Book type: History/Nonfiction
Summary: With Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania, Erik Larson continues his tradition of nonfiction storytelling, chronicling the last days of several passengers, from heirs and heiresses to rare book dealers, and average families. According to the author, he set about writing Dead Wake not specifically because the centennial of its sinking was approaching (May 7, 2015), but because it was such a good story. For those who don’t know the story of the Lusitania, it was a passenger liner carrying mostly British citizens from New York to Liverpool and was sunk about 12 miles off the Irish coastline by a German submarine, U-20, captained by Walther Schwieger, a zealous man on a mission to sink as much tonnage of enemy ships as possible during his voyage that spring. The Lusitania was filled to capacity with almost 2,000 passengers (including a high number of children) and was able to sustain a top speed of more than 25 knots (30 mph), making it both incredibly fast and also enormous at almost 800 feet long and several stories high (7-8). As the Lusitania made her journey across the Atlantic, Schwieger and his crew in U-20 traveled in the cold northern waters around Germany, England, Ireland, and France, waiting under the surface for vessels to attack.
- Be glad you weren’t in a U-boat in 1915. In addition to the fact that it would be maddening to embark on journeys with the same group of bros all the time and be stuck with them in a small space, that small space was disgusting. The men never bathed, wore leather clothes that made them stink, and shared one bathroom. And that one bathroom could do some damage: “The toilet from time to time imparted to the boat the scent of a cholera hospital and could be flushed only when the U-boat was on the surface or at shallow depths, lest the undersea pressure blow material back into the vessel. This tended to happen to novice officers and crew, and was called a ‘U-boat baptism'” (63).
- The attack on the Lusitania wasn’t a complete surprise. There was a German warning in American newspapers the week leading up to the voyage advising that passengers traveling on British ships would be doing so at their own risk, even if the vessels were flying flags of neutral countries like the United States. The passengers also knew there were German submarines in the Atlantic and some were concerned enough to go to sleep in full dress, while others made light of the threats. One such passenger was an Englishman who was finishing his lunch just before the torpedo hit and received his ice cream but no spoon with which to eat it. “‘He looked ruefully at it and said he would hate to have a torpedo get him before he ate it'” (234). Incidentally, he survived. The American ambassador in London even wrote to his son about the possibility of such an attack, speculating that “‘The blowing up of a liner with American passengers may be the prelude […] I almost expect such a thing.’ He added, ‘If a British liner full of Americans be blown up, what will Uncle Sam do? What’s going to happen?'” (150). And for his part, Winston Churchill welcomed the danger, telling Walter Runciman (head of England’s Board of Trade) that it was important to ensure neutral shipping to England: “After noting that Germany’s submarine campaign had sharply reduced traffic from America, Churchill told Runciman, ‘For our part, we want the traffic–the more the better; and if some of it gets into trouble, better still'” (190).
- Whether by fate or coincidence, everything that needed to happen for the ship to sink did happen. Larson makes a point of describing the failings of the British government in protecting the Lusitania from attack. British intelligence knew the location of German U-boats, knew that several ships had been sunk in the week leading up to May 7, 1915 (including non-warships), and also knew that the North Channel would have been a safer option, yet never communicated any of this to the crew onboard the Cunard ship. The Royal Navy also did not supply a convoy for the ship, something that many passengers thought was being provided right from the start of the voyage. But in addition to all of these curiosities (or conspiracies), other factors lined up in such a way as to ensure destruction for the Lusitania.
Had Captain Turner not had to wait the two extra hours for the transfer of passengers from the Cameronia, he likely would have passed Schwieger in the fog, when U-20 was submerged and on its way home. For that matter, even the brief delay caused by the last minute disembarkation of Turner’s niece could have placed the ship in harm’s way. More importantly, had Turner not been compelled to shut down the fourth boiler room to save money, he could have sped across the Atlantic at 25 knots, covering an additional 110 miles a day, and been safely to Liverpool before Schwieger even entered the Celtic Sea.
Larson goes on to explain the effect of weather conditions on the outcome, as well as the unlikelihood that Schwieger’s attack would actually cause the ship to sink, if it even made contact.
Fog was an important factor too. Had it persisted just a half hour longer, neither vessel would have seen the other, and Schwieger would have continued on his way.
Had Captain Turner not made that final turn to starboard, Schwieger would have had no hope of catching up. What’s more, the torpedo actually worked. Defying his own experience and the 60 percent failure rate calculated by the German navy, it did exactly what it was supposed to do.
Not only that, it struck precisely the right place in the Lusitania’s hull to guarantee disaster, by allowing seawater to fill the starboard longitudinal bunkers and thereby produce a fatal list. No one familiar with ship construction and torpedo dynamics would have guessed that a single torpedo could sink a ship as big as the Lusitania, let alone do so in just eighteen minutes.
Moreover, Schwieger had overestimated the ship’s speed. He calculated 22 knots when in fact the ship was moving at only 18. Had he gauged the speed correctly and timed his shot accordingly, the torpedo would have struck the hull farther back, amidships, possibly with less catastrophic effect and certainly with the result that many crew members killed instantly in the luggage room would have survived to assist in launching the lifeboats. The steam line might not have failed. If Turner had been able to keep the ship under power, he might have made it to Queenstown, or succeeded in beaching the ship, or even leveraged its extraordinary agility to turn and ram U-20 (326-327).
- People died in all kinds of ways, some immediate, some prolonged, some violent. When we think of a ship sinking, we often tend to think of people drowning, or being trapped in the ship (and thus drowning), and while this definitely happened to many of the 1,198 who died, death came in many other ways as well. “The dozens of crewmen who were in the luggage bay at the time of impact were killed instantly by the force of the torpedo blast, but exactly how many and who they were was not known. Passengers were crushed by descending boats. Swimmers were struck by chairs, boxes, potted plants, and other debris falling from the decks high above. And then there were those most ill-starred of passengers, who had put on their life preservers incorrectly and found themselves floating with their heads submerged, legs up, as in some devil’s comedy” (308).
- The end was also peaceful for many in the water. Several survivors described floating in the water and looking at the sky expecting they would die, but being calm in what they thought were their last moments. One survivor even wrote to the mother of a lost passenger about “the disparity between what actually happened and what families imagine” advising “‘I know you must be tempted to have most terrible imaginings; may I tell you that although it was very awful, it was not so ghastly as you are sure to imagine it. When the thing really comes, God gives to each the help he needs to live or die'” (312). And while much conspired to cause the sinking of the ship, “The benign conditions of the day saved scores of lives, if not hundreds” (328) since the water was calm and did not overturn lifeboats or force more passengers underwater.
A final review/recommendation:
I’ve read almost all of Erik Larson’s books, including In the Garden of Beasts which I covered in June 2014. Larson is a master at weaving multiple storylines and viewpoints together into one cohesive narrative. And he manages to do it seamlessly. While The Devil in the White City is still my favorite of his works, Dead Wake is high on the list now. It’s compelling and tells you history without being a textbook (my one problem with Catastrophe 1914 as some of you may remember).
If you’re going to read one new release of history or nonfiction this year, read Dead Wake. It’s comprehensive, but the story moves along quickly, partly due to the alternating perspectives from chapter to chapter (several of which are only a few pages long). Just beware that you might end up hooked and wanting to read one or all of his books after putting Dead Wake to rest.
Book cover: http://www.gannett-cdn.com/-mm-/b6610f5ecbe12df06d2f4c16c595e9d93e2103e8/c=0-42-450-642&r=537&c=0-0-534-712/local/-/media/2015/03/18/USATODAY/USATODAY/635622763452409918-Dead-Wake-jacket-image.jpg
Joe Dirt Poo Tank: http://i.imgur.com/EnnsdD5.gif