Military history





THE SMOKE FROM SHIPS AND THE EXHALATIONS OF THE river left a haze that blurred the world and made the big liner seem even bigger, less the product of human endeavor than an escarpment rising from a plain. The hull was black; seagulls flew past in slashes of white, pretty now, not yet the objects of horror they would become, later, for the man standing on the ship’s bridge, seven stories above the wharf. The liner was edged bow-first into a slip at Pier 54, on the Hudson, off the western end of Fourteenth Street in Manhattan, one of a row of four piers operated by the Cunard Steam-Ship Company of Liverpool, England. From the two catwalks that jutted outward from the ship’s bridge, its “wings,” the captain could get a good look along the full length of the hull, and it was here that he would stand on Saturday, May 1, 1915, a few days hence, when the ship was to set off on yet another voyage across the Atlantic.

Despite the war in Europe, by now in its tenth month—longer than anyone had expected it to last—the ship was booked to capacity, set to carry nearly 2,000 people, or “souls,” of whom 1,265 were passengers, including an unexpectedly large number of children and babies. This was, according to the New York Times, the greatest number of Europe-bound travelers on a single vessel since the year began. When fully loaded with crew, passengers, luggage, stores, and cargo, the ship weighed, or displaced, over 44,000 tons and could sustain a top speed of more than 25 knots, about 30 miles an hour. With many passenger ships withdrawn from service or converted to military use, this made the Lusitania the fastest civilian vessel afloat. Only destroyers, and Britain’s latest oil-fueledQueen Elizabeth–class battleships, could move faster. That a ship of such size could achieve so great a speed was considered one of the miracles of the modern age. During an early trial voyage—a circumnavigation of Ireland in July 1907—a passenger from Rhode Island sought to capture the larger meaning of the ship and its place in the new century. “The Lusitania,” he told the Cunard Daily Bulletin, published aboard ship, “is in itself a perfect epitome of all that man knows or has discovered or invented up to this moment of time.”

The paper reported that the passengers had taken “a vote of censure” against Cunard “for two flagrant omissions from the ship. She has neither a grouse moor nor a deer forest aboard.” One passenger noted that if the need for a new Noah’s ark ever arose, he would skip the bit about building the boat and just charter the Lusitania, “for I calculate that there is room on her for two of every animal extant and more.”

The Bulletin devoted the last paragraph to waggling Cunard’s fingers at Germany, claiming that the ship had just received news, by wireless, that Kaiser Wilhelm himself had sent a telegram to the ship’s builders: “Please deliver me without delay a dozen—baker’s measure—Lusitanias.”

From the first, the ship became an object of national pride and affection. In keeping with Cunard’s custom of naming its ships for ancient lands, the company had selected Lusitania, after a Roman province on the Iberian Peninsula that occupied roughly the same ground as modern-day Portugal. “The inhabitants were warlike, and the Romans conquered them with great difficulty,” said a memorandum in Cunard’s files on the naming of the ship. “They lived generally upon plunder and were rude and unpolished in their manners.” In popular usage, the name was foreshortened to “Lucy.”

There was nothing rude or unpolished about the ship itself. As the Lusitania departed Liverpool on its first transatlantic run in 1907, some one hundred thousand spectators gathered at various points along the Mersey (pronounced Merzey) River to watch, many singing “Rule, Britannia!” and waving handkerchiefs. Passenger C. R. Minnitt, in a letter he wrote aboard ship, told his wife how he had climbed to the highest deck and stood near one of the ship’s four towering funnels to best capture the moment. “You do not get any idea of her size till you get right on top and then it is like being on Lincoln Cathedral,” Minnitt wrote. “I went over parts of the 1st class and it is really impossible to describe, it is so beautiful.”

The ship’s beauty belied its complexity. From the start, it needed a lot of attention. In its first winter, woodwork in the first-class writing room and dining saloon and in various passageways began to shrink and had to be rebuilt. Excess vibration forced Cunard to pull the ship from service so that extra bracing could be installed. Something was always breaking or malfunctioning. A baking oven exploded, injuring a crew member. Boilers needed to be scaled and cleaned. During crossings in winter, pipes froze and ruptured. The ship’s lightbulbs failed at an alarming rate. This was no small problem: the Lusitania had six thousand lamps.

The ship endured. It was fast, comfortable, and beloved and, as of the end of April 1915, had completed 201 crossings of the Atlantic.

TO READY the ship for its Saturday, May 1, departure, much had to be done, with speed and efficiency, and at this Capt. William Thomas Turner excelled. Within the Cunard empire, there were none better than he at handling large ships. While serving a rotation as captain of Cunard’sAquitania, Turner had achieved a measure of fame during an arrival in New York by fitting the ship into its slip and snugging it to its wharf in just nineteen minutes. He held the record for a “round” voyage, meaning round-trip, which he achieved in December 1910, when, as captain of theLusitania’s twin, the Mauretania, he piloted the ship to New York and back in just fourteen days. Cunard rewarded him with a Silver Salver. He found it “very gratifying” but also surprising. “I did not expect to receive any such recognition of my part in the matter,” he wrote, in a thank-you letter. “We all on board simply tried to do our duty as under any ordinary circumstances.”

Complex, detailed, and messy, this process of readying the Lusitania involved a degree of physical labor that was masked by the ship’s outward grace. Anyone looking up from the dock saw only beauty, on a monumental scale, while on the far side of the ship men turned black with dust as they shoveled coal—5,690 tons in all—into the ship through openings in the hull called “side pockets.” The ship burned coal at all times. Even when docked it consumed 140 tons a day to keep furnaces hot and boilers primed and to provide electricity from the ship’s dynamo to power lights, elevators, and, very important, the Marconi transmitter, whose antenna stretched between its two masts. When the Lusitania was under way, its appetite for coal was enormous. Its 300 stokers, trimmers, and firemen, working 100 per shift, would shovel 1,000 tons of coal a day into its 192 furnaces to heat its 25 boilers and generate enough superheated steam to spin the immense turbines of its engines. The men were called “the black gang,” a reference not to their race but to the coal dust that coated their bodies. The boilers occupied the bottom deck of the ship and were gigantic, like wheelless locomotives, each 22 feet long and 18 feet in diameter. They needed close attention at all times, for when fully pressurized each stored enough explosive energy to tear a small ship in half. Fifty years earlier, exploding boilers had caused America’s worst-ever maritime disaster—the destruction of the Mississippi River steamboat Sultana at a cost of 1,800 lives.

No matter what measures the crew took, coal dust migrated everywhere, under stateroom doors, through keyholes, and up companionways, compelling stewards to go through the ship with dust cloths to clean rails, door handles, table tops, deck chairs, plates, pans, and any other surface likely to collect falling soot. The dust posed its own hazard. In certain concentrations it was highly explosive and raised the possibility of a cataclysm within the ship’s hull. Cunard barred crew members from bringing their own matches on board and provided them instead with safety matches, which ignited only when scraped against a chemically treated surface on the outside of the box. Anyone caught bringing his own matches aboard was to be reported to Captain Turner.

The ship was built to be fast. It was conceived out of hubris and anxiety, at a time—1903—when Britain feared it was losing the race for dominance of the passenger-ship industry. In America, J. P. Morgan was buying up shipping lines in hopes of creating a monopoly; in Europe, Germany had succeeded in building the world’s fastest ocean liners and thereby winning the “Blue Riband,” awarded to the liner that crossed the Atlantic in the shortest time. By 1903 German ships had held the Riband for six years, to the sustained mortification of Britain. With the empire’s honor and Cunard’s future both at stake, the British government and the company agreed to a unique deal. The Admiralty would lend Cunard up to £2.4 million, or nearly $2 billion in today’s dollars, at an interest rate of only 2.75 percent, to build two gigantic liners—the Lusitania and Mauretania. In return, however, Cunard had to make certain concessions.

First and foremost, the Admiralty required that the Lusitania be able to maintain an average speed across the Atlantic of at least 24.5 knots. In early trials, it topped 26 knots. There were other, more problematic conditions. The Admiralty also required that the two ships be built so that in the event of war they could be readily equipped with naval artillery and brought into service as “armed auxiliary cruisers.” The Admiralty went so far as to direct the Lusitania’s builders to install mounts, or “holding-down” rings, in its decks, capable of accepting a dozen large guns. Moreover, the Lusitania’s hull was to be designed to battleship specifications, which required the use of “longitudinal” coal bunkers—essentially tunnels along both sides of the hull to store the ship’s coal and speed its distribution among the boiler rooms. At the time, when naval warfare took place at or above the waterline, this was considered smart warship design. To naval shipbuilders, coal was a form of armor, and longitudinal bunkers were thought to provide an additional level of protection. A naval engineering journal, in 1907, stated that the coal in these bunkers would limit how far enemy shells could penetrate the hull and thus would “counteract, as far as possible, the effect of the enemy’s fire at the water line.”

When the war began, the Admiralty, exercising rights granted by its deal with Cunard, took possession of the Lusitania but soon determined the ship would not be effective as an armed cruiser because the rate at which it consumed coal made it too expensive to operate under battle conditions. The Admiralty retained control of the Mauretania for conversion to a troopship, a role for which its size and speed were well suited, but restored the Lusitania to Cunard for commercial service. The guns were never installed, and only the most astute passenger would have noticed the mounting rings embedded in the decking.

The Lusitania remained a passenger liner, but with the hull of a battleship.

A STICKLER for detail and discipline, Captain Turner called himself “an old-fashioned sailorman.” He had been born in 1856, in the age of sail and empire. His father had been a sea captain but had hoped his son would choose a different path and enter the church. Turner refused to become a “devil-dodger,” his term, and at the age of eight somehow managed to win his parents’ permission to go to sea. He wanted adventure and found it in abundance. He first served as a cabin boy on a sailing ship, the Grasmere, which ran aground off northern Ireland on a clear, moonlit night. Turner swam for shore. All the other crew and all passengers aboard were rescued, though one infant died of bronchitis. “Had it been stormy,” one passenger wrote, “I believe not a soul could have been saved.”

Turner moved from ship to ship and at one point sailed under his father’s command, aboard a square-rigger. “I was the quickest man aloft in a sailing ship,” Turner said. His adventures continued. While he was second mate of a clipper ship, the Thunderbolt, a wave knocked him into the sea. He had been fishing at the time. A fellow crewman saw him fall and threw him a life buoy, but he floated for over an hour among circling sharks before the ship could fight its way back to his position. He joined Cunard on October 4, 1877, at a salary of £5 per month, and two weeks later sailed as third officer of the Cherbourg, his first steamship. He again proved himself a sailor of more than usual bravery and agility. One day in heavy fog, as the Cherbourg was leaving Liverpool, the ship struck a small bark, which began to sink. Four crew and a harbor pilot drowned. TheCherbourg dispatched a rescue party, which included Turner, who himself pulled a crewman and a boy from the rigging.

Turner served as third officer on two other Cunard ships but resigned on June 28, 1880, after learning that the company never promoted a man to captain unless he’d been master of a ship before joining the company. Turner built his credentials, earned his master’s certificate, and became captain of a clipper ship, and along the way found yet another opportunity to demonstrate his courage. In February 1883, a boy of fourteen fell from a dock into Liverpool Harbor, into water so cold it could kill a man in minutes. Turner was a strong swimmer, at a time when most sailors still held the belief that there was no point in knowing how to swim, since it would only prolong your suffering. Turner leapt in and rescued the boy. The Liverpool Shipwreck and Humane Society gave him a silver medal for heroism. That same year he rejoined Cunard and married a cousin, Alice Hitching. They had two sons, the first, Percy, in 1885, and Norman eight years later.

Even now, as a certified ship’s master, Turner’s advance within Cunard took time. The delay, according to his best and longtime friend, George Ball, caused him great frustration, but, Ball added, “never, at any time, did he relax in devotion to duty nor waver in the loyalty he always bore to his ship and his Captain.” Over the next two decades, Turner worked his way upward from third officer to chief officer, through eighteen different postings, until on March 19, 1903, Cunard at last awarded him his own command. He became master of a small steamship, the Aleppo, which served Mediterranean ports.

His home life did not fare as well. His wife left him, took the boys, and moved to Australia. Turner’s sisters hired a young woman, Mabel Every, to care for him. Miss Every and Turner lived near each other, in a suburb of Liverpool called Great Crosby. At first she served as a housekeeper, but over time she became more of a companion. She saw a side of Turner that his officers and crew did not. He liked smoking his pipe and telling stories. He loved dogs and cats and had a fascination with bees. He liked to laugh. “On the ships he was a very strict disciplinarian,” Miss Every wrote, “but at Home he was a very kind jolly man and fond of children and animals.”

DESPITE THE SORROW that shaded his personal life, his career gained momentum. After two years as master of the Aleppo, he moved on to command the Carpathia, the ship that later, in April 1912, under a different captain, would become famous for rescuing survivors of the Titanic. Next came the Ivernia, the Caronia, and the Umbria. His advance was all the more remarkable given that he lacked the charm and polish that Cunard expected its commanders to display. A Cunard captain was supposed to be much more than a mere navigator. Resplendent in his uniform and cap, he was expected to exude assurance, competence, and gravitas. But a captain also served a role less easy to define. He was three parts mariner, one part club director. He was to be a willing guide for first-class passengers wishing to learn more about the mysteries of the ship; he was to preside over dinners with prominent passengers; he was to walk the ship and engage passengers in conversation about the weather, their reasons for crossing the Atlantic, the books they were reading.

Turner would sooner bathe in bilge. According to Mabel Every, he described passengers as “a load of bloody monkeys who are constantly chattering.” He preferred dining in his quarters to holding court at the captain’s table in the first-class dining room. He spoke little and did so with a parsimony that could be maddening; he also tended to be blunt. On one voyage, while in command of the Carpathia, he ran afoul of two priests, who felt moved to write to Cunard “complaining of certain remarks” that Turner had made when they asked permission to hold a Roman Catholic service for third-class passengers. Exactly what Turner said cannot be known, but his remarks were sufficient to cause Cunard to demand a formal report and to make the incident a subject of deliberation at a meeting of the company’s board of directors.

At the start of another voyage, while he was in charge of the Mauretania, a woman traveling in first class told Turner that she wanted to be on the bridge as the ship moved along the Mersey River out to sea. Turner explained that this would be impossible, for Cunard rules expressly prohibited anyone other than necessary officers and crew from being on the bridge in “narrow waters.”

She asked, what would he do if a lady happened to insist?

Turner replied, “Madam, do you think that would be a lady?”

Turner’s social burden was eased in 1913 when Cunard, acknowledging the complexity of running the Lusitania and the Mauretania, created a new officer’s position for both, that of “staff captain,” second in command of the ship. Not only did this allow Turner to concentrate on navigation; it largely eliminated his obligation to be charming. The Lusitania’s staff captain as of May 1915 was James “Jock” Anderson, whom Turner described as more “clubbable.”

The crew respected Turner and for the most part liked him. “I think I speak for all the crew if I say we all had the utmost confidence in Captain Turner,” said one of the ship’s waiters. “He was a good, and conscientious skipper.” But one officer, Albert Arthur Bestic, observed that Turner was popular only “up to a point.” Bestic noted that Turner still seemed to have one foot on the deck of a sailing ship, as became evident at odd moments.

One evening, while Bestic and other crewmen were off duty and playing bridge, the ship’s quartermaster appeared at the door carrying a knot called a Turk’s head. Complex to begin with, this was a four-stranded variant, the most complicated of all.

“Captain’s compliments,” the quartermaster said, “and he says he wants another of these made.”

The bridge game stopped, Bestic recalled, “and we spent the rest of the 2nd. dog”—the watch from 6:00 to 8:00 P.M.—“trying to remember how it was made.” This was not easy. The knot was typically used for decoration, and none of the men had tied one in a long while. Wrote Bestic, “It was Turner’s idea of humor.”

UNDER TURNER, the Lusitania broke all records for speed, to the dismay of Germany. In a 1909 voyage from Liverpool to New York, the ship covered the distance from Daunt Rock off Ireland to New York’s Ambrose Channel in four days, eleven hours, and forty-two minutes, at an average speed of 25.85 knots. Until then that kind of speed had seemed an impossibility. As the ship passed the Nantucket lightship, it was clocked at 26 knots.

Turner attributed the speed to new propellers installed the preceding July and to the prowess of his engineers and firemen. He told a reporter the ship would have made it even faster if not for foul weather and a head-on sea at the beginning of the voyage and a gale that arose at the end. The reporter noted that Turner looked “bronzed” from the sun.

By May 1915 Turner was the most seasoned captain at Cunard, the commodore of the line. He had confronted all manner of shipboard crises, including mechanical mishaps, fires, cracked furnaces, open-sea rescues, and extreme weather of all kinds. He was said to be fearless. One seaman aboard the Lusitania, Thomas Mahoney, called him “one of the bravest Captains I sailed under.”

It was Turner who experienced what may have been the most frightening threat to the Lusitania, this during a voyage to New York in January 1910, when he encountered a phenomenon he had never previously met in his half century at sea.

Soon after leaving Liverpool, the ship entered a gale, with a powerful headwind and tall seas that required Turner to reduce speed to 14 knots. By itself the weather posed no particular challenge. He had seen worse, and the ship handled the heavy seas with grace. And so, on Monday evening, January 11, at 6:00, soon after leaving the coast of Ireland behind, Turner went down one deck to his quarters to have dinner. He left his chief officer in charge.

“The wave,” Turner said, “came as a surprise.”

It was not just any wave, but an “accumulative” wave, known in later times as a rogue, formed when waves pile one upon another to form a single palisade of water.

The Lusitania had just climbed a lesser wave and was descending into the trough beyond it when the sea ahead rose in a wall so high it blocked the helmsman’s view of the horizon. The ship plunged through it. Water came to the top of the wheelhouse, 80 feet above the waterline.

The wave struck the front of the bridge like a giant hammer and bent steel plates inward. Wood shutters splintered. A large spear of broken teak pierced a hardwood cabinet to a depth of two inches. Water filled the bridge and wheelhouse and tore the wheel loose, along with the helmsman. The ship began to “fall off,” so that its bow was no longer perpendicular to the oncoming waves, a dangerous condition in rough weather. The lights of the bridge and on the masthead above short-circuited and went out. The officers and helmsman struggled to their feet, initially in waist-high water. They reattached the wheel and corrected the ship’s heading. The wave’s impact had broken doors, bent internal bulkheads, and shattered two lifeboats. By sheerest luck, no one was seriously injured.

Turner rushed to the bridge and found water and chaos, but once he assured himself that the ship had endured the assault without catastrophic damage and that no passengers had been hurt, he simply added it to his long list of experiences at sea.

Fog was one of the few phenomena that worried him. There was no way to predict its occurrence, and, once in fog, one had no way to know whether another vessel was thirty miles ahead or thirty yards. The Cunard manual, “Rules to Be Observed in the Company’s Service,” required that when encountering fog a captain had to post extra lookouts, reduce speed, and turn on his ship’s foghorn. The rest of it was luck and careful navigation. A captain had to know his position at all times as precisely as possible, because fog could arise quickly. One instant there’d be clear sky, the next obliteration. The dangers of fog had become grotesquely evident one year earlier, also in May, when the Empress of Ireland, of the Canadian Pacific line, was struck by a collier—a coal-carrying freighter—in a fog bank in the Saint Lawrence River. The Empress sank in fourteen minutes with the loss of 1,012 lives.

Turner knew the importance of precise navigation and was considered to be especially good at it, careful to the extreme, especially in the narrow waters close to a port.

COME SATURDAY morning, May 1, Turner would make a detailed inspection of the ship, accompanied by his purser and chief steward. All preparations for the voyage had to be completed by then, rooms cleaned, beds made, all stores—gin, Scotch, cigars, peas, mutton, beef, ham—loaded aboard, all cargo in place, and the ship’s supply of drinking water tested for freshness and clarity. Special attention was always to be paid to lavatories and bilges, and to maintaining proper levels of ventilation, lest the liner start to stink. The goal, in official Cunard parlance, was “to keep the ship sweet.”

Everything had to be done in such a manner that none of the passengers, whether in first class or third, would be aware of the nature and extent of the week’s travail. The needs of passengers were paramount, as the Cunard manual made clear. “The utmost courtesy and attention are at all times to be shown to passengers whilst they are on board the Company’s ships, and it is the special duty of the Captain to see that this regulation is observed by the officers and others serving under him.” On one previous voyage, this duty included allowing two big-game hunters, Mr. and Mrs. D. Saunderson of County Cavan, Ireland, to bring two four-month-old lion cubs aboard, which they had captured in British East Africa and planned to give to the Bronx Zoo. The couple’s two-year-old daughter, Lydia, played with the cubs on deck, “much to the amusement of the other passengers,” according to the New York Times. Mrs. Saunderson attracted a good deal of attention herself. She had killed an elephant. “No, I was not afraid,” she told the Times. “I think I never am.”

Complaints had to be taken seriously, and there were always complaints. Passengers grumbled that food from the Kitchen Grill came to their tables cold. This issue was at least partly resolved by changing the route waiters had to walk. The typewriters in the typing room were too noisy and annoyed the occupants of adjacent staterooms. The hours for typing were shortened. Ventilation in some rooms was less than ideal, a stubborn flaw that drove passengers to open their portholes. There was a problem, too, with the upper-level dining room in first class. Its windows opened onto a promenade used by third-class passengers, who had an annoying habit of peering in through the windows at the posh diners within. And there were always those passengers who came aboard bearing moral grudges against the modern age. A second-class passenger on a 1910 voyage complained that the ship’s decks “should not be made a market place for the sale of Irish Shawls, etc.,” and also that “card playing for money goes on incessantly in the smoking rooms on board the Company’s steamers.”

Cunard’s foremost priority, however, was to protect its passengers from harm. The company had a remarkable safety record: not a single passenger death from sinking, collision, ice, weather, fire, or any other circumstance where blame could be laid upon captain or company, though of course deaths from natural causes occurred with regularity, especially among elderly passengers. The ship carried the latest in safety equipment. Owing to the epidemic of “Boat Fever” that swept the shipping industry after theTitanic disaster, the Lusitania had more than enough lifeboats for passengers and crew. The ship also had been recently equipped with the latest in life jackets, these made by the Boddy Lifesaving Appliances Company. Unlike the older vests, made of cloth-covered panels of cork, these resembled actual jackets. Said one passenger, “When you have it on you look and feel like a padded football player, especially around the shoulders.” The new Boddy jackets were placed in the first- and second-class staterooms; third-class passengers and crew were to use the older kind.

No safety issue escaped the notice of Cunard’s board. On one crossing, as the Lusitania moved through heavy seas, crewmen discovered that a section of third class was “full of water.” The culprit was a single open porthole. The incident underscored the dangers posed by portholes in rough weather. The board voted to reprimand the stewards responsible for that section of the ship.

For all the respect afforded Turner by Cunard and by the officers and crew who served under him, his own record was far from impeccable. In July 1905, four months after he took command of the Ivernia, the ship collided with another, the Carlingford Lough. An investigation by Cunard found Turner to be at fault, for going too fast in fog. The company’s directors resolved, according to board minutes, that he was “to be severely reprimanded.” Three years later, a ship under his command, the Caronia, “touched ground” in the Ambrose Channel in New York and earned him another reprimand: “The Caronia should not have left the dock at such a state of tide.”

The winter of 1914–15 was particularly hard on Turner. One of his ships, the newly launched Transylvania, caught a gust of wind while undocking in Liverpool and bumped against a White Star liner, causing minor damage. In a second incident that winter, the ship collided with another large liner, the Teutonic, and in a third got bumped by a tugboat.

But these things happened to all captains. Cunard’s confidence in Turner was made clear by the fact that the company consistently put him in charge of its newest and biggest liners and made him master of the Lusitania for three different cycles.

The war had made the matter of passenger safety all the more pressing. For Turner’s immediate predecessor, Capt. Daniel Dow, it had become too great a burden. On a March voyage to Liverpool, Dow had guided the Lusitania through waters in which two freighters had just been sunk. Afterward he told his superiors at Cunard that he could no longer accept the responsibility of commanding a passenger ship under such conditions, especially if the ship carried munitions intended for Britain’s military. The practice of transporting such cargo had become common and made any ship that carried it a legitimate target for attack. Cowardice had nothing to do with Dow’s decision. What troubled him was not the danger to himself but rather having to worry about the lives of two thousand civilian passengers and crew. His nerves could not take it. Cunard decided he was “tired and really ill” and relieved him of command.

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