Mind the gaps as you board the Lusitania
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.