Mind the gaps as you board the Lusi­ta­nia

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Eileen Chanin

Dead Wake: The Last Cross­ing of the Lusi­ta­nia By Erik Lar­son Scribe, 448pp, $32.99 Amer­i­can jour­nal­ist and au­thor Erik Lar­son has a tal­ent for turn­ing a his­tor­i­cal episode into a grip­ping read, as read­ers of his ear­lier books will know. In in­ter­views, Lar­son has said he aims to im­merse the reader in the past: “My goal is to cre­ate as rich a his­tor­i­cal ex­pe­ri­ence as pos­si­ble so that the reader fin­ishes the book with a sense of hav­ing spent some time in the past and hav­ing re­ally ex­pe­ri­enced this mo­ment.”

Lar­son sees writ­ing about his­tory as an ex­er­cise in cre­at­ing nar­ra­tive sus­pense; his method is to cre­ate ten­sion. He achieved this to mas­terly ef­fect in his pre­vi­ous book, In the Gar­den of Beasts (2011), about Wil­liam E. Dodd, a pro­fes­sor of his­tory who ac­cepted Franklin Roose-

May 30-31, 2015 velt’s ap­point­ment as the first Amer­i­can am­bas­sador to Nazi Ger­many, and his daugh­ter Martha. Por­tray­ing th­ese char­ac­ters as key ac­tors, Lar­son turned at­ten­tion to the Night of the Long Knives, the mur­der­ous purge in mid-1934 whereby Hitler es­tab­lished his com­mand of Ger­many.

Lar­son ex­cels in ex­tract­ing de­tail from ar­chives, which he sees as con­tain­ing not old files but “a pal­ette of the rich­est colours” that al­lows him to nar­rate his­tory in a vivid man­ner.

The Bri­tish ocean liner RMS Lusi­ta­nia, launched in 1906, was one of the fastest — and briefly the largest — pas­sen­ger ships on the At­lantic cross­ing. If you want to know what it was like aboard this Cu­nard su­per­liner, Lar­son takes you there: to the moun­tains of bag­gage; the rich­ness of dress worn by men, women and chil­dren alike; the sti­fling heat, un­less the port­holes were opened, in­side the two-decks-high, first-class dining sa­loon; the coal­dust that in­vaded ev­ery nook and cranny.

Lar­son also takes us aboard U-20, the Ger­man U-boat which fired the sin­gle fa­tal tor­pedo that sank the Lusi­ta­nia in just 18 min­utes; in­side Room 40, the ad­mi­ralty’s code-break­ing unit that mon­i­tored U-boat com­mu­ni­ca­tions; and into the pri­vate life of then US pres­i­dent Woodrow Wil­son, bur­dened by grief when wid­owed in 1914, then dis­tracted by court­ing his sec­ond wife. The bulk of this book fol­lows the Lusi­ta­nia’s last cross­ing, lead­ing up to its sink­ing on May 7, 1915. Of the 1198 who per­ished, 128 were Amer­i­cans.

The book’s ti­tle comes from the mar­itime term “dead wake”, the track that lingers on the sur­face af­ter a tor­pedo passes through the wa­ter. The sink­ing of the Lusi­ta­nia is widely but wrongly thought of as hav­ing al­tered his­tory’s tra­jec­tory, by pulling the US into World War I. Yet it took al­most two years af­ter the Lusi­ta­nia’s loss for the US to en­ter the war.

Amer­i­can lives were re­peat­edly taken by Uboats sink­ing other ves­sels. One US ship was sunk by a Ger­man sub­ma­rine, killing 28 Amer­i­cans, on April 2, 1917, the day Wil­son de­clared to congress that the US should make the world “safe for democ­racy”. It en­tered the war on April 6, 1917.

This was two months af­ter Ger­many put into ac­tion a plan to end the war by un­re­stricted sub­ma­rine war­fare. Tellingly, Larsen quotes Win­ston Churchill’s re­gret over the Amer­i­can de­lay in join­ing the Al­lies. Churchill thought the US could have en­tered the war in May 1915: “And if done then what abridge­ment of the slaugh­ter … would have been pre­vented; in how many mil­lion homes would n empty chair be oc­cu­pied to­day; how dif­fer­ent would be the shat­tered world in which vic­tors and an­guished alike are con­demned to live!”

Lar­son leaves it to the reader to de­cide about Bri­tain’s al­leged cul­pa­bil­ity in the Lusi­ta­nia’s sink­ing — by ne­glect­ing to es­cort the ship, and keep­ing se­cret U-boat mes­sages in­ter­cepted by the in­tel­li­gence ser­vice.

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