The Lusitania sank almost 101 years ago, but the mystery, controversy and misconceptions surrounding the ship remain.
Or at least they do until you read Dead Wake by Erik Larson.
Larson, who is known as a master of narrative non-fiction, takes on the sinking of the Lusitania in a well-documented and researched 350 pages.
Despite warnings about possible German U-Boats in the seas around Britain, Lusitania continued on, believing she would be immune to an attack because she was a passenger ship (albeit with caches of weapons in the cargo area–bound for Britain and her allies).
Larson documents the journey across the Atlantic (the boat left from New York) from the perspective of passengers aboard (relying on accounts given by survivors through the years), from America and London in a political sense, the German U-Boat which would ultimately sink Lusitania and from Room 40, the British Intelligence unit which intercepted and decoded German communications.
This was perhaps the most interesting part of the book for me. Winston Churchill, who was in charge of Room 40, had knowledge that wasn’t shared with Lusitania that might have saved her. He also had issued orders that no other ships were to go to the aid of submarine victims and called back the fastest rescue ship that tried to help after the torpedos had struck. All this in an effort to protect ANOTHER ship.
Larson portrays Churchill as desperate to get America involved in the war and even found quotes and accounts where he is said to have bragged about Lusitania or another passenger liner’s sinking being the straw breaking America’s back and dragging them into the war.
He was wrong, however.
One of the common misconceptions of history is just that: Lusitania’s sinking drew America into the war.
Larson points out in Dead Wake that America didn’t enter World War I for another two years. Although, it could be argued that had she not been sunk, the events that transpired over those two years may have been viewed differently.
I also liked that there were cameos by other historical figures of note (i.e. Hitler and a certain captain immortalized in “The Sound of Music.”)
Dead Wake was the first book by Larson I have read. I own two more and I’m excited to read them is this is any indication of how he writes. The research that was done is incredibly thorough and fascinating in its depth and range.
If you’re at all interested in history or naval intelligence, this book is a fascinating read. I would highly recommend it.