Book Review: Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania by Erik Larson

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 Dead Wake. It is loaded with facts about events leading up to the tragedy, the details of the sinking and some of its aftermath.

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Larson, an historian and author of The Devil in the White City, brings the sinking of the Lusitania 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 may have 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 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 also 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 the 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, Dead Wake 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 from Dead Wake. 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 Dead Wake 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.

For more historical goodness from Erik Larson, read my review of The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz.

Dead Wake pin

10 thoughts on “Book Review: Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania by Erik Larson

  1. Hi Michelle! I love Erik Larson’s books and just read this one last month. I learned alot too, I really didn’t remember much of the history of the ship. Larson is so great putting together the pieces of the puzzle, he keeps me riveted. I really was on the edge of my seat to find out what happened to that Charles Dickens manuscript! And learning about how different people were saved (or not) from the open waters was heartwrenching. Great read and review!


    • Hey, Jenny! Good point about the description of the “survival process”. I found myself wondering how I would have handled it if I’d been a passenger. Would I have made it into a lifeboat, or ended up bobbing upside down in the ocean because I put my life jacket on incorrectly? It’s both fascinating and horrifying to think about.


  2. Hi Michelle🙋, having read Larsen’s Devil in the White City, I was anxious to get my hands on another of his books. I am currently reading Dead Wake. If you’ve not already read “Devil”, you’re in for a big treat. It was fascinating. Now I need to get back to reading “Dead Wake” which Ive just dipped into.


    • Thanks for the comment! I’ve been avoiding “The Devil in the White City” because I’m a little squeamish about the subject matter. I’ve heard such good things about it that I think I just need to get over my squeamishness and read it.


  3. Michelle! Just a couple of weeks ago decided on this book, at your recommendation. I’m about 1/4 of the way through and find it a fantastic read! Will send on more thoughts as I get further along.


  4. Pingback: Christmas Gift Ideas for the Readers in Your Life | Book Thoughts from Bed

  5. Hi. “Devil in White City” was a little grim because of the serial killer factor (!) but “Isaac’s Storm” by the same author is very good. It’s about the 1900 Galveston, TX hurricane and there was a great loss of life (so not a cheery read) but it was pretty fascinating, as are all of Larson’s books.


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  7. Pingback: Book Review: The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz by Erik Larson | Book Thoughts from Bed

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