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Onyx reviews: Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania by Erik Larson
Reviewed by Bev Vincent, 11/23/2015
There are a lot of things that, had they happened a little differently,
would have prevented the sinking of the British ocean liner RMS Lusitania.
In this carefully researched and cleverly constructed retelling of the events
leading up to the disaster, Erik Larson creates a well-balanced record of the
incident. He starts by describing in broad strokes the political climate in
Europe that led to the outbreak of World War I. On the other side of the
Atlantic, he provides insight into the daily life of US President Woodrow
Wilson, in mourning for his recently deceased wife, listless until he meets
another woman, whom he attempts to woo with great energy. American was
determinedly isolationist and neutral at the time. Her sympathies may have been
with Britain, but beyond providing supplies, the country was happy to sit back
and let the ancient conflicts play out abroad.
The war in Europe was going poorly for the allies. Germany had started using
chemical weapons against the soldiers inhabiting the trenches that formed the
western front. Worse, German U-boats, previously considered to be of little
threat in the marine war, were starting to make inroads, disrupting shipping
channels. U-boat captains, cut off
from their chain of command, were given free reign to decide which ships to sink
and what to do—if anything—about the survivors. Gross tonnage sunk
was their objective, so the bigger the better. Previous restrictions against
attacking passenger ships or ships flying neutral flags were ignored. Factions
within the German war machine believed that a war of terror would bring Great
Britain to her knees and end the conflict.
In the midst of this turmoil, the Lusitania departed from New York in April
1915. On the day of her departure, the German consulate placed an ad in several
New York newspapers warning that the ship would be sailing through a war zone
and could be subject to attack. Passengers busy with preparations for the
journey often did not read this warning until after the ship was at sea,
Larson uses first-person accounts where possible to provide as accurate an
account of life aboard the ocean liner, and uses the ship's logs of
Kapitšnleutnant Walther Schwieger of the submarine U-20 for balance. He
describes the generally unpleasant conditions experienced by a crew of a German
U-boat, especially when the vessel was submerged. Though some accounts imply
that Schwieger was subsequently haunted by what he'd done, his actions after the
sinking don't support those claims.
At the heart of the story is Captain William Thomas Turner, a quiet man who
disdains interacting with his passengers but is determined to get them safely to
their destinations. He eschewed the tradition of the Captain's Table, preferring
to dine alone in his cabin, and spent most of his waking time on the bridge.
Though he was ultimately exonerated of any culpability for the loss of his ship,
the Admiralty tried hard to make him a scapegoat, in part to cover-up their own
mistakes and faulty tactics, some of which were meant to hide the fact that they
had broken German codes and were monitoring all naval communications. Turner
faced hearing after hearing, but remained true to his bosses at Cunard. He is
the quiet, reluctant "hero" of the piece.
There are a lot of "if"s in this story. If Lusitania's departure
hadn't been delayed by the need to board passengers from another ship whose
crossing was canceled, and then again by the need to disembark the Captain's
neice, or if the Lusitania's maximum speed hadn't been reduced by Cunard's
demands that only three of the four boilers be used as a cost-saving measure,
Lusitania would likely have reached her destination—Liverpool, England—safely.
If the fog that had hampered visibility that fateful day had lasted a little
longer, U-20—almost out of torpedoes and preparing to return to base—wouldn't
have seen Lusitania. If the British Admiralty had conveyed intelligence about
alternate routes and submarine activity to Lusitania, the captain might have
chosen a different course. If the U-20's single torpedo had struck a little to
the left or the right, the ship might not have sunk at all, and certainly not in
the mere 18 minutes it took to vanish beneath the waves, claiming nearly 1200
lives. If Schwieger had correctly estimated Lusitania's speed, his torpedo might
have missed altogether.
There is a theory that the Admiralty used Lusitania as pawn to goad the
United States into entering the war, which was going badly. It's hard to imagine
the callous minds—including Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty—that
would conceive of such a plan, but at the time the lives of 2000 people might
have seemed a justifiable sacrifice compared to the numbers of soldiers being
killed and maimed every day on the continent. The attack, and the loss of over a
hundred American lives, enraged the US, but not enough for Wilson to take the
country into war. It would take two more years for that to happen.
Dead Wake—the title refers to the trail that appears on the
surface behind a torpedo—might seem like a strange selection for the book
club on a Caribbean cruise ship, but it is an engaging and highly readable book.
Lusitania wasn't a cruise ship, per se. Her passengers were en route from Point
A to Point B rather than on a vacation journey through tropical waters, but it
was interesting to compare and contrast life aboard a contemporary ocean-going
vessel to the way things were done exactly 100 years ago.
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