This post marks the beginning of a new series on my blog, which I’m going to call Historic Ship (joining Historic Photo and Historic Painting). A great deal of my articles deal with a nautical theme, and I’ve done profiles of ships of various kinds before, such as the ill-fated Mary Celeste, the Arctic, or the Central America. In this series I intend to focus each entry on a specific ship of historic or noteworthy status. Probably most, though not all, will be passenger liners, which is a subject that’s entranced me since childhood. For the first article in this series I’ve chosen one of the most beloved of all North Atlantic passenger liners, Cunard’s splendid Aquitania, which had a life and career quite out of the ordinary for these amazing ships.
Aquitania was conceived as the third of three sister vessels for Cunard in the decade before World War I. The other two sisters were Lusitania, launched in 1906–the victim of a savage act of war in 1915–and Mauretania, launched in 1907. Aquitania was a latecomer. Launched in April 1913, she was the largest of these three sisters, at 901 feet long and 45,600 tons, but not the fastest; Mauretania held the Blue Ribband, the Atlantic speed record, from 1909 to 1929. Of the three, however, Aquitania was the most luxurious, well-appointed and comfortable. Lounges, dining saloons and smoking rooms were decked out in a rich Louis XVI style, designed by decorators known for their work on luxurious Paris and London hotels. Shipping companies were engaged in a sort of arms race before World War I, competing with each other on several battlefields, those being speed, comfort and size. No one liner could be tops in all three, at least until the 1930s, but Aquitania seemed to edge out her rivals in terms of comfort, at least insofar as customer loyalty was concerned. Many first-class passengers preferred the ship and sailed on her numerous times over her long career.
The Aquitania was regarded as more luxurious and comfortable than her sister ships. Here is the first class dining saloon, designed by a hotel decorator.
Aquitania had the misfortune to debut on the North Atlantic scene in May 1914, just one month before the fuse that would eventually ignite World War I began burning. She made only three round trips in the summer of 1914 before Great Britain declared war on Germany. Aquitania fulfilled both of the traditional roles that British ocean liners held during wartime: she was used as a troop transport and as a hospital ship. Though the war decimated the North Atlantic passenger fleet, Aquitania was one of the few survivors who came through without a scratch. In 1919 she was refitted to burn oil rather than coal, slightly remodeled and returned to passenger service. In the 1920s she became immensely popular and was one of the few huge “floating palace” passenger liners to turn a profit. Most of them were prodigious money-losers, but the “Ship Beautiful” and her loyal clientele remained in the black even into the Depression.
Indeed, Aquitania was the only major liner who was still around when World War II began, and once again the ship served her country, mostly hauling troops. Unfortunately she didn’t survive for long after the war. By the late 1940s she was too old and slow compared to new generations of ships and Cunard didn’t see fit to pour the money into remodeling her yet again. A famous incident occurred where a piano fell through a floor that was corroded from age. After some duties hauling war brides and such, Aquitania was sold to a breakers’ yard in Scotland in 1950. She had made over 400 voyages and traveled over 3 million miles. An era truly ended when she was broken up for scrap.
Aquitania was a workhorse during World War II. Here she is as the Boston Navy Yard in 1942. Liners serving as transports were usually painted gray, at least in the second war.
Aquitania and her historic career was one of the major models for the “character” of the fictional ocean liner Romantic, whose “life” is chronicled in one of my more obscure books, Romantic, Memoirs of a Great Liner. I would have loved to have seen this beautiful ship in person. Alas, like virtually all of her kin, nothing remains of Aquitania today except a few artifacts, many photographs and a lot of memories.