the Lusitania


By Nicholas McCormick

The new SHGAPE.org website provides an accessible venue for the circulation of more material than can feasibly fit into the pages of the printed Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era. This is the first of three essays marking the one-hundredth anniversary of the sinking of the Lusitania, commissioned and edited by the editors of the Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era and SHGAPE.org.

RMS_Lusitania_coming_into_port,_possibly_in_New_York,_1907-13-cropOn the afternoon of May 7, 1915 the British liner Lusitania was torpedoed by the Imperial German submarine U-20. It sank in eighteen minutes with the loss of 1,191 lives, including 123 U. S. citizens. This was the largest loss of life at sea during wartime to that date and a public relations disaster for Imperial Germany. Britain capitalized on the incident to paint the Germans as barbarians who slaughtered noncombatants. Americans were shocked at the loss of life and public opinion slowly turned against Germany. Troubling questions followed almost immediately: Why did such a large and well-built ship sink so quickly? Did the Germans deliberately seek the Lusitania? Why did the British Admiralty allow the ship to sail unprotected or unadvised through a dangerous war zone? What caused the second explosion survivors described? This trio of essays examines what we can add, a century later, to explain this epic tragedy at sea.[1]

This, the first essay, places Lusitania in the context of international transatlantic competition. The second essay reviews events leading up to the sinking, and the final installment analyzes the causes of the disaster.[2]

During the late nineteenth century, the development of powerful steam engine machinery, forged steel, and scores of emigrants willing to pay for passage to the United States enabled shipping companies to build larger, faster ships. While steamships plied the Atlantic from the 1840s, it was not until the 1890s that modern liners were developed.[3] Germany’s chief lines: Hamburg-Amerika (HAPAG) and North German Lloyd, were at the forefront of innovation. The liner Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse (1897) for example, was the fastest and arguably most luxurious merchant ship in the world. Germany’s chief maritime rival was Great Britain: White Star and Cunard were Britain’s premiere shipping lines. White Star was noted for fast and luxurious ships, including the world’s largest ship, the Oceanic (1899).[4] Despite their reputation for reliability and safety, by 1900 Cunard’s star was falling. Their ships were not as fast, large, or luxurious as the competition. The company faced the latest danger on the Atlantic: monopolization.

MNY.Lusitania.bridge.1907.25469American financier J. P. Morgan had begun buying shipping lines after he consolidated railroads and related industries in the late nineteenth century. By 1902, Morgan owned or controlled most major shipping companies, including White Star. Cunard’s directors worried about a Morgan takeover. In particular, many feared that Britain would lose an important part of its merchant marine, which had traditionally played a key role in its military tactics. Could American- owned ships be depended upon for British wartime service?

Lord Inverclyde, Cunard’s chairman, made a bold move. The directors appealed to the British Admiralty on the basis of national security. If the government loaned Cunard money, they would build two new ships that would best the competition in size, speed, and comfort. These ships would be available to the Admiralty as armed merchant cruisers and the Cunard Line would remain under British ownership. The British government agreed, and the arrangement produced two new ocean liners: Lusitania and Mauretania.

Lusitania_warningThe ships were designed to Admiralty stipulations, featuring warship-style longitudinal coalbunkers, reinforced decking strong enough to support potential naval gun mountings, and a top speed of at least 24.5 knots.[5] In 1915, the Germans would claim that Lusitania was a legitimate target because of its military capacity. But in 1907 attention centered on the ships’ luxurious accommodations and technological innovations such as private baths in the most exclusive suites, elevators, and a telephone system. Most important were the powerful, Parsons’ turbine engines which generated more than 60,000 shaft horsepower. Only a few, much smaller ships had been fitted with these new engines: turning four propellers, they enabled the ships to exceed 24 knots at the cost of 1,000 tons of coal per day.[6]

Lusitania entered service in September 1907, Mauretania in November. The vessels won immediate commercial success and each ship won the Blue Riband prize (besting the Deutschland), returning the speed record to the British. Other lines quickly challenged their size and luxury, building the larger White Star’s Olympic and HAPAG’s Imperator and Vaterland. But they could not beat Cunard’s speed.[7] The peaceful competition ended abruptly in August 1914 with the coming of the war.


About the author:

Nicholas McCormick is a PhD candidate at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Advised by Chicago historian Perry Duis, his dissertation examines the role of natural history museums and progressive reform in Chicago and the changes in museum exposition from the late nineteenth century to mid twentieth century. Mr. McCormick has a life long interest in ocean liners and is also passionate about photography and his art is an important part of his life and another way to tell stories.


[1] Many thanks to Professor Robert Johnston for encouraging me in this project, Dirk Bonker for his insightful comments, Elaine Parsons for amazing editorial guidance, and to my colleague Jeff Nichols for scans of U-20’s war diary and war zone patrol charts.

[2] The newest books about the loss of the Lusitania are Eric Larson, Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania (New York, 2015) and Greg King and Penny Wilson’s Lusitania: Triumph, Tragedy, and the End of the Edwardian Age (New York, 2015). J. Kent Layton’s Lusitania: An Illustrated Biography (Gloucestershire, UK, 2015) and Eric Sauder’s The Unseen Lusitania (Gloucestershire, UK, 2015) present a fantastic photographic history of the ship.

[3] Great Britain, Germany, France, and Holland were the chief maritime powers on the Atlantic. American vessels were smaller, slower, and less elegant than European liners. Americans were content to have European carriers handle the movement of people, particularly immigrants.

[4] See John Malcolm Brinnin, The Sway of the Grand Saloon: A Social History of the North Atlantic (New York, 1971); Stephen Fox, Transatlantic: Samuel Cunard, Isambard Brunel, and the Great Atlantic Steamships (New York, 2003); John Maxtone-Graham, The Only Way to Cross (New York, 1972)

[5] Layton, Lusitania: An Illustrated Biography, 17-18. Contemporary warships were built with longitudinal bunkers, which are arranged along the sides of ship, rather than transverse bunkers, which are centered inside the hull, because if damaged, the transverse compartments flooded asymmetrically and caused the ship to list heavily. See Diana Preston, Lusitania: An Epic Tragedy (New York, 2002) and David Ramsay, Lusitania: Saga and Myth (New York, 2002).

[6] Mark D. Warren, ed., The Cunard Turbine-Driven Quadruple Screw Atlantic Liner: Reprinted from Engineering Magazine (Wellingborough, UK, 1986); Layton, Lusitania: An Illustrated Biography; Eric Sauder, Lusitania: The Ship and Her Record (Gloucestershire, UK, 2009).

[7] Arnold Kludas, Record Breakers of the North Atlantic: Blue Riband Liners 1838-1952 (London, 2000). Mark Chirnside, The Olympic Class Ships (Gloucestershire, UK, 2004). J. Kent Layton, Edwardian Superliners: A Trio of Trios (Gloucestershire, UK, 2013). William H. Miller: The First Great Ocean Liners in Photographs (New York, 1984).



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