A Liner, A U-boat... And History


Those who watched from the pier knew the emotions usual at sailings. They felt the initial pain of separation as the gangplanks dropped away and the first feet of clearing water divided them from those who were departing. Then, as the eye’s focus shifted from the waving figures at the railing and took in the majestic whole of the ship now pulling back into the river, with its graceful lines beneath the gay banners fluttering from its masts, those who had been left behind felt the sting of envy as they imagined the adventure, the gaiety, and the fun that awaited those aboard during the week of freedom ahead of them.

Envy and regret were the dominant emotions on May 1, 1915, as the Cunarder Lusitania set sail from New York. A new summer season was about to begin, and many of those who stood on the dock were themselves anticipating the coming joy of a tour, despite the ugly war in Europe. To the shouted farewells were frequently added the promises of meetings somewhere across the ocean.

There were no forebodings. Those who had found time to glance through the morning’s newspapers may have noticed an official German advertisement: Americans were warned that a war zone existed around the British Isles and that they sailed on Allied vessels at their own risk. But that grim announcement attracted little attention then.

Neither those who sailed nor those who stayed behind suffered the anxieties of the threat of danger. In a few months’ time the great war in Europe would be a year old; and Americans had already become accustomed to its costs in blood and money, to its fluctuating victories and defeats. That it might touch civilians embarked on a noncombatant ship was unimaginable—ungallant as well as illegal, in an age that still associated gallantry and legality with war.

The Lusitania never reached port. The shock of its sinking—the first outraged perception of what modern war meant—turned Americans onto a course that led them further through war to an unwilling new role in a wider world.

The great vessel had been then less than eight years in service. The pride of the British merchant fleet, it was a world removed from the grimy uncomfortable craft that only a generation earlier had ferried passengers across the Atlantic. Sea travel by now had been embellished with elegance and grace; the trim decks were made for the leisurely stroll of unworried vacationers, and the concern for comfort hid every evidence that it was still the business of ships to carry goods.

In the last decades of the Nineteenth Century the great powers, engaged in an obsessive naval race, discovered that it was in the national interest to build up the size of their merchant marine. Competition from the French and Germans and Italians compelled Great Britain to fight bitterly to retain its supremacy. Direct government subsidies were everywhere thrown into the battle and relieved shipbuilders and shipowners of the necessity of taking account of costs in the effort to attract passengers.

There followed golden years. The floating palaces grew steadily in size and added luxury after luxury to their accouterments. Borrowing the style of the flamboyant resorts of the period, the designers outdid themselves in the provisions for stylish public rooms and comfortable cabins.

Yet, magically, the subsidies kept the cost of travel relatively low. An ocean voyage, once undertaken only out of necessity or daring, now became part of the commonplace glamour of a European tour. The gaily jostling dancers who so often waltzed the whole journey across never troubled to think that the subsidies had a purpose, and that that purpose was war.

The Lusitania had been commissioned at the height of the naval race; the plans approved by the Admiralty, and the cost underwritten by the British treasury. The ship was intended once and for all to demonstrate the maritime superiority of the Union Jack. This was to be the largest, swiftest, most comfortable passenger vessel in commission. She had come down the ways at Clydebank in June, 1906, built by John Brown and Company. More than a year had then been spent in fitting her out. When she sailed in September, 1907, on her maiden voyage, she was endowed with every attribute for speed and safety that British engineering could devise. She carried off the blue ribbon with ease. She was 785 feet long and 85 feet wide and was registered at 40,000 tons. She could carry 2,000 passengers and a crew of 600, and did 25 knots without difficulty.

The Lusitania had been popular from the start. If she carried less than capacity on this trip, it was not so much because of the war, as because the season had hardly started and because on eastbound voyages the steerage space reserved for the immigrant trade was usually unoccupied. As it was, the ship’s passenger list ran to 1,250 names, 188 of them American citizens.

The trip was uneventful. Shipboard life ran its usual carefree course. The travelers enjoyed the relaxing sense of detachment, within their own closed world, from the old problems they had left behind and the new ones they were approaching. The war news hardly intruded, and the crew was studiously determined to carry on imperturbably as if nothing mattered but the self-contained life of the ship.