Lusitania: An Illustrated Biography (Book review)

 

James Bracknell reviews Lusitania: An Illustrated Biography by J. Kent Layton (Amberley Publishing)

This has to be the ultimate Lusitania book. It’s expensive – £40, though you can get it for less online – but for that you get a 450 page hardback that not only contains an incredibly detailed written history of the ship but is also lavishly illustrated, with several hundred photos, plans of the ship and examples of contemporary artwork. Lusitania: An Illustrated Biography was first published in 2010 and this is an updated edition. The original book was much acclaimed and since it’s been out of print it’s been advertised on Amazon for – I kid you not – more than a thousand pounds (£40 doesn’t sound quite so much now).

As you probably know, the Lusitania was a Cunard liner operating out of Liverpool which was sunk by a German U-boat off Ireland as it returned from New York. The First World War was less than twelve months old, and 2015 marks an especially important anniversary as a hundred years have passed since the ship met its sad end on 7 May 1915.

The ship’s story is a fascinating one for many reasons. At the time, it was known around the world as the largest and fastest transatlantic liner ever built. It also set new standards in luxury and comfort, with a flawlessly designed interior. The sinking of the ship was a terrible human tragedy (1200 people died) but also a major political event, one that increased pressure on America to enter the war. And almost as soon as news of the disaster spread round the globe questions began to be asked, questions which have continued to be asked ever since. Should the ship have been sailing at all at a time of war? Did the German U-boat commit a terrible war crime (as many claimed), or, distasteful as the phrase might sound, was the Lusitania a ‘legitimate target’? There have also been wild conspiracy theories about the sinking, including the suggestion that the British government wanted it to happen. Yes, it’s a fascinating story and it’s one that J. Kent Layton tells magnificently. He also tells it truthfully, sticking scrupulously to the known facts.

The ship set new standards in luxury

The ship set new standards in luxury

Layton devotes a major portion of the book to the design and construction of the ship. In engineering terms, the Lusitania was a groundbreaking achievement: the world’s first quadruple-screw turbine-driven passenger liner. Reading these pages, we’re awed by the sheer size and scale of the vessel. It was almost 800 feet long and nearly 90 feet wide, and it was recognised early on that the water alongside the Liverpool landing stage was of insufficient depth for the Lusitania and her sister ship the Mauretania. The Mersey Dock Board arranged a massive dredging operation, which encompassed over twenty square miles of the riverbed and resulted in the removal of approximately 200,000 tons of material. As for the ship itself, everything about it was big. New buoys, the largest ever made, had to be built so it could tie up in the Mersey.

One of the huge buoys specially made for the ship

One of the huge buoys specially made for the ship

The book takes us in effect on a guided tour of the boat, describing fully each of the numerous decks. An example of the attention to detail is the list of foodstuffs carried on the maiden transatlantic voyage: 16,000 gallons of milk, 125,000 pounds of meat, 50,000 eggs, 45,000 oysters and much more.

The excitement surrounding this maiden voyage in 1907 and the earlier launch in Glasgow (where the ship was built) is well conveyed, with reference to many contemporary eyewitness accounts. Here for instance is how the New York Times described the Lusitania leaving Liverpool on its first transatlantic crossing: ‘Spectators lined the landing stage and the river banks in the immediate vicinity and yelled themselves hoarse as the liner gathered headway down the river, and every steamer and riverside factory for miles along the Mersey joined in the chorus of goodbyes. The din was deafening.’ As Layton aptly sums up: ‘No one present would ever forget the send-off that Liverpool gave the Lusitania that night.’

Unlike the Titanic, which a few years later famously never completed its first voyage, the Lusitania made around a hundred round trips before a torpedo from a German submarine brought the ship’s illustrious history to an end. Layton argues that with hindsight the decision to continue with transatlantic crossings during wartime was obviously wrong, but he also explains why it might have been taken. For a variety of reasons, Cunard probably felt the vessel was safe from attack. No ship travelling at over fourteen knots had been successfully attacked, and the Lusitania was much faster than that. There was also the propaganda factor: would Germany really dare to sink a legendary passenger ship, full of innocent civilians?

The Lusitania sails past New Brighton Tower

The Lusitania sails past New Brighton Tower

As for the sinking itself, Layton gives a meticulously detailed, almost minute-by-minute account of the ship’s final hours. Here he is helped by graphic and moving accounts from some of the 700 survivors. As Layton notes, whereas people were slow to appreciate the danger the Titanic was in after it struck an iceberg, with the Lusitania the blast as the torpedo hit and the almost immediate listing of the ship left little doubt about the seriousness of the situation. Survivors recalled silver and plates sliding off tables, passengers stampeding towards stairways and a desperate scramble for lifejackets. The ship sank in just eighteen minutes.The book’s illustrations are worth a review in themselves. Suffice to say that there are a huge number of them (mostly black and white, but many in colour) and that they complement the written text brilliantly. There are of course numerous photos of the ship itself: under construction, in Glasgow, Liverpool and New York, and at sea. We also get a real sense of life on board, with photos of passengers relaxing on deck and of the crew at work. There’s some wonderful memorabilia, including advertisements, ship’s menus and contemporary drawings and paintings. Some of the photographs are very rare, and tracking everything down must have been a herculean task.

The only surprising omission is that the book doesn’t have an index. Perhaps the vast amount of material that would have had to be sifted through prevented one, but it’s a pity. Otherwise though it’s hard to imagine how any book about the Lusitania could be more definitive than this one.

Lusitania: An Illustrated Biography is published by Amberley Publishing. Photos are from the book.