The Lusitania Story (Book review)

 

James Bracknell reviews The Lusitania Story by Mitch Peeke, Steve Jones and Kevin Walsh-Johnson. (Published by Pen & Sword Books. £12.99)

This excellent book was first published in 2002, when it was deservedly praised for the original research it offered, and for its level-headed approach to an historical episode that has long been surrounded by mystery, controversy and often wild speculation. Now it’s been updated for a special centenary edition, to mark the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915.

The Lusitania was a Liverpool-registered Cunard liner, which was on its way back to its home port on a regular voyage from New York when it was torpedoed by a German submarine 11 miles off the Irish coast on 7 May 2015. Of the 1,962 crew and passengers on board when it was hit, 1,201 men, women and children died. The German attack on a vessel carrying hundreds of civilians was widely condemned, but in the weeks, months and years that followed the tragedy many questions were asked. Why did the ship take just 18 minutes to sink? What exactly was it carrying in its cargo hold – gold bullion, weapons, ammunition? How culpable was the Liverpudlian captain, William Turner? Could more have been done to protect the ship from attack and to rescue those on board? What was Winston Churchill’s role in the affair – might he even have engineered the sinking, in order to encourage America to enter the war?

The authors’ commendably sober investigation provides answers that are mostly irrefutable, and where they are not they are at the very least convincing and extremely plausible. And though it’s a relatively short book, as the title promises they really do tell ‘the Lusitania story’, taking us from its construction in a Glasgow shipyard, through its record-breaking Atlantic crossings, its sad end and the enquiry that followed, to recent explorations of the wreck.

Cunard poster (Lusitania Online)

Cunard poster (Lusitania Online)

Launched in 1906, the RMS Lusitania and its sister ship the Mauretania were the pride of the Cunard line. The book succinctly describes the historical context. Britain was in danger of being overtaken as a naval power, and several British shipping lines (such as the White Star Line, future owners of the Titanic) were now in overseas hands. Cunard resisted an American bid and entered into negotiations with the British Admiralty, who gave them a loan which enabled them to build the Lusitania and the Mauretania. In return the Cunard fleet would be placed at the disposal of the Admiralty in time of war.

Anyone with an interest in the technicalities of ship design will enjoy the chapters devoted to the building of the Lusitania, the first ever quadruple-screw turbine-driven passenger liner. There are also vivid descriptions of the luxurious accommodation provided for passengers (those in first class at least). We hear about the ship’s maiden voyage (when 200,000 gathered to watch her leave Liverpool, with just as many greeting her in New York), and about the hundred transatlantic crossings that followed, several of them setting record times for the journey.

Loading the Lusitania in Liverpool (Lusitania Online)

Loading the Lusitania in Liverpool (Lusitania Online)

The book is always readable, though I would have liked to learn more about the people who were travelling on the ship (there is an appendix in which the names of all the passengers and crew members are listed). However the chapters describing the ship’s final fateful voyage are incredibly gripping. Germany made little secret of its intentions, actually placing an advertisement in a New York newspaper warning passengers that the seas around Britain were a war zone. As the Lusitania crossed the Atlantic, the U-boat that would sink her was attacking other ships in the seas off Ireland. The Admiralty sent Captain Turner a general warning about U-boat activity, but for fear of their messages being intercepted did not give him the full facts, including their decision to withdraw the escort ship that was meant to protect the Lusitania as it neared Britain. They did though order him to divert to the Irish port of Queenstown (now Cobh), and it was a short distance from here that the U-boat struck. The passengers in the first class dining saloon were just finishing their lunch, as the band played Strauss’s The Blue Danube.

The blast as the torpedo struck was followed almost immediately by a second, caused as the authors explain by a large consignment of munitions on board exploding. The ship listed violently, making it impossible to launch most of the lifeboats – though in the chaos there were several attempts, killing and injuring many as the boats crashed onto the decks. The Juno, the withdrawn escort ship, left Queenstown to come to the Lusitania’s aid but to the despair of those who could see it approaching was ordered to turn round and return to port. Instead other, slower ships went to rescue as many survivors as they could.

Captain William Turner (Lusitania Online)

Captain William Turner (Lusitania Online)

In the enquiry that followed the Admiralty attempted a shameful cover-up, only revealing some of the messages that had been exchanged with the ship and deliberately shifting the blame onto Captain Turner. (Churchill appears to have colluded in this, and also seems to have been somewhat relaxed about German attacks on transatlantic shipping, believing that they might help induce America to join the war.) But fortunately the enquiry uncovered the truth and Turner, who’d been washed off the boat and survived by clinging onto a chair, was exonerated.

The Lusitania Memorial at the Albert Dock

The Lusitania Memorial at the Albert Dock

The loss of the Titanic a few years earlier has tended to overshadow the sinking of the Lusitania – as the authors say, it’s surprising a feature film based on the episode has never been produced – but it is still remembered in Liverpool every May, and this year’s 100th anniversary commemorative events are especially significant. Among the items salvaged from the wreck over the years is a propeller which can be seen at the Albert Dock, a permanent Lusitania memorial in the city with which she had such a close connection. It’s an unforgettable story, and one which the authors of this book tell superbly.

For more information on the Lusitania, visit www.lusitania.net , a website in which the authors of The Lusitania Story are closely involved.