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That other sunken ship

Cover of Dead Wake: The Last Crossi
A review of Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania by Erik Larson

Ask anyone about a notorious shipwreck, and they will more than likely respond with the Titanic disaster of 1912. Yet a mere three years later, another grand ocean liner met an equally disastrous fate, the repercussions of which would be felt far beyond those immediately involved. The Lusitania was the giant Cunard liner that many felt could not, would not fall victim to Germany’s submarine warfare against British shipping. It’s an intriguing story, and when told by Erik Larson in Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania, it becomes an intensely personal, vivid tale. Larson uses his eye for personal details and deep research to tell how the Lusitania, travelling with a full company of passengers from New York to Liverpool in spite of specific German embassy warnings to travelers of the peril they could face, came to be in the crosshairs of the U-20 just off the southeastern Irish coast. One torpedo later, the ship sank in under twenty minutes, taking the lives of 1,198, many of them American. With the sinking came the questions: what sort of new world existed where women and children were seen as fair game in a war zone? And would America join the fight on the side of Britain?

Larson uncovers a wealth of sources from multiple perspectives, drawing on U-boat captain Schwieger’s log, letters mailed by survivors or recovered from victims, and newly unclassified documents from the British Admiralty office, which knew considerable information about the movements of submarines—information not passed on to the Lusitania. Larson also includes Woodrow Wilson’s letters, depicting the president as waffling between sympathy for the British while making overtures of peace to the Germans. Remarkably, the ship’s final departure from New York was filmed, putting faces to some that Larson goes into detail describing. The result, like much of Larson’s other work, is a historical portrait that reads like fiction, with individuals that are developed like characters. As each decision is made and a series of remarkable events put the Lusitania squarely in danger, the tension rises like a novel. The depiction of the sinking and its aftermath is strikingly real and all the more wrenching in its detail (squeamish readers may wish to skip one particularly detailed account of a post-sinking autopsy). But beyond the drama of the sinking, Dead Wake highlights the security that ‘civilized nations’ put into the seemingly unbreakable law of the sea—and how (possibly both) warring powers could ignore such customs in order to nudge the war effort their way. It’s also telling how the Americans traveling through a war zone felt they could not be endangered, as it was not their war and did not affect them. A compelling page-turner, Dead Wake captures a world closing itself off from the traditions of the Victorian age into the brand new world of twentieth-century conflict.

July 16, 2019