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Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania


Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania

William Shakespeare said it best: “All the world's a stage, and all the men and women merely players…” Understanding history comes from studying the participants whose efforts and accomplishments (for good or evil) comprise the individual pieces of a puzzle that, when connected, yield a portrait of history. Accomplished historians find such individuals and through their portrayals create a narrative that is vivid as well as compelling. Erik Larson’s DEAD WAKE is such a captivating work of historical nonfiction. The sinking of the Lusitania was one of the great disasters of history, and the reader knows all too well the end result. Yet being aware of that outcome does not prevent the book from reading as though it was a spy-thriller, whereby the end unfolds in a series of spectacular and almost unbelievable events.

The sinking of the Lusitania will soon mark its 100th anniversary. In early May 1915, the four-stack ocean liner left New York to travel the Atlantic. A keen observer might have noticed that smoke bellowed from only three of the stacks. In an effort to conserve fuel, the vessel was not configured for maximum speed. The reduced speed ultimately would make her a less mobile target when the German submarine Unterseeboot-20 encountered the ship off the coast of Ireland.

"DEAD WAKE is an intriguing book that will allow readers to once again reflect on the nuances and vagaries of history. It is crucial to always remember how seemingly isolated acts can have devastating consequences."

Walther Schwieger was the German submarine captain who, under new orders of unrestricted naval warfare, fired a single torpedo into the Lusitania. DEAD WAKE arrives at that moment after an exhaustive recounting of life on a German submarine in the first part of the 20th century. The captains of these underwater vessels had enormous authority as radio transmission between boat and homeland were limited. The crews faced loneliness and exceedingly cramped quarters, as well as often dangerous diving and underwater maneuvers. Conditions inside the submarines were unsanitary and made worse perhaps by Schwieger’s love for dogs. At one point in the mission, six canines joined the crew in the cramped cylinder of the U-20.

Larson contrasts the Spartan conditions on the U-20 with the opulence of the Lusitania. Passengers carried multiple suitcases loaded with suits, formal attire, jewelry and the obligatory hats of the era. The ship was fully stocked with provisions, such as fine wines and cigars. Celebrity passengers also made the voyage, including theater impresario Charles Frohman; George Kessler, a wine importer known as the “Champagne King”; and Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt, the heir to the Vanderbilt fortune.

The captain of the Lusitania was William Thomas Turner, portrayed as an able and experienced veteran of ocean voyages. While in New York preparing for the Lusitania’s Atlantic voyage, Turner gave testimony as an expert witness regarding litigation surrounding the sinking of the Titanic. Many British ship captains at this moment in history were under great stress as they crossed the Atlantic in charge of vessels and crews that were subject to torpedo attack. The British Admiralty would seek to blame Turner’s negligent seamanship for the sinking of his vessel. He would be exonerated by a court of inquiry, but the emotional scars remained with him until his death. Larson’s contrast between Schwieger (the hunter) and Turner (the hunted) adds to the drama of DEAD WAKE.

Of course, other major historical figures are important to the story. President Woodrow Wilson sought to keep America neutral as war raged in Europe. It was a difficult task made more so by the personal tragedy in the President’s life. His wife, Ellen, had died in August 1914, just as the war began. Then Wilson met Edith Galt, who would become his second wife in early 1915. Larson’s portrayal of their courtship is an occasional departure from the unfolding tragedy. First Lord Winston Churchill also was a key player in the events surrounding the Lusitania. The British Admiralty worked out of Room 40 in the Admiralty Building and had current naval intelligence establishing that a German submarine and the Lusitania were in close proximity.

But no warning or assistance went out to the ship. It is of such acts that history often turns. DEAD WAKE is an intriguing book that will allow readers to once again reflect on the nuances and vagaries of history. It is crucial to always remember how seemingly isolated acts can have devastating consequences. The single torpedo that sunk the Lusitania and brought death and devastation to thousands should not be forgotten.

Reviewed by Stuart Shiffman on March 12, 2015

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

  • Publication Date: March 22, 2016
  • Genres: History, Nonfiction
  • Paperback: 480 pages
  • Publisher: Broadway Books
  • ISBN-10: 0307408876
  • ISBN-13: 9780307408877