Cunard’s Mauretania and Lusitania: British Ocean Liners as Symbols of National Renewal

The Loss of the Blue Riband to Germany

Considering the symbolic value of ships and the sea to the British, it is not surprising that they reacted strongly to threats to their maritime supremacy.  One such dissapointment was the loss of the Blue Riband, the honorary distinction awarded to the passenger ship with the fastest crossing of the North Atlantic.

The British regarded the Blue Riband as rightfully theirs, as British ships had held the symbolic trophy ever since passenger liners began crossing the Atlantic in the 1840’s.  But in November of 1897, the North German Lloyd liner Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse crossed the Atlantic at a record speed of 22.35 knots, beating the Cunard liner Lucania.1

Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse

Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse

And over the next few years the Germans tightened their grip on the Blue Riband with the construction of two new liners, Deutschland and Kaiser Wilhelm II. “In 1903, Germany had the… fastest ships on the Atlantic, a state of affairs hardly compatible with British maritime pride.”2  Losing the Blue Riband was a shock to Britons steeped in the cult of the sea, and an ominous reminder of the advance of Germany and the decline of Britain.

The Loss of British Shipping Lines to J.P. Morgan

At the same time Britons feared the threat to their shipping industry posed by German competition they also faced the prospect that their steamship lines might be bought out from under them by the Americans.

J.P. Morgan, by photographer Edward Steichen

J.P. Morgan, by photographer Edward Steichen

The symbolic value of ships to the English is revealed in the law by which a British ship is not legally considered private property, but is rather a piece of the realm which happens to be at sea. As such British ships can only be owned by British subjects, and should ownership somehow pass to a foreigner the ships is forfeited to the Crown and its owner compensated for his loss.3

But by virtue of several legal loopholes J. P. Morgan was able to purchase several British shipping companies and incorporate them into his “International Mercantile Marine.”   Morgan purchased not only smaller lines, such as the Dominion, Shaw Savill, National, and Albion, but also the White Star Line, Cunard’s major competitor.  “The acquisition by a foreign financial organization of a prestige British shipping company caused a sensation among a generation far more susceptible to patriotic fervor than the people of today.”4

The Cunard Line’s Mauretania and Lusitania

Cunard evidently realized that it could profit from the nationalist feelings of the era and the company’s chairman, Lord Inverclyde, “supported by all shades of chauvinist propaganda, set out to convince the British public that the British maritime supremacy was threatened, that increased subsidies were called for, and that the Cunard Company, the only loyal transatlantic line, was the proper agency to receive them.”5

Motivated by the desire to regain the Blue Riband and to keep Britain’s largest shipping line out of foreign hands, the government granted Cunard a massive loan for the construction of two giant transatlantic flyers,  Lusitania and Mauretania.  An article in the “Scientific American” reported, “It is realized by the general public that these new Cunarders represent the determination of Great Britain to win back the Atlantic record.”6

Cunard Liner RMS Lusitania

Cunard Liner RMS Lusitania

The type of cooperation between the British government and the shipping industry represented by the Cunard loan of 1903 was nothing new.  The very first transatlantic liners were supported by government mail contracts and the acronym preceeding the name of Britain’s leading liners — R.M.S. — indicates this part of their public function: Royal Mail Ship.  Throughout the nineteenth century, government loans and subsidies played an important part in the development of the British shipping industry.7  As Cunard itself proudly aknowledged at the launch of Aquitania in 1913, “From the very first the Company has been closely connected with the British Government.”8

That the great liners were the result of government funding reinforced their image as national symbols, as did the terms of the subsidies themselves. The Cunard loan of 1903 was typical of British shipping subsidies. The agreement stipulated that the ships be built in the United Kingdom, and that the master officers, engineers, and three-quarters of the crew be British subjects.”  It also contained Admiralty requirements concerning speed and the provision of gun mounts. 9

The Boer War had taught the British — and the Germans — the need for large, high speed passenger steamships which could serve as troop transports in time of war.  And in specifying minimum speeds for  Lusitania and Mauretania, the Admiralty was interested in outracing not only German ocean liners, but German submarines as well.

In addition to their potential as troopships, liners were expected to serve as armed merchant cruisers in time of war; Admiralty specifications included the provision of armor plating and gun mounts and placed the engines and steering mechanism below the waterline for protection from enemy shells.  Winston Churchill summarized this view in a speech to the House of Commons: “If British ships had no armament, they would be at the mercy of any foreign liner carrying one effective gun and a few rounds of ammunition…The proper reply to an armed merchantman is another merchantman armed in her own defense.” 10

Carmania sinking Cap Trafalger in the South Atlantic, September 14, 1914

Carmania sinking Cap Trafalger, September 14, 1914

And as it turned out several liners did action in the First World War.   In September, 1914, in the South Atlantic, the Cunard liner Carmania, equipped with eight 4.7 inch guns, engaged the Hamburg Sud-Amerika liner Cap Trafalgar, armed with two 4 inch guns and six machine guns.  The Cunarder was severely damaged during the course of the battle but eventually sank the German liner.

The nationalistic ramifications of armed passenger liners was expressed by Baron Tweedmouth, First Lord of the Admiralty, at the launch of the Mauretania.  Lord Tweedmouth told the crowd gathered by the river Tyne that the new Cunarders “added great strength to the nation; not only great strength in their material force, but also from a sentimental point of view, because they link together the Navy and the mercantile marine.”11

Considering their background and their construction as auxiliary merchant cruisers it is not surprising that the Mauretania and Lusitania were embraced by Britons as symbols of national renewal. The Times carried this account of the start of the Lusitania’s maiden voyage:

Never did a ship sail with such mighty and inspiriting cheers as those from the vast multitudes which lined the Liverpool landing stage last night as the Lusitania slowly moved from her moorings and started on her maiden voyage. The Liverpool crowd … sang with great spirit “Britons never, never shall say die”…It was an inspiring scene, and the Cunard Line must realise more than ever before how much their enterprise is appreciated, and how strongly both Liverpool and British sentiment is supporting their endeavors to recover for British ships the Atlantic fastest record speed now held by Germany.12

The description of the beginning of the Mauretania’s maiden voyage, from the journal “World’s Work”, is even more strident:

Forty-thousand patriots lined the great Prince’s landing stage at Liverpool to see the Mauretania start on her maiden voyage to the United States; and, when the vessel backed out into the Mersey and the police lines were relaxed, the enormous crowd, cheering and singing, surged upon the pier crying, “Beat the Germans! Beat the Germans!” All England went wild with joy when the Lusitania broke all ocean records. Germany beaten and relegated to its proper place! For German success meant more than a preponderence of American patronage; it meant the dawn of a sea power to contest with England her dearest possession — transatlantic supremacy.  The victories of the new Cunarders, therefore, were events affecting not only two or three steamship lines; they were occasions of international significance.13

For Frederick Talbot, a contemporary British marine historian, the ships represented the triumph of British science. With the launching of the Mauretania and Lusitania, Talbot wrote, “…the German nation became outclassed hopelessly by British engineering skill — the British engineer can always come out on top when encouraged.”14

Talbot saw the other pre-war liners as the result of international competition as well.  In 1914, Cunard added the Aquitania to its fleet to create the three ship pool needed to maintain a weekly transatlantic service.  Talbot considered the 53,000 ton Cunarder to be Britain’s reply to challenge posed by Hamburg Amerika’s 52,000 ton lmperator (1913).  “The lmperator will not hold the record for long… the Cunard Line instantly retorted the Teuton move with the Aquitania.”

Of course, in the back and forth between Britain and Germany, lmperator itself was seen as Germany’s response to the challenge posed by the White Star Line’s 45,000 ton sisters, Olympic and Titanic.

Next Page:  The Kaiser and Germany’s Ocean Liners

  1. Tom Hughes. The Blue Riband of the Atlantic.    (Cambridge: 1973). Page 91.
  2. John Maxtone-Graham. The Only Way to Cross. (New York: 1974). Page 11.
  3. Terry Coleman. The Liners. (New York: 1977). Page 48.
  4. Robert Wall. Ocean Liners. (New York: 1977). Page 40.
  5. Sidney Pollard and Paul Robertson. The British Shipbuilding Industry. (Cambridge, MA: 1979). Page 224.
  6. “Scientific American”. v. XCIII #4. Page 66. (July 22, 1905).
  7. Pollard and Robertson.   Page 223.
  8. Souvenir of the Launching of R.M.S. Aquitania. New York Public Library: VBA pv22.
  9. House of Commons Sessional Papers, 1903, v. 36.  Agreement between the    Admiralty, Board of Trade, and the Cunard Steamship, Ltd. Page 4.
  10. Robert Rhodes James, Editor. Winston Churchill, His Complete Speeches. (New York: 1974). Page 20
  11. Hughes. Page 114.
  12. “The Times.” Sept 9, 1907. 10b.
  13. “World’s Work.” v. 17 Page 10931.    (November, 1908).
  14. Frederick A. Talbot.    Steamship Conquest of the World. (London: 1912). Page 12.

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