This review is posted on the fourteenth anniversary of 9/11 – – Ed.
Dead Wake – The Last Crossing of the Lusitania, by Erik Larson
Writers who decide to take on a story such as this one will sit for a while, thinking, How do I tell this? What’s worth the research, the telling? Much of such stories have already appeared in the press at the time of the ship’s sinking, so is a retelling worth the trouble? I would have to say that for the sake of history it is indeed worth telling to a new generation. Too, Larson gives us a bit of both (or many) sides of the story, i.e., the part experienced by the Lusitania’s passengers, that of the German submarine commander who put this amazing ship on the ocean bottom, and some of the political machinations surrounding the Lusitania on both sides of the Atlantic.
The story takes place in early 1915 amid the horror and carnage of World War I. Germany, clearly in a military bind, decides its way of evening the odds is to concentrate its submarine fleet on Atlantic shipping, which is bringing all sorts of materiel and ordnance to the Allies, largely by civilian transports. And these civilian transports are also carrying civilians, American civilians in particular, and the U.S. is scrupulously avoiding this war.
Through a series of coincidences Unterseeboot-20, captained by daring and dashing Walther Schwieger, launches a torpedo at the Lusitania on May 7, 1915, hits a vital spot, and within minutes the ship is sunk.
That this sinking killed over a thousand passengers and crew and established a prelude for the U.S.’s entry into the war is only one vital issue among several. The ship was considered as invincible as the Titanic, and the action established the submarine as a most effective tool of war in the early twentieth century. Too, the British Admiralty, led by Winston Churchill, proved all too adept at circumventing responsibility for protecting the ship and blaming the sinking on its captain, William Thomas Turner. Almost as a sidebar, Larson includes the death of Woodrow Wilson’s first wife, his falling in love almost immediately with Edith Bolling Galt, their subsequent marriage, and his final decision to accept war behind the militant baying of the American Congress.
Larson’s prose here is journalistic at times, elegant as the best fiction at others, but he has told a story that can be seen as a cautionary tale of events leading to war—a tale that is almost always of actions both fumbling and premeditated.
My rating: 17 of 20 stars