Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania by Erik Larson
DEAD WAKE: THE LAST CROSSING OF THE LUSITANIA is the story of a horrific event that ended the lives of over 1,000 people. The sinking also played a key role in changing America’s view toward Germany, and helped change America’s “neutral” position in World War I. It was two years after this sinking that the United States declared war on Germany.
Recall that at this time America was not yet in the was against Germany; America was neutral. Over in England, Churchill hoped this would change: “For our part, we want the traffic--the more the better; and if some of it gets into trouble, better still.” Britain had hopes that somehow, the U.S would "feel moved to join the Allies, and in so doing tip the balance irrevocably in their favor.”
The Lusitania was a gigantic ship. To give you an idea of the size of the ship, there were 192 furnaces on board powering the gigantic turbines. Just to keep the ship running, there were a hundred stokers working each shift, shoveling a thousand tons of coal a day.
At the helm of the ship was the experienced Captain Turner. The author notes that the captain was “the most seasoned captain at Canard Lines--the Commodore of the line. He had confronted all men in a manner of shipboard crises, including mechanical mishaps, fires, crocked furnaces, open sea rescues, and extreme weather of all kinds. He was said to be fearless.“
To set the stage for the Uboat attack, the author gives a background on submarine warfare: “The submarine as a weapon had come a long way by this time, certainly to the point where it killed its own cruise only rarely.” Life aboard a German U-boat was not very comfortable--hot, humid, and cramped: “When deep underwater the boat developed an interior atmospheric into that of a tropical swamp...caused by the heat generated by the men and by the still hot diesel engines.“
After the torpedo strike, the danger wasn't at first obvious to all passengers; the ship was so huge that some passengers thought it was nothing. One passenger recalled thinking, “Well, that wasn't so bad.“ On the other hand those near the bridge could sense the danger: “Those closest to the bridge felt the impact in a matter more vivid and tactile.“
After the attack, families panicked; few knew what to do or where to go. There were many families on board with lots of children, and they were spread throughout the huge ship. When the lights went off, panic settled in. Passengers didn't know where their families were--they didn't know where their spouses were.
Up on the bridge, the captain was giving orders to try to maneuver the ship so that the lifeboats could be launched. The lifeboats could not be lowered until the ship's momentum stopped. Plus, the ships tilting was making deployment of the lifeboats nearly impossible.
Even though the lifeboats could not be launched, passengers desperately began to try to get onboard: “The first attempts to launch the Lusitania lifeboats revealed the true degree of danger now facing the ship’s passengers.” Passengers began jumping in the boats, even though they couldn’t be lowered yet. One businessman even took out a pistol and forced a sailor to begin lowering the lifeboat. With the boats not safe for deployment, some passengers fell out of the boats the long ways into the ocean.
Ironically, prior to being attacked, Captain Turner had actually ordered lifeboats to be prepared in case of an emergency. “Turner was being prudent. If an emergency were to occur, the boats could be launched from this position more quickly, and with less hazard, but if they were still locked in there deep see positions.“
All in all DEAD WAKE is a horrifying story, full of grief and tragedy. The accounts of families struggling to survive after the attack are heart-breaking. Erik Larson does an excellent job at painting this terrible picture, as well as explaining the events surrounding WWI. This book is well-researched and supported by extensive references, providing sources for the main portion of the book.
Advance copy provided for impartial review.