Cunard’s RMS Aquitania: A baptism of fire

Often overshadowed by her rivals and predecessors, RMS Aquitania boasts of heroism and record-breaking feats. Here’s the overlooked origin story of Cunard’s lesser-known champion

As time’s onward march pushes episodes of yesteryear further into the past, contemporary culture can inadvertently shun less dramatic events into darkened corners of lesser-explored history.

The luxurious heritage behind shipping’s transatlantic heyday remains a prime example. Courtesy of the human fascination with morbidity and disaster, ships akin to the RMS Titanic, RMS Lusitania and SS Andrea Doria dominate resources and rarely stray from the public conscience.

Yet, while fixation on media (such as James Cameron’s romanticised 1997 Titanic) helps to establish certain liners as timeless icons of obsession, it can also smother the legacy of longer-lived vessels deserving of recognition.

Cunard’s RMS Aquitania is, arguably, the greatest casualty of our historical cherry-picking.

Designed by the legendary naval architect Leonard Peskett, and built by the famed Glaswegian John Brown & Company shipyard in Clydebank, RMS Aquitania became Cunard’s longest-serving ocean liner and the last surviving four-funnelled vessel; a subsequently celebrated lineage.

Assisting allied forces throughout both World Wars - playing the parts of auxiliary cruiser, troop carrier and also a hospital ship - the RMS Aquitania garnished her impressive career with devout popularity among passengers and a reliable reputation for punctuality.

All amid the customary opulent splendour and lashings of grand sophistication, naturally.

Her history fizzes with heroism and loyalty, yet is often overshadowed. When placed alongside White Star Line’s trio of Olympic-class liners, and Cunard’s preceding juggernauts (Lusitania and Mauritania), RMS Aquitania remains the lesser-celebrated nautical darling.

Nonetheless, Cunard’s frequently overlooked champion was ever-present throughout a transitional time for our society. Witnessing a changing world, the ship’s lifecycle certainly stirs emotions, none more so than her origin story.

RMS Aquitania with RMS Mauretania and RMS Olympic in Southampton. Credit: Picryl

RMS Aquitania: born of rivalry

The transatlantic operation between Great Britain and North America was big business throughout the formative years that defined 20th-century travel. Before commercial flight offered a life hack for crossing North Atlantic waters, shipping companies provided the foundation for trade and leisure.

And nobody did it better than Cunard or rival White Star Line. The rival companies were the ocean-going Joan Crawford and Bette Davis of their day.

Subsequently, RMS Aquitania emerged as a direct result of transatlantic one-upmanship between Britain’s two celebrated marques, purposefully crafted to directly challenge RMS Titanic and RMS Olympic.

Cunard assigned their top professionals to the project. No gentlemanly conduct was off the table. White Star Line may have had the largest ships within their fleet, but Cunard had the fastest. And soon, with the keel laid down for Aquitania in December 1910, they would offer the best of both worlds.

Leonard Peskett, Cunard’s leading designer, drew up plans for a ship that dwarfed the Lusitania and Mauretania in size, yet could breach 24 knots. An incredible achievement of the time.

Although the ship’s dimensions were larger than arch-nemesis RMS Olympic, Aquitania’s displacement was ultimately lower – allowing for greater manoeuvrability. Not that Peskett viewed RMS Olympic with disdain.

Rather, it was the benchmark to beat, and he soon embarked upon an undercover voyage to experience the Olympic as a passenger, taking notes and copying pointers for Cunard’s new vessel.

The new ship was not only Cunard’s first liner to stretch beyond 900 feet in length, but also held one trait that trumped White Star Line competition. Unlike RMS Titanic, RMS Olympic or the upcoming Britannic, Aquitania did not employ a dummy funnel.

That might sound bizarre, but it was a common design trait of the day. Symmetry and a four-funnel approach offered passengers a feeling of security and strength. As such, even though White Star’s Olympic-class only required three, designers added a fourth funnel to appease ticket sales.

Aquitania’s fourth funnel was fully operational and vented smoke from the ship’s boilers – it was all about the finer details.

In a geopolitical plot twist, RMS Aquitania would later spend 15 years sailing under the Cunard-White Star Line partnership before exposure to the elements secured her fateful 1950 one-way trip to Faslane, in Fife.

Cunard's RMS Aquitania in her original paint scheme. Credit: Picryl

A brief honeymoon period

RMS Aquitania hit Clydebank’s industrial waters following a launch by the Countess of Derby on April 21, 1913.

Thundering down the John Brown slipway and into the Clyde, the next 13 months would see Arthur Joseph Davis and his team install all manner of plush fixtures and fittings; including electrical wiring to match White Star Line’s Olympic-class trio.

The following sea trials of May 1914 proved that Aquitania’s design and construction had exceeded expectations. Not only was Cunard’s newcomer able to crack speeds beyond her original specification, but she had also surpassed all reckonings for comfort and quality. She was destined to rule the waves.

Then, it all started to go wrong. It felt as though RMS Aquitania’s maiden voyage was doomed to obscurity. Although political stirrings rumbled out from Germany at the time, the British shipping world was already under threat from the SS Vaterland; regarded as the world’s largest passenger ship.

Sailing from Liverpool under the command of Captain William Turner (not of Pirates of the Caribbean fame) on May 30, 1914, Aquitania arrived in New York on June 5. Although the voyage initially drew great interest, the German’s quickly stole the limelight.

SS Vaterland’s arrival on the scene had swiftly taken the media wind from Cunard’s ticket-hungry sails.

Furthermore, the Aquitania’s maiden voyage was veiled by the tragic events surrounding RMS Empress of Ireland; sinking with the loss of more than 1000 lives.

Although no passengers cancelled their tickets aboard the Aquitania in spite of strong emotions, the ship’s maiden voyage only carried a third of her total capacity. Reportedly, superstitions around maiden trips prevented people from booking tickets. The loss of RMS Titanic certainly didn’t help matters.

Regardless of these issues, a larger problem was brewing. With the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand on June 28, 1914, a global war was on the boil – cutting Aquitania’s honeymoon period short.

World War I: Aquitania’s baptism of fire

Leonard Peskett had made provisions for war. His design for Aquitania incorporated a strict admiralty framework for swift transition should the Navy require assistance. This planning came to fruition when, on August 5, 1914, the ship was stripped of its expensive decorative elements and installed with guns. A bit like giving Joan Collins an automatic rifle.

On August 8, the Cunard newcomer went on patrol. Mirroring the sense of mayhem which surrounded her maiden voyage only two months prior, she quickly collided with another ship before the Admiralty found her too expensive to operate as a military cruiser. Akin to using a Range Rover for moving linen between rooms in a house.

During late September, the ship was stripped of weaponry, repaired, and given back to Cunard. She sat idle and unceremoniously empty until the following spring, when Aquitania was recalled and converted into a troopship by the same Admiralty that denounced her. Their previous criticisms of the ship left naysayers eating no-end of humble pie.

Dispatched to Dardanelles, the Aquitania entered operations to run parallel with Britannic and Mauretania and carried more than 30,000 men to the battlefield. For vast swathes of these men, the Aquitania carried them towards suffering and death. The First World War brought the kind of humanitarian casualties reserved for biblical fiction, with a large majority lost to the trenches.

The increasing number of wounded personnel resulted in a desperate requirement for another hospital ship, with Aquitania selected as the perfect candidate to complement the Britannic’s already recognised work as a floating hospital facility.

Then disaster, and arguably a war crime, hit the headlines.

Laying waste to a hospital ship goes against the rules of war. Although historians continue to argue the causes of the event, nonetheless, scores of injured personnel perished as Britannic sank into the depths of the Mediterranean. RMS Aquitania’s respected rival lay, broken, beneath the waves; a war grave for those robbed of life.

The famous British stiff-upper-lip now curled. Following the loss of RMS Lusitania to a German U-boat, the world was watching. The United States of America didn’t take much longer in joining the war, largely spearheaded by the loss of Cunard’s Lusitania and White Star Line’s Britannic.

The manged remains of the USS Shaw following the collision with RMS Aquitania. Credit: Picryl

Surviving the North Atlantic: tact and strength

Cunard’s Aquitania returned to the front line as a troop carrier before re-commencing her transatlantic route to bring North American troops to Europe. This was dangerous work, with heavy losses suffered in the North Atlantic.

Naval warfare and U-boat activity ensured that the darkened depths were littered with allied vessels, and allied souls. All defence tactics were employed to prevent the loss of RMS Aquitania, which had already proven her worth.

Under the command of James Charles, the Aquitania conveyed thousands of troops from Halifax, Nova Scotia, utilising a ‘dazzle paint scheme’ to confuse the prying eyes behind enemy periscopes. Safely chaperoning the arrival of approximately 60,000 men, the outcome of the war would have been vastly different without Aquitania’s speed and strength.

This strength was further demonstrated when she tore the bow off the muscular USS Shaw on October 9, 1918.

Given the mission of escorting Aquitania from port, Shaw’s rudder jammed after attempting the customary zig-zag procedure, driving the Sampson-class destroyer straight into the Aquitania’s path. It was only a matter of seconds before the two ships collided, and when they did, all hell broke out.

The Aquitania’s robust vigour tore 90-feet off the destroyer’s bow, plunging torn metal into the foaming ocean surface, mutilating the bridge and starting a large fire. Although Shaw’s crew managed to bring the situation under control, twelve men paid the price. It was a dark day for RMS Aquitania.

RMS Aquitania docked at Cunard's Southampton pier. Credit for colourisation: Daryl le Blanc

A rite of passage

The end of World War I came with the armistice of November 11, 1918. Europe had been bitterly divided and the continent’s politics were set for decades of recovery and strife, yet the relationship between Great Britain and the United States became stronger.

The Aquitania celebrated this alliance by colliding with the Lord Dufferin cargo ship, in New York, on February 28, 1919. Luckily, the crew sprang into action and clambered aboard the RMS Aquitania as the Lord Dufferin toppled and sank.

The luxury liner’s first half-decade had been the ultimate baptism of fire. From media infighting with the German SS Vaterland (later to sail as the Leviathan) to witnessing death and destruction as a hospital ship, traversing dangerous waters throughout the First World War, and colliding with more objects than a pinball – the RMS Aquitania survived every conceivable situation while in infancy.

However, there was more war to come, and during a fraught financial crash would have to fight for her life.

As an initial legacy, Individuals from all classes once packed the decks of a ship that symbolised hope and success during a turbulent start to the 20th century.

The ship would later resemble our ambitions as human beings, in both peacetime and further conflict, engraining itself into the fabric of life - built by the people for the people. People who shaped our society and who remain ultimately connected to us.

These people, just like the ship, are gone. But, if you delve beyond common knowledge, history has recorded them.

Most recent articles

About Calum Brown

Calum holds a deep interest in all things heritage and remains one of Britain’s most enthusiastic historians.

As a seasoned journalist, he has spent considerable time abroad and relishes all forms of transport. Shipping is in the blood, with a family connection to Stena Line embedded in his DNA. He also refuses to admit that 21st Century music exists.

Calum has developed a skill for bringing history alive, and always insists on making heritage accessible for everyone.