Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania

  • Author: Erik Larson
  • Published: March, 2015


For most of us, the 1915 sinking of the Lusitania is one of those obscure historical events we vaguely recall from our fifth grade history books. It’s a “check the box” item that helped harried grammar school teachers explain why America joined a senseless war being fought an ocean away. It is a simplifying event during a convoluted time. A cause that had an effect. At least that’s what we’ve been taught. Enter Erik Larson, master of the non-fiction novel, to give the sinking of the Lusitania the full scale treatment and restore it to its proper place in the popular imagination, in all its complicated glory.

Believe it or not, America was once an isolationist country, and with good reason. In 1914, the European continent was a tinderbox waiting for a spark. A multitude of alliances between Eastern and Western countries had created a delicate house of cards. War between any two could quickly drag additional countries into the fray, resulting in a world wide death match. The nightmare scenario ignited when the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated in Sarajevo, setting off a domino effect of war declarations and mobilization. The conflict escalated so quickly, and roped in so many empires that few Americans understood what was happening when headlines began blaring out the deaths of thousands in gruesome grinding battles. It was unlike anything the world had ever seen. Massive armies were reduced to fighting for muddy scraps of real estate with the advent of trench warfare, producing hollow victories and horrific defeats. With their land forces bogged down, the Germans quickly came to rely upon their small fleet of submarines, or U-Boats, to wage economic warfare against England and her allies. By torpedoing and sinking merchant ships from North America, many of which were carrying food, arms and supplies for the war effort, the Germans hoped to break their enemies spirit, and produce victory through prostration.

The English were shocked on September 22nd, 1914, when one German U-boat sank three British armored cruisers, killings almost 1,500 sailors, in less than an hour. German U-boats quickly went from curious war toys to underwater death machines in the minds of people around the world. With America still sitting staunchly on the sidelines, England and France became desperate to draw her into the battle as an ally.

Almost all British passenger ships had been appropriated by the Royal Navy to aid in the war effort, but Lusitania was different. Almost as big as the Titanic, with four giant funnels, room for up to 2,000 souls, and capable of sustaining a top speed of 25 knots (about 30 miles per hour), she was “unmistakable and invulnerable, a floating village in steel”.  With such size and speed most experts considered the Lusitania too formidable for any submarine to do her much damage, so the British kept her in service as a passenger vessel. In May of 1915, the great war had already been raging for 10 months, and the waters around Britain had become dangerous hunting grounds for German U-boat captains. Despite the warnings and obvious risks, the Lusitania was booked to capacity when she departed New York for Liverpool, including “an unexpectedly large number of children and babies”, and 128 Americans. Nearly all of the ships passengers considered an attack highly unlikely, and even if one were to occur, they were confident the British Navy would provide a suitable escort to ensure her safety. 

For nearly a century, Germany’s decision to attack and sink the Lusitania has been portrayed by her enemies as an act of monstrous evil. How could any respectable nation target and slaughter so many innocent civilians? Women and children no less? Mr. Larson disregards the popular narrative by putting us inside the German Unterseeboot-20 (undersea boat), captained by the capable and courageous Walther Schwieger. We see firsthand the nerves of steel required to operate such a bulky and unwieldy piece of machinery. The intellect required to keep her humming. The claustrophobia. The stench. The isolation. The relentless stress. Larson’s passages detailing the day-to-day tactics of Schwieger and his crew are fascinating in the extreme. Schwieger’s mastery of his vessel and his men are appealing to any lover of competence. “He was the soul of kindness toward the officers and the men under him,” said one if his junior officers, “His temperament was joyous and his talk full of gaiety and pointed wit.” Schwieger always kept a dog on board for the men, and even plucked a dachshund from the waves after one of his successful attacks. A magical passage details the Christmas night Schwieger ordered the submarine to a rest on the ocean floor, where his men ate, drank and made merry at the bottom of the cold dark sea. Cold and callous German monsters these are not.

As the pages turn, Dead Wake also calls into question the innocence of the British Navy. Larson exposes secrets from the infamous Room 40, where British cryptologists cracked the German naval code, allowing them to intercept messages from Schwieger’s u-boat, and accurately track his location. In the days before the attack, the British knew exactly where Schwieger was operating, so why permit the Lusitania to enter the vicinity? Then there’s the decision to allow the Lusitania to carry a large quantity of rifle cartridges and shell casings for the allies, despite the fact it was supposed to be a neutral passenger ship. There’s also the most baffling decision - why didn’t the Brits supply the Lusitania with a naval transport upon reaching British waters? And finally, there’s these notorious lines recovered from a letter written by Winston Churchill: 

It is most important to attract neutral shipping to our shores in the hope especially of embroiling the United States with Germany . . . . For our part we want the traffic — the more the better; and if some of it gets into trouble, better still.

Larson reveals no smoking gun, but the evidence he presents rips away the facade of the popular “good vs. evil” storyline that emerged around the Lusitania attack. In turn the ship is exposed as what it really was - a crucial chess piece in the guise of an innocent bystander. A piece of calculated collateral damage. A legitimate war time target. But the questions of how and why the Lusitania came to such a demise, are soon second hand to the tragedy that unfolded that beautiful May afternoon. “Of the Lusitania’s 1,959 passengers and crew, only 764 survived; the total of deaths was 1,195. Of 33 infants aboard, only 6 survived. Over 600 passengers were never found. Among the dead were 123 Americans.” It’s a morbid thing how stories seem to spring to life the moment it’s characters start to lose theirs, and Dead Wake is no exception.  In the 18 minutes it takes the massive ocean liner to sink after Schweiger's perfect torpedo hit, Larson whisks us through the breathtaking accounts gathered from the lucky survivors, and elegantly describes the final moments:

The ship was still moving, but slowly, with a wake full of wreckage and corpses spreading behind it, fed by the hundreds of men, women, and children who through accident or fear had remained on the ship. They streamed off like the knots in a kite’s tail.

In true Larsonian fashion, Dead Wake is a history lesson that reads like popular fiction. Filled with unforgettable characters (especially the Lusitania's tragic Captain Turner) and vivid details. It is a haunting account of the lives that are lost when war becomes total. Never exploitative, and never boring - Dead Wake is the type of understated achievement Larson always makes look easy. But as he himself has shown us, few things ever are.