Everyone remembers the dry, dull facts about the sinking of the Lusitania from fifth history class, right? Maybe in a little more detail from high school or some random Western Civilization class picked up somewhere?
If you find yourself open to the concept that there might be a bit more drama to the sinking of the luxury liner RMS Lusitania than your educational experience might be floating to your memory, than the Erik Larson book Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania is the book for you.
Erik Larson tells the story of the fate of the RMS Lusitania in five sections. We learn of the operators of the Cunard Steamship Company of Liverpool fairly early in the story as the Lusitania is due to set sail from New York City on its final voyage. Before the May 1, 1915 sailing, a warning was placed in newspapers warning passengers of all British ships to set sail “at their own risk.” For what it is worth, Larson shares with us that the Cunard Line claimed the Lusitania to be safe, too fast for submarines, and at minimal risk in advance of the sailing.
As the RMS Lusitania set sail, World War One had been waging for nearly a year between the Central Powers mainly of Germany, Austria-Hungary, Bulgaria, and Turkey (the Ottoman Empire) against the Allied Powers of Great Britain, France, Russia, Italy, Romania, Japan, and, from 1917, the United States.
While non-military vessels like the Lusitania were considered off-limits from a military perspective in 1915, history shows that the Lusitania both carried armaments to offer aid to the Allied Powers. Naval combat was a capability for this vessel, too. Human flight being barely a decade old in 1915, the primary means of human movement between Europe and America was through commercial sailing.
The Central Powers felt differently concerning the notion of the RMS Lusitania being off limits as a military target. The leading opposition to British naval superiority at the time of the World War One was Germany with its innovative U-boat fleet of submarines, or “Undersea Boats.” The leading figure relevant to the fate of the story of the Lusitania is Walther Schwieger. Schwieger was the German u-boat captain known to rescue dachshund puppies. As seen from the Allied perspective, Schwieger is known to torpedo merchant vessels and let the crews of torpedoed vessels drown.
(William Thomas Turner, left, and Walther Schwieger, right)
William Thomas Turner was captain of the Lusitania when it was torpedoed. Turner survived the attack, despite taking a reputation hit for not properly combing through contradictory advice for how to avoid the attack that sank the vessel. Per Larson, British intelligence was not forthcoming in saving his reputation after the fact, or in advance of the Lusitania sinking.
I was deeply curious about why material facts that would have prevented the sinking of the Lusitania, or saved the reputation of its captain, would be withheld from the public record. The rationale forwarded in Deep Wake was that the isolationist sentiment in United States under U.S. President Woodrow Wilson made for a reluctant entry into World War One. Given the loss of American life in this tragedy, a cynical calculus suggests that allowing the Lusitania to sink would outrage America into a more active war footing.
(Woodrow Wilson, left, and Winston Churchill, right)
Winston Churchill served as the First Lord of the Admirality when the Lusitania sank. The Admirality had the super-secret spy entity Room 40 at its disposal. Room 40 knew of the U-Boat movements in the waters where the Lusitania was torpedoed. Owing to sensitivity of not wanting to divulge to the Central Powers that the British had knowledge of their U-boat movements and other communications, there arguably was an additional calculus to not divulging facts to the Lusitania. In subsequent official inquiries, Churchill flatly lied in pointing blame at Turner for the Lusitania sinking while possessing proof that countered his own testimony.
1198 of 1959 passengers died on the Lusitania. The vessel listed to starboard and sank in 18-minutes. Lifeboats, lack of drills, and chaos around retrieving life preservers and wearing them caused death. The last two sections of the book covered the sinking and the historical aftermath for key figures in the story.
Overall, my ranking of the book was 3.5-stars out of five (5).
Matt – Saturday, June 2, 2018