DEAD WAKE, by Erik Larson

Few tales in history are more haunting or more fraught with secrets than that of the final voyage of the Lusitania, which resulted in one of the most colossal tragedies of maritime history.  Author Erik Larsen ushers us aboard the Lusitania, the fastest ship of its day, on its way from America to England, when on May 7, 1915, it was torpedoed by a German submarine 12 miles off the coast of southern Ireland.  It sank in 18 minutes, 1,198 passengers and crew perished.  Only six of the 22 lifeboats were launched, and many passengers drowned because they donned their life-jackets incorrectly.

Once again, Larson demonstrates his expert researching skills and writing abilities — switching between the hunter and the hunted, his detailed forensic and utterly engrossing account of the Lusitania’s last voyage, highlights that unpredictable shifts in weather, the many small decisions made by the captains of both the luxury liner and U-Boat, a chance fog, the slowing down to get mail, and numerous other circumstances, all converged to placing the liner in precisely the wrong place at exactly the wrong time.

In Dead Wake, Larson brings to life a cast of evocative characters on board the Lusitania, including the famed Boston bookseller Charles Luriat who come on board with a priceless copy of Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol”, pioneering female architect Theodate Pope, millionaire Alfred Vanderbilt, and art collector Hugh Lane, who carried sealed tubes containing paintings by Rembrandt and Monet. Apart from the Lusitania, Larson also explores that part of the life of President Woodrow Wilson, who was grieving about the death of his wife, but smitten and captivated by the prospect of new love with Edith Galt, and Winston Churchill, then the first Lord of the Admiralty, who hoped to bring America into the war, and whose ultra-secret spy group failed to convey intelligence that might have saved the liner.

This book is excellent when describing the lethal new technology of early submarine warfare, life inside the U-boats, its cramped quarters, “the reek of three dozen men who never bathed”, and the omnipresent danger. Following his government’s new policy of unrestricted warfare, Captain Schweiger fired a single torpedo into the Lusitania’s hull, blowing a hole the size of a house beneath the liner’s waterline.  Less than a minute later, a second explosion shuddered from deep within the bowels of the Lusitania, and she listed precariously and began to sink immediately.

Unsettling questions clung to the case in the years that followed. Was the ship somehow allowed to sail into a trap? Why had the British Admiralty failed to provide a military escort? What was the cause of the second explosion? Why did Germany then decide to attack civilian shipping? There remains a mystique about the disaster, with questions that remain unresolved, and may never be.

Gripping and important, Dead Wake captures the sheer drama of the disaster.  Put in context of World War 1, the sinking of the Lusitania altered the course of history by ultimately dragging the U.S. into the conflict, although it was two years later.  I agree with one reviewer who suggested that Larson’s book “practically begs Hollywood blockbuster treatment.”

— Ken Johnson



p.s. After reading Dead Wake, I mistakenly assumed that the U-Boats were the first submarines.  But, with a little research, I found that the first submarine known to have attacked an enemy ship was the Turtle, piloted by Ezra Lee of the American Continental Army.  He piloted the Turtle under a British flagship, attempting to attach an explosive charge to the bottom of the ship.  He was unable to successfully attach it, so was forced to give up the attempt.  But George Washington personally congratulated Lee on his survival and gave him a job in the secret service.


There were a number of other experiments over the next 80+ years, but during the Civil War, submarine development got kicked up a notch. The most well-known Union sub was the USS Alligator, designed by a Frenchman named Brutus de Villeroi, who listed his occupation as “natural genius”.  The Alligator was lost during a storm, before attacking the Confederates.


But the most famous Civil War sub was built by a Horace Hunley, who egotistically named his boat the Hunley. During a test, however, the Confederate sub flooded and five crew members were drowned. It was salvaged though, and on its second attempt, Hunley failed to pull out of a dive and the sub became stuck in the sea floor.  The crew were unable to open the hatches, and Hunley and all his crew perished. Again, it was salvaged and took its first action against the Union, ramming the USS Housatonic with a torpedo protruding from the front of the sub.  After backing away from the Housatonic, the torpedo was charged, sinking the ship within five minutes.  Thus, the Hunleywas the first sub ever to sink an enemy ship, securing its place in naval history. —KJ

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