On May 1, 1915, with WWI entering its tenth month, a luxury ocean liner as richly appointed as an English country house sailed out of New York, bound for Liverpool, carrying a record number of children and infants. The passengers were surprisingly at ease, even though Germany had declared the seas around Britain to be a war zone. For months, German U-boats had brought terror to the North Atlantic. But the Lusitania was one of the era’s great transatlantic “Greyhounds”—the fastest liner then in service—and her captain, William Thomas Turner, placed tremendous faith in the gentlemanly strictures of warfare that for a century had kept civilian ships safe from attack.
Germany, however, was determined to change the rules of the game, and Walther Schwieger, the captain of Unterseeboot-20, was happy to oblige. Meanwhile, an ultra-secret British intelligence unit tracked Schwieger’s U-boat, but told no one. As U-20 and the Lusitania made their way toward Liverpool, an array of forces both grand and achingly small—hubris, a chance fog, a closely guarded secret, and more—all converged to produce one of the great disasters of history.
Erik Larson’s Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania is a spellbinding retelling of World War I history, global political machinations, and devastating maritime disaster. The story explores the journey of the great ocean liner leading up to the inevitable tragedy, painting the Lusitania as a linchpin—a turning point toward modern warfare as the code of honor with which war had been fought was shattered, and a rung in the ladder of America’s climb to a world power.
The first hundred pages begin slowly, setting the stage for the reader with information about the war, the ship, and her captain. Once the ship gets underway, so too does the story. Larson takes the reader aboard the ship and the U-20, into the White House and Room 40. The tale brings historical figures to life on the page. Some characters were more interesting than others, and one of particular note was Charles Lauriat, an antiquarian bookseller. Both Germany and Britain are painted in a less than favorable light, and Captain Schwieger takes on the role of a chilling villain as he steers his U-boat closer into position. The characters of Woodrow Wilson and Edith Bolling Galt provided a romantic subplot, but one that was not entirely necessary for the story.
Close to 1,200 people perished with the sinking of the Lusitania, and Larson’s well-crafted retelling is a stellar tribute to those lost. The book is not solely about the event; rather, Larson delves into the era as a whole, transporting the reader to the second decade of the twentieth century with rich detail and a riveting writing style. Dead Wake is a tense, suspenseful tale, and with each page, the reader is drawn ever closer to the tragic end.
Highly recommended to those who are fans of nonfiction, particularly nonfiction focused on global politics, the world wars, and maritime disasters