If You Think You Understand the Lusitania’s Sinking

… 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.

The Author

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

The Devil in the White City: A Saga of Magic and Murder at the Fair that Changed America  (2004).

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.

Thunderstruck (2007).

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]

About Jeff Salter

Currently writing romantic comedy, screwball comedy, and romantic suspense. Fourteen completed novels and four completed novellas. Working with three royalty publishers: Clean Reads, Dingbat Publishing, & TouchPoint Press/Romance. "Cowboy Out of Time" -- Apr. 2019 /// "Double Down Trouble" -- June 2018 /// "Not Easy Being Android" -- Feb. 2018 /// "Size Matters" -- Oct. 2016 /// "The Duchess of Earl" -- Jul. 2016 /// "Stuck on Cloud Eight" -- Nov. 2015 /// "Pleased to Meet Me" (novella) -- Oct. 2015 /// "One Simple Favor" (novella) -- May 2015 /// "The Ghostess & MISTER Muir" -- Oct. 2014 /// "Scratching the Seven-Month Itch" -- Sept. 2014 /// "Hid Wounded Reb" -- Aug. 2014 /// "Don't Bet On It" (novella) -- April 2014 /// "Curing the Uncommon Man-Cold -- Dec. 2013 /// "Echo Taps" (novella) -- June 2013 /// "Called To Arms Again" -- (a tribute to the greatest generation) -- May 2013 /// "Rescued By That New Guy in Town" -- Oct. 2012 /// "The Overnighter's Secrets" -- May 2012 /// Co-authored two non-fiction books about librarianship (with a royalty publisher), a chapter in another book, and an article in a specialty encyclopedia. Plus several library-related articles and reviews. Also published some 120 poems, about 150 bylined newspaper articles, and some 100 bylined photos. Worked about 30 years in librarianship. Formerly newspaper editor and photo-journalist. Decorated veteran of U.S. Air Force (including a remote ‘tour’ of duty in the Arctic … at Thule AB in N.W. Greenland). Married; father of two; grandfather of six.
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12 Responses to If You Think You Understand the Lusitania’s Sinking

  1. jbrayweber says:

    Well, this was a glowing review of Larson and his storytelling abilities. I knew some of this about the Lusitania, namely how it was one torpedo strike and an unfortunate perfect storm of internal problems. Now my interest is piqued. I’ll have to add Larson to my list of authors to read.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jeff Salter says:

      I think you’ll enjoy his writing. He researches exhaustively but does NOT bore the reader with irrelevant details. I like his books so much that I even read the end notes.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Patricia Kiyono says:

    I tend to shy away from reading about and watching movies about true-life tragedies. But this sounds like it might be an exception. I do enjoy reading biographies, as well as histories of different places I’ve visited, such as Fort Anderson and Brunswick Town (NC), and Churchill Downs.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jeff Salter says:

      I think you may like Larson’s writing. By the time he brings us to that fateful day, we feel like we KNOW several of the passengers and we’re rooting for them to survive the ordeal ahead. In this book we also learn quite a lot about Pres. Wilson as he grieves the death of his first wife and as he courts his second wife (who became the one that later was basically administering the government when Wilson was incapacitated).

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Like, Patricia, I tend to shy away from real-life stories or those based on historical facts. I’m not much on reading history, unless it’s for research. Because of the reenactment group I participated in, I have done a lot of research regarding the founding of our national and the people who settled in it and therefore, a lot of reading.

    I’m so glad to hear you enjoyed the book. And I’m very happy to know that the author did his research.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. That is indeed fascinating, Jeff.I have always been a little upset over the British government’s choices to let people die in order to keep their secrets, the case of letting Leslie Howard and the other passengers die knowing that the Germans were targeting Churchill,but actually killing one of his “doubles”, who were supposed to cause confusion as to zChurchill’s actual whereabouts.
    Much like living through Apollo 13 and still sitting at the edge of my chair through the movie, I suspect.I am very interested.Thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Jeff Salter says:

      absolutely chilling to learn how cold-blooded the war-time leaders were. Supposedly Churchill even turned down a request — by the code-breakers — to alert the city of MayFair (I think that was the place) which was to be bombed by the Germans. The ULTRA folks knew in advance and had enough warning to alert the town to evacuate… but allegedly Churchill refused permission to alert them because he was “saving” the secret that British ULTRA was reading almost all the German comm. traffic.
      Cold business. I wonder how he slept at night.


  5. Elaine Cantrell says:

    Fascinating, Jeff. I used to teach about the sinking of the Lusitania to my tenth graders. This sounds like a good author.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Pingback: A Splendid Examination of a Crucial Time | Four Foxes, One Hound

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