The vessel and her sister ship Mauretania formed part of a deal between the government and Cunard. A loan of over £2.5 million was paid to Cunard to finance two ships. This would enable to company to remain competitive in the growing transatlantic passenger market and they were awarded lucrative contracts. Both ships would be built to Admiralty specifications, to be used as cruisers, when needed during wartime.
Launched on 7th June 1906, the Lusitania was the largest ship at that time. The Lusitania won the Blue Riband, this was later won by the Mauretania. The Blue Riband is an unofficial award given to the passenger liner crossing the Atlantic with the fastest speed.
At a public inspection for the Lusitania over 10,000 people came to visit. The money raised from this went to local charities including the Seaman’s Home.
Her maiden voyage was from Liverpool to New York, via Cobh in Ireland.
Many of the crew were from Liverpool, including Captain William Turner, who was in charge when the ship won the Blue Riband and later Captain Dow. Turner took over from Dow when Dow was granted leave due to the stress of the Atlantic crossings with the constant threat of U Boats during the war.
Turner was in the Royal Naval Reserve and in command of the Lusitania during WWI. He later served on the Mauretania when she was transporting troops to the Dardanelles. Turner died in Crosby and is buried in Rake Lance Cemetery.
Many liners were used as troop ships or hospital ships during the war, with some being converted into armed cruisers. The Lusitania had gun rings installed on deck, but the guns were never installed. One factor may have been the fact the she was a large ship and the fuel consumption would have been too high.
Mauretania was used as a troop ship and was painted in dazzle ship colours, along with the Olympic, which carried British, Canadian and American troops. The Britannic was used as a hospital ship and was repainted white with a green stripe.
On 4th August 1914 when Britain declared war on Germany, the Lusitania left New York. On the crossing a U boat was spotted but the ship managed to evade it in the fog. During the war crossings were reduced and the vessel flew the US flag. After war was declared Lusitania was put on a list of official armed merchant cruiser ships.
In America rumours of U Boats were rife, the German Ambassador placed warning adverts in the press reminding passengers of the war and that they would be sailing into waters that were a war zone.
On 1st May 1915 the Lusitania departed New York, on what was to be her final voyage. On the voyage three German stowaways were found on board, these were detained and questioned, but no further action was taken against them.
The ship was slower than normal as the fourth boiler room was shut down due to a shortage of manpower at the time and to reduce the amount of coal needed. Captain Turner ordered frequent drills as he had received a message informing him that 23 merchant cruisers had been sunk off the coast of Ireland during the last voyage.
The U Boat, U20 was heading for Liverpool and had attacked a number of ships; one using an International law known as Cruiser Rules, another without any warning. Cruiser Rules meant that passenger ships may not be sunk, crews of merchant ships must be placed in safety before being sunk and only ships that are a threat to the attacker may be sunk without warning. U Boats were supposed to surface and to give a warning. The Captain of the U20 stayed off the coast of Kinsale, Ireland, not his original destination, Liverpool.
On 7th May Turner confirmed his bearings and changed course, which put him in range of U20. The submarine remained submerged and never gave any warning. U20 fired at the Lusitania striking the boiler room, it could not slow or change course. A second internal explosion sank the vessel in under 20 minutes. There were problems with launching the lifeboats and only six were successfully launched. Rescue vessels from the local area were launched, but they still took over three hours to reach those who were in the sea.
1198 people lost their lives in the sinking of the Lusitania.
Outside of Queenstown there is a mass grave for those who died.
The sinking of the Lusitania caused an outcry in America as 128 Americans were among the dead. This action also led to the Anti-German Riots which flared up in London, Liverpool and other large cities, spreading to other areas such as Birkenhead. In Liverpool people descended on the Cunard offices and in the Breck Road area in the north of the city, Seaman, Dockworkers and those who had previously worked on board the Lusitania started rioting, causing widespread destruction.
Lord Derby called for calm and the sinking created a surge of recruitment.
In Germany there was shock at the reaction of the sinking, but this was turned into propaganda. A medal was produced by Karl Goetz to commemorate the sinking; however the date was incorrectly marked, making some people believe that the sinking was premeditated. A second commemorative medal was quickly reproduced. In 1916, Lord Newton, in charge of Propaganda at the Foreign Office asked Harry Gordon Selfridge to reproduce the medal to exploit anti-German feeling. The replica medals came with a leaflet highlighting the medal’s incorrect date to show the sinking was premeditated. Proceeds from the sales went to the Red Cross.
In the aftermath of the sinking there followed weeks of correspondence between US President Woodrow Wilson and the German Government, who argued that the Lusitania was a legitimate military target, listed as an armed merchant cruiser and carrying small munitions. Wilson wanted an apology and compensation for American victims.
Almost two years later in January 1917 the German Government announced it would conduct unrestricted submarine warfare, this inflamed public opinion leading to America declaring war on Germany in April 1917.
Debates about the cargo and manifest continue to this day, questioning whether small munitions were on-board, whether there was a British Government plot to sink the Lusitania to get America to join the war.
In June and July 1915 there was a Board of Trade Enquiry, held in London. Here Turner was made a scapegoat and made to look incompetent. Lord Mersey, who presided over the enquiry into the Titanic, was assisted by others with naval backgrounds, including the Attorney General and Solicitor General. Captain Turner, Cunard and the Royal Navy were absolved of any negligence, with the German Government blamed for the disaster.