History of Cruises. Part 2. The Rise and Fall | CruiseBe
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History of Cruises. Part 2. The Rise and Fall

12 minutes read • March 13th, 2017
It's time to continue our series of articles about the

history of cruises

. In the last article, we told you about the formation of the industry.

Today, let's look at the "golden age" of the transatlantic liners, the epic rise and the massive fall of the industry.

We ended the last article with the fact that German companies and liners joined the competition for the transatlantic blue ribbon rapidly and pretty successfully in the late 19th - early 20th century. We can say that at that time the struggle was between the British and German companies until the White Star Line company was absorbed by the large American conglomerate in 1902. From this moment, perhaps, we can assume that US companies also joined the battle for the Atlantic.

The concept of the cruises changed with the advent of the new century and the establishment of new companies.

In 1904, P&O started to advertise cruises for the first time. They advertised "trips" on a new but relatively small ship called Vectis with a capacity of only 150 passengers.

By the way, this ship was called a cruise yacht. As you can see, the word cruise was already in use.

The fact that ships were usually crowded on the way to the New World but returned to Europe almost empty served as an impetus to the development of the industry. Companies tried to position such trips not just as the mode of transportation, but more of a journey.

In addition, the companies started the race for the title of the ‘the most… ship’. For example, the largest one. The White Star Line company, which had already learned how to produce the series of great ships, marked the beginning of the new century with 4 new 24,000 ton liners. They were  popularly called The Big Four.

4 giants of that time – RMS Celtic, RMS Cedric, RMS Baltic & RMS Adriatic – were floated out from 1901 to 1906.

Ships of that time still had the division into classes, and immigrants often traveled in the third class. However, White Star Line already had separate dining-rooms with tablecloths and silverware equipped for the third class passengers.

By the way, the companies began to pay great attention to not only the speed of crossing of the Atlantic, but also to the comfort of the passengers.

According to some researchers, the idea of creating a “superliner” and providing first class accommodations and entertainment to passengers while at sea belongs to Germany.

The ship of the Hamburg America Line Company called SS Kaiserin Auguste Victoria built in 1906 became not only the first-class hotel, but also the largest ship at that time.

The Cunard company also wasn’t behind its competitors.

2 superliners were floated out in 1907 – RMS Lusitania & RMS Mauretania became not only the largest ships but also the fastest ones.

RMS Lusitania won the blue ribbon 4 times from 1907 to 1909 (with a maximum speed of 25.65 knots (47.50 km/h).

RMS Mauretania set a record in 1909 – 26.06 knots (48.26 km/h). The record was broken only in the year 1929!

The Germans really wanted to keep the lead in the Atlantic. Therefore, apart from Hamburg America Line, the North German Lloyd company also participated in the competition. Its ships took the blue ribbon several times. Moreover, four superliners of the Kaiser class built from 1896 to 1907 – Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse, Kronprinz Wilhelm, Kaiser Wilhelm II, Kronprinzessin Cecilie – opened the "German decade" in the Atlantic.
SS Kronprinzessin Cecilie

By the way, these were the first ships built with 4 funnels.
SS Kaiser Wilhelm II

It’s interesting to know that, in addition to the "battle for the Atlantic”, NDL actively competed in other areas. Many ships with a tonnage of about 10 000 tons each were built from 1894 to 1908. For example, the Barbarossa & Generals classes, which were intended for cruises in Australia, Asia, and the Far East.
SS Princess Alice in Cebu, Philippines

Let's return to the Atlantic.


loudly declared its leadership in 1907 with the RMS Lusitania & RMS Mauretania ships.

Competitors were not falling behind, and White Star Line and Hamburg America Line announced the construction of the series of three superliners each almost at the same time. Despite the fact that the Cunard’s ships were still the fastest, their luxuriousness was inferior to its competitors.

White Star Line announced the construction of the Olympic class ships – probably, the most famous series of vehicles in the history of mankind – Olympic, Titanic, and Britannic.

Olympic set her maiden voyage in 1911. It was the most luxurious and the largest ship ever built by men. All the ships of this series had 9 decks, 7 of which were open to passengers. Ships had a Promenade, where passengers could walk. In addition, the ships had the Turkish baths, gyms, numerous restaurants and even a swimming pool!

Titanic was floated out in May 1911, and Britannic in February 1914.
Olympic is on the left and Titanic is on the right

Almost at the same time, Hamburg America Line announced the launch of the Imperator class ships – Imperator, Vaterland, and Bismarck. These ships were to become the most luxurious, the largest and fastest in history.

SS Imperator set her maiden voyage in 1913 and became the largest ship in the world.

It’s interesting to know that SS Vaterland floated out in the same year became the largest ship in the world.

It is not the end. :) SS Bismark floated out a year later (in 1914) also became the largest ship in the world, and this record lasted until 1935! The only thing is that this ship was never under the German flag.

As we can see, Hamburg America Line constructed 3 ships in 2 years, and they became the largest and the most luxurious ships of that time.


decided to keep pace and announced its luxury ship – RMS Aquitania.

Her construction began in 1910 and she was floated out in 1913. The ship was supposed to become a worthy competitor to the giants of White Star Line and Hamburg America Line.

We can say that 1912 was the "golden year" in the history of cruise industry and shipbuilding. Construction of new ships began, megaships already floated or were passing sea, the companies dreamed of the blue ribbon and the total domination on the market... Nevertheless, history decided otherwise...

Titanic sank during her first voyage on April 15, 1912. This disaster claimed the lives of more than 1,550 people.

The beginning of the First World War put an end to the free movement across the Atlantic, and a tragic fate awaited the ships.
Superliners of the North German Lloyd company:
SS Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse was requisitioned by the Kaiser's fleet and became an auxiliary cruiser. Artillery was set on her board. The liner wrecked 2 cargo vessels (at the same time, the crew did not touch two passenger ships).

On August 26, 1914, the liner (or already the cruiser) was caught in Rio de Oro (Western Sahara) by the British cruiser, and the crew decided to sink the ship during the battle (according to other sources, it was wrecked by the British). 

SS Kronprinz Wilhelm also served as the auxiliary cruiser, and she was quite successful. In April 1915, after calling at the American port, the ship was interned by the US Army and sailed under the US flag after that.
SS Kronprinz Wilhelm was interned in the US port, April 1915. Note the German flag, it hadn’t been removed yet.

SS Kaiser Wilhelm II was caught off guard by the beginning of the war not far from New York. The ship was delivered to the port accompanied by the British ships. In 1917, the ship became the US military transport under the name of USS Agamemnon.

SS Kronprinzessin Cecilie was caught off guard by the beginning of the war also close to the US coast. The ship was sent to Bar Harbor, Maine. On April 1917, the ship was interned by the US Army there. The ship was named USS Mount Vernon, and she became the transport ship.

Superliners of the Hamburg America Line company:
SS Imperator was caught off guard by the beginning of the war in Hamburg. The ship spent 4 years at the port, but in 1919, she was sent to the US as the military transport.

SS Vaterland took only several voyages. It met the beginning of the war in New York. She was arrested for the next three years there. The ship was sent to Hoboken, NJ.

In 1917, the ship became the US military transport under the name of USS Leviathan.

SS Bismarck was floated out in June 1914. However, due to the beginning of the war, the ship didn’t even take the sea trials. The ship had the sea trials only in 1922.

Let’s take a look at the fate of White Star Line’s megaliners:

The Big Four ships (RMS Celtic, RMS Cedric, RMS Baltic & RMS Adriatic) took part in the war. RMS Celtic was used as the military transport and hit a mine in 1917, but remained afloat. RMS Cedric was the auxiliary cruiser. RMS Adriatic carried the military several times.

As for Olympic and Britannic, their fate was less favorable.

Olympic did not become the military transport, she made passenger sailings in the first years of the war even though she was repainted in the war colors.

In 1915, Olympic finally became the military transport. Three small guns were set on the ship.

In total, the ship made more than 22 transatlantic crossings during the war, she even managed to destroy(!) the German submarine U-103 in the English Channel. Olympic rammed her!

​HMHS Britannic met the war being floated out. She was supposed to become the most luxurious liner of the time. However, she wasn’t finished.

In 1915, the ship was requisitioned as a floating hospital. The cabins were converted into the wards; the restaurants were equipped to be the operating rooms.

The ship was painted with the colors of the hospital ship with three red crosses on each side. According to the Geneva Agreements, the ship was supposed to be untouchable...

In November 1916, Britannic set 6 sailings as the hospital ship. She headed towards Moudros.

On October 28, the submarine U73 placed mines in the Kea Channel. Britannic’s way ran through this channel.

On November 21, Britannic ran on the mine... Britannic sank in just 55 minutes. 1,036 people managed to escape from the ship during this time, about 30 people died.

Cunard’s superliners suffered a similar fate:
RMS Lusitania continued the passenger sailings after the war began, and the ship was the fastest one in the Atlantic Ocean (nearly 20 km/h faster than any submarine). However, the ship was also painted in the war colors.

In April 1915, the German Embassy in the US printed the warning for German citizens to not sail on Lusitania.

Despite the precautions, "Lusitania" left New York on May 1, 1915.
On May 7, 1915, near the shores of Ireland, the ship was torpedoed by the German U-20 submarine.

There were 2 explosions.

Lusitania sank in just 18 minutes, claiming lives of 1198 people.

RMS Mauretania was initially used as the military transport.

However, the ship was returned to the port after the torpedoing of the Lusitania. Since 1916, Mauritania became the hospital ship.

RMS Aquitania took only several sailing until the beginning of the war. During the war, the ship was used as the auxiliary cruiser, but she wasted a lot of fuel. Therefore, she was transferred into the transport vessel.

Towards the end of the war, the ship was used as the hospital.

Here's the fate of the megaships. Such a sad period in the history of cruise liners.

March 1912 was the beginning of the golden age of travels on luxury liners. The future seemed to be so magnificent that one could not even assess the prospects. Everything became much more prosaic and sad already in March 1916.

By 1918, many ships were sunk or damaged. The former luxury was gone, and people forgot what traveling for pleasure meant...

The cruise industry died...

We'll continue talking about the history of cruise ships in the next article

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