Dead Wake

dead-wakeMy wife recommended this excellent book by Erik Larson, and I’m glad I read it. The Lusitania was a luxury ocean liner, and considered to be a “greyhound,” the fastest liner in service. It sailed out of New York harbor carrying a record number of children and infants despite a German warning that the seas around Britain were a war zone. (My wife wondered why there were so many families travelling to Britain in a time of war.)  Captain William Turner was said to have placed faith in “…the gentlemanly strictures of warfare that had for a century kept civilian ships safe from attack.” Germany and Walther Schwieger, the captain of the Unterseeboot-20 was determined to change the rules of the game. The book presents meticulous details of the hunted and the hunter to the point of their historical connection. Detailed descriptions are given of numerous Lusitania passengers, and I found it eerie wondering whether the people being described in very human terms survived or died. I actually found myself hoping that some of the many accidents of history that brought U-20 within torpedo range of the Lusitania would somehow magically change and cause the torpedo to not be fired or miss. I knew I was hopelessly wrong thinking such thoughts, but I couldn’t seem to stop myself from wanting history to change. Larsen in a note to readers preceding the book must have had some of the same thoughts. He wrote that in his research, “What I learned both charmed and horrified me…”

Most, or at least many, of the passengers on the Lusitania had read notices placed by the German Embassy in Washington on the shipping pages of New York newspapers that “…vessels flying the flag of Great Britain, or any of her allies, are liable to destruction and that passengers sailing on such ships ‘do so at their own risk’.” Captain Turner had told passengers that he had received warning of fresh submarine activity off the Irish coast, but “…assured the audience there was no need for alarm.” The Cunard Company that owned the ship issued an official response to the German warning. “The truth is that the Lusitania is the safest boat on the sea. She is too fast for any submarine. No German war vessel can get her or near her.” One Greek carpet merchant apparently wasn’t reassured. He put on a life jacket and spent the night in a lifeboat. Another passenger took comfort from the revolver he always carried.

Cunard had a custom of naming its ships for ancient lands, and “…selected Lusitania, after a Roman province on the Iberian Peninsula that occupied roughly the same ground as modern-day Portugal.” A memorandum in the Cunard files about the naming of the ship stated, “The inhabitants were warlike, and the Romans conquered them with great difficulty.” People commonly called the ship “Lucy.” The British Admiralty had loaned Cunard the equivalent of $2 billion at a low interest rate to build two liners—the Lusitania and the Mauretania—with the stipulation the ships had to be able to travel at 24.5 knots (the ships actually had a top speed of 26 knots). They also had to “…be readily equipped with naval artillery and brought into service as ‘armed auxiliary cruisers’.” Mounts were installed that could hold a dozen large guns. The ships also had “longitudinal coal bunkers,” which, because of where the torpedo stuck the ship, became a part of the reason the ship would sink so quickly. (I added that at this point in the review so that a reader won’t waste optimism hoping the ship would not be sunk!)

The book weaves history into the story quite nicely. Woodrow Wilson was dealing with the death of his wife, Ellen Axson Wilson, after World War I had erupted and the British were pressuring for the end of U.S. neutrality. The war had been initiated in June 1914 when a “Black Hand” assassin shot and killed Archduke Franz Ferdinand, inspector general of the Austro-Hungarian army. Austria declared war on Serbia on July 28th, the alliances began to react, and World War I was the result. I found the descriptions of Wilson’s eventual courtship of Edith Bolling Galt to be a bit tedious, but I admit that it fit into the overall context of the history of the time.

Admiral Jack Fisher of the British Navy had become concerned that submarines “…might transfigure naval warfare. He predicted The Germans “…would deploy submarines to sink unarmed merchant ships and make no effort to save the ships’ crews.” The later assessment was unavoidable, since the submarines had no room to bring aboard any additional people. Fisher also gave advice that, if anyone had listened to him, might have given the Lusitania pause to sail into a war zone without sufficient protection. Fisher wrote, “…the logic of war required that if such a strategy were adopted it would have to be pursued to the fullest extent possible. ‘The essence of war is violence,’ he wrote, ‘and moderation in war is imbecility’.” The German submarine U-20 was ready, willing, and able to implement Fisher’s strategy, and those in charge of the Lusitania’s voyage were ignoring his advice.

On September 22, 1914 three British cruisers were moving at a slow pace and a torpedo from U-9 struck one. The other two cruisers began to slow to pick up survivors, and, being easy targets, were also struck by torpedoes. There were 1,459 British sailors killed, and the British Admiralty issued orders forbidding their warships from going to the aid of U-boat victims.

Submarines were rightfully portrayed as “silent killers,” but the descriptions of life on a submarine probably might elicit some grudging admiration of the men in the crews. They lived in exceptionally tight quarters that stank and had dripping humidity when they were forced to remain submersed for extended periods. The crew became adept at running in mass from the front to the back to balance the sub on an even keel. They had to run to the opposite end of the ship to counteract the reduced weight after a torpedo was launched. I’m guessing that claustrophobic people should not apply! If nothing else, the book indicates that the Captain of U-20, Schwieger, was dedicated to the gruesome mission he was given and his crew trusted and respected him. He was known “…for his kindness and good humor and for maintaining a cheerful atmosphere aboard his submarine.” There is an interesting aside that U-20 had a male dog aboard and rescued a female dachshund from a floating box after sinking a Portuguese merchant ship. The rescued dog gave birth to four dachshund puppies. The boat kept one puppy and gave three to other ships. There is another interesting aside that they scavenged a barrel of butter, but had nothing to fry. They spotted a fleet of fishing boats and surfaced in their midst. The frightened fishermen were relieved that they weren’t going to be torpedoed and gave the boat all the fish they could carry. The negative to having fresh fish was the persistent residual odor of fried fish.

Those are the kinds of interesting stories you will read in the book. However, it is impossible to overcome the incredible tragedy of the complete story. Many of the crew members responsible for launching life boats from the Lusitania were killed by the torpedo explosion, and many of the children, babies, and other souls died as a result. More than 60 percent of the passengers (well over 1000) drowned or died of hypothermia.

There continue to be unanswered questions about the Lusitania. There was a second explosion after the torpedo stuck the ship, and, to the best of my knowledge, there is no satisfactory explanation of the cause of that explosion. It was not the rifle ammunition the ship was carrying, which made the ship a legitimate target for a German U boat. Perhaps the most daunting question is why the British Admiralty did not provide an escort for the ship as it entered waters the Germans had warned were a “war zone.” There are certainly indications the British expected that the attack on the Lusitania, in which some 140 American souls were lost, would bring the United States into World War I. There are thoughts that the British intentionally put the ship and all those innocent souls at risk out of desperation to bring the U.S. into the war. The U.S. didn’t enter the war until almost two years after the Lusitania was sunk.

This is a compelling book, and readers will undoubtedly find more to expand their interest beyond this short review.

One thought on “Dead Wake

  1. Were the British lax in their protection of the Lusitania on purpose? Winston Churchill, then head of Britain’s navy, was reported to have remarked that the night after the sinking was the best night’s sleep he had experienced since the start of the war.

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