I have a vague memory of one, lonely sentence in my high school history text book declaring the sinking of the Lusitania as one of the reasons the United States eventually joined WWI. The interesting stuff is always in the details, but like most high school history courses, there weren’t any more details. Then I noticed Dead Wake (2015) by Erik Larson. I’d read The Devil in the White City, and even though Larson’s narrative style was sometimes distracting, it was a fascinating story. I figured it was worth reading his latest book.
On May 7, 1915, the Lusitania, a British passenger ship sailing from New York to Liverpool was sunk by a German submarine, killing 1,198 passengers and crew, leaving 761 survivors. In many ways, this story is similar to that of the Titanic. The Lusitania is a grand, luxurious ocean liner with many prosperous and influential passengers. Stories abound of the terrifying last minutes of the passengers and crew as they struggle to survive as the boat sinks. Lifeboats even crash on top of each other, crushing everyone beneath them. In the case of the Lusitania, ships that could have come to the rescue stay away for fear of another submarine attack. Those left behind are at the mercy of the cold water.
Larson starts his book off following some of Lusitania’s passengers as they prepare to embark on the giant ship on their way to London. A reporter, interviewing the Captain and some of the more prominent passengers, asks them about the caution statement printed in newspapers by the German Embassy, warning passengers from sailing in a war zone. Most passengers did not know about this warning or did not take it seriously, although one man went out and bought a life vest of his own before boarding. One comforting notion the passengers enjoyed was that the Lusitania was famous for being fast in the water. It was assumed that she would be able to simply outrun any German U-Boats. However, few, if any, knew that the Lusitania would be running on only three of its four boilers.
The people who have an impact on and interest in the Lusitania are spread all over the world, and Larson visits them all. He deftly jumps from location to location, giving us a much broader picture of the history than just the story of the boat. As time ticks inexorably closer to what we all know is coming, we jump from Woodrow Wilson and his new romantic interest, to the secret British cryptoanaylis Room 40, to the German U-Boat helmed by Walther Schwieger.
Larson writes in an engaging and detailed style that I enjoyed, but it was some of the information on submarines that stands out most in my memory. Submarines were still relatively new technology in 1915 and were more like cramped, floating coffins than boats. Staying underwater allowed them to remain unseen before the days of radar, but it meant for an increasing atmosphere of hot, stale air and humidity. Submarines could only use their diesel engines when they surfaced and their electric engines were limited in duration and speed. If a submarine stopped working, the crew could be stuck at the bottom of the ocean, waiting to die. It’s fodder for nightmares.
I am barely skimming the surface of the fascinating people and details surrounding the sinking of the Lusitania. Like many tragedies, everything came together in the perfect way to ensure destruction. If only the Lusitania hadn’t received the vague telegraphs that changed her course, if only the U-Boat had turned back one hour earlier, or if the torpedo had failed, or if the torpedo had hit any other part of the ship. I would recommend this book for anyone with any interest in history, although I suspect that those of you with an interest in history are already way ahead of me.
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