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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, however.

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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