Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Sinking of the Lusitania

Lusitania 1st Class dining room

In the days when ocean liners provided the only way to travel across the Atlantic, the R.M.S. Lusitania was one of the fastest and most luxurious.  The domed, two-storey First Class dining room (above) was gilded and decorated with frescoes. The First Class lounge (below) boasted marble fireplaces at each end and a vaulted stained glass skylight above. Second Class accommodations were deemed to be superior to most First Class on other ships, and even Third Class fared better on the “Lusy”.

1st Class lounge
The Lusitania began her last voyage on May 1, 1915 from New York to Liverpool, England. The crossing was smooth and uneventful, despite the threat of German submarines, and on May 7 the ship was off the coast of Ireland, nearing the end of her journey. Some First Class passengers were finishing lunch and listening to the orchestra playing “The Blue Danube” when a U-boat torpedo struck. It took only 18 minutes for the ship to sink, and just 6 of the 48 lifeboats were successfully launched.

Aftermath of the Lusitania's sinking; painting by William Lionel Wyllie
Among the 1,959 passengers and crew, only 764 survived, some – amazingly - spending two or more hours in the frigid sea. Canadian Josephine Burnside, sister of Sir John Eaton (mentioned in a previous post), was sucked into one of the four smokestacks when the ship sank, but was blown out again. She lived to tell the tale, but her 20-year-old daughter didn’t. Although a $5000 reward – a fortune in those days – was offered for finding one of America’s wealthiest men, Alfred Vanderbilt, his body was never recovered, nor were nearly 900 other men, women, and children.

A few of my characters are on board the ship. Not all survive.

Lusitania: An Epic Tragedy by Diana Preston is a fascinating account of her fateful last voyage and the controversies surrounding the events.

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