Book review: ‘Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania,’ by Erik Larson
Special to the Daily
World War I, “the war to end all wars,” marked the birth of modern warfare, transforming the battlefield into something unrecognizable. The Great War came as a shock to a world suffering from complacency and from a deep sense of isolationism. Nationalism was rampant across the Western world, and tensions were running deeply beneath the surface.
Best-selling author Erik Larson called the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand “the geopolitical equivalent of a brushfire, and as with all brushfires, all it takes is for someone to blow on it to make the fire burn hotter.” Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm blew hard, sending his armies into Belgium, thus forcing the military engagement of Britain.
Germany proved to be a terrifying foe, adapting the engineering skills of its brightest minds to craft new methods and machines of destruction — zeppelins, mustard gas and, the most feared and destructive of all, its U-boats. The terror the German submarines unleashed is the subject of Larson’s engrossing new book, “Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania.”
Through meticulous research, Larson takes the Lusitania from its relegated spot on the dusty timeline of World War I and shines a worthy light on all the corners of her storied life and tragic demise. But that is only half of the tale he tells. The book is also rich with gripping details about the infamous U-20, the submarine responsible for the single torpedo that pierced the Lusitania’s side, sending her and more than a thousand innocents to their deaths.
The brazen and heartless act fueled the American public’s disgust with the war and helped to dismantle one of the final barriers keeping President Woodrow Wilson from sending the United States into the battle in support of Britain.
Now, 100 years after the Lusitania sank off the southern Irish coast, taking nearly 1,200 souls with her, Larson reveals the cat-and-mouse game that led to the decisive moment when a series of circumstances and unfortunate timing brought the massive passenger ship into the gunner sights of the submarine captained by the ruthless and tenacious German skipper Walther Schwieger.
U-20 was just one of dozens of subs circling Britain in the early months of the war, but established maritime rules prohibited attacks on civilian vessels, and no one could imagine a nation sinking so low as to attack innocents in such a manner—and the Lusitania carried her share of innocent victims, many of whom were children. There was a confidence, too, that the Lusitania was too fast — the fastest ship in the world — and thus did not really have to worry about strikes from U-boats. The British viewed the ship with immense pride, and she was already a seasoned traveler, having made more than 200 successful Atlantic crossings.
The Cunard shipping line had exceedingly high standards for passenger satisfaction and could boast an impressive safety record. Learning from the Titanic disaster from only a year prior, the Lusitania had been equipped with plenty of life boats and life jackets, though many of the boats were collapsible and the others could only be launched when the ship was at a standstill, which proved to be a vital point in the crucial moments after the torpedo struck.
Larson proceeds to dissect the days and minutes that led to that pivotal moment, revealing fascinating details about the Lusitania’s captain, William Thomas Turner, as well as the lives of many of the passengers who chose to ignore the abstract threat of German submarines and board the ship that fateful spring morning in New York’s harbor. Larson also constructs a concise framework of the larger early 20th century backdrop, with details of the war, in general, including Wilson’s distracted mindset and Britain’s desire to have the United States enter the conflict.
This is where the story becomes most intriguing, for there are many details of the Lusitania’s last voyage that have been shrouded in mystery, most specifically the exact nature of the cargo in its hold. Also, Larson analyzes the motivations of Britain’s leaders and that country’s secret team of code breakers, known collectively as “Room 40,” which is similar to the decoding team portrayed in the recent movie “The Imitation Game,” which documents Alan Turing’s successful cracking of Germany’s Enigma Code in World War II.
For wartime espionage to be successful, a certain level of collateral damage had to be allowed so as not to reveal to the enemy that coded messages were being read. Many believe that the Lusitania served as just that, collateral damage that was sacrificed in order for a best-case scenario outcome (in Britain’s mind, at least) to occur — which was the United States joining the fight.
This, of course, is a very inflammatory view, but it has been the basis of much discussion and debate since the jewel of the Cunard line left port that spring day in 1915. With the Lusitania sailing slowly through Larson’s pages toward its eventual demise, the tension mounts page by page and the reading of “Dead Wake” becomes a very cinematic experience. Those familiar with James Cameron’s epic depiction of the Titanic will find many similarities with this sister ship’s story.
Larson flexes his very capable storytelling muscles and proves that writing a thrilling narrative does not negate careful attention to historical accuracy. “Dead Wake” is deeply engaging, very hard to put down, and Larson’s writing respectfully puts the spotlight back on the tragic story of the Lusitania for its 100th anniversary.
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