Dead Wake by Erik Larson
On May 1, 1915, the English cruise ship Lusitania was sunk off the Ireland coast by a German U-boat, U-20. About 1,200 people died in the torpedo attack – sailors and stow aways, rich and poor, men and women, children and babies. Over 750 people survived, including Captain Turner, the man who didn’t receive any reliable warning of the U-boat activity in the area or any of the expected protection from the Royal Navy. This is all history, well recorded and discussed over the last 100 years.
Erik Larson has a knack in researching history and bringing it to life. In Dead Wake, he visited museums, read personal diaries, found ships and U-boats logs, examined treasure, and used other primary as well as some secondary sources to tell the story of the Lusitania from a human standpoint, not just a political or historical one.
There are the brothers who joined the crew of the Lusitania the week it sailed. They had been working on another ship when they decided it was time to return home in Europe. Book seller Charles Lauriat made his annual trip to London to trade in books to bring back to the United States. He had two unique items with him. One was a special edition of The Christmas Carol that had belonged to Charles Dickens and had notes by the author penned in the margins. The other were ink drawings by William Makepeace Thackary that the author had done over the years. Richard Preston Prichard was a medical student returning as a second class passenger to visit his mother and family. He had a Kodak No. 1, an early pocket sized camera that he used while on board the Lusitania. He kept a diary of his travels. Playboy Alfred Vanderbilt had one of the most expensive staterooms, and kept to himself, especially when the paparazzi of the time tried to talk to and photograph him before the ship sailed. This is only a small representation of the different passenger and crew stories Larson documents in Dead Wake.
Larson also was able to read the log books from Unterseeboot-20 and documents from and about Kptlt. Walther Schweiger, the captain of the submarine. The history of the U-boats and the mechanics of the subs are part of the story of the Lusitania and its sinking. The reader gets an excellent sense of the living conditions of a crew in a small, enclosed ship during time of war.
As well as the action on the water, Larson focuses on some of the politics of 1915 and World War I. In London, Room 40 was a war room that had broken the German codes so was able to follow much of the secret communications of the German military. Most of what they learned was not released, though, so they could maintain their tactical advantage. Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty at the time, was in charge of the information that went through Room 40.
The other political and personal story followed in Dead Wake is of President Woodrow Wilson. At that time, the United States was neutral in the war despite the wishes of England. Wilson, a recent widower, was melancholy (depressed?). Even so, he firmly stated that if U.S. citizens were killed by the Germans in acts of war, like the torpedoing of a ship, he would recommend they enter World War I on the side of the Allies. It was during this time he met and started courting Edith Galt. Despite his declaration, it was nearly two years later before the U.S. officially joined in the war.
The reader knows how Dead Wake will end. It’s historical nonfiction. It all happened 100 years ago. the basic facts don’t change. Larson brings the event to life, from the preparation of the cruise, the shipping path of the U-boat, the people on board, and some of the people not on board. The story of the Lusitania is once again brought to life in a readable book that keeps the reader involved in a fascinating recounting.