The Digital Bookshelf | Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania

Dead Wake

Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania | Erik Larson

I’ve been on a history kick of late. The first book of Larson’s I read was The Devil in the White City, which was about the World’s Fair in Chicago and how a serial killer used the fair to lure his victims. If you haven’t read it yet, I would highly recommend.  The second book of his I read was In the Garden of Beasts, which will be getting it’s own post so we will come back to that at another time.

Dead Wake is Larson’s most recent book:

“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.

It is a story that many of us think we know but don’t, and Erik Larson tells it thrillingly, switching between hunter and hunted while painting a larger portrait of America at the height of the Progressive Era. Full of glamour and suspense, Dead Wake brings to life a cast of evocative characters, from famed Boston bookseller Charles Lauriat to pioneering female architect Theodate Pope to President Woodrow Wilson, a man lost to grief, dreading the widening war but also captivated by the prospect of new love. 

Gripping and important, Dead Wake captures the sheer drama and emotional power of a disaster whose intimate details and true meaning have long been obscured by history.”

I would guess most people are aware of the Lusitania (or recognize the name at least) and the significance of it’s sinking. Me, I thought I remembered that it was the reason the U.S. joined World War I – an immediate rise by the US to help defeat the Germans. Turns out that it took the US two additional years after the sinking to actually join the war.

The above description hooked me in, and yet I was still surprised at how engaging this book was. A lot of history books can be dry – the kind of book you would read before you head to bed to help make the eyes a bit sleepier. This book, however, was not one of those. Using excerpts from letters, diaries, logs, and other source documents, Larson skillfully weaves several different story lines to give life to all sides of that fateful voyage, the events leading up to it, and the aftermath.

You’ll read about the Lusitania, its captain and the passengers (the whole time wondering whether this passenger or that one would be one of the lucky ones or if their fate was doomed), the atmosphere on the ship crossing, and why they thought this ship was unsinkable (and were sorely mistaken).

You’ll get a glimpse into the pressures faced by Woodrow Wilson, President of a country determined to avoid going to war (the US was an isolationist country that issued one threat after another to Germany to cease all attacks on neutral ships and yet would not deliver on those threats – and with good reason as the country was ill-prepared to enter a war).

You’ll see what it was like on the other side deep down in the sea – what it was actually like to live on a U boat (spoiler – horrible), the dangers those men faced (death by all sorts of manners), and the incentives for sinking Lusitania.

And, you’ll get a peek into the British intelligence (intelligence that high level officials weren’t even aware existed) and their tracking of the German U boats. You’ll have to decide for yourself whether or not you think that the British let the Lusitania be attacked to ignite the US to join the war.

For those interested in history, and even those who aren’t, I highly recommend this book.