Cunard caught in crossfire of WWI

In 1914, Cunard was unusual in having two large steamers constructed with a loan from the British taxpayer, and in being paid an annual subsidy, against their potential use as auxiliary cruisers, writes Dr Steve Cobb

Cunard caught in crossfire of WWI

Prior to 1905, Cunard had been one of several shipping companies in receipt of subsidies for that purpose, for which construction details (such as provision to fit guns, protection of boilers and machinery spaces, and underwater steering gear) were agreed with the Admiralty.

In August, 1914, the Admiralty could have used clauses in the (separate) Royal Mail postal contracts to buy or charter the ships it required. In the event, following advice from Cunard’s deputy chairman, Thomas Royden (and White Star’s manager, Lionel Fletcher), it requisitioned them.

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

Royden and Fletcher had also advised HM Government, in 1913, on the transport of an expeditionary force to France; their recommendations were accepted.

Cunard, and other lines, also employed large numbers of naval reservists, officers and ratings, most of whose services they lost to the Royal Navy on the outbreak of war.

A selection of views of the interior of the Lusitania, including one public area, the first-class restaurant and a two-berth cabin.

In September, 1914, Cunard disposed of the elderly Campania, and she was snapped up by the Admiralty, who converted her to a seaplane carrier.

Lusitania, Mauretania and Aquitania were quickly returned to service with Cunard, as their running costs were thought too high, though Mauretania was taken up again in January, 1918. Aquitania carried troops to the Dardanelles in 1915, was a hospital ship in 1916, and a troopship again in 1918.

Only three other Cunarders served as auxiliary cruisers: Laconia served in East Africa, but returned to Cunard in 1916; Caronia served in the Caribbean, becoming a troopship in 1916; only Carmania saw ‘action’. On September 13, 1914, the Admiralty issued an instruction that such auxiliaries were to work in conjunction with regular cruisers, and never engage an enemy unless it was of distinctly inferior force.

The following day, Carmania met the German Cap Trafalgar, off the Brazilian island of Trinidade. A slugfest followed that sank the German ship, and left Carmania badly damaged, with nine dead. Escorted to Gibraltar, her repairs took several months.

Cunard personnel were also involved in the ‘civilian’ management of the war effort, as were many others in the industry. The Navy kept sea communications open for the supply of munitions, raw materials and food. To protect British merchant ships at sea, Government and shipping industry representatives agreed a compulsory scheme of state insurance against war risks to cargoes and hulls.

The war effort made enormous demands on the diminished supply of shipping. Thomas Royden joined an Admiralty committee in March, 1915, and advised on the release of redundant shipping in the Eastern Mediterranean later that year.

In 1916, he joined the Shipping Control Committee, which enquired into congestion in Northern French ports, and into Wheat Supplies. At Royden’s behest, Cunard took over Commonwealth & Dominion Line in 1916, which was active in transporting frozen meat and vegetables from Australia and New Zealand.

From February, 1917, Cunard’s offices in Cockspur Street, London, housed the new Ministry of Shipping. Imports were restricted, and decisions taken regarding the optimum use of shipping tonnage.

In Rome, Cunard acted as agents for wheat imports; across the Atlantic, it placed orders for new, standardised ship designs, to replace lost tonnage, on behalf of the British Government, thereby preserving US neutrality.

By 1917, they were restricting unnecessary imports, rationalising passenger services and prioritising those across the Atlantic, and using liners as cargo ships. Construction of the liner Albania ceased, but was re-started on Government order, as a freighter.

Space precludes the detailing of Cunard’s losses. Their stories deserve to be told, and they can be found in Archibald Hurd’s (not always judicious) The Merchant Navy, 1921-29, or online via Google,, or

The company lost 20 ships, all but one to enemy action, 11 of them in Irish waters. In addition to Lusitania (1,198 lives), these were: Ultonia (1); Carpathia, the rescuer of Titanic’s survivors (5); Lycia; Laconia (12); Andania (7); Vandalia; Feltria (45); Flavia (1), Folia (7) and Aurania (8).

William Turner, once he returned to Cunard, served on Ultonia, but he was torpedoed again off Cape Matapan, on the bridge of Ivernia. On June 20, 1917, the defensively-armed Valeria approached the Irish coast carrying 5,000 tons of wheat, foodstuffs, munitions and horses.

She hit the periscope of U-99 (Max Eltester) and sank the submarine with gunfire as it surfaced. None of her 40 crew were saved.

Valeria was formerly Den of Airlie, purchased in 1915 from Barrie of Dundee, as was her sister, Volodia (ex-Den of Ogil).

During the war, Cunard added to their fleet by buying vessels from Canadian Northern, Lawther Latta & Co., Uranium Shipping, and others.

After the war, Cunard chartered three vessels from Lamport & Holt, and purchased half a dozen of the standard-design cargo ships from the Shipping Controller. Two of these were quickly transferred to Anchor Line, and the rest sold on by the mid-’20s. Germany’s pre-war Atlantic liners were surrendered as reparations, and Cunard chartered, then purchased, the 52,000-ton Hamburg-Amerika Imperator.

Refitted, and renamed Berengaria, she served as the company’s flagship until the mid-1930s, and is sometimes referred to as the first ‘Queen’. Cunard also chartered Kaiserin Auguste Viktoria for 10 voyages in 1920-21, but she then transferred to Canadian Pacific, as Empress of Scotland. In the immediate postwar period, the company ordered three 20,000-ton Scythias, and six 14,000-ton ‘A’ liners.

Most of these were named after wartime losses, and all were in service by 1925.

Thomas Royden inherited a baronetcy in 1917, and became chairman of Cunard in 1919. He was coalition Conservative MP for Liverpool Bootle from 1918, but did not stand again in 1922.

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

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