Was it a warship or a passenger ship?

Matthew Seligmann, Brunel University London, revisits the fine lines that were drawn between commercial vessel and war ship by both sides in WWI

When the United Kingdom went to war in August, 1914, the British Admiralty immediately notified the Cunard shipping company of its intention to requisition the fast luxury liners, Lusitania and Mauretania.

This was no spur-of-the-moment decision, but reflected policy of a decade previously. In 1903, under the terms of the so-called Cunard agreement, the British government had lent funds at preferential rates to Cunard and had paid them a large annual subsidy, so they would build and run two transatlantic liners to Admiralty requirements. The ships had to be capable of a speed in excess of 24 knots.

Find more content related to the sinking of RMS Lusitania in our special report

Cunard accepted this generous offer. As a result, its fleet was enhanced with two high-profile vessels, both of which set new standards of luxury and both of which vied for the Blue Riband, the accolade awarded for the fastest transatlantic crossing.

But what did the British government get out of this arrangement?

Seemingly very little, with the result that many commentators have concluded that the Cunard Agreement was little more than a government subsidy to give a British company a competitive advantage in the cut-throat Atlantic shipping business.

The reality was somewhat different. While there was satisfaction in official circles that Cunard stole a march on international rivals, such as the American-owned International Mercantile Marine and the German-run Hamburg America company and the Norddeutsche Lloyd, this was not the prime motivation for the agreement, which was rooted in military considerations.

In 1901, Britain’s Naval Intelligence Department had begun to focus on the threat to Britain of the rise of German maritime power

The expansion of the German battle fleet played a major part in this, but so, too, did the size and shape of the German merchant marine.

In 1901, Germany’s merchant navy was second to Britain’s in terms of total tonnage, but it was ahead of Britain’s in the number of very fast vessels. Nothing made this clearer than ownership of the Blue Riband.

Apart from a brief interlude in the early 1850s, this award had been held continuously by British-flagged vessels since 1838. However, this all ended in 1898, when the riband was won by the NDL liner, Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse.

Was it a warship or a passenger ship?

In the years thereafter, competition for this prestigious prize was solely between German vessels. This was a blow to British prestige, but it also had a military dimension.

Germany’s express steamers, although unarmed in peacetime, were designed and built to mount guns. Consequently, on the outbreak of war, all that it would take to turn one of these ‘ocean greyhounds’ into an auxiliary cruiser was a document commissioning the vessel as a warship — this could be held in a sealed envelope in the ship’s safe, ready to be opened upon need; a naval officer ready to take command — hardly problematic, as many German merchant naval officers had reserve commissions in the Imperial Navy; and some guns to mount — which could easily be transferred from a warship after a secret rendezvous in some isolated spot.

The new addition to the Kaiser’s navy could then begin operations. In the case of a converted liner, this meant commerce raiding, in particular the hunting of British-flagged merchant vessels to capture and sink.

Given that the German liners were the fastest transatlantic merchant ships afloat, this was no idle threat. As one anxious Admiralty official advised in early 1902, if armed the fast German liners would be able to ‘destroy everything weaker than herself, i.e., the whole of the British Mercantile Marine’. And, worse still, the Royal Navy had no warships fast enough to catch them.

This was where the Cunard Agreement came in. In 1902, foreign competition was pushing Cunard hard and making an upgrade of its fleet desirable. However, while fast liners had a certain cache, the higher cost of building them, and then running them at the fastest speeds, was not a good commercial proposition. Left to its own devices, Cunard was not going to build a rival to the German express steamers.

However, it was not left to its own devices. In July, 1902, the First Lord of the Admiralty, aware that ‘we have no ships existing or projected … which could catch these four German steamers’, decided there was only one practical solution: ‘subsidising merchant cruisers to be specially built to match these German boats, and slightly improve upon their speed.’

Cunard’s need was thus the Admiralty’s opportunity. After protracted negotiations and a hefty financial incentive, Cunard agreed to build two new ships for rapid conversion into auxiliary cruisers that, being faster than their German counterparts, could run them down. The ships were Lusitania and Mauretania.

Was it a warship or a passenger ship?

Thus, when war came in August, 1914, these vessels, which had been designed from the first for rapid conversion into auxiliary cruisers, were promptly called up by the Royal Navy. Yet, although the Germans did convert some of their liners into commerce raiders — the Kronprinz Wilhelm managing an impressive 250-day, 37,666-mile voyage, during which it sank 15 allied vessels — by 1914 ships such as Lusitania were no longer the best answer.

Before her transformation into a warship could be completed, the Admiralty decided that what it needed was not fast liners, but ones with high endurance. Accordingly, Lusitania was released back into merchant service. Even more ironically, this ship, purpose-built to combat a German threat to British commerce, would then become the most high-profile victim of a new threat to British commerce, the submarine.

When the war came, these fast vessels were called up by the Royal Navy

Find more content related to the sinking of RMS Lusitania in our special report

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