of the intense rivalry between Germany and Great Britain in the decades preceding the Great War. Through most of the 19th century Britain had held a more or less unchallenged position as the world's principal maritime power, both in terms of her navy and her commercial fleet. This changed with the accession of Kaiser William II who was a huge maritime enthusiast. Quickly he began dedicating significant resources towards challenging Britain's supremacy, and in 1897 this paid off with the launch of the Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse. Germany's new Atlantic gray hound stunned Britain and the world by seizing the record for the fastest crossing and with her four giant funnels she established a new era in which the "four stacker" became synonymous with size, speed, luxury and safety.

For the next ten years, while Britain fumed, the Germans built a seemingly endless series of ships, each bigger faster and more luxurious than the one before, and they had a monopoly on the coveted "Blue Riband." Adding insult to injury, on the other side of the Atlantic the great American financial wizard J. P. Morgan had set his eyes on establishing a monopoly over transatlantic shipping. In 1902 his new conglomerate, the International Mercantile Marine, absorbed the White Star Line, then the second largest British shipping company.

This turned British annoyance into outright alarm.

Wasting little time, the Cunard Line, Britain's largest shipping firm and White Star's chief rival, quickly warned the British government that they too might be bought out unless something drastic changed. Such an eventuality was unthinkable and the Admiralty quickly approved a huge loan to Cunard that was to be used to build two new transatlantic liners. But there were conditions attached. The ships had to be fast and they had to be built to naval specifications in case they were needed in a war.

With cash in hand Cunard set about planning the construction of two ships so revolutionary they would effectively end the transatlantic speed race for two decades. Those ship's were the Lusitania and her sister ship the Mauritania. They were built in different yards and fitted out separately including in their decor. But in terms of their engineering and general layout the two were near twins.

Lusitania was finished first and in 1907 on her second voyage she smashed the German speed record and seized the Blue Riband. In 1908 the Mauritania took the record and excepting a brief period in 1909 when Lusitania regained it, she would prove to be the slightly faster of the twin steamers.

When completed Lusitania was 787 feet long and 87 feet wide with the requisite four stacks. She had a gross registered tonnage of 31,500 tons that propelled by four brand new and very revolutionary turbine engines geared to four screws could move her at the near blinding speed of 28 knots with a service speed of 25 knots. The race for speed records was over and Lusitania's slightly faster sister would hold the record unchallenged from 1909 to 1928. Externally her appearance was such that she resembled an oversized racing yacht with her raked back funnels and sleek lines. Mauritania by contrast had a rather cluttered appearance on her top decks owing to a large number of ventilation funnles. On the Lusitania these were designed to be smaller and blend in more with the overall appearance of the ship.

But Lusitania had a flaw. When she left for her first sea trials the engines caused a severe vibration in the back of the ship which was intended for the second class passengers. The ship was redocked and major changes were made to her second class accommodations to reduce the vibration. Later in her career she would twice have additional adjustments made to her propellers to further reduce it. Even so, the vibration, while greatly diminished, was never completely conquered.

More so than in their outer appearance, it was in their interiors that the two ship's were most distinguished from one another. While their layout was nearly identical the Lusitania had a lighter and somewhat more informal air about her. Mauritania on the other hand was very much furnished in the classical Edwardian style with tons of dark wood paneling  In this respect Lusitania was somewhat more progressive in her decor.

What follows are some photographs of a ship universally regarded as one of the great liners. Sadly most of the images are black and white which generally fail in conveying the elegance of her interior accommodations. One simply cannot grasp the often bright and very colorful decor in her public rooms and cabins. Most of the pictures are large and detailed but the blog automatically reduces them so they fit. Click on the images to enlarge them.

Lusitania being launched.

During sea trials.

Arriving in New York on her maiden voyage.

This a massive and very detailed panoramic photo of her arrival in New York in September 1907. The contrast between the sleek modern liner and the sea of horse drawn cabs waiting on the pier is stark. You will definitely need to enlarge the photo.

After a rough crossing. Note the paint has been blasted off her by the North Atlantic.

Scenes from the boat deck. As originally configured the Lusitania, like most steamers of the period, carried the minimum number of lifeboats required by law. That was sixteen, four less than what the Titanic carried in 1912. After the Titanic disaster additional lifeboats were added for everyone on board. But many were of the "some assembly required" kind. And they proved utterly useless when needed in a hurry on May 7th 1915.

The first class dining room. There were two tiers and a stained glass dome.

Some views of the lounge and music room.

The first class entrance foyer with stairs and electric elevator.

The first class foyer off the Promenade deck.

The promenade deck. During Atlantic crossings, weather permitting, the deck was filled with passengers lounging in steamer chairs. Tea and bullion were served on trollies every day at four.

First class smoking room. Sorry ladies. Gentlemen only please.

First class reading and writing room. Quiet please.

Second class entrance foyer.

Second class dining room. While the cabins (see below) in the second class were much smaller than in first, the public rooms were well appointed and quite comfortable. The passengers here also enjoyed generally very good food (see the menu below). For many years Cunard openly advertised that second class was the best way to travel for the money.

Second class lunch menu. Click to enlarge and read.

Second class lounge.


Second class smoking room. Again, men only.

Second class ladies withdrawing room.

The purser's office.

The verandah cafe. There were huge sliding glass doors that were opened to the back of the first class promenade deck when the weather was agreeable.

Some views of first class state rooms.

First class state room deluxe with adjoining bedrooms.

Some views of the two first class regal suites. These came with such astonishing amenities as separate bedrooms, a sitting room/parlor, a private dining room, a trunk room and room (probably closet sized) for one's personal servants. And the ultimate in sea going luxury for which one would pay out the nose... a private en suite water closet and bathroom. Prior to the Second World War private bathrooms were a rare, and expensive luxury at sea. Even millionaires typically had to put on their slippers and bathrobe when nature called in the middle of the night and hoof it down the hall. Those wishing to take a bath would first have to make an appointment with the ship's bath steward. These rooms also had sinks with both hot and cold running water. Most staterooms had only cold water. Hot water for shaving or washing up was delivered at appointed times, usually in the morning and when the dressing gong was sounded for dinner. It could also be requested at anytime via your cabin steward.

A second class cabin. Unlike in first class those traveling in the second class got rooms that were small and would be considered cramped by today's standards. Typically they came with the more traditional berths and in a two berth cabin one would see a small sofa and a chair. They also had a sink with running water, an armoire, and space to stow a couple of suitcases or a small trunk. In those days people often traveled with more than they do today. But on a ship space was limited so you would tag all of your luggage before boarding  indicating "wanted" or "not wanted." Not wanted was sent to the baggage hold until arrival. Also in second class you were likely to be sharing your cabin with someone unless you booked all of the berths. These cabins were usually two or four berths (for families traveling together). Bed curtains on ships of this period were more than decorative. They also served to offer some privacy if you were sharing your cabin and even in first class they helped keep the heat in and the chill out. Outside of the public rooms, central heating was rare on pre Great War ships. And the North Atlantic is notoriously unpleasant most of the year. Passengers embarking on a transatlantic voyage were well advised to pack warm clothes and long underwear even in the summer.

Third class cabin. Contrary to popular belief it was the third class or "steerage" who provided the profit for the big steamship companies in the pre-war years. They required the least service and the fewest amenities and could be packed in to much more cramped spaces. On the Lusitania the third class cabins were generally quite spartan but still liveable. There were no dormitory style steerage quarters. All third class passengers had cabins which had between two and six berths. Each cabin had a sink with running water. As in the second class, you could pretty much guarantee that you were going to have roommates. Also there were no "bath" facilities on most ships for the third class though Lusitania did have generally decent lavatory and washrooms.


Third class dining room. The dining room was located forward and meals were served in two sittings. Food in the third class was generally edible and for many probably better than what they were used to. Unlike in some other immigrant ships of the period, here the third class appear to have been treated as paying customers rather than human cargo. They ate off real plates, with flatware and actual glasses for drinking. It wasn't first class but they were treated better than most immigrants during that time. The third class also had their own smoking room, ladies room and a piano in the dining room which doubled as a social hall in the evenings.

The officer's lounge and smoke room.

The bridge and wheelhouse.

The great liner today.

1 comment:

The Anti-Gnostic said...

Fantastic post, John.