Thursday, April 16, 2015

DEAD WAKE: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania
Erik Larson
Crown Books
March 10, 2015

Erik Larson's exhaustively researched account of the ill-fated last voyage of the Lusitania, sunk off the coast of Ireland on May 7,1915 brings to light an incident that has largely been shrouded in the mists of history. I think we all have heard of the Lusitania but it has been overshadowed by the popular fascination with the Titanic disaster of 1912.In 1915 World War I was in it's tenth month and German U-boats threatened to change the rules of war forever. For nearly a century the safety of merchant and passenger vessels was assured  by a sort of unwritten agreement. Forces in the German Navy and government were agitating to ignore those rules,making any vessel under an enemy flag fair game.

The Cunard ship, Lusitania, was the "greyhound" of the line,holding the speed record for crossings between England and America. Captained by the extremely competent but uncharismatic William Thomas Turner, the Lusitania was considered to be unlikely to be sunk by a torpedo from a U-boat and protected by it's status as a passenger vessel. The luxurious Lusitania carried 1,959 passengers and crew, both famous and unknown with a record number of women and children. Of those passengers and crew only 764 survived. Despite a general warning issued by the the German government the Lusitania sailed from New York on May 1. Meanwhile in Britain, a group of code-breakers designated "Room 40" had succeeded in breaking German transmission codes and were able to track U-boat traffic with unprecedented accuracy. Using that knowledge in a productive fashion was hampered by political infighting and an obsession with secrecy however.

The first parts of Dead Wake are packed with detail about the great liner itself, shipboard life, and life aboard a U-boat. We learn much about many of the passengers, the captain and figures in both Great Britain and America, notably Churchill and President Wilson. While this was interesting to a degree I found much of it tedious. I can't quite see the relevance of Larsen's account of President Wilson's concurrent romantic pursuit of Edith Galt to the subject at hand for instance. Only in the immediate lead-up to the sinking of the ship and the disaster itself did I feel any dramatic tension and emotional involvement. 

The Admiralty was quick to single out Captain Turner as a culprit but were unable to make it stick. Their knowledge of U-boat 20's movement could have been used to avert the disaster but the obsession with secrecy overrode all other considerations. Added to this was the indefensible policy of not going to the aid of survivors of U-boat attacks in fear of losing the rescuing ships; a policy which insured the loss of many more lives which might have been saved. To me it was just another instance of stupidity in a remarkably senseless war; a war that wiped out out an entire generation in Europe.

I have been a fan of Erik Larson's work since The Devil in the White City, but Dead Wake was a bit of a disappointment to me. I could not help comparing the emotional immediacy of Walter Lord's A Night to Remember and finding Dead Wake lacking. I do appreciate the strength of Larsen's research and conclusions and do recommend it to anyone interested in WWI and naval history. Thanks to and Crown Books for an advance digital copy.

RATING- 3 Stars

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