Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania by Erik Larson
Erik Larson’s The Devil In the White City, about a serial killer during 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, was one of my favorite books from 2002. In the Garden of Beasts (2011), about an American diplomat in Berlin during Hitler’s rise to power, was decent but a little flat. Like these previous books, Dead Wake is historical fiction, this time about the sinking of the RMS Lusitania. I’ve been on a World War I kick lately and a friend recommended this book, so I thought I’d give it a try.
If and when the United States should engage in foreign wars has always been hotly debated. Our isolated geography, bordered as we are on two sides by vast oceans, affords us the relative security to have these debates and decide on our own terms. For the first century of our existence, the U.S. followed the isolationist path advocated by George Washington in his 1796 farewell address:
Europe has a set of primary interests, which to us have none, or a very remote relation…Hence, therefore, it must be unwise in us to implicate ourselves, by artificial ties, in the ordinary vicissitudes of her politics, or the ordinary combinations and collisions of her friendships or enmities.
This changed with World War I. Despite what most Americans wanted, we could no longer watch from the sidelines as Europe fought its battles. Technology was shrinking the oceans. Trade, treaties and moral obligations tied us to other nations like never before. World War I marked the moment that the far-flung British offshoot stepped onto the world stage, this time to come to the aid of its former imperial master. The U.S. would emerge from World War I as a top global power, but its entrance into the war was no foregone conclusion. As with many of our wars, it took an acute moment, a shocking event. For the World War I generation, that event was the sinking of the Lusitania.
In June of 1914, the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand set off a series of events that quickly folded Europe in upon itself. By August, a tangle of treaties obliged country after country to dive into the conflict, which quickly escalated to a grinder of human lives unlike anything the world had ever seen. From afar, Americans debated if and when they might be compelled to join. After the atrocities committed by German soldiers in Belgium, public opinion was clearly on the side of the Allies. But it was not as clear if committing troops would be worth it. President Woodrow Wilson was an isolationist at heart, but by the end of the 1915, he would begin to change his mind.
The rapidly expanding war debt owed by the Allies to the U.S. (lost in the event of a Central Powers victory) and a possible German-Mexican alliance were growing pressures. But the greatest factor was that Germany was sinking a rapidly increasing number of ships in the Atlantic. Suddenly, those oceans that had always provided the U.S. with a natural line of defense represented a dire threat.
Likewise, Great Britain, the dominant naval power since the middle of the 18th Century, was used to the ocean providing a military advantage. But that advantage disappeared Germany’s fleet of 48 submarines began patrolling the seas in 1914. German U-boats (for the rough translation “underwater boat”) essentially neutralized the Royal Navy. Any ship venturing away from port could be sunk with one well-placed torpedo.
The North Atlantic was nonetheless a busy trade and travel route. International law protected non-military ships. But as Germany suspected the Allies were using passenger ships to transport military supplies and personnel, it began to cross that line. German subs sometimes warned their targets, allowing passengers and crew to abandon ship before sending the vessel to the bottom, but giving warning required the U-boat to surface, which put it at risk. Complicating matters further, the British introduced the Q-ship in 1915. These were ships disguised to look like merchant vessels to lure German subs close, but were actually heavily-fortified gunships. Thus, the Germans opted to keep a safe distance and fire upon pretty much any ship they desired. U-boat captains were measured by the tonnage of the ships they sank; military and non-military tonnage counted equally.
In short, the seas were treacherous for any ship. This was no secret. In fact, on April 22, 1915, the German embassy ran an ad explicitly warning of danger to any passenger ship crossing the sea near Great Britain. The warning ran next to an ad selling tickets on the RMS Lusitania.
As anyone who has heard of the Lusitania knows, the threat was not idle. On May 7, 1915, eleven miles south of Ireland, German U-boat U-20 torpedoed the Lusitania. Shortly after the initial strike, a second still-unexplained explosion ripped the ship open from the inside. A mere eighteen minutes later, it was on the bottom of the ocean. The attack killed 1,198, including 128 Americans. In death toll, in emotional impact, and in result, the Lusitania was the Pearl Harbor, the 9/11 of that generation. It was an act that enraged even the Americans most reluctant to go to war.
But there is a question that immediately comes to mind: What the hell were passengers thinking to board one of the world’s most luxurious ocean liners and attempt to cross waters known for submarine attacks? The Lusitania went down only three years after the RMS Titanic. With that famous shipwreck still fresh, everyone knew it was possible that an ocean liner of that size could be sunk. Yet, the Lusitania was sunk, in part, by the same hubris that sunk the Titanic. The ships carried an air of invincibility. And it was commonly believed that the Lusitania was too big and too fast to be caught by a German submarine.
How these beliefs, along with tactical blunders put the Lusitania in the periscope crosshairs of U-20 is a fascinating part of this story. Equally interesting are the stories of the people involved—U.S. captain William Turner and German Walther Schwieger. Larson develops other characters on board too—we’re introduced to mothers and fathers, children, artists and socialites, businessmen and politicians. Through them, we feel the spirit of the times. And when the ship goes down, that 1,198 is more than just a number. We watch from the deck through the eyes of a few witnesses, amazed by the tranquil beauty of the North Atlantic, then mesmerized by the haunting sight of a torpedo slicing through that tranquil water like a shark three meters below the surface. We are with passengers as they face the terrible truth that they are going into the water. We follow them as they frantically scramble to locate loved ones. We even get the story of a few people sucked into the massive smokestack funnels and then blown back out again in a blast of hot water (amazed to survive to tell the story).
The sinking of passenger ships by German U-boats was one of the Germany’s biggest strategic blunders of the war. With pressure mounting, the Lusitania provided the most successful propaganda imaginable. It helped ignite the American war machine, and once the American’s arrived, the end was not far off for the Central Powers. It is a pivotal moment in a pivotal war in world history, and Larson’s telling of the story is exciting, accessible and compelling, even if the end is a foregone conclusion.