Monday, June 22, 2015

Book Review: Dead Wake by Erik Larson

Dead Wake

Author: Erik Larson
Publisher: Crown/Archetype
Date of Publication: March 10, 2015
Pages: 448

     The Lusitania was a British luxury liner owned by the Cunard Line, launched in 1906.  She was sunk by a German U-boat on May 7, 1915 causing the death of 1,168 passengers and crew.  Erik Larson has used his considerable research skills to bring us the story of this magnificent ship's 202nd and final voyage.

     The author uses diaries, contemporary and historical accounts as well as recorded interviews with survivors to paint a vivid picture.  The ship left New York under the cloud of a published threat from Germany  that non-military ships in the war zone were now targets for their submarines.  Most passengers took the naive attitude that the Lusitania, being one of the fastest ocean liners in history, would never fall victim to a submarine. Submarines were known to lack speed and maneuverability.  Others were genuinely worried and fatalistic.  Like the passenger list of the Titanic, many rich and famous were on board the Lusitania.  These included famed Boston bookseller Charles Lauriat, noted female architect Theodate Pope, Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt and a host of actresses, socialites and politicians.  This book is their story as well.  For instance, Lauriat was carrying a first edition Dickens as well as priceless antique pen and ink sketches to be viewed in England.

     The author does a fine job of alternating points of view between the Lusitania and her captain William Thomas Turner  and the German submarine U-20 and her captain Walter Schweiger.  Even though the outcome is known, the tension builds as the submarine patrols the waters to the west of Britain and the Lusitania churns across the North Atlantic towards her fate.

    Turner and Schweiger are two of the more compelling characters in the book.  Turner, a respected and very experienced Maritime seaman is drawn in contrast to Schweiger, the career military man with a quest for notoriety.  Turner was noted for efficiency and speed.  It was said that "None was better than Captain Turner at handling large ships."

     The story of the Lusitania is presented in the broader context of the First World War.  The author does a great job of contrasting the luxurious trappings enjoyed by the Lusitania passengers to the horrors experienced by the soldiers fighting in Europe:

"'The scene,' he (Rear Admiral Emile Guepratte on the French battleship Suffren) wrote, 'was tragically macabre: the image of desolation, the flames spared nothing.  As for our young men, a few minutes ago, so alert, so self-confident, all now lay dead on the bare deck, blackened burnt skeletons, twisted in all driections, no trace of any clothing, the fire having devoured all."

In contrast: "Aboard the Lusitania, there was quiet.  There were books, and cigars, and fine foods, afternoon tea, and the easy cadence of shipboard life: strolling the deck, chatting at the rails, doing crochet, and just sitting still in a deck chair in the sea breeze.  Now and then a ship appeared in the distance;  close at hand, whales."

     Another notable story line in Dead Wake is that of President Woodrow Wilson and his private life.  As the book opens, Wilson's first wife Ellen Axson Wilson becomes ill and succumbs to Bright's Disease.  Wilson becomes nearly incapacitated by depression and the author implies that this inertia, more than any other cause, was responsible for America's neutrality in the early stages of World War I as well as for Wilson's lack of response to the Armenian genocide.  Later, Wilson meets and begins courting widow Edith Bolling Galt who becomes his second wife.  It is interesting reading of Wilson's unescorted evening walks and drives through Washington and his pursuit of Ms. Galt.

   The author hints at the many conspiracy theories surrounding the tragedy of the Lusitania.  He never really resolves the idea that the British, by withholding intelligence data and failing to provide military escort to the Lusitania, may have allowed the attack to happen in order to outrage America and bring the United States into the war.  The author also acknowledges that there were munitions aboard the Lusitania to be delivered to the British, giving the Germans cause to sink the vessel.  It is unclear who was responsible for this violation or whether the Germans were aware that these desperately needed supplies were aboard.

     This is a very well written and interesting overview of  the sinking of the Lusitania on the hundredth anniversary of the event.  Although some compelling questions go unanswered, this is a great starting point for anyone interested in this fascinating chapter in American and world history.

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