Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania, Erik Larson

Before I begin my review, I’ve read quite a few books this year that focus on the time period between 1880-1920. In addition, I listened to Dan Carlin’s podcast, “Hardcore History” and his series on World War I called “Blueprint for Armageddon” which I highly recommend. There’s something about this time period that has interested me for quite awhile and I think I keep coming back to books that center around World War I and the events leading up to it on purpose. It is kind of interesting to see that when you begin reading, you start to culture your own likes and dislikes and your reading really reflects that.

Anyways, Dead Wake is about the luxury ocean liner “Lusitania,” part of the Cunard companies most lavish and modern cruiser that set sail out of New York City in 1915. Captain Turner was the primary commander of the vessel as it set out during a time of war. To make matters more intriguing, the German U-boats (submarines) were popping up around England to prevent shipping and needed supplies from reaching the Western Front which, by this time, was raging in full force. Larson writes about how the British probably knew there were German U-boats in the waters around Ireland and the Germans even released a statement days before she was to cross the Atlantic that they would target any vessel headed for British waters. Despite this, Captain Turner and his crew with a 1000+ civilians on board set out from New York to Liverpool.

Larson writes about every detail that was available to him: the passengers, what they were wearing, the crew, the life boats, the life jackets of the time, etc. The story flips between several interrelated events such as President Wilson’s personal life and the German U-Boat 20’s commander, Walther Schwieger’s logbook. In addition, the secret British intelligence agency, known in the book as “Room 40”, is keeping tabs on German vessels using a code book that was stolen from the Germans. All of this comes to a head when U-20 sinks the Lusitania (as if you didn’t know that already) and ultimately brings the U.S. into the conflict.

Several points need to be made about the story thus far. I think we have a tendency to think that what Pearl Harbor was to World War II was what the Lusitania was to World War I. This is unfortunately, not true. The United States did not go to war until nearly two years after the Lusitania tragedy. Second, the British had enough information and enough resources to protect such a big ocean liner as it made it’s way into Liverpool. There has been conspiracy theories throughout the 20th and into the 21st century that suggests that the British let the ocean liner be sunk on purpose as to force the United States’ hand in entering the war. I think this is a bit farfetched. Of the 1000 or so casualties on the Lusitania, only about 300 of those were American citizens. And there were other American casualties on other ships before and after the Lusitania. What makes the Lusitania special was it was the most modern, fast, and heralded ocean liner of her time (think the Titanic which sank a few years before the Lusitania). Lastly, I really appreciate Larson’s writing style, but some of the details do get a little tedious. For example, he writes about how President Wilson’s wife died in the early 1910’s. Part of the book is devoted to how he met his new wife and how they fell in love. This, I thought, was wholly unnecessary.

This is a really great book overall. I think I’ve read better ones this year (Kingdom of Ice was so captivating, I think that’s one of the best, if not the best, sea stories I’ve ever heard) but definitely not a disappointment. One more thing I would say: I think you would have to be living under a rock not to know that the Lusitania was sunk by a German U-boat. So the whole story drags on because you kind of know what is coming. So just prepare yourself, if you read it, to push through because the conclusions he reaches are very interesting.

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