No need for spoiler alerts here: Erik Larson’s latest book is timed to coincide with the 100th anniversary of one of the seminal moments in World War I history, the sinking of the HMS Lusitania. Considered one of the fastest and most nimble luxury passenger liners of its era, the “Lucy’’ was traveling from New York to Liverpool when it was struck by a German torpedo on May 7, 1915. The star vessel of the Cunard Line sank off the southern coast of Ireland in a stunning 18 minutes. Almost 1,200 passengers, crew and stowaways — including 123 Americans — perished.
To the credit of his proven storytelling acumen, Larson — author of The Devil In the White City, Thunderstruck, In the Garden of Beasts and Isaac’s Storm — still manages to wring plenty of drama, suspense and nuanced perspective from this well-documented episode in world military history. Dead Wake is an expertly crafted tale of individual and corporate hubris, governmental intrigue and cover-up, highlighting a stunning series of coincidences and miscalculations that ultimately placed the Lusitania in the direct path of the catastrophic strike.
Larson molds the story from a large cast of characters on board the opulently appointed Lusitania, in the dank, cramped recesses of the German submarine U-20 and in the halls of government on both sides of the Atlantic. His pacing is impeccable: The narrative builds, slowly at first, then accelerates as danger mounts. The feat is impressive, considering readers already know the end game.
Working from extensive sources, Larson draws a largely sympathetic portrait of Capt. William Thomas Turner, the veteran skipper who stayed with the ship as it sank and then swam to safety. Turner overestimated his ship’s ability to outrun the Germans, and one poor late tactical decision put the Lusitania directly in the path of the pursuing U-20 right before the torpedo launch.
Turner wrongly assumed that the old rules of naval engagement would continue to apply. Even though the Lusitania was secretly ferrying rifle ammunition and mortars for the war effort, Turner believed the Germans would never attack a ship with upwards of 2,000 civilians aboard.
He was further handicapped by his profit-minded owners at Cunard, who ordered Turner to run on only three of the four stacks on board, so they could squeeze more profit from the journey. As Larson explains, with that extra engine power, the Lusitania would easily have covered the entire trip across the North Atlantic and into Liverpool long before U-20 and the other subs in the German fleet even entered the area.
The affair was far from Britannia’s finest hour. Before the Lusitania disaster, the Royal Navy had already started establishing safer, northern routes into ports such as Liverpool and would commonly escort merchant freighters away from German danger. But no similar assistance was offered to the Lusitania.
In London, the secret British naval intelligence code-breaking unit known as Room 40 had been tracking all U-boat movements in the area, including three recent, unsuccessful torpedo launches by U-20’s ruthless Capt. Walther Schwieger. The Germans had explicitly warned the Brits that merchant vessels were no longer exempt from attack — warnings that the Admiralty failed to pass along to Turner or his bosses at Cunard. And, after the fact, rather than expose the full extent of their code-breaking operation, the British government shoveled all of the blame for the tragedy squarely on Turner.
There is plenty of evidence — previously explored by other historians and given further credence here by Larson — that the British Admiralty and its rising young leader, First Chief Winston Churchill, allowed the Lusitania to be attacked without interference because they ultimately wanted to draw a reluctant, neutral America into World War I. Recently widowed President Woodrow Wilson is portrayed as lovesick and distracted, more consumed by grief and his blossoming affair with the woman would become his next wife than in choosing sides amid the looming German threat to the rest of Europe. Though almost two more years would pass before the U.S. officially lifted its neutrality and declared war on Germany, the sinking of the Lusitania was a signal moment in galvanizing American public opinion.
Larson’s sense of wonder and tragedy is palpable as he dissects the “chance confluence of forces’’ that had to occur for Schwieger’s attack to succeed. “Even the tiniest shift in a single vector,” he notes, “could have saved the ship’’ — and altered the course of history.
Larry Lebowitz is a writer in Miami.