Thursday, May 7th will be the 100th anniversary of the Lusitania tragedy. Those of you who are followers of this blog might recall that back in December I mentioned an upcoming book by Erik Larson about this ship and its final voyage. Well, Dead Wake: the Last Crossing of the Lusitania is here and the library has several copies available, not just books but audio and downloadable as well.
First, a few facts. Just after 2:00 the afternoon of Friday, May 7, 1915, the Lusitania was struck by a torpedo and sank in about 18 minutes. The torpedo was fired by U-20, a submarine commanded by Walther Schwieger. Numbers vary by one or two depending on the source, but, according to Larson, 1,959 passengers and crew were aboard the ship, of whom 1,195 lost their lives. The dead include 128 Americans. Most sources, including Larson, mention three German stowaways who were trapped in the “brig,” but do not include them in the total number of people aboard or the total who died.
Dead Wake is just about as good as I’d anticipated. Larson does his usual good job developing key characters, including Captain William Turner, Kapitanleutnant Walther Schwieger, and brothers Leslie and Cliff Morton. Among the passengers he focuses on are bookseller Charles Lauriat, architect and spiritualist Theodate Pope, and Margaret Mackworth. We are also introduced to many other, mostly wealthy, passengers. And Larson gives us insight into the private life of President Woodrow Wilson.
Larson carefully sets the scene. We see how luxuriously furnished the Lusitania was. Even the third-class accommodations were nice, and Larson points out that the meals provided to the third-class passengers were better than most of them were used to. We are given insight into the tedium, or tension, and discomfort aboard a World War One submarine. We learn about the British navy’s secret Room 40. And, of course, there is the suspense and stories of the characters struggling to survive the disaster.
One of Larson’s trademarks is the interesting facts and connections he relates. An example from this book is the coincidence involving Wilson’s close friend and adviser Edward House. He was in England for an audience with the king on the day of the sinking, and during the conversation, George V wondered “Suppose they should sink the Lusitania with American passengers aboard?” (p. 227) I thought there were also a few missteps in connecting characters to other famous people. On page 173, Larson states that British admiral Jackie Fisher was “a dead ringer for a future actor named Laszlo Lowenstien, better known by the stage name Peter Lorre.” I did learn a thing or two through this comparison, but nothing relevant to the narrative or characters.
The library also has available a book entitled Lusitania: an Epic Tragedy by Diana Preston (Diana Preston has released a new book, also in the library’s collection, entitled A Higher Form of Killing: Six Weeks in World War I that Forever Changed the Nature of Warfare, which examines the use of submarines, gas attacks, and aerial bombing.) Preston’s book also contains good storytelling, but there is more informational text and analysis than in Larson’s book. She provides much less coverage of the final voyage itself. There is much more on the history of submarines and steamships. There is background on the British officials involved. There is more about the competition among firms that carried passengers across the Atlantic (Preston shows this competition was often ridiculous – in 1912, the Hamburg-Amerika line launched the longest ocean-liner of the time, the Imperator. “Cunard promptly announced that its new ship, the Aquitainia, would, at 901 feet, be a foot longer than the Imperator. Hamburg-Amerika responded that it had made a mistake; if the figurehead of a huge bronze eagle…was included, the ship’s length would be 917 feet.” p. 63)
Preston devotes much more text to the aftermath of the sinking, including the investigations, hearings, and both U. S. and German reaction. She also examines the charges of conspiracy and cover-ups.
The library is a great resource, and those of you wanting to learn more about the First World War during these 100th anniversary years will find a lot to satisfy your curiosity, and perhaps also leave you with more questions. Well, don’t worry – the library can help with that, too.
Fred, South Branch Library