Almost everybody has heard of the RMS Lusitania, a British passenger ship owned by the Cunard Line that was torpedoed by a German U-boat (submarine) as it neared its destination of Liverpool on May 7th, 1915. Those are the bare facts that we all know. But other “facts” you might believe you know may be only partly true or even myths that have been promulgated throughout the past century. This year marks the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Lusitania and, as such, we can expect a torrent of books and documentaries on the subject. If you read no other, I highly recommend Erik Larson’s Dead Wake.
As always, Erik Larson has deeply researched the subject and his book, which could have come out as a dry stating of facts, reads almost like a novel. Even though we all know the final outcome, I found this account to be fascinating, keeping me up reading well past the time I should have been asleep. Mr. Larson provides humanistic characterizations of both the Lusitania captain, William Thomas Turner, and the commander of U-20, Kapitänleutnant Walther Schwieger. As was the case with A Higher Call by Adam Makos (previously reviewed), we come to see the antagonist as a man, a human being, doing the job he has been ordered to do, rather than a cruel and heartless monster. The sinking of the Lusitania would have a profound effect on the lives of both of these men. We also get to know some of the passengers, some famous, others relatively unknown, but all individuals, human beings, rather than simply passenger #xyz.
Among the myths and half-truths we have come to believe are that the sinking of the Lusitania was what brought America directly into World War I, but as Larson reminds us, the U.S. did not actively engage in the war until two years later, 1917, and that as a result of the decoding of the Zimmerman telegram in which Germany offered to return to Mexico certain lands in the southwest U.S. in exchange for Mexico attacking the U.S. While certainly the sinking of the Lusitania strained relations between the U.S. and Germany, it was not the proverbial “straw that broke the camel’s back”. Another is that the ship was hit with two separate torpedoes, while in fact it was the work of a single torpedo that just happened, quite by accident, to strike at the exact right spot to bring the ship down within 18 minutes. And lastly, the reader will learn that which I considered to be the most surprising and scandalous part of the entire episode, which is the involvement of our “allies”, the British, and the role they played, including the fact that it was well within their power and ability to have prevented this catastrophe. But enough said … since the outcome is known, there should be some surprises left for the actual reading of the book, right?
Again, Erik Larson is known as a thorough researcher and excellent, gifted writer of historical non-fiction and in Dead Wake he does not disappoint. I bought the Kindle edition of the book, but wish I had bought the hardcover, as it would make a wonderful addition to my history library.