Erik Larson’s ‘Dead Wake’ Chronicles Horrific Sinking of ‘Lusitania’

Lee Polevoi

 

Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania

By Erik Larson

Crown

430 pgs

 

On the first page of his masterful account of the sinking of the Lusitania, Erik Larson notes that while researching the book, he realized that “buried in the muddled details of the [Lusitania] affair … was something simple and satisfying: a very good story.”

 

It’s one of those occasions when an author doth protest too much. How a deluxe ocean liner, among the fastest ships on the sea at the time, came to be torpedoed off the Irish Coast remains a powerful episode of history, no matter how many times it’s retold.

 

On May 17, 1915, after a placid transatlantic journey from New York City and nearly within sight of its destination of Liverpool, England, the Lusitania was attacked by a German submarine, U-20, and sunk in less than 20 minutes. Of nearly 2,000 passengers aboard, only 764 survived—a devastating loss of life, and a shock to neutral countries assuming that (even as the Great War raged on in Europe) no combatant nation would intentionally attack a non-military vessel at sea.

 

As in his previous bestseller, The Devil in the White City, Larson juggles multiple narratives, ranging from anecdotes of daily life among the cruise ship passengers to intelligence-gathering activities in Room 40 (the British Admiralty’s top-secret wartime unit) and, most ominously, the predatory journeys of U-20.

 

Some of Larson’s liveliest, most eye-opening sections focus on the German sub. It was the early days in submarine technology and life aboard this fledgling underwater hunter-killer machine brought its own challenges, including the quality of air inside the vessel:

 

 

“First there came the basal reek of three dozen men who never bathed, wore leather clothes that did not breathe, and shared one small lavatory. 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 … The odor of diesel fuel infiltrated all corners of the boat, ensuring that every cup of cocoa and piece of bread tasted of oil. Then came the fragrances that emanated from the kitchen long after meals were cooked, most notably that close cousin to male body odor, day-old fried onions.”

 

Two men of the sea—William Thomas Turner, captain of the Lusitania, and U-20 commander Walter Schwieger—were similarly strong-willed individuals who likely knew next to nothing about the other’s existence. In the days leading up to the attack, both men made decisions affecting the lives and deaths of thousands of innocent passengers—aided, unfortunately, by blunders and negligence within the British Admiralty.

 

By introducing a wide array of ocean-going passengers, Larson deftly conjures up social conditions amid the transatlantic upper class, circa 1915. After meeting this mini-panorama of travelers, there’s genuine pathos in his descriptions of the many ways in which they died. Passenger Charles Lauriat, for example, fights to stay afloat after jumping ship while “countless souls” struggle in the water around him:

 

“There was little he could do beyond shoving an oar or some other piece of floating debris in their direction. Many passengers wore heavy coats; women wore multiple layers of clothing—corsets, camisoles, petticoats, jumpers, furs—and all these quickly became sodden and heavy. Passengers without life jackets sank. The complicated clothing of children and infants bore them under as well.”

 

The one false step in Dead Wake is the decision to linger in some detail on President Woodrow Wilson’s tormented love life. Wilson’s concern over civilian deaths is clearly linked to the ocean liner’s demise, but including passages from his love letters to Edith Galt is a stretch. It’s a minor complaint in a book that’s so expertly researched and smoothly written.

 

One hundred years on, the story of the Lusitania is as compelling as ever.

 

Author Bio:

Highbrow Magazine’s chief book critic Lee Polevoi is the author of a novel, The Moon in Deep Winter.

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