… You may be completely wrong
By Jeff Salter
Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania (2016)
By Erik Larson
Being an avid student of history – and especially of military history – I’ve often prided myself on recognizing important people, places, battles, events, etc. All this time, I – like, I suspect, many of you – have assumed that one of the key incidents that finally propelled America into active military participation in World War One was the May 1915 sinking of the British passenger liner, Lusitania. In this tragedy, hundreds of civilian lives were lost, including many women and children… and, significantly for the coming U.S. involvement in the war — Americans.
There is much I want to say about this author and his book, but first let me get a few Lusitania facts out of the way.
*** America’s declaration of war against Germany did NOT result immediately from this sinking and, in fact, didn’t occur until some 23 months later (April, 1917). President Wilson had campaigned on a pledge to keep America out of that “European” war and most of the nation’s citizens supported that position.
*** Of the 1959 passengers and crew aboard Lusitania at the time of her sinking, 1195 lost their lives. Of that number were 139 US citizens, 128 of whom died in the disaster. As tragic as ALL those losses were, it was a comparatively small number of Americans who were among the dead.
*** I’m not making any excuses for ANY nation to attack unarmed merchant or passenger vessels, even in war-time… BUT Germany had, in fact, published warnings – including advertisements in American papers – that their submarines WOULD attack any vessel entering the zone of their embargo of Great Britain. So this was not a “sneak attack” in the sense of no warning. In fact, many other merchant vessels (including passenger ships) had already been sunk by U-Boats before the Lusitania even sailed on her final voyage.
*** England had, in full operation, an ultra secret “intelligence” department that not only followed almost ALL of Germany’s military and diplomatic radio traffic but specifically kept tabs on all their U-Boats and capital ships. They were already particularly interested in U-20, partly because of the tonnage it had sunk and also because of the area it was currently patrolling.
*** Partly in order to preserve the secrecy of that “intelligence” unit, its leaders elected NOT to share any of their information… and specifically NOT to send any warning to the Lusitania that a notorious U-Boat was in the immediate area. Furthermore, those powerful British leaders chose NOT to send out any military ships to escort Lusitania through the dangerous waters of the embargo zone.
*** The captain of the Lusitania – at the time, the fastest ocean-going liner in the world – had NOT been trained in U-Boat evasion. It was assumed the ship was simply too fast for the much slower (and smaller) U-Boats to properly attack. Ironically, in order to save on fuel costs for this voyage, Lusitania was operating only three of its four boilers — thereby reducing its top speed by 25%.
*** NO lifeboat drills were conducted, NO instructions on how to wear the life jackets were provided (and, after the attack, many passengers put them on upside-down!). [Remember, this was nearly three years AFTER the sinking of the Titanic.] Very few of the lifeboats were successfully launched. Contrary to established protocol, many (or most) of the portholes were left open.
*** Yes, the Lusitania WAS carrying cargo which included ammunition – intended for Great Britain’s use during their battles against Germany… BEFORE America formerly entered the war. But there is no evidence that the munitions caused that “secondary explosion” which was – at the time – thought by some to be a second torpedo. It wasn’t. Only a single torpedo was fired by U-20. The second explosion dealt with the boilers and the fuel (coal) and the design of Lusitania’s pertinent compartments.
*** The German captain of U-20 was already a top ace before his patrol that included the sinking of Lusitania. In WW1, Germany’s U-Boat fleet was armed with two types of torpedoes and the less reliable of these was the type that sank Lusitania.
*** There was NO mistake – by Capt. Walther Schwieger – about the identity of the passenger liner he viewed through his periscope. Not only were the paint, markings, and four-stack profile of Lusitania quite distinct, but the German naval leaders knew when Lusitania had sailed, where it was going, and when it would enter the patrol area of U-20.
*** the Lusitania was attacked and sunk a mere 11 miles from the coast of Ireland, yet the closest British military ships were NOT sent immediately to its aid. One reason given was that British military leaders knew it would jeopardize their own ships to send them into waters known to have U-Boats.
Wow, I could tell y’all a lot more I learned from this fantastic book, but let me turn now to the author. Erik Larson is the author of five national bestsellers, which have collectively sold more than 6.5 million copies. His books have been published in seventeen countries.
This is the third of Larson’s titles that I’ve read — see the other titles below. In each of these books, in a masterful manner, Larson switches back and forth between two or more settings. In this one, it’s among (1) the crew and passengers of the Lusitania, (2) the captain and movements of U-20, (3) the ultra secret British intelligence unit that was tracking all German military activity, (4) the British political and military leaders who were “managing” the war prior to America’s direct involvement, and (5) American President Wilson’s personal and political comings and goings.
Even though I knew the outcome of the story – that the ship was sunk at tremendous loss of life – Larson’s ability to develop and maintain dramatic suspense actually had me “hoping” that Lusitania would somehow pull through. He accomplishes this, in part, by acquainting us with the names and faces of the passengers on board. By the time we get through those seven long days of sea travel, we’re wondering which individuals would survive and which would be lost to the deep. And each reader may have a favorite passenger he/she is rooting for (to survive).
If anyone has ever claimed that history is dull, that individual should be given a copy of Larson’s non-fiction or Jeff Shaara’s historical novels (which I’ve previously profiled on this blog). These authors – among many others, of course – truly make history come to life.
Other Larson Titles I’ve read and enjoyed
This one intertwines the true tale of the development of the 1893 World’s Fair (in Chicago) and the cunning serial killer – H.H. Holmes, the “American Ripper” – who used that venue to lure his victims to their death.
In this one, Larson tells the interwoven stories of two men – Hawley Crippen, a very unlikely murderer – and Guglielmo Marconi… the obsessive creator of a seemingly supernatural means of communication (the wireless). We also meet the primary British detective who is hot on the trail of the killer. How their lives intersect makes one of the greatest criminal chases of all time.
What historical events have you recently learned about… that gave you new insights about what happened?
[JLS # 449]