Thursday, April 3, 2014

Touching the Past

Unidentified women on one of the promenade decks
 of what we believe is the RMS Lusitania.
The glass slides are stereoscopic, to be used
 in a stereoscopic viewer for a 3D effect
Don’t tell anyone, but the oldest thing I've ever touched was a 3,000 year old Assyrian relief. It was worth it. You could still see some of the original paint in the cracks and cuneiform covered it. At one time that panel, and its fellows, were brilliantly painted and adorned the walls of a palace.  
The majority of old things that I’m familiar with are much more recent than those stone reliefs, but I still have a similar thrill when I handle them. Not long ago, we came into possession of a box full of hundreds of glass slides taken by my great-great uncles at the turn of the last century. They’re more than a hundred years old and depict a lost time that we will never see again. Holding them up to the light transports you suddenly into the past in a way that I can’t describe.
We know my great-great uncles were prolific travelers, sometimes crossing the Atlantic more than once a year for business. They traveled first class, stayed at the finest hotels, and one of them even went as far as Algeria and Spain. Those were the days of globetrotting.
Postcard of the Lusitania my uncle sent just before his departure from New York.
He writes: Just a line to say au revoir. Hope all is well during my absence. Oct 21, 1908. 
Unfortunately, my great-grandmother, who collected the slides and letters and postcards, had an odd way about her. She often labelled things wrong and instead of keeping the letters they sent home, she only clipped the insignia of the hotels they stayed at out of the top of the letters and threw the rest away. She was a strange one.
However, as we've been scanning the slides, we've been able to do a bit of detective work of our own. Sometimes there are words in the pictures…the names of hotels, the name of a ship on a life preserver, street names…things like that. Slowly, we've been able to piece together the places that my great-uncle visited back in the years before the Great War.
Unidentified passengers, c. 1907-1908 
Part of the name 'Lusitania' can be seen 
just behind the man in the foregrounds' left elbow
One of the most fascinating things Rose discovered was the name of a ship printed on a life preserver in one of the photographs. It was the name Lusitania.
The RMS Lusitania was the queen of her day. She was one of the fastest liners afloat and her interior rivaled that of the later Titanic. Unfortunately, like the Titanic, the Lusitania was also an ill-fated ship. In 1915, she was torpedoed off Ireland by a German U-Boat. The first explosion wasn't enough to sink her, but after a second explosion, she went down in 18 minutes with the loss of 1,195 lives, in one of the most devastating sinkings of a civilian ship in history. It’s almost certain that her sinking, along with the Zimmerman Telegram, prompted the United States to declare war in 1917.
Later it was speculated that the Lusitania was carrying a secret cargo. Her hold was packed with war supplies, as well as several million bullets, but theories that she was carrying Aluminium dust or the explosive, guncotten, disguised in crates of beef ran wild. These theories have never been proven, but no one is sure it wasn't the Lusitania’s cargo that caused the second explosion that sank her so quickly.
Of course, my uncle wasn't aboard the Lusitania when she went down. He traveled aboard her shortly after her maiden voyage in 1907, but it’s still odd to think that he walked those same decks that Robert Ballard revealed when he explored the wreck in 1993.
A post card sent by a family friend from Hamburg in 1915, before America's entry into the war. The Lusitania was sunk the spring of that year.
He writes: Hamburg 1/10/15. Have returned here. It appears now that my trip will be successful. I will probably sail back [to New York] on Frederick VIII leaving Copenhagen on the 6th of February. During these days the first train between Berlin and Constantinople will run. Today the news of the evacuation of Gallipoli arrived.
The First World War really put an end to the great transatlantic liners. There was a short resurrection in the twenty years between the wars, but ocean liners were doomed. The only ocean liner in active service today is the British liner, Queen Mary 2; the rest have either been scrapped or turned into floating hotels.

I wish liners would come back; not only are the fares cheaper than flying, but they have a sense of the old world about them. My wish may soon come true; a slightly crazy, Australian billionaire wants to bring back the Titanic. The replica, Titanic II, is due to be launched in 2016. I do not jest. 

PS: The following video was released in 1918 by American animator Winsor McCay. It was the longest piece of animation at the time, and the first animated documentary. It was afterwards verified that only one torpedo struck the Lusitania.

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