Dead Wake by Erik Larson describes the last voyage of the Lusitania and the mission of U-20 in its hunt for merchant vessels during World War I. The drama comes in the form of parallel narratives. The story of the Lusitania comes to us through memoirs, letters, and testimony by survivors from its passengers and crew. The story of U-20, the u-boat that launched the lethal torpedo is brought to us by the logs of German Commander Schwieger. Providing the bigger picture of WWI we have the perspectives of U.S. President Woodrow Wilson attempting to maintain neutrality, and British intelligence officer Captain Reginald “Blinker” Hall.
Larson seems to write his best stories when there’s a clock ticking (Isaac’s Storm) and a strong contrast (Devil in the White City). Dead Wake gets much of its drama from rich description of the anxiety-tinged luxury of the Lusitania on the one side, and the methodical but dangerous hunt for merchant vessels by U-20 on the other side. Larson manages to keep most of the tangents and supporting detail fairly relevant, excepting the chapters spent on Wison’s courtship of Edith Bolling.
Larson spends a fair bit of time on a previously under-described part of the story. The British Admiralty through its intelligence service, “Room 40,” had access to almost all German Navy orders and communication. It routinely refused to act on that intelligence for fear of revealing that it had it. Even without that intelligence, U-20 executed multiple attacks on ships in Lusitania’s path.
It all builds up to the fateful 20-odd minutes from the launch of the torpedo to the sinking of the Lusitania. Larson manages to bring together all of the diverse accounts of the shipwreck into a single story, not a small feat. Open questions are described as such.
Unlike many modern historians, Larson isn’t in the game to point a finger and say, “I solved the mystery.” The Lusitania’s Captain Turner was likely extremely unlucky to turn his ship directly toward a German u-boat. Turner was accused of incompetence by the Admiralty, but officially vindicated. However, the failure of Turner and Cunard to properly train passengers and crew in how to wear lifebelts and lower lifeboats likely killed hundreds who initially survived. The Admiralty gets a fair bit of criticism for failing to act on intelligence that the Lusitania was a desired target and u-boats were in the area with orders to attack merchant vessels. Least ambiguous is the German position that
One surprising element is that the wreck of the Lusitania did not immediately draw the United States into the war. Surprisingly given the history of the 21st century, isolationist sentiment held firm, and President Wilson maintained diplomatic ties for another two years until the Zimmerman Telegram and the German announcement of unrestricted u-boat warfare drew the United States into the war.
Still though, it was a fascinating read that kept me up a couple of nights. A part of my interest was inspired by a family member who served 30 years later in the U.S. Merchant Marine fleet during a similar Battle of the Atlantic. Although Larson’s descriptions of the impact of the Lusitania doesn’t go as far as that conflict, many of the issues surrounding submarine warfare continued.