Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania by Erik Larson

I’ve been on a maritime reading kick again. In the last month I’ve read three good books in this category:

  • Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania by Erik Larson 
  • The Caine Mutiny: A Novel of World War II by Herman Wouk
  • Rowing Against the Wind by Angela Madsen

Dead Wake was just released on Tuesday and, as you may have noticed, there’s been lots of buzz.

Larson is one of those writers that I would read if he wrote about drying paint. He is a master of historical nonfiction. Past hits include Devil in the White City and In the Garden of Beasts. Larson deftly weaves in a plethora of facts and events about his subject as well as poignant details of the time period, which mingle and accumulate to create the feeling that you are right there, on the sidelines, watching a historic scene unfold, but with the benefit of hindsight.

Like many Americans, I was taught that the sinking of the Lusitania on May 1, 1915 was the last straw for America. It was the event that finally pushed us into World War I. That’s not true. In fact, the U.S. didn’t enter WWI for two years after a torpedo sunk the luxury liner.

There were tensions within the German government and military about submarine warfare and its execution. On the morning that the Lusitania was scheduled to steam out of New York for its final voyage, the German embassy had placed a public service announcement in the newspaper warning travelers of the threat of German submarines. This announcement was printed right next to an ad for the Lusitania. 

In England, meanwhile, military officials in a secret spy group knew the exact position and activities of the u-boat that would torpedo the ship. Protections for the Lusitania were not implemented. Communications were muddled.

Passengers on the Lusitania thought their ship was steaming under full power and making the crossing as swiftly as possible to outrun submarines. It wasn’t. The ship was down a stack to conserve fuel and the British Navy was not providing protections that many assumed were in place.

Source: Wikipedia page on the Lusitania

There were a shocking number of tiny details and decisions that converged to sink the Lusitania, such as the effectiveness of torpedoes at that time, the weather, and open portholes. Had just one of these factors changed, the ship probably would not have been torpedoed nor would it have gone down so fast (18 minutes).

This is not a simplistic story of bad Germans and noble British or innocent Americans. It’s the story of how a new type of war with radically new weapons and weapons monitoring systems were handled by people who were trying to do what they thought was the right thing. 

Larson fans will no doubt already be on top of this book, but if you’re interested in WWI or maritime history this is one to check out. Book collectors will cringe at one passenger’s story. There’s also a storyline about Woodrow Wilson in mourning after his first wife’s death and his budding romance with the woman who would be his second wife.

Author website: Erik Larson
Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania
Crown, Random House: March 10, 2015
Source: e-review copy requested from publisher

p.s. You can enter to win a seven day cruise on Cunard’s Queen Victoria commemorating the last voyage of the Lusitania. Kinda of creepy, right? But you can bet I entered!

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