Dead Wake by Erik Larsen

Dead Wake by Erik LarsenDead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania by Erik Larson (Broadway Books) One of the most shocking events that turned American sentiments regarding what would be later be called World War I was the sinking of the British passenger ship Lusitania on May 7, 1915, by torpedo from a German U-boat. On the hundredth anniversary of the disaster, Erik Larson’s Dead Wake presents the story on a personal level, introducing readers to the individuals whose lives intersected at sea that spring afternoon.

Relying a rich mine of archival and firsthand accounts, including telegrams, letters, photographs, ships’ logs, and memoirs, Larson is able to tease out the emotional layers of the events leading up the Lusitania tragedy. The tale is told from three primary perspectives: the passenger ship, the U-boat, and British intelligence. Larson also includes absorbing detours to the White House and Berlin.

The chapters focused on the Lusitania describe passengers, the crew, daily life, and Captain William Turner. We meet a young boy traveling second-class with his pregnant mother, two young photography buffs, and, of course, the rich and famous. Among the latter group was a Vanderbilt, a Boston bookseller, people from the theater, and the wife of an American ambassador. It’s interesting that several survivors commented on the crew’s daily lifeboat drill; unfortunately, many of those boats could not be launched after the ship was torpedoed.

Some of the most fascinating parts of Dead Wake described what it was like to be in a U-boat. The lack of visibility and the submarine’s vulnerability were the least of the hardships. The crew endured hours of foul odors and stale air, tight quarters, prohibition of proper cleanliness, and almost unbearable humidity, all the while dealing with the frightening thought of “slow suffocation in a darkened steel tube at the bottom of the sea.” The commander of U-boat 20 was Walther Schwieger, whose mission was to take down enemy ships. By including Schwieger’s reactions to the sinking of the Lusitania, Larson shows us the man not just the naval officer.

The third primary perspective was dispatches from Room 40, where London British intelligence listened in on German wireless communication, reporting, among other things, the location of U-boats. The men who worked there were able to track Schwieger fairly easily, because the German crew reported its position at regular intervals. Based on the facts, readers are able to draw their own conclusions about the intelligence team’s obligations to the Lusitania.

As submarine and passenger ship began to converge in the Irish Sea, Larson carefully builds the real-life tension. The U-boat crew missed a target, the fog hung heavy over the ocean, and Captain Turner weighed his options based on the tide and dispatches from London. When the torpedo finally hit, readers are caught up in the chaos and horror during the surprisingly little time available for passengers and crew to get off the ship and into lifeboats or directly into the ocean.

Dead Wake tracks the Lusitania from the pier in New York City to the cold waters off the coast of Ireland and then beyond to the rescue, investigation, and aftereffects of the disaster. Erik Larson’s easy-to-read, well-paced narrative highlights the personal stories, making this well-researched work about a pivotal point in history utterly spell-binding and completely accessible.