V&A Dundee

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Lusitania and the First World War

To mark the centenary of the First World War, curator Meredith More explores how a commercial ocean liner was both designed for and destroyed by war.

Requisitioned ocean liners played a crucial role in the global conflicts of the 20th century. Requiring the rapid transport of huge numbers of troops and supplies over long distances, the World Wars could not have been waged without enlisting the speed and scale of commercial ocean liners.

As political tensions mounted in the build-up to the First World War, the British government invested heavily in merchant shipping to ensure the availability of naval auxiliaries should war break out. In 1903, the government agreed to subsidise the construction of two Cunard ocean liners, sister ships Lusitania and Mauretania, on the provision that they could be requisitioned in the event of a war and that they were specially designed for rapid conversion into armed merchant cruisers.

For protection against mines, torpedoes and gunfire, watertight compartments for coal ran along each side of both ships and the steam plant, engines and steering gear were located below the waterline. Gun emplacements were also installed on deck to allow for twelve 6-inch guns to be brought on board if necessary.

Deck plans of Lusitania, showing details for gun mountings on Deck C (bottom).

But liners of this size weren't, in the end, used as armed merchant cruisers because of their enormous fuel consumption. They were instead used as troopships and hospital ships because of their unrivalled speed and size, which far exceeded that of navy ships. While the Mauretania served in both of these capacities in the First World War, the Lusitania did not.

On 7 May 1915, a German submarine off the coast of Ireland torpedoed the Lusitania, with almost 1,200 (out of 1,962) passengers and crew losing their lives. Although the Lusitania was a commercial passenger liner, it was officially listed as an auxiliary war ship carrying munitions and other military goods. Germany argued their submarine therefore had the right to attack under the 'Hague Rules'.

There are some fascinating objects in the exhibition that relate to the Lusitania, including a remarkable survival.

Diamond and pearl tiara, previously owned by Lady Marguerite Allan, and saved from the Lusitania, Cartier, Paris, 1909, Marian Gérard, Cartier Collection © Cartier

Lady Marguerite Allan was aboard the Lusitania's final voyage. The wife of Sir Hugh Montagu Allan of the Canadian Allan Line shipping company, Lady Allan was travelling with two of her daughters and two maids. Tragically, her daughters were among the 1,198 lost. Lady Allan suffered a broken hip and collar bone, but survived along with her maids, Emily Davies and Annie Walker, one of whom managed to save a suite of luggage that contained a stunning diamond and pearl Cartier tiara. You can see the tiara for yourself in our Ocean Liners exhibition.

The demise of the Lusitania – a much-loved ship - was capitalised upon in army recruitment posters, with harrowing images of the disaster used extensively in war propaganda in Britain and the United States. Fred Spear's poster (below), showing a drowning mother cradling her child, implored the American public to support the United States' entry into the First World War.

'Enlist' poster by Fred Spear (about 1915). © 2006 Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, MA. Photography by Jeffrey Dykes.

Despite warnings from the German Embassy ahead of the sailing and the Assistant Manager of the Cunard Line denying the charge that she carried munitions, the sinking of Lusitania is believed to have played a key role in the United States declaring war on Germany almost two years later.

The significance of ocean liners during times of conflict can often be overlooked in favour of the glamour and style they symbolised in times of peace. But the background to the construction of the Lusitania and the circumstances around its tragic end are a reminder of liners’ practical and symbolic role within the First World War, a conflict that still resonates with people across Britain and around the world today.