Book review: Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania |

Book review: Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania

Candace Peterson/For the Steamboat Pilot & Today

May marks the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the luxury liner Lusitania, and once again, Erik Larson, author of “The Devil in the White City” and “The Garden of Beasts” provides great historical detail of a world-changing event. Using information from historical records, letters and journal entries, Larson masterfully weaves the story of this luxury liner and how politics, economics, technology and weather contributed to this fateful event, one that pushed America ever closer to joining the hostilities of World War I.

It was 1915, and Europe was at war. The British government was hoping the U.S. would become involved and provide much-needed help. President Woodrow Wilson, as most of the country, was hesitant to become involved. Wilson had just suffered the loss of his wife and was finding it difficult to focus on his duties due to depression and loneliness.

The captain of the Lusitania, William Turner, and the Cunard Cruise line felt comfortable with the sailing of the Lusitania, despite the war and despite a specific threat issued the day the Lusitania sailed from New York, as no other luxury liner had been in danger. Captain Turner had great faith in the gentlemanly strictures of war and the fact he was piloting the fastest ship then in service and could outrun any threat.

Walther Schwieger, captain of the German submarine, was of the understanding from German naval authorities that any ship was fair game and the captain would be rewarded based on the tonnage of ships sunk, regardless of the type of ship.

The British government’s surveillance team in Room 40 was in secret possession of a German code book and was able to decipher messages from German submarines. They were aware that there were many submarines in the seas around England and issued unfortunately confusing warnings to ships sailing the British Isles.

Larson writes parallel stories about these two very skilled captains and their ships, contrasting the beauty and opulence of the luxury liner with the hot foul-smelling interior of the submarine, which was maneuvered at times by the men running back and forth.

The weather around England was occasionally foggy, which forced submarines to the surface and put them at risk of being rammed. Fog also caused ships on the surface to run slower to prevent ramming another ship. The day the Lusitania was to make port, there was intermittent fog that lifted shortly before the German sub-marine was to return home.

All of these events combined to put the Lusitania in harm’s way. The result was a tragedy that might have been prevented if the timing on any one of these events had been different.

This book is history that reads like a great novel of an event many of us know very little about. It is an enthralling account of the hunter and the hunted. A must read.

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