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

Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania

By Erik Larson


430 pages, $28

By Stephen T. Watson

News BOOK Reviewer

On May 1, 1915, the German embassy published notices in the shipping pages of New York City’s major newspapers directed at passengers on ships soon to leave for Great Britain.

The ads warned that ships flying the British flag were legitimate targets for German U-boats and that travelers sailed on them “at their own risk.”

At a pier in Manhattan that morning was moored the fastest and grandest passenger liner afloat: the Lusitania, booked to capacity for its voyage to Liverpool. Of the 1,200 passengers preparing to sail, only two canceled their tickets in response to the warning. Most ignored it, or trusted in the size and design of the ship and the confidence of its owner and crew.

A manager of the Cunard Steam-Ship Company responded: “The truth is that the Lusitania is the safest boat on the sea. She is too fast for any submarine. No German war vessel can get her or near her.”

We know what happened next, in the broadest of strokes: A U-boat torpedoed the ship, sending more than 1,000 people to their deaths and pulling the United States into World War I.

A century later, the drama isn’t in what happened to the ship. Instead, author Erik Larson found rich territory for “Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania” in exploring why it happened – and what could have prevented it. In a well-paced narrative, Larson reveals the forces large and small, natural and man-made, coincidental and intentional, that propelled the Lusitania to its fatal rendezvous.

It’s a formula familiar to fans of Larson’s previous monster best-sellers, including “The Devil in the White City” and “In the Garden of Beasts.”

Larson describes the Lusitania as a four-funneled “floating village of steel” that reached a top speed of 25 knots, or 30 mph, faster than any civilian ship in use. One passenger on its trial voyage quipped it was a fine candidate if Noah ever needed a second ark. It was named after an ancient Roman province, in what is present-day Portugal, and was known as “Lucy.”

By the time of this, its 202nd Atlantic crossing, the European powers had fought to a bloody standstill in the trenches that scarred the continent.

Shipping and sea travel continued, despite Germany’s growing use of cold-blooded, sub-launched torpedo attacks on naval and, later, merchant ships carrying war materiel.

Still, most travelers didn’t believe Germany would attack a passenger ship.

The nearly 2,000 souls on board the Lusitania, counting the crew, included 95 children and a family with the name of Luck. “Why in the midst of great events there always seems to be a family so misnamed is one of the imponderables of history,” Larson writes.

They also included Elbert Hubbard, the East Aurora resident who was perhaps the best-known passenger besides Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt I, the rakish heir to the Vanderbilt fortune.

Hubbard, the founder of the Roycrofters collective, was headed to Europe to interview Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm. A newspaper reporter who interviewed Hubbard before the ship’s departure found Hubbard was unfazed at the prospect of an attack, Larson recounts.

“What’ll I do? Why, I’ll stay on the ship. I’m too old to go chasing after lifeboats and I never was much of a hand at swimming,” Hubbard told the reporter as he chewed an apple.

Larson switches throughout the book from among the Lusitania’s crew and passengers; the scene on the Unterseeboat, or “undersea boat,” that ends up torpedoing the Lusitania; the activity within the British Admiralty, including its top-secret intelligence division; and the administration of Woodrow Wilson, particularly his desperate efforts to keep the United States out of the war and to woo Edith Galt after his wife died.

As we follow U-20 and its relentless captain, Walther Schwieger, we learn about the difficulty in getting close enough to get off a good torpedo shot without being detected, the harsh conditions onboard and the ever-present fear of sinking.

Unbeknownst to Schwieger, the British were intercepting the German navy’s wireless communications and, because they had broken the code, knew everything their foes were doing. However, even as the Lusitania got closer to the lurking U-boats, the Admiralty didn’t share specifics with Turner.

In “Dead Wake,” the tension builds as the Lusitania and the U-20 move inexorably closer to their chance encounter off the Irish coast. One passenger on the Lusitania captures the mood: If not for worrying about an attack, it was “a lovely trip.”

The ship and the sub meet just after 2 p.m. May 7, on a sea that was “flat as a billiard table,” while many passengers were still at lunch and the Lusitania was less than 24 hours from its arrival in Liverpool.

What had to go right, or wrong, for the attack to succeed? A heavy fog that shrouded the Lusitania lifted just in time for the ship to come into U-20’s view; the Lusitania traveled at reduced speed, employing just three of its four boilers, to save money on coal; its departure was delayed to take on added passengers; the Admiralty passed along a garbled warning of sub activity in the area, and failed to provide an escort; no one ordered Captain William Thomas Turner to take a safer route as he neared Britain; and, at the last moment, Turner made a course change that put the ship in the U-boat’s sights.

Schwieger couldn’t believe his luck as he let loose a single torpedo. The book’s title comes from the maritime term for the break in the water that trails behind a torpedo or ship.

Larson’s description of the moments and hours that followed the torpedo’s explosive impact is riveting.

As the ship rolled to its right, and tilted toward its bow, it became that much harder to get the lifeboats off the Lusitania. Of the 22 conventional lifeboats on the ship, only six launched.

As parents frantically searched for their children, passengers scurried back to their rooms to grab the life jackets that weren’t kept on deck near the lifeboats. Further complicating matters, the passengers weren’t instructed on how to wear them, and many survived the sinking only to be found drowned, floating with their heads under water, because they had reversed the jacket.

Turner was rescued, after several hours, and he retained a lifelong hatred of sea gulls for what he saw them do to the corpses that surrounded him.

In all, 764 survived, including just six of the 33 infants on board (although Larson earlier writes that 39 were on board). The 1,195 passengers and crew who died included 123 Americans, and bodies washed ashore throughout the summer. More than 600, including Hubbard and his wife, never were found.

In the aftermath, British authorities sought to blame Turner, and protect the secrecy of the broken German code, and Larson views as credible the argument that the British desired an attack on a liner that would draw America into the war.

The United States did enter the fighting, but not until 1917, as Larson points out, in another revelation that defies the conventional Lusitania wisdom.

The Lusitania likely will remain the “other” maritime disaster of the early 20th century, and Hollywood isn’t going to cast Leonardo DiCaprio in the movie version of its sinking. But “Dead Wake” stands on its own as a gripping recounting of an episode that still has the power to haunt a reader 100 years later.

Stephen T. Watson is a News business reporter.