I put myself on the library’s wait list for Erik Larson’s latest book, Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania, as soon as I saw they had it and after a few months of waiting, my number finally came up. I was already a fan of his from having read The Devil in the White City and In the Garden of the Beasts but the fact that the subject was the sinking of the Lusitania meant I was already three-quarters of the way to liking the book (I went through a phase where I was obsessed with the Titanic a year or two before the film came out; I was fascinated by the history and the science of Ballard locating the wreck site). My excitement to read the book only grew when I found out he was live-tweeting the events of the Lusitania’s final voyage on the hundredth anniversary early last month – and I wasn’t disappointed when I finally got the chance to read Dead Wake.
By the end of April 1915, World War I was in full swing in Europe. The trenches of the western front were dug deep and thousands of men had been killed on both sides. At sea, the British navy was still considered the best in the world but Germany’s use of submarines was growing and the tactics of war at sea were changing. America under Woodrow Wilson remained steadfastly neutral in the conflict, continuing to conduct regular business with both sides. But Britain wanted America in the war on the Allies’ side and Germany was beginning to test the patience of America’s neutrality as their U-boats began sinking ships with an increasing disregard for the vessels’ origins, cargo, or passengers. It was under a veil of threat that the Lusitania set sail from New York on May 1, 1915.
Larson continues his narrative style of alternating “perspectives” as the book moves regularly between what was going on aboard the Lusitania as well as within the submarine, U-20, that would fire the fatal torpedo. There are quite a few detailed portraits of passengers aboard the Lusitania with a fair distribution between the classes, crew, and captain given the limitations of research (my personal favorite perspective being that of Theodate Pope). Beyond the ship and U-boat involved, a chunk of the narrative gives a brief but thorough summary of the first years of World War I before going into greater depth regarding where each of the three nations stood in April-May of 1915 as far as their naval strategies, intelligence, and America’s strained relationship with each.
A great deal of the focus rests on the two captains: Walther Schwieger, who made the call to fire the shot, and William Thomas Turner, who did what he could with incomplete and contradictory information that ultimately led his ship into disaster. One of Larson’s main points of emphasis is the specific combination of circumstances that was required for the sinking to have occurred as it did. It was not just one thing that “made” events unfold the way they did; slight alterations in any of a list of factors could have changed history and saved almost 1,200 lives. Towards the end of the book as Larson recounts the inquiries and attempts to lay the blame for the sinking at Turner’s door (particularly by the British Admiralty), it becomes clearer and clearer that some of the book’s purpose in highlighting the eerie cataclysmic convergence of conditions is to counteract or correct the (largely disregarded) smear campaign that was carried out against Turner. None of the nations involved come out bearing the full blame but none is a pillar of innocence either.
It was remarkable to see just how many things did factor into the sinking. Having read so much about the Titanic, I was unprepared for so many ‘what if’s. For the Titanic, the icebergs were there, they knew about them, and the ship was going too fast under the conditions. It was very much a case of hubris. The biggest ‘what if’ that comes to mind is that hitting the iceberg head on instead of trying to change course would have caused only the first compartment to flood (which would have been survivable) instead of the fatal five. For the Lusitania, the delays in leaving port (taking on passengers from another ship), the mandated use of three boilers instead of all four (a rationing measure imposed by the liner), the weather conditions (fog lingering just a little longer or clearing a little earlier), and numerous others all factored into U-20 encountering the Lusitania in the exact circumstances that led to a single torpedo sinking one of the largest passenger liners of the day in less than twenty minutes. And that brings an end to this demonstration of my history nerd rambles.