Book review: Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania by Erik Larson - sunk in 18 minutes

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 21 March, 2015, 10:57pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 21 March, 2015, 10:57pm


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

They had been warned. With war raging across the ocean, a group of passengers gathered in New York City in May 1915 for a transatlantic voyage aboard the Lusitania, a majestic, swift and towering vessel that catered to the pampered classes and was the pride of the safety-conscious Cunard shipping line.

Everyone knew the risks. En route to Liverpool, the Lusitania would be passing through a German-declared war zone off the coast of Ireland during an era in which submarine warfare was ascendant. The German embassy in Washington, DC, had placed an ad on the shipping pages of New York's newspapers that levelled a veiled yet unmistakable threat at the Lusitania.

Many shrugged off the peril. Built sturdily - a "passenger liner, but with the hull of a battleship" - the Lusitania also found protection in the hubris of man. Its experienced captain, William Thomas Turner, was sceptical that a German submarine could match his vessel's speed. His bosses felt the same.

Yet a U-boat's single torpedo sank her in 18 minutes.

In the hands of a lesser craftsman, the fascinating story of the last crossing of the Lusitania might risk being bogged down by dull character portraits, painstaking technical analyses of submarine tactics or the minutiae of first-world-war-era global politics.

But in Dead Wake, Erik Larson's latest masterful fusion of history and storytelling, the former Wall Street Journal reporter effortlessly recreates the collision course taken by Turner and the man who would destroy his ship, Walther Schwieger, commander of Unterseeboot-20.

The book, released two months shy of the centennial of the ship's sinking on May 7, 1915, deftly weaves together Larson's fascinations from previous books: technology, weaponry, wartime, Germany, weather and period pieces. He escorts us as we join the Lusitania's passengers readying for their voyage, departing from the New York wharves, sharing the quotidian rhythms of life aboard the ship, fretting or not fretting about the German warning and, ultimately, dying or surviving catastrophe.

At the same time, he opens up the cramped quarters of a submarine, illuminating the tensions of a dangerous life beneath the water and the zeal of the men commanding Germany's undersea arsenal.

Set against a backdrop of England and Germany battling for bragging rights on the high seas, in London a secret operation known as "Room 40" deciphered coded German messages - ones that, had they been acted upon, could have saved the Lusitania and its 1,198 hapless souls.

Tribune News Service