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Sisters in Fate: The Lusitania and the Titanic

Today’s guest post was written by William B. Roka, a longtime volunteer at the National Archives in New York City. You can follow “Titantic Tuesdays” on Facebook as they post records and images in remembrance of the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic.

The beginning of Captain Turner's testimony about the conditions of the ice near the Titanic, one day before the fateful sailing of the Lusitania. “In the Matter of the Petition of the Oceanic Steam Navigation Company, Limited, for Limitation of its Liability as owner of the steamship TITANIC”; Admiralty Case Files Records of District Courts of the United States, Record Group 21; National Archives at New York City.

On the morning of May 1, 1915, Pier 54 on the Hudson River was awash with people, luggage, and cargo. A great transatlantic liner was readying to sail back to England. There was somewhat ominous tone to the activities: small notices about war zones had appeared in various newspapers.

The captain of this great vessel had spent the day before at the New York City offices of Hunt, Hill & Betts. He had been asked to testify by lawyers involved in the limitation of liability case related to the Titanic disaster, which was dragging into its third year.

He was asked a series of questions about the size and design of ships on the Cunard Line, the difficulty of sighting icebergs, and his reaction to iceberg warnings. These questions were important because the ship he was commanding in April 1912 was sailing only a few days behind the Titanic

Q. Did you get reports of icebergs before you heard of the “Titanic” sinking?

A. Yes, on Sunday and Monday.

 

Q. Did you go south of the position where they were indicated?

A. I went 65 miles south of the position where the “Titanic” struck ice.

 

Q. Under the above circumstances, would it be reasonably safe for such a vessel to proceed at a speed of 20 knots an hour or upwards?

A. Certainly not; 20 knots through ice! My conscience!

 The lawyers asked many of the same questions over and over in different forms, but no answer was groundbreaking to the case. However, there is one question and answer that sticks out.

 Q. Have you learned nothing by that accident?

A. Not the slightest; it will happen again.

This answer sent a chill down my spine when I first read it because the captain being interviewed about the Titanic disaster was William T. Turner, captain of the RMS Lusitania.

On May 7, just one week after Turner gave this testimony in New York City, the Lusitania was torpedoed by a German U-boat, becoming the most infamous maritime disaster of the First World War.  Nearly 1,200 people, including 128 Americans, were lost. There were only 761 survivors.

The Cunard Line, just like the White Star after the Titanic disaster, filed a petition with the court of the Southern District of New York to limit its liability against claims filed by survivors and the families of victims.  This case, also part of the records of the National Archives at New York City, was the first project I worked on when I started volunteering. Captain Turner’s deposition and its relation to the Titanic disaster offers a surprising connection between these two infamous events. After the recent Titanic centennial, and after having examined both cases, I would like offer some thoughts on these two tragedies.

The Titanic has always overshadowed the story of the Lusitania. Nonetheless, the repercussions of the Lusitania had a more significant impact on world events. While not directly leading to American entry into World War I, the sinking of the ship damaged relations between the United States and Germany in 1915, and was influential in the United States declaring war in 1917.  Yet, the Titanic is much more a part of our collective memory.

Captain Turner avoided the iceberg believed to have sunk the Titanic; but he was unable to avoid the German U-boats. "A Photograph of an Iceberg Floating Near the Site of the TITANIC Sinking., 12/14/1912 " ARC Identifier 278334

The allure of the Titanic seems to stem from the romanticism that surrounds it. Like an ancient Greek tragedy, it was a disaster brought on by folly, arrogance, and possibly even fate itself. The two-and-a-half hours it took to sink turned the ship into a drowning stage that allowed a series of human dramas to play out. I imagine that the great bulk of the ship rising out of the water with its sparkling lights set against the night sky, as recreated in so many paintings and films, was both terrifying and mesmerizing.

The Lusitania story is bleaker and more difficult to comprehend. Its sinking was swift, violent, and ugly. After a torpedo struck its starboard side, the Lusitania sank in a mere 18 minutes.

While there were enough lifeboats for all passengers (a lesson learned from the Titanic), only 6 were successfully launched. Calls for “women and children first” mostly fell on deaf ears as primeval instincts of survival took over. Proportionally many more women and children died than on the Titanic. The fact that a civilian passenger ship was torpedoed without warning and that she was carrying different types of war materials (including 4 million rifle cartridges for the British Army) are still major points of controversy.    

As for Captain Turner, he would survive the Lusitania. A British inquiry laid a great deal of the blame personally on his actions as if to avoid questions about the cargo on the Lusitania. Ultimately, in both the American and British inquiries, Germany was held solely responsible. As in the Titanic liability case, the Lusitania claimants received next to nothing.

In spite of romantic notions or controversy the most poignant parts in both cases are the individual the human stories, preserved in the various claims and testimonies. The material available at the National Archives allows one to delve deeper into an event and come out with a more profound understanding of it. Having had the privilege to examine both the Titanic and Lusitania cases, I learned so much about the era from which these people came from and the events that they were caught up in; and in the process the strange coincidences of history that made the Titanic and Lusitania sisters in fate.

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