Lusitania: Triumph, Tragedy, and the End of the Edwardian Age

Lusitania: Triumph, Tragedy, and the End of the Edwardian Age

by Greg King, Penny Wilson


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On the 100th Anniversary of its sinking, King and Wilson tell the story of the Lusitania's glamorous passengers and the torpedo that ended an era and prompted the US entry into World War I.

Lusitania: She was a ship of dreams, carrying millionaires and aristocrats, actresses and impresarios, writers and suffragettes – a microcosm of the last years of the waning Edwardian Era and the coming influences of the Twentieth Century. When she left New York on her final voyage, she sailed from the New World to the Old; yet an encounter with the machinery of the New World, in the form of a primitive German U-Boat, sent her – and her gilded passengers – to their tragic deaths and opened up a new era of indiscriminate warfare.

A hundred years after her sinking, Lusitania remains an evocative ship of mystery. Was she carrying munitions that exploded? Did Winston Churchill engineer a conspiracy that doomed the liner? Lost amid these tangled skeins is the romantic, vibrant, and finally heartrending tale of the passengers who sailed aboard her. Lives, relationships, and marriages ended in the icy waters off the Irish Sea; those who survived were left haunted and plagued with guilt.

In Lusitania: Triumph, Tragedy, and the End of the Edwardian Age, authors Greg King and Penny Wilson resurrect this lost, glittering world to show the golden age of travel and illuminate the most prominent of Lusitania's passengers. Rarely was an era so glamorous; rarely was a ship so magnificent; and rarely was the human element of tragedy so quickly lost to diplomatic maneuvers and militaristic threats.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250080356
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
Publication date: 04/26/2016
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 416
Sales rank: 497,382
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.20(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

GREG KING is the author of eleven internationally published works of history, specializing in late Imperial Russia and on social history. A frequent contributor and onscreen expert for historical documentaries, he serves as Editor-in-Chief of the bi-monthly European Royal History Journal, and his work has appeared in Majesty Magazine, Royalty Magazine, Royalty Digest, Atlantis Magazine, and the European Royal History Journal. His newest book is The Assassination of the Archduke.

PENNY WILSON is the author of three internationally published works of history devoted to late Imperial Russia. Her historical work has appeared in Majesty Magazine, Atlantis Magazine, and Royalty Digest.

Read an Excerpt


Triumph, Tragedy, and the End of the Edwardian Age

By Greg King, Penny Wilson

St. Martin's Press

Copyright © 2015 Greg King and Penny Wilson
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4668-7637-8


A wave of excited, enthusiastic adulation followed Lusitania out of New York harbor—a distant echo of a fine, early summer day nine years earlier, when another expectant crowd had gathered along the banks of Scotland's River Clyde. Then, the usual sounds of shouted orders, melding metal, and ceaseless hammering of rivets at the John Brown Shipyard had temporarily fallen silent, replaced by the rousing strains of "Rule Britannia." Gentlemen in frock coats or dark uniforms awash with shining medals had stood with ladies dressed in summer pastels, their faces shielded from the sun by wide picture hats adorned with flowers and a kaleidoscope of twirling parasols. All eyes gazed on the black-hulled vessel dwarfing the slipway. At half-past noon, a bottle of champagne cracked across her stately bow as she received the name Lusitania. At the time of her launch, she was the largest, fastest, and most magnificent ocean liner in the world.

It was the Golden Age of the Steamship, a time when travel was not merely the means to an end but an end in itself. "How you traveled was who you were," and Lusitania was meant to attract the era's wealthy and well connected. The funereal gloom of Queen Victoria's long reign had given way to an age of undisguised pleasures under her son King Edward VII. Aristocrats and millionaires bought their clothing in Belle Époque Paris and dined at Maxim's or at the Ritz; adorned themselves with tiaras and jewelry from Cartier and Fabergé; "took the waters" at Marienbad, Baden-Baden, and Bad Homburg; and gambled away fortunes at Monte Carlo's baize-covered tables. They shouted for their favorite horses at Longchamp, Ascot, and the Derby; yachted at Cowes and Kiel alongside Kaiser Wilhelm II; basked in the sunshine of Deauville, Biarritz, and Nice; and slaughtered hundreds of thousands of grouse, partridge, and pheasant at autumn shooting parties on vast country estates. With an almost frenzied delirium, people read Sigmund Freud, Rainer Maria Rilke, and Arthur Rimbaud; took coffee in Vienna's Art Nouveau cafés; watched the exotic dances of Serge Diaghilev's Ballets Russes and Isadora Duncan; and listened to the lyrical and cacophonous music of Gustav Mahler, Richard Strauss, Maurice Ravel, and Igor Stravinsky.

Fashionable society was constantly on the move. From New York, London, Berlin, and St. Petersburg, they traveled on liners and aboard luxurious private railway cars seeking diversion. An ocean voyage beckoned the elite with promises of romance, glamour, and luxury. It was not uncommon for a First Class passenger to travel with a dozen steamer trunks and pieces of luggage, hatboxes, and jewelry cases. Some brought their own maids and valets to tend to their needs while aboard ship; others refused to travel without their own lace pillows, imported linens, and favorite pets. The most exacting even dispatched cases of wine and champagne, or trunks filled with special delicacies, carefully stowed in the ship's vast refrigerators so that they could be enjoyed throughout the voyage. These passengers wanted all the comforts of their mansions or country estates while at sea; mahogany-paneled drawing rooms, smoking rooms with crackling fires, and immense dining saloons offered elegant reassurance. Those from the Old World appreciated the air of tradition, with an attentive staff of deferential British waiters and stewards to look after them; Americans wanted not merely luxury but the latest innovations at sea: elevators, swimming baths, telephones, and, above all, speed.

Lusitania had been built to satisfy both the traditionalists and the modernists, though she owed her life to the more prosaic concerns of British pride and maritime supremacy. Since the advent of regular and reliable commercial transatlantic passenger service in 1818, countries and companies had vied with each other to offer the fastest crossing times. Great Britain had seemingly cornered the honor, and few ships proved to be as quick or as reliable as those belonging to the Cunard Steamship Company. Founded in 1838 by Halifax businessman Samuel Cunard to win mail contracts and subsidized by generous governmental loans, the line established an early dominance when, in 1840, its ship Britannia crossed the Atlantic in a record twelve days. Her feat won Britannia the fabled Blue Riband, an unofficial honor awarded to the fastest crossing between Great Britain and North America. Vessels belonging to the Collins, Inman, and White Star lines challenged Cunard over the next half century, but in the 1890s the company reclaimed its premier position with Campania and Lucania, ships whose speed cut the time at sea to just over five days.

Then the Germans entered the game. The first of Queen Victoria's seemingly endless swarm of grandchildren, Kaiser Wilhelm II had always felt torn between ingratiating himself—often annoyingly — to his British relatives and insisting on Teutonic superiority in all things. Starting in 1898, a string of Norddeutscher Lloyd and Hamburg-Amerika Line vessels—marked with distinctive paired funnels and larger, more luxurious, and faster than their British counterparts—seized the Blue Riband and threatened perpetual dominance of the transatlantic trade.

Things came to a head in 1902, when American financier J. P. Morgan purchased a controlling interest in both the Hamburg-Amerika and Norddeutscher Lloyd lines as well as in Britain's White Star Line for his International Mercantile Marine. Soon, Morgan was pressing to buy Cunard—the only large shipping company still exclusively in British hands. The proposal sent shockwaves through the British Admiralty. The Royal Navy needed complete control over a fleet of liners that, in the event of a war, could be requisitioned and converted to troop transports or armed cruisers. With this in mind, the Admiralty partnered with Cunard and subsidized construction of two new liners. Cunard was given £2.6 million, which was to be repaid in annual installments over twenty years at the exceptionally low interest rate of 2.75 percent (the customary rate was 5 percent); in addition, the government would give Cunard an annual operating stipend of some £75,000 for each vessel and another £68,000 for carrying the mail. Provisions in the agreement demanded that the liners be capable of maintaining an average speed of 25 knots; that the Admiralty approve all plans; and that the vessels be subject to government requisition in time of war.

From 1904 to 1907, work went on at a furious pace. At first, Lusitania and her sister ship, Mauretania, were to feature only three funnels, in contrast to their German rivals; however, passengers associated speed with the number of smokestacks, and so a fourth was added. The Admiralty demanded that all engine and boiler rooms, as well as steering mechanisms, be placed below the waterline, where they would be safe from shelling if the vessel saw military action. There were four boiler rooms situated in the main section of the ship, with the forward space reserved for cargo and the engine rooms located aft. The designers abandoned the customary reciprocating engines in favor of new steam-driven turbines; twenty-five coal-fueled boilers, fired by 192 furnaces, could produce 68,000 horsepower to drive the four bronze propellers—faster than any other ship afloat. Lateral bulkheads divided her into twelve main watertight compartments, any two of which could be flooded without risk to the ship; thirty-five hydraulic watertight doors sealed them off, and a double bottom added further protection. Coal bunkers lined the ship's hull for two thirds of its length, providing longitudinal bulkheads as an additional safeguard.

Everything about the finished Lusitania was both revolutionary and enormous. More than 4 million rivets studded the 26,000 steel plates composing her 782-foot, 2-inch hull; her anchor chains each weighed just over 10 tons. Over 200 miles of electric wiring snaked through the vessel, supplying power to more than 5,000 individual lights. At 31,550 tons, she became the world's largest ship, capable of carrying 2,198 passengers and 827 members of her crew. On her trials, she managed a record speed of 26.7 knots; vibration from the turbine propellers, though, violently shook the Second Class accommodations located in the stern. The space had to be completely redone, with new supports disguised as columns and ornamental arches in a not entirely successful effort to stabilize the accommodations.

On her maiden voyage in 1907, Lusitania barely missed capturing the Blue Riband. She won it a month later, crossing from Liverpool to New York in 4 days, 19 hours, and 52 minutes. Her sister ship, Mauretania, bettered even this, though in 1909—after her triple-bladed screws were replaced with four-bladed propellers—Lusitania again took the title of fastest ship in the world. Her triumph was short-lived: in a month, Mauretania permanently reclaimed the title.

Lusitania plied the Atlantic for seven years, collecting accolades and attracting a glittering, international clientele. In time, larger, more luxurious vessels challenged Lusitania's primacy: White Star Line's Olympic and, briefly, Titanic, along with Hamburg-Amerika's trio of massive liners,Imperator, Vaterland, and Bismarck, and even Cunard's own Aquitania of 1914. Yet Lusitania had a special appeal: she was, said one lady, "the most wonderful thing on the sea." She was the floating embodiment of the Edwardian Era's Indian summer, a halcyon age that seemed destined to last forever.

Then came the summer of 1914, when a Serbian nationalist assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, and his morganatic wife during their visit to Sarajevo. Austrian and Serbian diplomats traded pointed accusations, but few people actually believed that the assassination would lead to anything more dangerous than some incautious saber rattling. After all, they reasoned, there had been no major European war for more than four decades. Austria, not surprisingly, wanted the Serbian government—which had aided the assassination —punished, and appealed to her ally Kaiser Wilhelm II for German support. Serbia, little more than a Russian protectorate, invoked their shared Slav heritage and turned to Tsar Nicholas II. "Willy" and "Nicky" exchanged increasingly frantic telegrams, each imploring the other to exercise restraint as they mobilized their armies. Agreements and ententes steadily pushed nation after nation toward the abyss: by the first week of August, Great Britain, France, and Russia were at war with Germany and Austria-Hungary.

The Great War, most people had optimistically believed, would be over by Christmas. Naive enthusiasm characterized its first months: the brightest young men of their generation enlisted amid patriotic calls to arms, cheered by frenzied crowds toward miserable deaths in muddy wastelands. Yet the war did not end: Russian efforts in the east and French resistance along the Marne confused the carefully wrought plans of German generals. A deadly game of stalemate descended over trenches scarring the continent from Belgium to East Prussia; ugly barbed wire stretched for hundreds of miles, weaving through field and forest as artillery whizzed through the air and the desolate scenes rang with the incessant rattle of machine guns. Even civilians far away from the front lived in fear as airplanes buzzed the skies and zeppelins dropped bombs on the unsuspecting. By the spring of 1915, over three million soldiers lay dead.

The British Admiralty had subsidized Lusitania and Mauretania on the understanding that, in the event of war, they could be requisitioned and converted to troop transports or armed auxiliary merchant cruisers. Admiral Sir John "Jackie" Fisher, who ruled the Admiralty as First Sea Lord, and First Lord Winston Churchill, representing the cabinet, heartily disliked each other, but they did agree on one thing: Lusitania was unfit for war service. She was simply too large and it took too much coal to maintain her record speeds. Although still classed as a reserve merchant cruiser by the British Royal Navy, and listed as such in the latest editions of Jane's Fighting Ships and Brassey's Naval Annual, Lusitania returned to regular service.

Cunard later insisted that it operated Lusitania "as a public service" during the war, and that the company did so without expecting any profit. To save money, it shut down one of her boiler rooms, reducing her top speed from 26 to 21 knots. This wasn't a secret: before leaving New York on Saturday, Captain Turner told reporters that she would be operating "under three sections of boilers, and will average about 22 knots if the weather is fine." Yet Cunard didn't advertise the fact, and many passengers heard contrary information. "When buying my ticket," said Michael Byrne, "I was told that the Lusitania would make 25 or 28 knots an hour when we would sight the Irish coast." Even as Turner stood on the liner talking about his slower speed, Cunard agent Charles Sumner on the pier below him was spewing disinformation, perhaps to assuage nervous passengers. Lusitania, he assured everyone, would be safe from any submarine, as she would run at a speed of 25 knots.

Lusitania might be Cunard's liner, but as soon as she was three miles off the British or American coasts, she fell under Admiralty jurisdiction. "Not only has the Admiralty assumed charge of our line," Charles Stead, advertising manager for Cunard, later said, "but it has made this control so absolute that we have even been unable to reach our own vessels by wireless for any purpose." All communication went through the Admiralty—suggestions, warnings, and instructions on how to navigate Lusitania through the waters off the Irish coast.

And those waters represented a potentially lethal threat. For eight months, Great Britain and Germany had escalated the war at sea. Britain had always prided herself on her naval superiority; the Kaiser's new fleet of Unterseeboote, or U-boats, offered a surprisingly deadly challenge. Few had initially regarded them as a serious threat. Lord Fisher had tried to warn his Admiralty colleagues, but to no avail: U-boats were largely untested, their capabilities crude, and their effectiveness in doubt. The very idea of prowling about beneath the water, attacking and destroying without direct confrontation, somehow seemed so ungentlemanly. Having dismissed the threat, Great Britain was now learning that these Uboats could be fearsome, deadly hunters. In a letter to his German counterpart, Grand Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, an exasperated Lord Fisher assured him, "I don't blame you for this submarine business. I'd have done it myself."

At first, the war at sea followed a gentlemanly set of informal regulations known as the Cruiser Rules, codified by The Hague Conventions in 1899 and 1907. An armed ship or U-boat encountering an enemy merchant vessel was expected to give warning either by a shot across the bow or by semaphore flags. The challenged ship was to stop and allow a search of its cargo; if no contraband was discovered, she could proceed. If she was found to be carrying munitions or war matériel, her crew and any passengers were to be allowed sufficient time to abandon ship before she was sunk. Merchant vessels were also obliged to follow certain rules: they were not to display false or neutral flags; they were not allowed to actively resist search or sinking; they were not allowed to flee from a challenge; and they were not allowed a military or an armed escort. Any of these actions meant that the challenged vessel lost its immunity and was not subject to warning before destruction.


Excerpted from Lusitania by Greg King, Penny Wilson. Copyright © 2015 Greg King and Penny Wilson. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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Lusitania: Triumph, Tragedy, and the End of the Edwardian Age 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
The writer humanizes history. This is the story of the tragic sinking of the Lusitania, but it is also the story of the people who lived and die during this disaster. Most of the book sets up the event by giving short biographies of some of the passengers. The book focuses on many of the wealthy and well-known travellers. Warnings were given in advance. Families were torn apart. Children died. Human error and poor planning were evident. Very informative. The book deserves an A+++