Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania is another piece of historical non-fiction by Erik Larson, who brought us The Devil in the White City. It isn’t quite as gripping a read as its predecessor, but it’s definitely worth your time. Told from about four points of view (the German U-boat that sinks her, the passengers on the Lusitania and her captain, President Woodrow Wilson, and Room 40 of the British Intelligence Service), the book addresses the build-up to the US’s entrance into The Great War (World War I).
The submarine as a weapon had come a long way by this time, certainly to the point where it killed its own crews only rarely. –Page 57
A side note, before I get into the meat of things: there are a number of my highlights that include my own semi-sarcastic commentary, including:
The ship also had been recently equipped with the latest in life jackets, these made by the Boddy Lifesaving Appliances Company. –Page 19
To which I commented: “What I take away from this is that the murderers in Clue have taken out a respected member of a family with naval safety ties.” You can see I didn’t go into this book with a highly reverent attitude. That changed as I continued through.
One thing that Larson does well in his books is to include details of the people involved (presumably drawn from primary sources wherever possible, though with some slight extrapolation based on those sources by Larson). So, we get the opinion of the Lusitania’s captain, Turner, on the Titanic sinking:
“My dear sir, I don’t know anything at all about it; it all depends on the size of the compartments, the amount of buoyancy; if she has buoyancy, she will float; if she has not, she will go down.” –Page 52
And of the German U-boat captain, Schwieger, we get the following story:
The crew of U-20 once scavenged an entire barrel of butter, but by that point in the patrol the boat’s cook had nothing suitable on hand to fry. Schwieger went shopping. Through his periscope he spotted a fleet of fishing boats and surfaced U-20 right in their midst. The fishermen, surprised and terrified, were certain their boats would now be sunk. But all Schwieger wanted was fish. The fishermen, relieved, gave his crew all the fish they could carry. — Page 62
The fishermen were right to be afraid, however. German U-boats were known to torpedo ships and kill men regardless of the colors they were flying, or whether they were merchant ships or battle vessels. And, although the men in Room 40 knew that Schwieger’s boat was in the shipping lane where the Lusitania would be sailing, they were not allowed to tell Cunard (side note: I don’t think I’d have sailed on a Cunard ship no matter how luxurious they were) about the danger because their government didn’t want to give away their ability to read German codes. Which would be a pattern repeated in the Second Great War (World War II) with the Enigma code breaking.
In the end, Larson builds to the torpedo shots and the Lusitania’s sinking slowly. Possibly too slowly, but on the other hand I had a much better sense of both the people involved (which added to the tragedy of the sinking) and the politics of the situation. I did question the inclusion of President Wilson’s love life, but now I want to know more about Theodate Pope Riddell (architect, spiritualist, and survivor of the sinking).
Overall, this is a good book for people who like Larson’s style, who are interested in World War I or stories of “those who perished on the sea” (I thought I’d written a review of the book I read on the USS Indianapolis but apparently not). Or, for those who like to look back at people’s behavior and choices so they can ask themselves, as I did in several places: “What the actual f*ck?”