In “Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania”, author Erik Larson chronicles in great detail the sinking of the Lusitania by a German submarine during World War I. Lovers of history should really enjoy this book. It is loaded with facts about events leading up to the tragedy, the details of the sinking and some of its aftermath. Larson, an historian and author of “The Devil in the White City”, brings this event to life by providing details from a number of
sources, including firsthand accounts, newspaper articles, personal correspondence of passengers and even the captain’s log from the German submarine. The result is a well told accounting that actually had me pulling for the Lusitania even though I already knew the outcome.
We all probably remember the Lusitania from high school history class, but if you’re like me you’ve probably forgotten the details, so here are the facts in a nutshell. The Lusitania was a British passenger ship known for its size and speed. It was dubbed a “greyhound” because of its speed and agility, and thought to be a unsinkable (yep, just like the Titanic, which sank just a few years prior). When the Lusitania set sail from New York to England on May 1, 1915, Europe was at war but the US was happily neutral and isolated. The crew and passengers were mostly British, but there were 189 Americans on board. The morning the Lusitania sailed, Germany published a warning about traveling on ships flying the British flag, and in the meantime their submarines (aka U-boats) were sinking vessels in British waters. And sure enough, one of them sank the Lusitania on May 7 within sight of Irish coast and less than a day from their destination, Liverpool. 1,195 died, including 123 Americans, and there were 764 survivors. The US issued an appropriately grumbly message about the incident but didn’t enter the war until two years later.
Now, if that little history lesson was boring to you, this probably isn’t the book for you. This book is nonfiction and fat with facts. The author does try to engage you with some individual character development, but he’s limited to available facts (no fabricated relationships and dialogue ala the movie “Titanic”). But the information he includes is really interesting and provides context for the incident. I learned a lot. For example, there was sufficient intel to predict and probably prevent the attack. In fact, some conspiracy theorists think the British admiralty sacrificed the Lusitania as a way to get the US to join them in the war against Germany. I was also able to add “German U-boat crew member” to my list of jobs I would never, ever want to do, and the inside of a fully manned U-boat to my list of things I would never, ever want to smell.
Overall, I would recommend this book to people who enjoy history or want to learn more about the sinking of the Lusitania.
And if you’re interested in learning more about WWI and are in the Kansas City area, the WWI Museum at the Liberty Memorial is a must see. It is extremely well done.