Tag Archives: Cunard

Remembering History: Sinking of Lusitania (7 May 1915)

RMS Lusitania Coming Into Port (circa 1907-1913)
George Grantham Bain Collection, US Library of Congress, Digital Id cph.3g13287.
Public Domain

On 7 May 1915, the Cunard liner RMS Lusitania sailing from New York to Liverpool was torpedoed off Ireland and sank within 18 minutes. Of the 1,959 passengers and crew aboard, only 761 would survive. 128 of the passengers were American.

World War II had begun in 1914 between Britain, France, and Russia (including Belgium, Italy, Portugal, and Serbia) and Germany, Austria Hungary, and Turkey (then called Ottoman Empire). The United States, under President Woodrow Wilson, declared neutrality. Since the U.S. was a major trading partner with Britain, problems arose when Germany tried to quarantine the British Isles using mines.  Several American ships ended up being damaged or sunk as a result. In February 1915, Germany declared unrestricted submarine warfare around British waters. This meant any ship entering these waters were subject to being attacked and sunk by German forces.

To make this very clear, the German embassy in Washington had advertisements run in New York newspapers in early May 1915 that Americans traveling on British or Allied ships in war zones did so at their own risk. In one case, the announcement was on the same page as advertisement of the Lusitania sailing from New York to Liverpool.

Warning issued by Imperial German Embassy in Washington about travelling on RMS Lusitania.
Author Unknown
Public Domain/Wikimedia Commons

The British Admiralty issued warnings, due to merchant ships being sunk off the south coast of Ireland, to ships to avoid the area or take evasive action (zigzagging was advised). The British objected by pointing out that threatening to torpedo all ships was wrong, whether announced in advance or not. During her construction, subsidized by the British government, it was done with the proviso she could be converted to an armed merchant cruiser.

A compartment was also installed to for the purposes of carrying arms and ammunition if it were needed. Gun mounts were installed for deck cannons, but they were not installed. At the time of her sinking, she was not operating in any official capacity as an armed merchant cruiser. The Germans suspected the ship was being used to transport munitions and her repainting to a grey color was an attempt to disguise her (it was, but to make it harder to spot from a periscope).

The Lusitania was one of the fastest liners on the Atlantic capable of 25 knots (29 mph) with many refinements. With lifts, the wireless telegraph, electric lights, and more passenger space (and more sumptuous accomodations), traveling on the Lusitania or her sister ships Aquitania and Maurentania was considered a good experience by seasoned travelers. The fact that she traveled so fast makes it likely it was simply being in the right place and the right time for the German U-boat. She could not possibly have caught the speedy vessel otherwise (there are arguments about what speed Lusitania was doing at this time off Ireland).

Engraving of Lusitania Sinking by Norman Wilkinson, The Illustrated London News, May 15, 1915
Public Domain(Wikimedia)

Captain William Turner did not use zigzagging while in the area (many argue that it does not really work). The commanding officer of the U-boat,  Walther Schwieger, ordered one torpedo fired around 14:10 (2:10 pm). It struck the Lusitania on the starboard bow. A second explosion within the ship occurred and the ship began to founder starboard quickly. While the crew tried to launch the lifeboats, the severe list made it difficult and impossible in many cases. Only six of the forty-eight lifeboats would be launched. The ship sank in 18 minutes taking with her 1, 198 souls. Of the 764 that did survive (and that is a heroic tale of itself), three would die later from wounds sustained from the sinking. Though close to the coast, it would be some time before assistance arrived. Local fishing ships were the first to provide assistance, and later the naval patrol boat Heron. Other small ships provided assistance as well.

Aftermath

The sinking provoked international fury at Germany. Germany defended its actions saying the ship had been carrying contraband and was an armed auxiliary military cruiser. The reaction within Germany, Austria-Hungary and Turkey was criticism of the sinking. The German government tried to defend the sinking, even though she was not armed, by saying she was carrying contraband and they had warned this would happen. The official statements did not go over well in the United States or in Britain. Editorials in newspapers denounced what Germany had done calling for more to bring them to heel. It was hotly debated within the Wilson administration what to do. Wilson condemned what Germany had done but internally but William Jennings Bryan, the Secretary of State, argued for trying to convince both Britain and Germany to ratchet down some of the actions that had led to Lusitania sinking. Bryan was antiwar and like many did not want the U.S. getting involved in the European war.

President Wilson would send three notes to Germany that made his position clear on the issue. First he said that Americans had the right to travel on merchant ships and for Germany to abandon submarine warfare on such vessels. Second, he rejected German arguments about Lusitania. This note caused Bryan to resign and was replaced by Robert Lansing. The third note was a warning that any subsequent sinkings would be “deliberately unfriendly.” That last one made it clear America’s position on the matter. While many wanted to stay out of the war, if the Germans did do it again they likely would find themselves at war with them.

The British government and press were not happy with Wilson over these notes. He was widely castigated and sneered. The reality was that American public opinion was not in favor of war. Wilson knew this and hoped Germany would stop attacking merchant vessels. There was some attempt within the German government to forbid action against neutral ships, which did curtail unrestricted submarine warfare for a while. British merchant ships were targeted, neutral ships treated differently (boarded and searched for war materials), and passenger ships left alone. But in 1917, Germany announced it would resume unrestricted submarine warfare. Wilson was furious and began preparations for war with Germany.

Sources:

History.com
The Lusitania Resource


MARITIME DISASTER HISTORY: SS ARCTIC COLLIDES WITH SS VESTA KILLING 322 IN 1854

United States Mail steamship Arctic (launched 1850).
Public Domain (U.S. Library of Congress)

On 27 September 1854 the SS Arctic collided with SS Vesta in heavy fog killing 322 people. The Arctic was a wooden hull passenger steamer ship launched in 1850 for the Collins Line. It was one of four ships the company built using U.S. government subsidies to challenge the British-backed Cunard line. The Collins Line had successfully bid to be subsidized as a mail and a passenger ship to Europe in 1847. As part of the deal in receiving the subsidies, the line agreed that in times of war they might be called into service as a troop transport or other need.

The launching of the ship in 1850 was well regarded at the time. She was considered one of the best vessels constructed up to that time and thousands witnessed her launch at Brown shipyards on the New York East River. And her top speed was 13 knots, a significant achievement making her known as the “clipper of the sea.” Not only was she fast but luxurious with her fittings and accommodations. Under captain James Luce, the ship underwent her sea trials and first regular service without incident. In 1853 she ran aground on Burbo Bank in Liverpool Bay while enroute to New York. She had to be refloated and returned to Liverpool. In 1854 she struck the Black Rock of the Saltee Islands from Liverpool to New York. Once again, she was refloated and sent to Liverpool. Arctic’s engines though were expensive to operate, and they had to rely on an invention by a Baltimore firm to reduce costs. The engines also put a strain on the wooden hulls as well.

On 27 September 1854 while enroute to New York from Liverpool, a sudden and heavy fog came up 50 miles off the coast of Newfoundland. Captain Luce did not take the usual precautions of slowing down, adding extra watches, and sounding the horn. At 12:15 pm, the Arctic collided with iron-hulled French steamer Vesta. At first Captain Luce thought the smaller vessel had taken more damage. However, the iron hulled ship had significantly damaged the Arctic and it was sinking. Under the maritime rules of the time, the ship had six lifeboats that would carry 180 people. However, there were 400 people aboard, 200 passengers and 150 crew. Discipline broke down quickly as many scrambled for the few lifeboats available. There was no “women and children first” enforced and many of the crew got into lifeboats. Those that remained had to use makeshift rafts. Captain Luce went down with the ship but survived the sinking. Two of the lifeboats made it to land. Another was picked up by another steamer. The other three lifeboats were never seen again.

The losses were staggering as all the women and children perished, including the wife of Edward Collins and two of his children that were aboard at the time. Other prominent people perished as well, and a rare copy of William Shakespeare First Folio was lost as well. News of the sinking did not reach New York until 2 weeks later due to limited telegraphy. The news brought a groundswell of anger in newspapers and public opinion. There were demands for an investigation and to change the law about lifeboats required. They were never acted upon and no one was ever held to account. Captain Luce was not generally considered to be at fault but retired. The scandal of so many crew surviving instead of women and children would result in many surviving crew members did not return to the US.

The Collins Line suffered further after that. The SS Pacific disappeared without a trace in 1856 enroute to New York from Liverpool. Many believe it collided with an iceberg and sank as it raced to arrive earlier than the Cunard liner Persia. All 55 passenger and 141 crew were lost along with its freight. Her remains were found in 1993 off the coast of Wales (some dispute this though) and some alternative theories of her fate have been put forward. The SS Adriatic was launched on April 7, 1856 but did not do her sea trials till 1857. However due to a depression, Congress reduced the subsidy to $385,000. In February 1858, the line suspended operations and in April went into bankruptcy. All of its remaining vessels were auctioned off and the company paid off its creditors. That left Cunard, for a time, without much opposition in the passenger trade between Europe and the United States.

Sources:

White Star Wanted More Wealthy Passengers Not Third Class

Photo courtesy George Behe
Photo courtesy George Behe

Titanic was built to make money but not on the backs of immigrants as some claim. Instead they were designed to make money from wealthy passengers who would travel both ways. Second class was designed for tourists and professionals who traveled less often but wanted the comforts such a ship offered. And finally you had third class (steerage back then) who paid the smallest fare but proportionally were the largest in numbers. However despite their numbers, they were a smaller revenue generator compared to first class passengers.

Joseph Mortati in Collision Course:How Good Business Decisions Sank the Titanic and Why refutes the standard thinking by going through the concept of the new White Star ships and how they were designed to make money. Cunard, which had the faster ships of the day that broke records, sacrificed speed for comfort. The line was also subsidized by the British government to prevent it from being bought out by a foreign entity. That gave them a 2-1 advantage over White Star. They had speed and government backing. Ismay had to come up with a way to compete that would make money. Competing on speed would be difficult and expensive. They could still market to immigrants seeking to cross over to United States but they knew it was a diminishing trade over time.

Focusing on repeat travelers then became important. And not just any repeat travelers but ones who were very wealthy and willing to pay extra for comfort. They could charge higher tickets for them and provide amenities a hotel on land would provide. It was a daring and bold plan that hinged on getting the wealthy to buy tickets. It required a marketing campaign to convince them that ships like Olympic or Titanic were the ships to be on and be seen on. What Mortati found was that Olympic compared to Lusitania would make 40% more per round trip because of those higher ticket prices. And while immigrants still comprised 50% of passengers aboard, revenue from them was 20%. Which means 80% came from first and second class passengers and mostly from first class.

Now that debunks the myth. Had Olympic, Titanic, or Brittanic been built to make lots of money from immigrants, the proportions would have been very different. Instead you would have third class being the significant revenue generator and first and second class bringing around 20% combined of the total revenue.

Source:
Mortati, Joseph Collision Course – How Good Business Decisions Sank the Titanic and Why (2013, Amazon Kindle Edition)

Noted Naval Architect Sir William White On Titanic

Sir William White (2 February 1845 – 27 February 1913) is a name unknown to many Sir William Henry Whiteunless you are a maritime historian or a naval architect.  During his time as chief constructor of the Royal Navy, he oversaw the construction of numerous battleships, cruisers, and unarmored warships. He retired in 1902 after suffering a nervous breakdown in 1901 due to a mishap involving the royal yacht Victoria and Albert. He went to work for Cunard as a consulting architect for RMS Mauretania. He also became president of  Institution of Civil Engineers, Institution of Mechanical Engineers, and Institution of Marine Engineers. From 1909-1910 he was council chairman for the Royal Society of Arts, and was governor of Imperial College until his death in 1913.

His contribution to Titanic came during the American inquiry. He penned a long letter to The Times about how the media had sensationalized the story resulting in premature opinions as to what happened. While the lifeboat issue was certainly important, naval engineers had to come up ways to keep the ship from sinking when they collide with icebergs. Merely slowing down would not be enough (and passengers might not like moving slowly across the ocean).

White argued for improving the water-tight subdivision of ships. The Titanic used transverse compartments that ran the width of ship which did not work. He proposed future designs add longitudinal compartments that ran from bow to stern.

Many ships were retrofitted after Titanic’s sinking, like having their double bottoms extended up the sides to the waterline giving them double hulls (this was done on Olympic). Other ships altered the height of the bulkheads to make them fully watertight.

Sources:
1. May 1912: The Titanic Inquiry(15 May 2013, The Engineer)

2. William Henry White (Wikipedia)

3. Institute of Mechanical Engineers, Engineering Heritage biography on William Henry White

4. An Expert On Titanic Wreck:Sir William White’s Deductions From Result of American Enquiry, Montreal Gazette, 31 May 1912 (available through Google).

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