August 14, 2012
Guest Blog: Commodore Rynd, Queen Elizabeth
It is becoming something of a Cunard tradition that when one of our ships calls at Cobh during a Round Britain voyage the company commemorates the loss of Lusitania in 1915 and Queen Elizabeth’s recent circumnavigation around the British Isles was no exception.
The Mayor of the County of Cork Cllr Barbara Murray, the Lord Mayor Cllr John Buttimer and Councillor Finbarr O’Driscoll (representing the Mayor of Cobh) were also in attendance and Port of Cork Commercial Manager, Michael McCarthy, welcomed the assembled crowd of several hundred Queen Elizabeth guests and people of Cobh with the words:
“The sinking of the Lusitania on 7 May 1915 was a human catastrophe on a scale that this small town had not experienced before or since. People here witnessed first hand, the trauma, tragedy and heartbreak that ensued. The dead, the injured and the bereaved were brought among a community here that mobilised itself and responded with courage and compassion to their needs. This memorial reflects the eternal connection between Cobh and Lusitania, between the aspiration of world peace and the tragedy of war. It is fitting that today the Captain of Cunard’s Queen Elizabeth should be here together with the Mayor to reflect on the great loss and the human tragedy of the Lusitania”.
I was then invited to lay a wreath on behalf of Cunard Line followed by the Chairman of the Port of Cork, Dermot O’Mahoney.
Father Michael Leamy, the parish priest in Cobh, then lead the assembled group in prayer.
Cobh has a significant part in the long and varied history of Cunard Line, including bearing witness to one of the great tragedies of World War 1 – the sinking of
Cunard’s Lusitania by a German U Boat with the loss of 1,119 lives.
But Cunard’s connection with Cobh – or Queenstown as it was – began in the middle of the nineteenth century, when emigration from Europe to the United States and Canada began to mushroom. While the majority of the 2½ million emigrants Cunard carried to the New World came from England and from mainland Europe substantial numbers of Irish emigrants boarded in Cobh where Cunard ships stopped on the westbound route from Liverpool. In the hundred years from 1848 over six million people emigrated from Ireland to escape crop failures or poverty, and of these 2½ million departed from Cobh – many on Cunard vessels.
And despite the misery in which so many of these emigrants had existed, and despite the tears and sadness at leaving a home they might never see again, emigration was fundamentally a story of hope. For a good many the hope became reality, and the prosperity found in North America enabled them, and their descendants, to revisit their native lands on the great Transatlantic liners that incessantly moved between the Old World and the New.
Some of these may have been on board Lusitania when, on 1 May 1915, she slipped out of New York on her 101st Transatlantic Crossing.
Lusitania, launched on the Clyde in 1907, was – along with her Tyne-built sister ship Mauretania – Cunard’s first ‘floating palace’. On 8 September 1907, on her maiden voyage Lusitania made her first call at Cobh – it was to be the first of many.
For seven years, until the outbreak of war, she operated a fast and, for first class passengers at least, luxurious service across the Atlantic in tandem with Mauretania. On the outbreak of war, Mauretania was requisitioned by the Government – but Lusitania was not, and continued to serve as an unarmed passenger ship. Both ships were built to Admiralty specifications, in return for which Cunard received a subsidy; but although Lusitania was designed to carry 12 six-inch guns, these were never installed.
Nonetheless, the Admiralty did require the vessel to carry a modest amount of armaments to help the war effort in Europe, and the manifest for the 101st voyage showed that the ship was carrying small arms, ammunition and cases of shrapnel shells. Even now this raises the question of whether such cargo gave the Germans legitimacy in sinking what was an unarmed liner carrying civilians.
On the afternoon of Friday 7 May 1915, ten miles off the Old Head of Kinsale as Lusitania was making her final day’s approach to Liverpool, she was torpedoed by U20 and sank within 18 minutes. Of the nearly 1,900 people on board only 761 survived.
Many of the recovered bodies were taken to Cobh, and over 140 unidentified corpses were interred in three graves at the Old Church graveyard just outside the town. Most identified bodies were claimed by relations and sent home for burial – but over 900 missing persons were never found.
The sinking of the Lusitania, an unarmed and non-combatant merchant vessel, was one of the great tragedies of World War 1 and it is wholly appropriate for Cunard to commemorate the events of May 1915 in such a way.