In the annals of legendary, long gone Atlantic liners, few names are as steeped in lore as those of Lusitania and Mauretania. Conceived as a unique combination of pace and grace, they were intended to be complementary but, inevitably, the two ships became engaged in a kind of friendly rivalry. Both also became caught in the cross hairs of German periscopes in time, in circumstances that no one could ever have envisaged. One was to survive by the skin of her teeth; the second would become the victim of one of the most ghastly and controversial disasters in maritime history.
They were built with government money, on a tidal wave of jingoistic pressure. Britain, the owner of the greatest empire that the world had ever seen, was in possession of the world’s largest merchant marine at the turn of the twentieth century. But in 1897, that long unchallenged maritime dominance was given a rude slap.
That year, a brand new German four stacker called the Kaiser Wilhelm Der Grosse went thundering across the Atlantic, and seized the speed record- the mythical Blue Ribband- on her maiden crossing. The British were thunderstruck. But even worse was to follow.
One after another, three more successive record breakers emerged from German yards, and each one took the speed record in its turn. The advent of that Teutonic triple play was a real smack across Britannia’s imperial face. The upstart Germans had thrown down a four fingered gauntlet, and it was picked up with something of a snarl.
At the same time, an American railroad magnate named J.P. Morgan began buying up transatlantic shipping lines, one after the other, with the intent of creating the world’s first transatlantic travel megalith, an organisation that would have been the equivalent to the Oneworld Alliance of its day. He named it the International Mercantile Marine (IMM). The jewel in the crown of IMM was none other than Cunard’s great British rival, the White Star Line.
The birth of this corporate beast launched a deep and unpleasant fear in the minds of the British government. The thinking went that, in times of war, it might be impossible for these American owned ships to be employed in the service of the Empire. And, with the real possibility that Cunard, too, might also fall into Morgan’s bottomless money pit, something clearly had to give.
In fact, Cunard had judged the entire situation very smartly, and it now proceeded to play the British government as deftly as a baby grand piano. A gigantic loan of £2,600,000 was secured, with which it was to build a pair of world beating new transatlantic liners. These would later become the Lusitania and the Mauretania.
Naturally, there were strict conditions. Cunard had to guarantee to remain a British company. Plus, the two ships would be constructed to naval standards, with very extensive watertight compartments, and specially strengthened decks, capable of carrying six inch guns. For, in the event of a war, it was intended that the two ships would serve as auxiliary cruisers; cruisers much bigger than any bona fide battleship then in existence.
And, more importantly, the new ships would be expected to beat the speedy new German liners. And soundly, at that……
From the start, they were intended to be the biggest ships in the world. So big, in fact, that they had to be built in separate shipyards; the Lusitania on the Clyde, and the Mauretania on the Tyne. This in part explains the fierce but friendly rivalry that would exist between them, right up until the outbreak of the Great War.
At around 32,000 tons each, ‘Lusy’ and ‘Maurey’ had the inestimable advantage of being the recipients of the radical, reliable new steam turbine technology. It gave each of the two ships an unparalleled power plant, as would soon become obvious. For Cunard was aiming for an incredibly ambitious, average crossing time of five days for each ship.
The twins were breathtaking visions to behold; long, lean and graceful, with no nonsense, knife edge prows and a superstructure topped by a quartet of raked smokestacks, garlanded in the traditional Cunard colours of red and black. First to emerge was the Lusitania, in September of 1907. On her second round trip from Liverpool to New York, she set a new record for the Blue Ribband, restoring the coveted title to British care after a decade long hiatus.
Three months later, the Mauretania finally came on line. She had almost shaken herself to pieces on her first trial runs out of the Tyne, and some drastic internal stiffening had been in order before she could make a stormy November debut that same year. Once settled in, she also quickly beat the record just set by her sister. For the first time in ten years, a supremely dominant British duo was once again top dog on the lucrative New York run and, as the owners of that title, the two ships prospered mightily.
For the next seven years, the Lusy and Maurey would play ping pong with the Blue Ribband, beating each other now and again by a fraction of a knot. Both were sumptuously decorated in first class at least, with two story dining rooms, and salons more reminiscent of the Adlon than an ocean liner. Resplendent with deep, richly carved woods (Mauretania) or awash with gilt, Louis XVI furnishings and gold leaf (Lusitania), they were the absolute epitome of style, grace and grandeur on the often stormy Atlantic crossing.
That crossing was often a rocky road to be sure. With hull shapes dictated by naval architects, the two ships became famous for their pitching and rolling in bad weather. They had long, lean cruiser hulls, narrow in the beam, and not ideally suited for express service on the most unforgiving ocean in the world.
Yet they were instant, spectacular successes. So much so, in fact, that they ushered in a whole new age of rivalry on the Atlantic crossing, one that not even the most infamous disaster in maritime history could end.
For the White Star Line was not about to take this Cunard double sweep lying down. With J.P. Morgan’s almost limitless millions behind it, that company began plotting a giant triple response. First, there would be two new liners, built side by side, later to be followed by a third. Each of these ships would be half as large again as the pair of record breaking new Cunarders.
But the new White Star ships were not built to compete in terms of speed. Coal was expensive, and every knot over the first twenty used up as much coal as that original twenty did. These ships were designed to cross the Atlantic in six days, as opposed to the five day Cunard crossings. Each would be suffused with such a wealth of spectacular luxury and time killing diversions that the extra day at sea would be seen as a positive pleasure. Steadiness, safety, and splendid food and accommodations were the keynotes of the trio. As the first two ships took shape in Belfast, Cunard kept a wary eye on them, even as Lusy and Maurey continued to dominate the Atlantic crossing.
The first of these ships was, of course, the Olympic. As she made her first, triumphant entry into New York in the summer of 1911, the Lusitania was heading downstream, en route for the Coronation celebrations for King George V. Moving smartly down the Hudson, the Lusitania deigned to join in with the noisy salute being accorded to the new White Star liner.
The Olympic became the first of the mega liners to sail regularly from Southampton. Against better judgement, Cunard continued to favour Liverpool as i’s principal port; both Lusy and Maurey would continue to sail from there right up until the outbreak of war in 1914. More than once, they had broken loose from their moorings during severe Mersey storms, sometimes suffering hull damage sufficiently bad enough to necessitate urgent dry docking. It was an anything but ideal situation.
As far as travel was concerned, the Olympic quickly creamed off the American travelling elite, though the British aristocracy in general continued to favour the faster Cunard duo. Part of this American fixation with White Star was that its ships called in regularly at Cherbourg, an ideal French port of call that put Paris and the French Riviera within easy reach by fast Pullman train. It was a lead that Cunard itself was to follow after the war.
Then, in the spring of 1912, the second of the White Star ships emerged. Five days into her maiden voyage, the hull of the Titanic glanced against the side of a capsized iceberg for around thirty seconds. She foundered less than three hours later, taking more than fifteen hundred people down with her, as well as a huge chunk of the New York Stock Exchange.
The shock effect was seismic. In the wake of a raft of investigations, both the Lusitania and Mauretania continued in service, albeit with strings of extra lifeboats now festooned along the whole length of their boat decks. Until then, the Cunarders- just like every other major ocean liner in service anywhere- had been just as woefully deficient in terms of lifeboat capacity as the ill fated Titanic.
This sudden, belatedly commendable obsession with boats for all would prove totally inadequate for the screaming thousands trapped on the sinking Lusitania as her shattered corpse sagged headlong into the Atlantic on May 7th, 1915, after her torpedoing just ten miles off the coast of Southern Ireland. But that is a story for another time; for now, this is where we leave the two sisters ships.