Friday 24 February 2012

Famous Shipping Disasters: The attack on the "Lusitania" (1915)

Although she is less famous than her equally-unlucky rival the Titanic, it's arguable that the Lusitania's actual impact on history was far greater. When she first entered service for the Cunard Line in 1907, the 32,000-ton flagship was instantly hailed in the British press as recapturing that all-important national maritime pride in the commercial race for transatlantic dominance with Imperial Germany. Since 1897, German companies like Northern German Lloyd and Hamburg-Amerika had garnered most of the international prestige with their series of patriotically-named superships. With the Lusitania and her slightly larger, slightly faster and slightly younger sister-ship, Mauretania, Britannia was fighting back. The Cunard sisters were nearly twice again as large as any of their rivals and both easily out-paced their German competitors when it came to speed. At the end of 1907, the Mauretania won the Blue Riband, the coveted prize for the fastest crossing of the North Atlantic, which she quite incredibly managed to keep until 1929. With room for 2,200 passengers in three classes, the Lusitania was praised for the opulence and comfort of her interiors (below), as well as for her speed, safety and commercial success.

But the Lusitania's ultimate historical importance arrived eight years later when she once again became a symbol for the rivalry between the British Empire and Germany. This time, the rivalry had turned into a bloody conflict and as the First World War raged, more and more of Britain's commercial fleet was requisitioned by the Royal Navy. A drop in passenger numbers meant that Lusitania's two running mates, Mauretania and Cunard's new flagship, Aquitania, were voluntarily removed from service and laid-up in Liverpool. (Both were called up for service as troop carriers and hospital ships once the Gallipoli campaign against the Ottoman Empire began.) By the spring of 1915, the Lusitania was the only major luxury liner still operating the route from New York to England. 

The Imperial German embassy in America suspected that she was being used to transport munitions from British sympathisers in the United States. Furthermore, the government in Berlin had recently declared that any ships, commercial or military, attempting to bypass the German blockade of Britain would be legitimate targets for German submariners. Heedless of these warnings, or perhaps ignorant of them, the Lusitania set sail from New York from Pier 54 on May 1st, 1915. Six days later, off the Old Head of Kinsale in Ireland, she was struck by a German torpedo at 2.10 p.m. Passengers, finishing dessert in the first-class dining saloon, felt an enormous jolt rock the ship and from the periscope of the U-20, the German captain, Captain Schweiger, heard a second explosion, which he initially assumed to be an exploding boiler or coal powder.

The sinking of the Lusitania was quick, chaotic and hideous. The 32,000-ton steamer sank in only eighteen minutes, tipping hundreds into the beautiful but freezing Irish waters. The ship pitched so violently to one side that half the lifeboats could not be launched; power-cuts and the speed of the sinking meant that dozens of passengers were trapped inside the ship's elevators and drowned like caged animals; lifeboats fell and crushed survivors fleeing in ones below; children were separated from their parents in the chaos and dozens were killed by miniature explosions, scalding water and deck equipment. Residents in the nearby Irish port of Queenstown later said that the dozens of children's bodies in their little coffins in the town's streets was a sight they would never forget.

Since the day of the Lusitania's sinking, controversy has raged about what caused the second explosion and the actions of the respective British and German governments. In the United States at the time, there was no doubt that Germany was to blame. American public opinion was inflamed by the deaths of so many American civilians and Captain Schweiger was painted as a war criminal for refusing to give the Lusitania time to disembark her civilian passengers before firing. Britain, unsurprisingly, concluded that the sinking had been "the illegal act of the Imperial German government" and insisted the second explosion had been caused by Schweiger vindictively firing a second torpedo into the ship's side. Germany, and later conspiracy theorists, insisted the second explosion was Britain and America's fault, because they had been trading munitions and it was those munitions which exploded on impact, causing the Lusitania to sink in such record time.

It seems that the Lusitania was carrying arms - shells and cartridges - but she had been carrying those in trade even before the war began. It is doubtful that American port authorities would ever have allowed a commercial vessel to load significant amounts of military hardware, particularly at such a delicate time. In hindsight, the second explosion, which helped pitch the Lusitania onto her side as she sank, was almost certainly caused by the first torpedo igniting either a boiler fire or a coal dust explosion. The British version of events, which claimed there had been a second German torpedo, and the German version of events, which claimed the Lusitania had been little more than a military cargo ship with a civilian shield, were both almost certainly incorrect and self-serving. At the time, Germany's reputation in the United States was irreparably damaged and Germany's two principal allies, Imperial Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire, both distanced themselves from the sinking and refused to condone it.

The United States entered the war on the Allied side in 1917.

Monday 20 February 2012

France's Iron Lady?

"I am not a sentimental woman. Even during my youth I wasn't given to melancholia or remorse. I rarely looked back, rarely paused to mark the passage of time. Some would say I do not know the meaning of regret. Indeed, if my enemies are to be believed, my unblinking eyes stare always forward, focused on the future, on the next war to fight, the next son to exalt, the next enemy to vanquish... I have become far more than was ever expected of me, even if loneliness was always present, like a faithful hound at my heels. The truth is, not one of us is innocent. We all have sins to confess."

I first wrote about Catherine de Medici when I was thirteen years old and the grammar school I attended ran an essay writing competition in which students had to pick a famous hero or villain from history and write about their lives. I came third, behind Florence Nightingale and Harry Ferguson (the inventor of tractor. It's Northern Ireland, after all.) Back then, I placed Catherine firmly in the "villain" category and earned my future History teacher's mistrust for concluding, "Like Vladimir Lenin, Catherine de Medici used her vast political power only to bring harm, rather than happiness." As I was to discover, talking smack about Lenin in my A-Level class was about as close to intellectual heresy as one could come at Down High, but I digress.

It wasn't until I was eighteen and read the debut biography of supermodel-turned-historian, Leonie Frieda, Catherine de Medici, that I began to change my mind about the sixteenth century Italian heiress who married into the French royal family as a teenager and became the de facto leader of the French government after her husband's premature death. More recently, I have returned to Catherine's life as I work on a script about the French Wars of Religion updated to the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Sadly, there are enough parallels to justify the comparison. One of the characters I enjoyed researching, writing and updating the most was Queen Catherine. 

For over a generation, Catherine de Medici committed fair deed and foul to keep her family on the throne, in the midst of eight appallingly bloody religious wars between Catholics and Protestants. In 1572, sectarian tensions erupted with the Saint Bartholomew's Day Massacre, in which thousands of Protestants were brutally murdered. Catherine, rightly or wrongly, has been blamed for it ever since - either for deliberately orchestrating the massacre or for political incompetence in failing to prevent it. A foreigner, a woman and a politician, Catherine was widely despised by the time of her death and as Marie de Medici, Anne of Austria and poor Marie-Antoinette were to discover in centuries to come, being compared to Catherine de Medici was about as bad an insult as Frenchmen could give.

From the extraordinary story of Catherine de Medici's life and career, C.W. Gortner drew inspiration for his second novel. The Confessions of Catherine de Medici is told in the first person, with Catherine reflecting on life from her childhood education at the hands of her Aunt Clarice to her favourite son's desperate attempts to save the monarchy from the ambitions of the Catholic Holy League. To begin with, what's wrong with Confessions? Well, in the first place, it's too short. Or, at least, it certainly feels like Gortner wanted to write a much longer novel. It sometimes feels that Confessions is a bit rushed and although it gets all the major events of Catherine's journey, that kind of comprehensive coverage comes at the expense of descriptions of the palaces, fabrics, clothes, jewels and food that made up the queen's everyday life. There are also a few errors on etiquette and forms of address, which may seem trivial but, like descriptions of the everyday, it adds to the experience for the reader in experiencing the very different world Catherine lived in. I also felt that chapters 1 to 17 were enjoyable reading, but after chapter 17 Confessions became unputdownable. (I'm quite certain that is not a real word.) Without giving too much away, it's in chapter 17 that Catherine finally manages to acquire some political power for herself and it's also in that chapter that one of the characters I personally found most irritating finally snuffs it. (The character was irritating through no fault of the author's, I should point out. I simply found myself wanting to cigarette burn him throughout most of the story.)

For history fans, Gortner also deserves kudos for his clever characterisation of some of the other major players in Catherine de Medici's life. His portrayal of her husband's mistress, the legendarily beautiful Diane de Poitiers, was a favourite. Diane de Poitier's physical loveliness and her elegant manners have blinded generations of historians to what a monumentally unpleasant individual she was. Greedy, selfish and cold, Diane emerges from Confessions as the paragon of self-obsession she undoubtedly must have been in reality. There's a moment when the two women meet for the final time, where I very nearly cheered. 

Catherine's eldest daughter-in-law, Mary, Queen of Scots, is also interestingly portrayed. (Mary's mother was a French aristocrat and she was brought up in France.) Queen Mary is shown as a pretty girl who happens to know she's pretty and acquires all the benefits and pitfalls to her personality that such life-long knowledge can give. Given the unending praise showered on Mary throughout her French childhood, all of which seems to have focused in some way on her looks, that seems a fair enough assumption. Mary is not, however, presented as necessarily unpleasant and her relationship with Catherine is nuanced and fair to both women. Catherine's youngest daughter, Margot, of la reine Margot fame, is always a fascinating figure and Gortner does her justice. Thanks to her own memoirs and Alexandre Dumas's nineteenth-century novel about her, Margot has gone down in history as a romantic legend. However, she and her mother were not on speaking terms later on in life and since this is a novel from Catherine's perspective, Gortner presents a very different, but equally interesting, portrait of Princess Margot. 

Perhaps my favourite part, however, was Catherine's own favourite child - her third son, Henri, Duc d'Anjou. Despite the feverish denials of French nationalist and pious Catholic historians, there can be absolutely no doubt to the logical mind that Henri III was gay. Or rather, what we would now recognise as gay. Because of this, Henri has gone down in history as an effete, sleeked, unnatural transvestite who frittered away his mother's political legacy and eroded public respect for the monarchy by cavorting with his male lovers whilst France collapsed around him. Twain's comment that the pages of history are written with the ink of fluid prejudice is especially true in Henri's case. Today, we can, or we should, look at Henri III's life differently. Undoubtedly, he made many, many mistakes as sovereign, but historians have rightly pointed out his work ethic, his strong commitment to the institution of monarchy and his genuine respect for his mother's achievements. Without giving too much away, Henri III emerges from the pages of Gortner's novel as a much more complicated, perhaps even a more likable, figure than in any of the other plays, novels or films inspired by his family's improbably dramatic lives.

The Confessions of Catherine de Medici is an excellent historical novel. I enjoyed reading all of it, but after reaching the second half, I suddenly wished it had been a good deal longer. Catherine de Medici emerges from Gortner's narrative as tough, determined and, if occasionally unlikable, you have to admire her tenacity and resilience. One can feel Gortner's own admiration for his leading lady shining through the pages of the novel and it's that determination to present Catherine as a figure worthy of respect, as well as interest, that makes Confessions such a clear labour of love for the author and a very enjoyable experience for the reader.

Famous Shipping Disasters: The scuttling of the "Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse" (1914)

Named after the first emperor of a united Germany, Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse ("Emperor William the Great") first entered service for the North German Lloyd shipping line in May 1897, operating the transatlantic route from Bremerhaven to New York, via Southampton. She was the first liner to use the soon-to-be-iconic four funnels and media attention focused on her speed, size and the neo-Baroque opulence of her first class interiors, which were soon nicknamed the Luxe Germanica style of decoration (below). She was a huge hit with wealthy German and American travellers, whilst her steerage quarters were regularly fully booked by immigrants moving to the United States. On her first voyage, she captured the Blue Riband for the fastest crossing of the North Atlantic, much to the consternation and shock of the British who still firmly believed that Britannia alone should rule the waves. Commercially, the Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse was successful enough to spawn three sister ships and running-mates, all named after members of the Imperial Family - the current Emperor Wilhelm II, the Crown Prince Wilhelm and his wife, Crown Princess Cecilia. They were nicknamed "the Four Flyers."

When the First World War broke out in August 1914, the liner was requisitioned by the German navy as an auxiliary cruiser. Her captain, Captain Reymann, sank three British ships, but only after offering their crew the chance to evacuate. Running low on fuel, the ship set sail for the Spanish north African colony of Rio de Oro, where she was intercepted by the British warship, HMS Highflyer. A battle ensued, with the Kaiser running out of ammunition half-way through. Determined not to let the ship fall into enemy hands, Captain Reymann ordered the evacuation of the Kaiser and then had the remaining crew members detonate an enormous hole in the ship's side. Scuttling, the nautical form of suicide, thus ensured the Kaiser sank rather than fall into British hands. Captain Reymann swam ashore and worked his way back to Germany as a stoker on a Spanish passenger ship.

The Kaiser's demise so early in the war and the fact that it had been refuelling which left her vulnerable to enemy attack made both sides change their plans about converting ocean liners into auxiliary cruises. From that point on, they were more often converted into troop carriers or hospital ships.

Monday 6 February 2012

February 6th, 1952: The Death of King George VI and the Accession of Queen Elizabeth II

Today marks the sixtieth anniversary of the accession of Her Majesty The Queen to the thrones of the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth. The nation is currently preparing for a fantastic summer of celebrations to mark the first royal Diamond Jubilee since that of Queen Victoria in 1897. Along with this year's London Olympic Games, the Jubilee will certainly make 2012 a summer to remember. However, unlike the summer festivities, which will commemorate The Queen's sixty years of exemplary service to her country and her people, today is a more quiet day, with Her Majesty making a short visit to the picturesque town of King's Lynn in Norfolk. 

Part of the reason for that quiet is, of course, that today is not just the anniversary of The Queen's accession but also the anniversary of the death of her father, King George VI, who died in his sleep at Sandringham in 1952. The Queen, who was very close to both of her parents, was on holiday in Kenya when she received the news that her father had passed away; the news was followed by a short telegram from the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, informing her, "Flash Emergency. Mr Churchill with his humble duty offers to your Majesty the profound condolences of the Cabinet on the death of your dear father the King. The Accession Council will meet this afternoon at St James's Palace to proclaim your Majesty's accession. The Cabinet in all things awaits your Majesty's commands." Back home, the Prime Minister led the nation in mourning with a moving broadcast, praising the King for the nobility and bravery of his "pilgrimage" of service.

King George, who was only fifty-six at the time of his death, had been in poor health for some time but had only been diagnosed with lung cancer in September 1951, after returning to London from Balmoral, the Royal Family's country home in Scotland. An operation, which removed part of the King's left lung, had failed to stop the progress of the disease, although he briefly recovered enough health to enjoy a happy family Christmas with his wife, two daughters, son-in-law and two grandchildren. He had been able to go hunting and to enjoy a performance of South Pacific at the theatre in London, accompanied by his wife and youngest daughter, Princess Margaret Rose. The last photographs of the King show him waving goodbye to his eldest daughter's plane as she set off for Kenya. On 5th February, the King shot hares in the afternoon and retired to bed, as usual. He passed away quietly in his sleep and was discovered by his valet, when he brought in the breakfast tray on the following morning.

Today, something of King George's personal bravery and dedication to duty is known because of the Oscar-winning biopic The King's Speech, which dramatised his battle with a speech impediment. But too often, George VI's legacy and commitment to his country is overshadowed by two of the figures closest to him - the  self-indulgence of his brother Edward VIII, whose dereliction of duty has, quite bizarrely, been depicted as "the greatest love story of the century" and the indomitable charisma of his Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, who in 2002 was voted "the greatest Briton of all time" in a public poll. Today, high schools and institutions named after Churchill dot the American continent, where he is one of the few (if not the only) British political leader to enjoy anything close to affection. George VI, however, is almost forgotten. 

Yet, as Churchill himself would have been at pains to note, throughout his sixteen years as Sovereign, George VI had reigned with grace, discipline, selflessness and quiet dignity. He had inherited a terribly difficult situation, both emotionally and politically, when his elder brother abdicated after only ten months on the throne. Along with his wife Elizabeth, George had rescued the monarchy from the scandal of Edward's actions; he had led the nation with firm patriotic resolve throughout the terrible years of the Second World War, maintaining public morale during the especially difficult period between 1939 and 1942 when Britain had, to all intents and purposes, stood alone in facing the criminal wrath of Nazism. He had maintained the public's respect and affection throughout the trying years of the post-war recession and the disintegration of the British Empire, watched over with glee by the Soviet Union and indifference by the United States, Britain's war-time allies. He had, above all, lived the values he preached; embodying the reserve, the self-discipline and the quiet patriotism of his generation. At the time, those who had lived through the War knew that their King was not only a good leader but, that rarest of things, a good man as well.

A schoolboy at the time, now an author, spoke today on the BBC News about his memories of George VI's death. He was in French class at boarding school, being taught by a French citizen, a veteran of the War, now living and working in England. Another member of staff stepped into the classroom during the morning lesson and whispered something in the teacher's ear. Tears began to stream down the man's face, "which was very extraordinary to us, because in that environment and in the 1950s, one certainly was not used to a fully-grown man making such a display of emotion, in public. But, after a moment, he gathered himself and walked to the blackboard, where he wrote the words, Le roi est mort, Vive la Reine." Throughout the nation, the reaction was similar, with millions coming to a halt over the next few weeks to pay their respects to their late King. Cinemas, theatres, sports grounds, schools, universities, public transport - all fell quiet and the edges of the newspapers were trimmed with black ink.

The London Gazette, seen here trimmed with that black, issued the official proclamation from Saint James's, confirming the accession of the new Monarch (below.)

George VI had reigned well; he had inherited a difficult position and ruled throughout a difficult time in mankind's history. He lived in the sure and certain knowledge that it was any person's duty, king or commoner, to be able to say, at the last, that they had done their very best. Throughout sixty years on the throne, his daughter and successor can justifiably claim to have done the same. 

Friday 3 February 2012

Marie-Antoinette and the Affair of the Minuet

Via Tea at Trianon comes an article about an early clash between the 14 year-old Marie-Antoinette and the Versailles court aristocracy over an issue of precedence at the young princess's wedding ball. 

Due to the intrigues of the Austrian ambassador and France's foreign minister, the Duc de Choiseul, a fifteen year-old aristocrat, Anne-Charlotte, Princesse de Lorraine, had been given the right to take the first dance at the ball after the Princes of the Blood. The House of Lorraine, the family of Marie-Antoinette's late father, the Emperor Franz-Stefan, occupied a difficult place in French court etiquette, because of the debate about whether they were members of the native nobility or an independent, foreign dynasty. In any case, the attempt to honour Anne-Charlotte with the first dance after members of the immediate Royal Family ruffled feathers in a way that they could only be ruffled at Versailles. Half the court aristocracy threatened to boycott the ball entirely, much to the distress of the King, who had poured an enormous amount of money into the celebrations for his grandson's marriage to Marie-Antoinette. As far as the courtiers were concerned, Anne-Charlotte de Lorraine's precedence at the ball over them was obnoxious, inappropriate and a sure sign that Marie-Antoinette was arriving to shamelessly promote her family's interests over her husband's. The fact that the bride in question was fourteen years-old and had not yet set foot in France when this matter was decided was of little concern to her new critics. 

For those interested in the historical significance of the so-called "Affair of the Minuet," there is also an excellent article by Professor Thomas E. Kaiser - "Ambiguous Identities: Marie-Antoinette and the House of Lorraine from the Affair of the Minuet to Lambesc's Charge."

Thursday 2 February 2012

Famous Shipping Disasters: The sinking of the "Empress of Ireland" (1914)

Despite being the worst maritime disaster in Canadian history, the 1914 sinking of the Empress of Ireland in the icy Saint Lawrence River has attracted relatively little subsequent historical attention, particularly in comparison to the interest still shown in the Titanic and Lusitania disasters. A 14,000-ton liner for the Canadian Pacific Steamship Company, the vessel operated the transatlantic routes between Liverpool and Quebec City. Built in Scotland in 1906, she was noted for her speed and for the comfort and elegance of her interiors (below.)

The Empress of Ireland disaster, which claimed 1,012 lives, occurred as the ship was starting out for one of her routine voyages to England. Sailing in thick fog, she collided with a Norwegian cargo ship, the SS Storstad. Within minutes of the collision, the Empress of Ireland had listed so far to starboard that it became impossible for the crew to launch half of her available lifeboats. Minutes later, there was a sudden lurch and then the ship stopped moving, leading many on-board to mistakenly believe that, mercifully, she had run aground. Fourteen minutes after the collision, the Empress of Ireland tipped over into the water and disappeared from sight, hurling hundreds of people into the freezing river water. Perhaps one of the most tragic facts reported in the British and Canadian newspapers at the time was that of the 138 children on-board at the time, only four survived the disaster. Among the survivors was the sailor "Lucky" Frank Tower, who had survived the Titanic disaster and went on to serve and survive the Lusitania, as well.

Since 1914, the Empress of Ireland has continued to claim lives, with several hardcore diving enthusiasts dying on expeditions to its murky wreck. In 2005, a Canadian documentary resurrected the theory that although most of the blame at the time fell on the Norwegian crew of the Storstad, the Empress of Ireland's captain, Henry Kendall, may have been partly to blame for the disaster by attempting to overtake the Storstad and that modern-day examinations of the wreck indicate that the ship's watertight doors had not been closed, as claimed - thus explaining the rapid speed of the sinking.
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