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Cunard’s Last Four-Stack Liner Aquitania


By James Donahue


Built just before the opening salvos of World War I, the Cunard Line’s Aquitania arrived on the scene just in time to go into war duty as a troop ship. But that did not detract from her glory as a fine and profitable passenger liner.


Designed to complement the transatlantic passenger service between Liverpool and New York, already offered by Lusitania and Mauretania, the Aquitania, at 868 feet, was not as large and as fast as the others, and consequently failed to gain the reputation of those blue ribbon vessels. Yet her historical record shows that the Aquitania boasted the finest accommodations on the high seas, she enjoyed longer years of service than any of the others, and proved the most profitable of the three vessels for Cunard.


A coal burner, the Aquitania was built with four funnels. They say it was the last Cunard liner to have this profile. It was designed with 16 traverse watertight bulkheads, 84 compartments and cellular double bottoms making it among the safest vessels afloat in its day.


Her first class dining room was designed in the style of Louis XVI and it offered lounges boasting high vaulted luxury wooden carved walls and ceilings two decks in height. Some said it was the most elegant and comfortable ship in service.


The news of Aquitania’s maiden voyage on May 30, 1914 from Liverpool to New York was overshadowed by the Empress of Ireland Disaster on the St. Lawrence Seaway that claimed 1,023 lives. And even on that date, war clouds were building over Europe. The liner made only three round trips before it was seized by the British Admiralty for service as an armed merchant cruiser.


Before the conversion was completed, however, the Admiralty decided it was going to be too large a target for German submarines and she was utilized as a troopship instead. By 1915 Aquitania was converted again for use as a hospital ship, the largest afloat in its day.


After America entered the conflict, the liner was used again as a troop ship. By the end of the war she made nine round trips carrying an estimated 60,000 troops to Europe and then back home again.


When the war ended, Aquitania was returned to her owners. She went through a complete refitting at Newcastle that included conversion to fuel oil burners. This brought about the lay-off of half it the engine room crew, about 200 stokers and trimmers. It also was fitted with a gyro compass and swimming pool below deck, believed the first like it on any liner.


Changes in life styles were in the air. The passage of the Emergency Quota Act of 1921 brought a sharp decline in the number of emigrant passengers traveling in third class and passenger liners now accommodated the younger “flappers” rather than the more gentrified class. Thus the sound big bands and Dixieland were common on voyages before the economic crash. Aquitania also installed a movie theater, another new rage of that period.


The Great Depression signaled hard times for the liners, although because airline flights were still in their infancy passenger ships were still needed for travel across the Atlantic and Aquitania remained in service. But these were not the best of years. She went aground two times, once off Calshot Spit and a second time off Southampton. The mishaps were not serious and the ship was pulled free by tugs. It took 11 tugs working together to pull the massive liner free at Southampton.


Her only other serious mishap involved an explosion in the engine room that killed one crew member.


Aquitania was getting tired and by the late 1930s Cunard was about to retire her. But war broke out in 1939 and Aquitania was once more requisitioned for service as a troopship. She remained faithfully in service throughout the war, carrying troops to all theaters of the war. She carried over 600,000 men, around the world to America, Pearl Harbor, and Australia.


By the time she was scrapped in 1950, her 35-year-long career spanned two world wars and she traveled over three million miles. Aquitania carried 1,200,000 passengers, made 475 Atlantic crossings plus travels to many other ports around the world.




The Mind of James Donahue

Great And Lost Ships Of The World