The Cunard liner – ‘the fastest steamer on the seas’ – was torpedoed and sunk by a German U-boat eleven miles off the coast of Cork one hundred years ago this year with the loss of 1,198 lives. By Willie Nolan & Brian McCabe
In April 1915 this notice was placed in about 50 American newspapers:
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 20th 1915
The notice appeared because it seemed very likely at the time that, notwithstanding possible risks, the luxury liner the Lusitania would shortly leave New York on her usual transatlantic crossing.
Around the year 1900, the Cunard Line was facing intense transatlantic competition from German liners. So it decided to build two liners which would surpass the Germans in every respect. They would be called the Mauretania and the Lusitania.
The former was named after an ancient Roman coastal province in North Africa, and the latter was called after the region that in the days of the Roman Empire covered all of modern Portugal below the River Douro, and a relatively small part of modern Spain.
The Cunard Line lacked the money to pay for the construction of these liners. So, in the interests of national pride, the Government advanced the money.
The keel of the nine-deck Lusitania was laid on June 16th 1904 at Clydebank in Scotland. The Lusitania could accommodate 2198 passengers and a crew of 850. The ship, with its four funnels, was launched on 7 June 1906, eight weeks later than planned because of strikes at the shipyard and eight months after the death of the Cunard chairman, Lord Inverclyde.
King Edward VII’s third child, Princess Louise, was invited to name the ship but could not attend, so the honour fell to Inverclyde’s widow Mary. The launch was attended by 600 invited guests and thousands of spectators.
One thousand tons of drag chains were attached to the hull by temporary rings to slow it once it entered the water. The wooden supporting structure was held back by cables so that once the ship entered the water it would slip forward out of its support. Six tugs were on hand to capture the hull and move it to the fitting out berth.
From 1907 to 1915, the liner was in regular transatlantic service and, because its Third Class layout was far more discreet and more comfortable than the Third Class in other liners, it proved very popular with emigrants.
Because of the many records it broke, the Lusitania was often called the ‘Greyhound of the Seas.’ The liner carried fewer lifeboats than the Titanic had carried, and this was a deliberate policy. The vessel was intended for a busy shipping lane, and it was felt that, if help were needed at any time, it would be readily available.
Lusitania’s maiden voyage took place on Saturday 7th September 1907, under the command of Commodore James Watt from Liverpool. A crowd of 200,000 people gathered to see her departure at 9.00 p.m. for Queenstown (Cobh), where she was to take on more passengers.