There have been numerous ships over the past 175 years that have proudly flown the Cunard flag and carried the iconic red and black livery on their funnels. Most of the names of these ships are unknown to the average person, with the exception of a few of Cunard’s most iconic liners. But one name is forever etched into the history books. That name is Lusitania.
When Lusitania entered service in 1907 she was the largest, fastest and most magnificent passenger liner ever conceived. At well over 700ft long and more than 31,000 tons, the ship was Cunard’s answer to the influx of new transatlantic liners from Nordeutscher Lloyd, Hamburg-Amerika and White Star Line.
Lusitania was partnered with a sister ship, Mauretania which entered service later that same year. Both were record breakers in terms of speed, though Mauretania was the faster of the two. The Lusitania quickly established herself as a much loved ‘Atlantic Greyhound’.
Her interiors were like nothing that had ever been seen before. First class emulated stately palaces, with the overall intention to help passengers forget they were on a ship. Decorated in a Louis XVI style, the ship’s principle designer Leonard Peskett and his team utilised plaster work, natural lighting, murals and the electric light bulb to give the ship a welcoming and airy atmosphere.
The first class restaurant, perhaps the hallmark of her design, spanned two decks and was topped by an impressive dome. It could seat 323 people on the lower level and close to 150 on the upper; where a circular void offered sweeping views over the expanse of the room.
Lusitania also established a Cunard tradition – the Verandah restaurant. Here, for an extra tariff, first class diners could eat in the finest conceivable manner while in the middle of the North Atlantic. After this gastronomic delight, passengers could move around the ship courtesy of two lifts – a novel experience in 1907!
But it didn’t stop there; Lusitania and Mauretania also impressed those travelling in second class and steerage. Second class spaces bested first class on rival liners, with a design reminiscent of the first class spaces aboard; albeit to a smaller scale.
Steerage was of excellent quality for the day; with a large dining room, berths housing 4-8 people and a smoking and writing room for entertainment.
At the outbreak of World War I, Lusitania, Mauretania and the newer Aquitania were placed on the armed merchant cruiser list; however only Mauretania and Aquitania were taken up for this purpose.
Lusitania remained on the transatlantic passenger service on a reduced schedule. With her speed expected to protect her, Lusitania would transit the dangerous waters around Great Britain each month. This service was an early success, maintaining a vital commercial link between the United States and Great Britain.
However on 7 May, 1915 while sailing off the coast of Ireland near Old Head of Kinsale, Lusitania was hit by a torpedo from German submarine U-20. The ship was rocked by two explosions. The first created initial alarm aboard, while the second was an almighty blast that caused the ship to list heavily to starboard.
The severe list made it very difficult to launch the lifeboats, and the rapid speed at which the ship sunk; 18 minutes in total; left many trapped inside. When Lusitania slipped beneath the water, over 1,190 lost their lives, while those who survived waited hours in very cold water for rescue.
It was the people of Ireland, and particularly those in Cobh (at that time known as Queenstown) that rendered the urgent aid to the Lusitania survivors. Boats of all sizes made way to the wreck site to collect the living and the dead.
From that day, those living on the Irish coast were forever connected with the ship.
At 3am on May 7, 2015 around two hundred people began to mingle in the Queen Victoria’s lobby. Twenty minutes later a group of people left a nearby room holding flowers and wreaths. The group walked outside onto the Boat Deck, the rest of the crowd followed.
The air was cold. A brilliant moon shone over the water as Queen Victoria glided slowly over the wreck of Lusitania.
Commodore Christopher Rynd, Cunard’s senior master, gave a speech about the Lusitania disaster. In closing, he said; “one hundred years on, both those who died and those who survived, are remembered occasionally by their families. But on this day, 100 years later, we will remember them.”
As Queen Victoria’s whistle sounded, family members of those who sailed aboard Lusitania’s last voyage dropped flowers and wreaths. It was a moving and very fitting tribute to Lusitania, her passengers and crew.
When day broke Queen Victoria was alongside in Cobh. Her presence in the port created a great deal of interest, however the main focus across the town was Lusitania.
A formal commemoration ceremony was held at the White Star Line Parade Grounds near Cobh Pier during which Irish President, Michael Higgins, gave a speech about the Lusitania disaster and the importance of peace in our world.
At 2:10pm, 100 years to the minute that the torpedo struck Lusitania, Queen Victoria’s whistle sounded. 18 minutes later it sounded again, marking the moment Lusitania sunk.
The speed at which those 18 minutes passed struck everyone in the crowd. In those 18 minutes, one of the greatest liners in the world was lost, and with her the lives of over 1,190 people.
It changed the way the world perceived modern warfare and the lives of those aboard and ashore forever.