The #1 New York Times best-selling author of In the Garden of Beasts presents a 100th-anniversary chronicle of the sinking of the Lusitania that discusses the factors that led to the tragedy and the contributions of such figures as President Wilson, bookseller Charles Lauriat and architect Theodate Pope Riddle.
During WWI, the German navy was far smaller than the famous British equivalent, except that they had invested in U-Boats that could travel undetected and sink ships without being discovered. These early submarines were not the safest of environments, and their weapons were not entirely reliable. Still, they had a huge impact on naval warfare, leading to the end of large battles involving many ships. Instead, submarines patrolled the waters around harbors and shipping lanes, sinking merchant vessels carrying armaments and supplies. The problem came when British ships began flying the flags of neutral countries when moving through high-risk areas, and American ships began carrying armaments and other supplies.
The British were desperate for the US to join the war. Americans were just as determined to avoid Old World conflicts. Germany was angry about their ships being held in American ports. The Lusitania's planned voyage from New York to Liverpool in May, 1915 was a risky one, given that the Germans had posted warnings in the New York papers that directly mentioned her. But the travelers on board, as well as the crew, were confident that the ship's speed (much faster than that of any submarine) as well as the expectation of an escort of British destroyers as soon as the ship reached British waters, protected the ship from any potential harm.
The actual sinking of the Lusitania occurred only because of an unlikely conflux of events, not the least of which were confusing information sent to the ship, the British government's need for American involvement in the war, the weather, and the randomness of timing. Still, it was a disaster, with nearly 1,200 people dead as a result. The book's most interesting chapters naturally surrounded the events during and immediately after the ship was hit by a German torpedo. Despite the high number of dead, including many Americans, it would be another two years before the US entered WWI, but the sinking of the Lusitania did have a great affect on changing American attitudes towards that war.
Larson writes ably, and certainly researched the subject in an exhaustive manner. This sometimes resulted in a book that tried to pack too much in, with superfluous information about random passengers bogging down the narrative rather than enhancing the story. Still, this is a very readable and accessible book about an important event that is not well remembered. It was certainly worth the time it took to read and I enjoyed it.
Larson tells the story by repeatedly shifting focus – from passengers and crew on board the Lusitania; to politicians in Washington, London, and Berlin; to the crew of the U-20. The Lusitania passengers are the most poignant, as the reader is left guessing until the last minute who will survive and who will drown. As in many disaster books, Larson stresses the series of coincidences that brought Lusitania and U-20 together: The Lusitania suffered a couple of minor delays leaving the dock in New York; had she been even a few minutes earlier U-20 wouldn’t have been in position to attack her. Lusitania had lost track of her exact position while traveling through fog patches; she did some turns to allow her navigators to take multiple bearings on a prominent coastal landmark, and one of these turned brought her in perfect position for U-20. German torpedoes at the time were notoriously unreliable, but the single one fired at Lusitania worked just fine.
Larson clears up some of the questions raised by Simpson – or at least provides plausible answers to them. There was a mysterious “second explosion” on Lusitania after the torpedo hit, remarked on both by surviving passengers and the crew of the U-20; Simpson implies this was an illegal cargo of high explosives shipped in disguise. Larson speculates it was a steam explosion caused cold seawater encountering superheated steam pipes- and notes that’s what Captain Turner thought it was too. Larson also explains why Lusitania sank so quickly; she had longitudinal coal bunkers that ran along her sides for her entire length. This has been insisted on by the Admiralty when they partially funded her construction; they provided additional protection against shellfire and the Admiralty planned to use Lusitania as a merchant cruiser or troop transport in event of war (her sister Mauretania was used as a troopship but Lusitania was deemed unsuitable because she burned too much coal). While the coal bunkers doubtless would have provided some protection against shellfire they were worse than useless against a torpedo, allowing flooding all along the ship’s length once breached. Larson doesn’t resolve the question of the three German stowaways, though; three men, speaking only German and carrying cameras were found onboard the Lusitania after she sailed. Simpson implies the men were trying to photograph evidence that Lusitania was armed; Larson just notes they were captured and locked in Lusitania’s brig (where they presumably still are, as no one let them out before she sank).
Larson has a salient advantage that Simpson didn’t; at the time Simpson was writing (1974) the activities of the WWI Admiralty codebreakers (“Room 40”) hadn’t been declassified yet. Larson is therefore able to document what the Royal Navy knew about U-20 on the basis of radio decrypts. Ironically that wasn’t as much as might be expected; WWI radios were relatively short range and although the U-20 was tracked as she left base, she stopped transmitting once she got about 100 miles away since she was out of radio range. The Admiralty did know that a submarine was operating along the expected route of the Lusitania, since U-20 had sunk a small sailing vessel after allowing the crew to board lifeboats, and they reported once reaching shore. Larson contrasts the Admiralty’s attitude toward Lusitania with their attitude toward the dreadnaught Orion; after Orion finished repairs at Devonport, she was sent north to join the Home Fleet at Scapa Flow – heavily escorted and warned against U-boats – while the Lusitania, transiting roughly the same area, was left on her own. (Larson notes that many of the passengers fully expected they would receive a Royal Navy escort).
I’m not really satisfied with either book. Simpson’s is obsolete, given the absence of “Room 40” information, and is too dedicated to proving his theory. Larson is more readable but I’d like less focus on people and more on things – more details on how Lusitania was built and operated. I suppose I’ll have to track down yet another book.
I was interested in the topic (for decades I’ve been interested in the Titanic) and knew I’d previously enjoyed books by this author so I was excited to read the book as an informal buddy read in my favorite Goodreads group. I wasn’t disappointed. I could have assigned this book 5 stars, or maybe even 3, so I went with 4 stars.
I love this author’s writing style; his nonfiction books are great for readers who think they don’t enjoy nonfiction. I also appreciate how his nonfiction is 100% factual. For instance, what is in quotes was really said or written, and he does extensive research.
I recommend if reading this book going in as ignorant as possible and resisting urges to do research until after finishing the book – even looking up maps, deck plans, and definitely people provided spoilers I’d rather have done without. I still really enjoyed the book. Re the non-fiction, I’d read a lot outside that book that didn’t make it into the book. I suspect that information didn’t pass muster with the author. He writes at the end how there is a lot of misinformation out there about the Lusitania. But the map provided is not at all sufficient. I would have appreciated more maps and images, including photographs. I got those in the other two books I’ve read so far by this author. If all this had been included I wouldn't have felt such a strong urge to do further research outside the book and wouldn’t have found out more than I wanted to know. At 39% through the book I stopped looking up information and just read the rest of the book.
The book read quickly and easily and completely held my interest.
I appreciated that so much general history of the era was covered. I got a much better sense of historical figures as people (President Wilson, Winston Churchill, etc.) and enjoyed the cameos (Hitler and Captain Von Trapp, etc.); it did give me insight into the time and the Lusitania’s place within that time and place(s). However, by the end of the book I wasn’t completely satisfied by how it all worked. For some people/events it felt as though there was not enough and for others too much.
I did care a great deal about most of the people the reader gets to know. There was great suspense. I felt as though I got a good feel for how it must have felt to be involved. I liked all the details; it helped me understand everyone and everything. I was surprised at
I felt infuriated by this event, as there were so many ways it could have been prevented, and I think that there was plenty of blame to go around.
It’s a very sad story, but there is humor, and I didn’t find most of it depressing. One person who was depressed anyway, in a way I found those parts harder to read than reading about the actual tragedy. The kids were hard to read about, and because I got invested in the characters early on, I correctly guessed that it would be difficult to read about what happened after the ship was attacked.
The book proper goes through only page 359. That’s all I’ve read so far and all I’d planned to read, until darn it re the author, the last line of page 359 has me about to read the notes, or at least skim and read them. They go from pages 361-410. (Pages 411-418 is the index.)
For any reader interested in the Lusitania, this is the book I’d recommend, at least as the first book.
Larson does much more than set facts straight, however, he tells the story - of the passengers, the crew of the Lusitania (including poor maligned Captain Turner) and the U-boat which sank her, and the powers behind the disaster, including naval intelligence and President Wilson. Sharing the tragedy, if not the fame, of the Titanic three years earlier, over a thousand men, women and children lost their lives when the Lusitania was attacked off the coast of Ireland on 7 May 1915, and all because the Admiralty would not risk drawing attention to 'Room 40', the secret code-breaking team who knew ahead of the attack that Captain Schweiger and his U20 were lying in wait, but refused to send warning or assistance.
A dramatic, personal and educational account, well worth reading.
With his latest work, ‘Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania’, Erik Larson has proven that he is one of those few talented authors who can tell such a story, a story of tragedy and loss, and do it in such a way that for a few seconds the reader almost believes that it might end differently. His narrative skill is such that the reader finds himself watching the magnificent liner approach through a periscope knowing that it must change direction and sail away at the last instant. Then we are up on the boat deck of the Lusitania, enjoying the warm blue sky and watching the coast of Ireland slide by in the distance. We stand with the passengers and watch a torpedo as it streaks through the crystal waters and disappears below the edge of the deck thinking, like the passengers, for a brief second that nothing bad could happen in such an idyllic setting. Then the second passes and reader and passenger are wrenched from that scene of pastoral beauty into a Boschian chaos of twisted metal and broken bodies.
It is this great storyteller’s ability to take dry words from telegrams, court depositions and government reports and turn them into lenses that we can use to see, and even relive, the past that makes Larson one of the very few authors whose books I would preorder sight unseen. One scene towards the end was described in such poignant detail that it engaged all of my senses.
As President Woodrow Wilson drove to the Capitol to ask Congress for a declaration or war, “a spring rain fell, soft and fragrant; the streets gleamed from the ornate lamps along Pennsylvania Avenue. The dome of the Capitol was lit for the first time in the building’s history [and] stood in solemn splendor against the dark wet sky. Despite the rain, hundreds of men and women lines the avenue. They removed their hats and watched with somber expressions as the president passed slowly in his car, surrounded by soldiers on horseback, as clear a sign as any of what was to come.”
Larson’s other books, ‘The Devil in the White City’ and ‘Isaac’s Storm’; reside in a place of honor on my bookshelf. Now they will be joined by With ‘Dead Wake’. Now all that remains is to wonder what historic gem will spark his curiosity next.
*Quotations are cited from an advanced reading copy and may not be the same as appears in the final published edition. The review book was based on an advanced reading copy obtained at no cost from the publisher in exchange for an unbiased review. While this does take any ‘not worth what I paid for it’ statements out of my review, it otherwise has no impact on the content of my review.
”The track lingered on the surface like a long pale scar. In maritime vernacular, this trail of fading disturbance, whether from ship or torpedo, was called a “dead wake.” . . . The smoothness of the sea presented some passenger with a view of the torpedo that was startling in its clarity.”
The Lusitania’s passenger list is not just dry facts; Larson fleshes out many of the passengers from the memories of survivors and from their own journals. He brings a bit of the story of President Wilson – his wife’s death, his subsequent courting of another, and his new marriage – into the history of WWI, and without saying so explicitly, how his personal life interfered with the country’s needs.
A crucial part of the story of the catastrophe was the work of Room 40 in England, a secret corner of British Naval Intelligence, where they would receive 20,000 intercepted U-boat messages during the war. They knew their paths, their quadrants, their codes, each commander, and his kills. They knew U-20 was directly in the path of the Lusitania, that it had already sunk 3 other ships that day, and that 23 other merchant vessels had been torpedoed and sunk by U-boats in the previous 7 days along that portion of the coast.
“… the question remains, why was the ship left on its own, with a proven killer of men and ships dead ahead in its path?”
A fascinating story of that piece of history, engagingly told.
Without realizing it at the time, I took this book out of the library on the one-hundredth anniversary of the sinking of RMS Lusitania. Reading of the events leading up to, during, and following this major marine catastrophe as they unfolded in the hours and days surrounding her torpedoing on May 7th of 1915 added an unexpected measure of drama to the experience.
Larson's book bears comparison to Walter Lord's A Night to Remember, a narrative account of the loss of the Titanic just three years earlier. Both present a description of the ship, a sketch of key personnel and a selection of passengers, and a minute-by-minute account of the climactic events as they happened. Both bring an up-close-and-personal perspective to our comprehension of a tragedy that is very difficult to encompass on the large scale.
And, significantly, both of them catalogue a staggering list of if-only's, all the factors that had to happen just so in order for the disaster to occur, a minor variation in which--even by a matter of only a few seconds--might have averted the fatal outcome.
The crucial difference, of course, is that whereas the Titanic disaster came about as the result of a collision with an iceberg, with an ample helping of human error and hubris in the mix, the Lusitania was deliberately sunk by a German U-boat committing an act of war. And, as the text makes very clear, that act could have been prevented if a number of people possessed of critical information had taken the necessary steps. Accident, error, delay, miscalculation, design flaws, inattention, stupidity, coincidence, and many other everyday mishaps had their part to play; but worst of all was the conscious choice on the part of certain officials to leave the vessel unescorted and issue a vague, ambiguous warning about the presence of danger. Whatever rationale guided that course of action, nearly 1200 passengers and crew on a commercial ocean liner paid the price, along with their families, friends, and fellow countrymen.
Larson's telling sets a solid framework on both sides of the Atlantic, from an emotionally preoccupied American president to the high-stakes military operations of Britain and Germany. Personal effects and diaries of victims along with records of survivors and eyewitnesses bring the story home. A hundred years is not such a long time; it's much too soon to forget.
The subtitle is all the synopsis you need: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania.
As he did in Isaac’s Storm, Larson uses tidbits found in research materials from a variety of sources to flesh out a narrative tale of a great disaster. This time, the disaster is man-made, however.
Larson shifts perspective from the Lusitania, her passengers and crew, to U-20 (the German submarine that would successfully sink her), to Room 40 (the British intelligence office that had information that might have avoided the disaster if it had been properly shared. In this way the reader gets a much more complete picture of what was happening – and why – than the poor souls who lived (or died) through this tragedy. It’s a compelling story, which completely captured my interest despite my knowing how it would turn out.
Scott Brick does a good job reading the audiobook. His delivery is rather dry, but this is fine for a work of nonfiction. He was still able to lend a sense of the panic and distress of the passengers, Captain and crew of the Lusitania, though this is probably more attributable to Larson’s writing than to Brick’s performance.
The author combines human interest stories of major historical figures and the lesser known, but no less important, people in the story. It this author's appreciation of the minor characters' stories that keeps the reader's interest in the story. We not only read about the emotional turmoil in Woodrow Wilson's life but also the seven year old boy with measles who was a passenger on the ship.
The book points out the conundrum on the use and usefulness of covert intelligence, when the intelligence officers refuse to use the information gained to prevent disasters because it would risk exposure of the intelligence service. It does not answer the question of whether there was indeed deliberate inaction on the part of Great Britain in order to draw the U.S. into the war. But Winston Churchill does not come out of this story smelling like a rose.
Before reading this book, I was aware of the horrible acts of war in the trenches during WWI, but I was not aware of the ruthlessness of German submarine warfare with even the crudest submarine equipment.
The release of this book is timely since we are approaching the 100th anniversary of the loss of the Lusitania and it helps the reader put this event into perspective with regard to WWI.
I am reviewing the Advance Readers Edition, which does not include maps or photographs. I will look at the book once it's released in the book stores, because I would have appreciated maps....instead I kept my tablet device at my side with maps available while reading.
Looking back through history from a distance allows secret documents to be declassified, as well as physical evidence and key personalities to be exposed. Larson's surprising (at least to me) revelations of what he found pose some very important questions about international politics and how nations conduct themselves. One cannot ignore the price of war on all sides that is so vivid and heartbreaking. This book has it all.
Written to commemorate the 100th Anniversary of the sinking of the Lusitania, a Cunard passenger liner sunk by a German U-Boat, Larson's account differs in several ways from other well-known books produced on the subject. Diana Preston's LUSITANIA: An Epic Tragedy, published in 2002, is one of the best-written accounts of the disaster. The difference between Preston's work and Larson's might be found in the subtitle of the Larson book which emphasizes the crossing while Preston's book is most memorable for its account of the sinking and its aftermath, particularly accounts of survival. No one can read Preston's book without feeling as if he/she is clinging to a piece of wreckage in a cold, spring sea awaiting rescue. No one can read Larson's book and not feel like the proverbial fly on the wall in the infamous Room 40 of the British Admiralty. While Preston addressed Room 40, in Larson's writing, the room takes on a role and becomes a character (albeit not a very appealing one) in its own right.
Larson skillfully gets into the mindset of Winston Churchill and how determined he was to see America enter the war. In the States, Larson goes back in time and brings President Woodrow Wilson to life through a love affair that seemed to take up more of his time than thinking about the suitability of America's neutrality. Yet Larson allows readers to see Wilson in a most human light; perhaps the love affair gave him the strength for the decisions he had to make later. While the reader feels a connection with Wilson and also with the much-maligned but ultimately blameless Captain of the Lusitania, Captain Turner, utter horror and strong dislike is brought out when we read about Captain Schwieger of U-Boat 20 and, in a strange way, perhaps even more when we examine the real-life characters and goings-on within the Admiralty's Room 40. Germany and Britain both emerge as more than a bit despicable.
The pluses of Larson's latest work are his acute examination of Room 40, his up-close look at Woodrow Wilson, and his ability to swing between the behind-the-scenes action and balance his discoveries with a conventional but absorbing look at some of the passengers on board the Lusitania all while building a true and terrifying suspense in the narrative. His profile of Charles Lauriat, Boston bookseller and collector of rare documents and drawings, is excellent. One senses that Larson was truly interested in Lauriat and might, having not been faced with producing a book to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the Lusitania's sinking, have chosen Lauriat as a sole subject for a book or article.
Erik Larson can never disappoint. Whether one reads a great deal about WWI history, maritime disasters, or early 1900s international politics, there is something new to be learned in DEAD WAKE. For those who have read very little about the Lusitania, this book is an excellent starting point. As mentioned before, Diana Preston's LUSITANIA: An Epic Tragedy tells a similar story but with a slightly different approach. Both books have something to offer, but Larson's, being newer, may include some fresh revelations about the history we thought we knew.
I was ashamed to say but no longer am because Larson, himself, admits the same: I always thought that the U.S. entered World War I immediately after the Germans torpedoed and sank the "Lusitania." Larson lays out the truth, beginning with background. That can form the basis for educated guesses about what happened later and why.
For me, the biggest mysteries of this story are what the English knew ahead of time, why they didn't notify the captain of the "Lusitania" when they knew it, and why they continued to lie about it. Was this an effort to involve the U.S. in this war in Europe? Or were the English trying to mislead the Germans?
I came to a conclusion. But that's because I read it all.
Mr. Larson sets up his account on a day-to-day basis, covering not only what's happening on board the ship during its voyage from New York to Liverpool, but he covers what's going on in London, Washington DC, and occasionally Berlin. He also presents the unique perspective of the commander of the U-20, who ultimately gave the order to launch the torpedo that sunk the Lusitania. He brings together and explains a "chance confluence of forces" that led to the sinking, beginning in New York the day of the Lusitania's departure. He also reveals the story of the very hush-hush "Room 40," and how this secret "holy of holies" run by Winston Churchill had information regarding U-20 that somehow failed to be provided to the Lusitania's captain, which in hindsight would have saved hundreds of lives. All of this is related in an account that grabs the reader's attention from the very beginning, then in Larson's very capable hands, builds little by little, gaining in suspense and tension all the way through to the end. I mean, come on ... we know the ship sinks ... it's the getting there and the unfolding of all of the "confluence of forces" that kept me hanging onto each word.
The reader does not need to have any sort of background in history nor does he or she need to know anything at all about the Lusitania to enjoy this book -- everything is so well explained here that you could absolutely hate history before going into Dead Wake, and come out a huge fan of this little slice of it. My biggest issue with this book is that I don't understand why he felt the need to include Woodrow Wilson's ongoing courtship of second wife Edith, a topic that took up way too much space and almost made Wilson's role as president superfluous until the events of 1917 that ended American neutrality.
I am so happy to have read this book -- and it certainly was an eye-opener for me. There is so much going on here, but as always, Larson keeps tight control over the material, making it flow like a novel. I am also happy to recommend it to anyone who is a regular Larson reader or anyone even remotely interested in the topic. To use an old cliché, I could not put this book down -- it's that good.
Larson does include an epilogue concerning the survivors, which is welcome information. Although, it would have been interesting for him to also include some information about any attempts to explore or salvage the wreckage.
Overall, this was a thorough and factual historical text that was not tedious or tiresome to read. Recommended.