Published by Crown on March 10, 2015
On May 1, 1915, with WWI entering its tenth month, a luxury ocean liner as richly appointed as an English country house sailed out of New York, bound for Liverpool, carrying a record number of children and infants. The passengers were surprisingly at ease, even though Germany had declared the seas around Britain to be a war zone. For months, German U-boats had brought terror to the North Atlantic. But the Lusitania was one of the era’s great transatlantic “Greyhounds”—the fastest liner then in service—and her captain, William Thomas Turner, placed tremendous faith in the gentlemanly strictures of warfare that for a century had kept civilian ships safe from attack.
Germany, however, was determined to change the rules of the game, and Walther Schwieger, the captain of Unterseeboot-20, was happy to oblige. Meanwhile, an ultra-secret British intelligence unit tracked Schwieger’s U-boat, but told no one. As U-20 and the Lusitania made their way toward Liverpool, an array of forces both grand and achingly small—hubris, a chance fog, a closely guarded secret, and more—all converged to produce one of the great disasters of history.
It is a story that many of us think we know but don’t, and Erik Larson tells it thrillingly, switching between hunter and hunted while painting a larger portrait of America at the height of the Progressive Era. Full of glamour and suspense, Dead Wake brings to life a cast of evocative characters, from famed Boston bookseller Charles Lauriat to pioneering female architect Theodate Pope to President Woodrow Wilson, a man lost to grief, dreading the widening war but also captivated by the prospect of new love.
Gripping and important, Dead Wake captures the sheer drama and emotional power of a disaster whose intimate details and true meaning have long been obscured by history.
Here’s what I knew about the Lusitania prior to reading Dead Wake: Germany torpedoed and sunk a passenger ship in the Atlantic during WWI. Here’s what I know now: a whole lot more, thanks to Erik Larson’s meticulously researched and sourced book. It’s been a long time since my high school history classes, but I know that not a lot of attention was paid to WWI, and if the Lusitania was mentioned at all, it probably got a sentence in a text book. I suspect that this is even more true today. Thankfully, there are authors like Larson who can fill in these big blanks.
The main point of Dead Wake is that the loss of more than one thousand lives didn’t have to happen. But a series of events, both trivial and major, and unintentional and deliberate, put the Lusitania on a fatal course. What if the captain of the ship hadn’t taken a few extra minutes to chat with his niece before setting off from New York? What if Cunard hadn’t ordered all of its ships to travel more slowly in order to save money? What if Britain had sent a destroyer to escort the Lusitania through the dangerous waters around Great Britain and Ireland? And, most tragically of all, since Britain had cracked codes that allowed them to read all the transmissions between German U-boats and to plot their locations, why didn’t they warn the captain that he was heading right towards a submarine commanded by a man who had previously demonstrated his ruthlessness by sinking neutral ships?
The most fascinating person in this story is Walther Schwieger, the commander of the sub that sunk Lusitania. Schwieger kept very detailed notes, almost in a diary fashion, during his patrols. In addition to noting the types and sizes of ships that he destroyed, he occasionally lets through thoughts that give insight into the man who would eventually knowingly sink a ship filled with civilian men, women, and children. To Germany, the Lusitania was an irresistible prize and a chance to show off Germany’s naval superiority. The Lusitania was the grandest of ocean liners and considered unsinkable. (Where have we heard that before?)
Larson helps bring to life a number of the passengers on board, using their own writings. These people, for the most part, were excited for the journey from New York to Liverpool, even though they would be traveling through waters that would almost certainly contain U-boats. At that time, it was inconceivable that Germany would attack a passenger ship. So the passengers (the first class ones, anyway) were free to to enjoy luxurious meals, sunshine on the deck, and a bit of gambling, while ignoring the raging war.
Dead Wake is among the best works of non-fiction I’ve read. It reads like a thrilling and horrific novel with rich characters, and while Germany and Schwieger, in particular, are the main villains in this story, questions must be asked of the “heroes,” as well. Woodrow Wilson was determined to keep America out of war, and for a long time, he succeeded. What if he had joined our allies sooner? Most disturbingly, why didn’t Britain make an effort to protect the Lusitania? Was it incompetence, or was it done deliberately, with the decision to sacrifice a thousand lives in order to force America to join the war?
The only fault I will find with Dead Wake is the lack of any photos or illustrations, aside from a bland map of the southern parts of Great Britain and Ireland. It seems like a strange omission in a story that was so well-researched.
Note: This review is based on a finished copy provided by the publisher.