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

An avoidable disaster…

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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.


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.


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.

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The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson

All the Fun of the Fair…

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When Chicago won the right to hold the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893, there was much sneering from the snobbish elite of New York and elsewhere at the idea of this brash, dirty city, best known as the home of slaughterhouses and pork-packing factories, being able to put on a show that would impress the world. However, brash though Chicago may have been, it was also filled with go-getters and entrepreneurs, tough businessmen with determination, drive and, most of all, massive amounts of civic pride. This is the story of how those men turned an impossible dream into an astonishing reality – the building of the White City and the Chicago World’s Fair. And it’s also the story of how one man took advantage of the huge numbers of people coming into Chicago because of the Fair to indulge his psychopathic tendencies – the serial killer HH Holmes.

The Court of Honor (shame they forgot that pesky 'u' but otherwise quite impressive...
The Court of Honor (shame they forgot that pesky ‘u’ but otherwise quite impressive…)

In Larson’s hands, the story of the building of the White City is fascinating. The odds against success were huge – time was running short, the weather threw everything it had at the site frequently destroying half-built buildings, a financial crash began while the City was half-built, and unions and management were regularly at loggerheads. Although many men (and a few women) were involved in bringing the thing together, the whole effort was largely co-ordinated by one man, architect Daniel H Burnham, who as Director of Works was responsible for getting together the best architects, planners, engineers and landscapers, and inspiring them to believe in his vision of a beautiful city rising from a derelict piece of lakeside land. Larson uses all kinds of sources to bring Burnham and the other major players to life – newspaper articles, journals, official records and personal letters. He tells the story almost as if it were a novel, never revealing ahead and regularly leaving a chapter with a cliffhanger ending, as a storm approaches or a bank crashes or illness strikes.

Midway Plaisance - Eskimos, cannibals, belly-dancers - what more could you want?
Midway Plaisance – Eskimos, cannibals, belly-dancers – what more could you want?

The story of HH Holmes is told in separate chapters interspersed throughout the main narrative. To be honest, though it was interesting and also very well-researched, I mainly found it broke the flow of the much more absorbing story of the Fair. Apart from the fact that both events took place in Chicago over the same time period, there was very little to connect them. I wondered if the Holmes strand had only been included because the author felt that more people would be interested in a serial killer than in the building of the Fair – and I can’t argue with that, since it was the thought of the intriguing contrast that attracted me to the book. But when it came to reading it, I found I was rushing through the Holmes chapters to get back to find out how things were going on the building site.

Daniel H Burnham - "Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men's blood."
Daniel H Burnham – “Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men’s blood.”

Once the Fair finally opens, Larson gives a vividly credible account of what it might have been like to visit, including telling of some of the many attractions the fair had to offer – from orchestral music wafting ethereally over a moonlit lake to rather more earthy sideshows, such as the belly-dancers from Algeria. He tells us about Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show, cannily sited just outside the Fair grounds and constantly competing with it for customers. And the crowning marvel of the Fair – the world’s first Ferris wheel, built as a result of a challenge by Burnham to America’s engineers to come up with something that would top the recently built Eiffel Tower in Paris. At the same time, Larson takes us behind the scenes to see the men responsible for the maintenance of the site, publicity, finance and the sheer logistical nightmare of feeding and cleaning up after the many thousands of visitors who passed through the gates each day. The Fair was so huge, Larson tells us, that it was considered that it took a fortnight to see everything it had to offer.

Herman Webster Mudgett aka HH Holmes
Herman Webster Mudgett aka HH Holmes

In a few chapters at the end, Larson tells us what happened to the men we’ve got to know so well in their later careers and shows how the Fair influenced architecture and fairs and even city-planning far into the future. And at the same time he concludes the story of the serial killer, but I won’t spoil it by saying whether he was ever caught or convicted in case you’re inspired to read the book and don’t know the outcome.

A fascinating story very well told, I found this a totally absorbing read. The only real disappointment is that there are very few illustrations, so I had to turn to the Internet to fill that lack. But Larson has put the Chicago World’s Fair close to the top of the list of Things I Want to See When I Get a Time-Machine – till that day comes, the book makes a most satisfactory alternative. Highly recommended.

The world's first Ferris Wheel - 250' in diameter and carrying 2,160 people at a time
The world’s first Ferris Wheel – 250′ in diameter and carrying 2,160 people at a time

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