When the Lusitania set out from New York on May 1, 1915, the state-of-the-art British passenger liner epitomized the best that ocean-going travel offered at the time in terms of luxury, speed and safety. Under ordinary circumstances, passengers would have boarded the ship that day with every confidence of a pleasant journey consumed with lounging in deck chairs, gourmet meals and, yes, shuffleboard.
But circumstances were far from ordinary. The war raging through Europe was deeply concerning, even if the United States was not yet a combatant. More alarming was the warning – issued by the German embassy just prior to the Lusitania’s departure – that ships passing through the fiercely contested North Atlantic did so at considerable risk. Passenger ships not excluded.
Sure enough, the Lusitania was fatally torpedoed by a lurking German U-boat off the coast of Ireland after nearly a week at sea and little more than a day before its expected arrival in Liverpool. The sinking resulted in the deaths of more than 60 per cent of the nearly 2,000 people aboard, counting passengers, crew members and, ironically, three captured German stowaways. In the 20/20 perfection of hindsight, this gruesome result seemed almost inevitable.
But the outcome, as Erik Larson so brilliantly elucidates in Dead Wake, his detailed forensic and utterly engrossing account of the Lusitania’s last voyage, had as much to do with chance as it did with fate. The vessel’s belated departure from New York, the unpredictable shifts in weather, the many small decisions made by the captains of both the luxury liner and the U-boat, and innumerable other circumstances all contributed to placing the Lusitania in precisely the wrong place at exactly the wrong time.
May 7 will mark the centenary of the Lusitania’s sinking. Because a significant number of Americans were among the dead (123 by Larson’s count), the incident has often been hailed – wrongly, it should be said – as the Pearl Harbor of the First World War, the event that finally roused the United States from its isolationist slumber. In reality, President Woodrow Wilson waited nearly another two years before finally declaring war on Kaiser Wilhelm’s Germany.
Larson, whose most recent book, In the Garden of Beasts, focused on the U.S. ambassador to Germany during the Nazi takeover in the 1930s, has conjured another masterful historical recreation. Yes, we know how the story of the Lusitania ends, but there’s still plenty of white-knuckle tension. In Dead Wake, he delivers such a marvellously thorough evocation of the ship’s last week that it practically begs Hollywood blockbuster treatment.
In the principal roles we have a fascinating study in contrast: William Turner, the supremely able but aloof captain of the Cunard-owned Lusitania, and Walther Schwieger, the genial but coldly predatory commander of German submarine Unterseeboot-20. There’s President Wilson, who distracted himself from the daily reports of carnage in Europe by falling madly in love with the widow Edith Galt. (So smitten was Wilson that he seemed more disconsolate about Galt’s initial refusal of marriage than by word of the Lusitania’s demise.) And the rest of the Downton Abbey-worthy supporting cast is large and colourful, including New York bookseller Charles Lauriat, who was transporting a priceless edition of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, and famed suffragist Margaret Mackworth. Their written first-hand accounts of the sinking enrich Larson’s narrative invaluably. Then there were the many stirring acts of heroism that occurred during and after the 18 minutes it took for the ship to sink, as passengers risked their own lives to save others and an impromptu flotilla of Irish trawlers and fishing boats rushed out from the coast to rescue survivors and recover the dead.
Just as interesting as his characterization of the passengers is Larson’s attention to engineering. It might not sound like a formula for fascination, but the unsparingly detailed descriptions of the mechanical workings of both the Lusitania, with its vast and lavish staterooms, and the German U-boat, with its exceedingly cramped quarters, are anything but dull. There’s also a significant subplot involving the tracking of U-20 by a secret arm of British intelligence which, unbeknownst to the enemy, was capable of deciphering the German military’s coded messages. As a consequence of its spying, the British Admiralty knew a lot more about the Lusitania’s impending peril than it was prepared to share – before or after. Under the leadership of the Admiralty’s First Lord, Winston Churchill (as much the goat of the First World War as he was the hero of the Second), government officials cynically blamed the Lusitania’s faultless captain for what happened. If the Admiralty understood the Lusitania was in danger, why was nothing done to warn the ship or, later, to help rescue survivors? Is it possible, as has been credibly suggested, that the British turned a blind eye, callously weighing the cost of life against the potential benefit of drawing the U.S. into the war? If so, British officialdom was surely dismayed by Wilson’s steadfast unwillingness to be provoked – his cautiousness shared at the time by influential newspaper editorialists and the American public in general. Eventually, sufficient provocation did come in the form of a German promise to help Mexico recover lost territory in Texas, Arizona and New Mexico if Mexico eventually joined the German side.
Larson doesn’t side with – or against – the conspiracy theorists, although he clearly thinks the suspicions have some validity. Inevitably, not all of the questions concerning the Lusitania’s fate are answered in Dead Wake, but the virtuosity of the storytelling is watertight.
Vit Wagner is a Toronto writer and teacher.
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