With Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania, best-selling author Erik Larson proves again why he’s the master of narrative non-fiction, or whatever this unique genre is called these days. As with previous works, Larson reaches across time, transporting readers a hundred years to the Land of Ago when luxurious Atlantic crossings were trendy new diversions for the rich and powerful on both sides of the great divide.
RMS Lusitania was a British ocean liner that, for a short time, was the largest in the world. Launched by the Cunard Line in 1906, the vessel made 201 successful excursions between New York and Liverpool during its lifetime.
The 787-foot long luxury ship had a capacity for 2,200 passengers in first, second and third class accommodations, a crew of 850 and 7,000 tons of coal. Four large quadruple blade propellers enabled a top-speed of 25 knots, permitting the liner to make the crossing in just under five days with good weather, an amazing feat of speed for those days.
Near the end of its 202nd Atlantic crossing on May 7, 1915 — just a few miles off the southern coast of Ireland, the Lusitania was torpedoed by a German submarine and eighteen minutes later sank in 300 feet of water. Of the 1,962 passengers and crew onboard at the time of her sinking, 1,198 souls perished, including 128 American citizens.
War & Warning
The story of the Lusitania isn’t at all what it seems. War was raging in Europe and the conflict would soon spread across the globe and become the First World War. German submarines (U-Boats) were a new element of war that effectively offset British superiority on the high seas.
At the outset of hostilities, the Germans didn’t target civilian or neutral flagged vessels. But as the war ground on, Germany became suspicious that these ships were being used to transport munitions and troops. In fact, the construction of the Lusitania was subsidized by the British government with the understanding that it could be called into service and converted to an armed merchant cruiser should the need arise. Secret compartments were built into the vessel to hide arms and ammunition.
Shortly before the Lusitania departed on its final journey, the Imperial German Embassy took out advertisements in 50 US newspapers, including those in New York, reminding Atlantic travelers that a state of war existed between Germany and Great Britain and that the zone of war included those waters adjacent to the British Isles were not safe for passage. This warning was printed adjacent to advertisements for travel on the Lusitania and it’s unlikely that passengers on that fateful voyage were unaware of the potential danger.
This is where the story takes dark and mysterious turns. In the aftermath of the German newspaper warning, officials at the Cunard Line reassured passengers of their safety. Implications were made that once the Lusitania approached the war zone, it would be met by British war ships. This escort never materialized. In fact, a week before the sinking, Winston Churchill wrote to the president of the Board of Trade that it is “most important to attract neutral shipping to our shores, in the hope especially of embroiling the United States with Germany”.
Britain was looking for help in its war effort and the hope that even an abortive German attack on a passenger vessel carrying US citizens would drag America into the conflict.
And, the Lusitania was indeed carrying millions of rounds of ammunition bound for Great Britain. During the investigation after its sinking, the ship’s captain refused to answer certain questions on the grounds of “war-time secrecy”.
Even more amazing, though the sinking of the Lusitania happened over 100 years ago, the British government continues to keep certain information about the event secret – including signals passed between the Admiralty and the Lusitania. The records that are available are missing critical pages.
It’s certain that the passenger liner was carrying war munitions and that the British government was aware of active German submarines in the path of the Lusitania but failed to divert its route. No escort was sent to protect the ship and its speed was strangely ordered reduced in the war zone making it a more likely target for attack.
There’s considerably more detail in the book. Larson does an excellent job of introducing the reader to many of the unique passengers, some that survived the ordeal and others that did not. His dialogue works magic in placing the reader alongside the passengers aboard the doomed vessel, first luxuriating in decadent surroundings and later fighting for survival.
Nobody does it better and I recommend it to all my readers.
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