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

An avoidable disaster…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

dead-wakeOn a day which had earlier been foggy but was now clear and calm, some passengers aboard the Lusitania stood on deck and watched the ‘dead wake’ of a German U-boat torpedo heading towards the bow of the ship. It was 7th May 1915; Europe was engulfed in war while the USA was desperately maintaining its position of neutrality. Larson tells the story of the last voyage of the Lusitania, its passengers and crew, and the wider political situation that gave rise to the circumstances in which the ship was left unprotected in waters in which it was known U-boats were operating.

Larson starts with a prologue about the evening before the attack. Before she sailed from New York, the Germans had threatened they would attack the Lusitania, but the passengers weren’t particularly anxious. The Lusitania had been built for speed, the fastest ship of its time. Captain William Turner was confident she could outrun any U-boat. Anyway, given the threat and the knowledge that U-boats were operating around the coasts of Britain and Ireland, there was a general confidence that the Royal Navy would be on hand to escort them for the last dangerous stage of the journey.

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Larson uses four main strands to tell the full story of what happened. We learn about the codebreakers of the British Admiralty who had obtained the German codes and were therefore able to track U-boat movements with a fair degree of accuracy. Eerily reminiscent of the Bletchley codebreakers of WW2, there was the same dilemma as to how often to act on information obtained – too often and the Germans would work out that their codes had been cracked, and change them. So some ships were left unprotected, sacrifices, almost, to the greater war effort. Churchill was First Lord of the Admiralty at the time, and was desperate to draw the US into the war on the British side. There appears to be little doubt that he felt that if German U-boats sank ships with American citizens aboard, this might be a decisive factor.

U-20 - the U-boat that fired the fatal torpedo...
U-20 – the U-boat that fired the fatal torpedo…

Secondly, Larson takes us aboard U-20, the U-boat that would fire the fatal torpedo, and introduces us to its Captain, Walther Schwieger. By using Schwieger’s logs amongst other sources, Larson creates an absorbing and authentic-feeling depiction of life aboard the ship, including a lot of fascinating detail about how U-boats actually worked – the logistical difficulties of diving, with the weight constantly changing as the amount of fuel aboard decreased; and how the crew would have to run from place to place to keep the boat level when manoeuvring. Larson widens this out to tell of some of the dangers for these early submarines, and some of the horrific accidents that had happened to them. And he takes us further, into the ever-changing policy of the German government with regards to the sinking of passenger and merchant ships.

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The third aspect revolves around President Wilson and America’s lengthy vacillations before finally committing to war. Politically hoping to sit it out while Britain bore the brunt, Wilson was also suffering personally from the loss of his much-loved wife, closely followed by what sounds like a rather adolescent rush of passion for another woman. It appears that he spent as much time a-wooing as a-Presidenting, and his desire to spend his life taking his new love out for romantic drives meant that he seemed almost infinitely capable of overlooking Germany’s constant breaches of the rules regarding neutral nations. (I should say the harshness of this interpretation is mine – Larson gives the facts but doesn’t draw the conclusions quite as brutally as I have done. Perhaps because he’s American and I’m British. But he leaves plenty of space for the reader to draw her own conclusions.)

Wilson getting his priorities in order...
Wilson getting his priorities in order…

The fourth section, and the one that humanises the story, is of the voyage of the Lusitania itself. Larson introduces us to many of the passengers, telling us a little of their lives before the voyage, so that we come to care about them. There were many children aboard, including young infants. Some people were bringing irreplaceable art and literary objects across in the way of business. There were pregnant women, and nannies and servants, and of course the crew. Larson explains that the crew were relatively inexperienced as so many sailors had been absorbed into the war effort. While they carried out regular drills, logistics meant they couldn’t actually lower all the lifeboats during them, so that when the disaster actually happened this lack of experience fed into the resulting loss of life. But he also shows the heroism of many of the crew and some of the passengers, turning their backs on their own safety to assist others. Even so, the loss of life was massive, and by telling the personal stories of some who died and others who survived but lost children or parents or lovers, Larson brings home the intimate tragedies that sometimes get lost in the bigger picture.

1915 painting of the sinking
1915 painting of the sinking

And finally, Larson tells of the aftermath, both personal for some of the survivors or grieving relatives of the dead; and political, in terms of the subsequent investigations in Britain into what went wrong, and Wilson’s attempts to ensure that even a direct attack on US citizens wouldn’t drag his country into war.

Larson balances the political and personal just about perfectly in the book, I feel. His excellent writing style creates the kind of tension normally associated with a novel rather than a factual book, and his careful characterisation of many of the people involved gives a human dimension that is often missing from straight histories. He doesn’t shy away from the politics though, and each of the governments, British, German and American, come in for their fair share of harsh criticism, including some of the individuals within them. An excellent book, thoroughly researched and well told – highly recommended.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

66 thoughts on “Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania by Erik Larson

  1. This sounds great – it’s going on my list. I do love a bit of military history and the four strands seem a good way to tell the history, political and personal sides of this tragic story. Bravo, FF!

  2. You’ve hit on one of my weaknesses, FictionFan: a book that puts a really human face on historical events. I so enjoy it when an author can do that. And it sounds as though Larson’s done her ‘homework,’ too, without overburdening the story. Little wonder you recommended it.

  3. This is a fantastic review! I like how you broke it down in 4 main parts. I actually had this book from the library and read just the very beginning, got sidetracked and then had to return it without having read it. I’m going to put this back on my TBR list, thanks for reminding me. I like to read a well-written nonfiction every once in awhile and I had forgotten how interesting this one sounded.

    • Aw, thanks, Renee! I love reading history, and what I like about Larson is that he puts a human face on it, so that you actually care about the people as individuals, rather than just the politics and so on. Definitely worth getting out of the library again! 🙂

  4. What a wonderful review and loved the pictures as illustration. I’ve read one other book by Larson and so know how he manages to tell historical events in a gripping manner. Definitely will be reading this one before long. Thanks for the nudge!

    • Thanks, Kay! 🙂 Yes, I read his earlier book The Devil in the White City and loved it too. I wasn’t totally enthralled by the serial killer strand, but he brought the Chicago World Fair to life and made me add it to the list of places I want to visit when they invent time travel…

  5. I have yet to read an Erik Larson book, though so many friends have highly recommended his books. This one sounds like a great one to start with (though Devil in the White City was the one others recommended).

    • I love the way he makes history human by introducing the real people involved. I loved The Devil in the White City too – in fact, he put the Chicago World Fair on the list of places I want to visit if I ever get a time machine – so I would recommend either book, just depending on which subject matter appeals most.

  6. This sounds fantastic. The ability to see and report different sides and interpretations is excellent. Do I even take it (given the absence of disclaimer) that FictionFan’s hard earned was parted company with, for this (or perhaps Santa, wriggling through your central heating pipes, courtesy of someone else and a FF list for Santa)

    • It really is – he’s mastered the art of humanising history so that it becomes almost like reading a novel where you care about the people, rather than a dry recounting of facts. Haha! Yes, I put my hand in my own pocket for this one, beating bravely through the accumulated dust and moths…

  7. There’s no picture of him!

    Too bad the US got dragged into the war. It was all part of a deadly, secret plan, I bet. Also, I’ve decided that I’m going to join the CIA and become an Assassin.

    • He’s great at bringing history to life and putting a human face on it – one of my favourite writers of this kind of history. He really makes history as enjoyable to read as fiction… 🙂

  8. Another excellent review, FF! This one sounds most interesting. Typically, I lean more toward fiction than nonfiction, but putting human faces on a real tragedy, as well as telling the tale from so many viewpoints, is swaying me. Drat it all — you’re bound and determined to make my TBR as chubby as yours, aren’t you?!?!

    • Thanks, Debbie! 🙂 Haha! Yes, I am – I don’t see why I should suffer alone! 😉 Seriously though, this isn’t at all dry the way some history can be – he really makes you care about the people on board the ship. I enjoy reading his stuff as much as I enjoy fiction…

    • Thank you! This would be a great one to add – he’s such a good writer that his books are a pleasure to read, and not at all dry like a lot of history can be. Enjoy! 🙂

  9. haha your scorn for Wilson reminds me of ‘Rilla of Ingleside’ – I can’t remember if you’ve read that one or not but I highly recommend it – but it’s set on Prince Edward Island during the war, and I can remember it being intriguing to me when I first read it in junior high or so, because of the patriotic fervor for a war that the States barely entered. But one of the main characters in that book is constantly scoffing at Wilson and what she calls ‘his little notes.’ ‘I see the President has written another little note,’ she would say, going on to sarcastically talk about how incredibly helpful that would be to the war effort. 😀

    Anyway, this sounds like an intriguing book indeed, and will probably have to be added to the list!!

    • Haha! No, I haven’t read Rilla but I really should! Yeah, Wilson was very good at writing ‘little notes’ – sadly, that seems to have been pretty much the only thing he was good at. And when Germany ignored them, why, then, he’d write another! Grrrr! I can’t say any of the politicians came out particularly well, but I really wanted to slap Wilson – could you tell? 😉

      Yes, you definitely need to add this – we don’t want you running out of books…

  10. This does sound fascinating. I’m far more willing (and able) to take in the political parts of history if there is plenty of the human face as well. This sounds like the perfect mix which as you say makes it incredibly readable- good one!

    • Yes, it makes all the difference to history if the author can bring in the human touch, and Larson’s great at it. In fact, there were bits of this that made me cry – and other bits that made me furious! Good stuff!

    • I think he’s great at really giving the human side of history – I also loved his earlier The Devil in the White City. This one has the stronger “story” though – I found it quite a moving read in places. Glad you enjoyed it too, and thanks so much for the tweets! 🙂

    • Haha! I know – it sounds crazy doesn’t it? I wonder if passengers have to run about on cruise ships in rough weather… 😉 Yes, I think this is pretty much a perfect example of how popular history should be done.

  11. This was my first book by Larson and I loved it! (And, I came to the same conclusions as you about Woodrow Wilson and his private affairs getting in the way of running the country.)

    • It’s great, isn’t it? It doesn’t feel lightweight but it’s still very readable. (Yeah, I’m afraid Wilson doesn’t come out of it well. Neither does Churchill, but at least he was trying to do what he thought was best for Britain rather than spending his days writing love letters!)

    • Well, this is certainly that! And what I like about him most is that, after doing all the research, he knows how to lay it out so that it turns into an interesting story rather than just a collection 0f facts…

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