With this month’s 100th anniversary commemoration of the sinking of the ocean liner Lusitania, Erik Larson’s bestselling Dead Wake is a fascinating, you-are-there retelling of an event that changed the course of history. Like his previous books (Thunderstruck and The Devil in the White City among them), Dead Wake’s narrative approach strikes a similar blend of historical fact, insider detail, and human emotion that has contributed to Larson’s literary success (though it doesn’t feature quite the same level of intensity as Isaac’s Storm, about the catastrophic Galveston hurricane of 1900, a must-read classic in the Larson catalog.)
Of course, Isaac’s Storm told of a very different kind of disaster. The sinking of the Lusitania on May 7, 1915, and the loss of its 1,198 passengers and crew, came just a handful of years after the Titanic tragedy. At the time, the fastest civilian vessel to be found on the high seas, the British-branded Lusitania, pride and glory of the Cunard line, was sailing in treacherous waters. World War I had begun, Germany was at war with Great Britain, and traffic across Atlantic shipping lanes was fair game for enemy submarines with torpedoes at the ready.
At the same time, the U.S. under President Woodrow Wilson had assumed a neutral stance in the conflict. And in one of those Larson touches that brings the dry subject of history to life, he presents us with a side of Wilson, then at a personal crossroads after the death of his wife, that is both affecting and haunting. His story is woven amidst the dangerous world circumstances that would lead to America’s inevitable involvement in WWI.
While Wilson served as captain of state, another captain, William Thomas Turner, was at the helm of the soon-to-be-doomed vessel that would prove the catalyst for America’s participation in the war. A bit oblivious to the hazards that surrounded him – a warning about the possibility of U-boat attacks was published in New York papers in the days immediately prior to the ship’s ill-fated voyage to Liverpool – Turner declared: “The truth is that the Lusitania is the safest boat on the sea. She is too fast for any submarine. No German war vessel can get her or near her.”
Unfortunately for Turner, he had a relentless and faceless adversary in the form of Walther Schwieger, German commander of the U-20 submarine that would soon bring about the Lusitania’s demise. Larson details all one needs to know — and more — about the inner workings of a vessel stealthily stalking prey from hundreds of feet under the sea, guided by a ruthless lieutenant who measured success only in terms of tonnage that he could bring under. When the time came, Schwieger needed only one torpedo to slay the mighty Lusitania. She sank in just 18 minutes, 11 miles off the coast of southern Ireland.
Not surprisingly, it’s the human stories, not the political machinations, technical details, or complicated spy codes, that linger after reading Dead Wake. Stories like that of the passenger Theodate Pope, an architect and spiritualist with deep forebodings about the voyage, left for dead after the recovery effort, only to be found alive by a fellow passenger. And then there’s Charles Lauriat, the bookseller who lost a fortune in priceless works by Thackeray and Dickens in the destruction, but was able to survive the sinking. And the woman who left a baby in the hands of a steward as she made her way to collect another of her children, never to see the infant again.
And of course, there are the curious twists of fate that always seem to surround great tragedies. Alfred Vanderbilt, of the American railroad and shipping fortune, had cancelled passage at the last minute on the Titanic three years earlier. But he pushed his luck when he booked on the Lusitania, where, Larson writes, Vanderbilt received an ominous telegram soon after boarding that read: “The Lusitania is doomed. Do not sail on her.” It was signed “Mort,” as in French for death. Vanderbilt wrote it off as “Probably somebody trying to have a little fun at my expense.” His body was never recovered.
(And perhaps the coincidence I found most amazing of all, that of a passenger who drowned on the Lusitania, only to have his remains placed on yet another ship that was also torpedoed and sunk on its way back to North America. What are the odds?)
Coincidence, however, did not play a part in the ultimate fates of the captains of the Titanic and the Lusitania. Unlike his colleague, Edward J. Smith, whose gallantry in going down with the Titanic became the stuff of legend, William Turner not only survived the sinking of the Lusitania, but also another incident of a torpedo attack on one of his ships a couple of years later, which resulted in the loss of 153 soldiers and crew. Turner lived an improbably long life, weighed down heavily by the memories of a tragedy, which fairly or unfairly, he was often accused of allowing to happen.
His only words on the matter consisted of, “I grieve for all the poor innocent people that lost their lives and for those that are left to mourn their dear ones lost.” One hundred years later, those souls are remembered in an impeccably researched book that brings one of history’s most famous maritime disasters remarkably to life.