WWI, Maritime History; Continents: Europe and North America

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

  • If you spent your summer vacation in Porchville, then this book will convince you that missing out on that cruise wasn’t such a bad thing.
  • 450 pages, Kindle edition

If you read much history, then you probably already know who Erik Larson is. Maybe you’ve read his popular In the Garden of Beasts (one of his best) or Devil the White City (good, but less of a favorite). Only a handful of writers of history can really craft an engaging narrative from the piles of necessary research, but this author has the gift.

Shades of Gray

Dead Wake describes the sinking of the Lusitania, a luxurious cruise ship operated by British company Cunard, by a German submarine during World War I. The Lusitania sailed a route from New York City to Liverpool, which took it into the waters surrounding the British Isles, which Germany had declared a war zone. Hideous crime, great loss of life, monstrous Germans, shame on the Kaiser…right? If your high school American history book even mentioned the ship before describing America’s entry into WWI, then that’s almost certainly how the paragraph about it reads. What makes Larson’s book interesting is that he successfully shades in some gray area to make you think about this story more fully.

Larson makes sure you understand that Cunard’s passenger ship could have been appropriated by the British navy, and had been designed to accommodate some naval purposes. Furthermore, passenger ships often carried some cargo for military use in their holds. The Lusitania’s cargo manifest indicates that she did on that last voyage. Consequently, the German military couldn’t entirely disregard the movements of cruise ships.

The other ethically gray piece of the story is that British military minds knew in some detail the location of the German U-boat that would eventually sink Lusitania, U-20, but warning the passenger vessel would reveal that the British had already broken the code the Germans used to transmit messages from ship to shore. Plus, the leadership was more focused on the comings and goings of a different vessel. So, Larson asks you to consider, was the German U-boat captain the only villain here?

Dead-on with Details

What makes Larson especially engaging is that he keeps the narrative about the Lusitania going with timing to the minute. Think about that for a moment, and realize what a good trick that has to be: the timeline has to make sense for the book to read like a story rather than an academic text. The broad range of sources about the sinking of this famous passenger ship include military log entries and telegrams with a particular time stamp. Others are journal entries from passengers describing a much more fluid (and potentially misremembered) chain of events. These entries provide the human element to the events, but how to integrate scenes from these voices at the appropriate points? Organizing the Lusitania’s story would have been a herculean task before typing the first sentence for chapter one.

Yet the human element is unquestionably part of the story. We don’t hear much from steerage, alas: those poor souls had less of a chance than passengers from first- and second-class decks. Perhaps they would have been less likely to journal about their Atlantic crossing and write chatty letters, too. We do meet many wealthier American and British passengers, however, and their stories within this single event range from tragic to ridiculous. We see how they interact with the crew and among themselves in the days prior to the torpedo strike. The formal living aboard ship is all very genteel. And yet, there are moments of foreshadowing that are downright creepy, most notably the observation by one or two passengers that the majority of the people aboard ship have no idea how to put on a life jacket correctly.

Wilson and the War

The Lusitania’s story occurs in the context of a war the United States has not yet entered. While many notable Americans like former-president Teddy Roosevelt clamored for war, the country’s sitting president, Woodrow Wilson, held to his policy of neutrality for a long time, even after the Germans had begun to sink ships flying neutral colors, not just Allied ones. Where was Wilson when the Lusitania went down, some will wonder. Therefore, Larson has given us a look at this president in the months leading up to its sinking.

I’ll be honest: I wondered where Larson was going with all the detail about Wilson’s private life. The main thing I didn’t like about Larson’s Devil in the White City was that the two plotlines never fully intersected, with the secondary plot giving a lot of detail that never tied into the primary plot. Was he going to do that to us again? The answer is no, the Wilson personal life storyline belongs there, although the connection doesn’t really become clear until significantly far into the story Larson tells.

Overall, Dead Wake isn’t going to disappoint Larson’s existing fan base, and I read it with the sort of eagerness that makes one chuck the chore list and let the phone go to voicemail. If you’re trying to get your teenager to read something besides Young Adult fiction, then consider this gem, with its moments of intense (but not overplayed) melodrama and some ethically gray choices by the leadership of the day.

Image Source: Wikimedia Commons, user: we hope. Public domain. The man pictured, Mr. DeLand, found this vest floating in the Delaware River in Philadelphia five years after the ship had sunk.

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