Eric Larson has delivered another page-turner in Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania. Employing his proven strategy for writing gripping history, Larson sets two primary stories in motion and then gives readers an detailed play-by-play until the stories intersect.
The Lusitania was sunk 100 years ago, in the early days of WWI. Larson unspools the stories of that magnificent English liner, with Captain William Turner at the helm, and the submarine that torpedoed her, captained by Kptlt. Walther Schwieger. Both Turner and Schwieger were excellent seamen, respected by their crews and superiors. Turner, who called himself “an old-fashioned sailorman,” was a “stickler for detail and discipline” who had served the Cunard line for decades. The much younger Schwieger was “considered one of the German navy’s most knowledgeable commanders, so much so that he was consulted on submarine matters by his superiors, and his boat was used to try out new submarine tactics.”
Both captains found themselves cut off from their superiors—Turner, by the Admiralty’s deliberate decision to withhold information about German submarine activity, and Schwieger, by lack of radio contact. As the vessels converged, those in the Admiralty watched in silence: “It was like knowing that a particular killer was loose on the streets of London, armed with a particular weapon, and certain to strike in a particular neighborhood within the next few days, the only unknown being exactly when.”
There was considerable concern at the time about whether the U.S. could be drawn into the war. Larson follows the personal life of then-President Wilson, a grieving widower who was blossoming into a happy suitor. Would he be able to focus on the war in Europe?
Larson also introduces us to a number of passengers on the Lusitania—children and adults, couples and individuals, entire families even; American and British; first, second, and third class. Although we know the fate of the liner, we grow increasingly worried about the individuals on board. What became of the rare-book collector, the spiritualist, the wealthy industrialist, the man bringing his sweetheart a diamond ring and a proposal of marriage?
As he always does, Larson amasses an enormous trove of facts: details about the size and construction, speed and propulsion of both ships, the meals and activities provided on the liner, the weather—a delight for history geeks. (Sometimes, however, he just can’t bring himself to discard an interesting but irrelevant or distracting factoid!) And he looks briefly at a question debated for a century by historians: were weapons hidden in the liner’s hold?
If you enjoy history that reads like a thriller, brimming with detail and interesting characters, you can’t go wrong with Dead Wake.