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'Dead Wake': Erik Larson recounts the Lusitania tragedy

A vintage photo of the Lusitania leaving New

A vintage photo of the Lusitania leaving New York Harbor on its final journey in 1915. Credit: Library of Congress

DEAD WAKE: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania, by Erik Larson. Crown, 430 pp., $28.

In the matter of ill-fated ocean liners, the Titanic has captured all the doomed romance. Celine Dion did not sing about the fate of the Lusitania, whose sinking, 100 years ago on May 7, you may recall in hazy outline -- something about a German U-boat, Woodrow Wilson and the United States getting dragged into World War I.

Now the tragic footnote to a global conflagration, the history of the ship's final voyage, when it was torpedoed by a German submarine en route from New York to Liverpool, is worthy of the pathos and narrative artistry Erik Larson brings to "Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania." Every bit as grand as the Titanic (which sank in 1912), the Lusitania was built for speed: its four coal-hungry boilers propelled it at speeds upward of 25 knots. If a ship could both be massive and sleek, the Lusitania was it.

Readers of Larson's previous nonfiction page-turners ("The Devil in the White City," "In the Garden of Beasts") will not be disappointed. He's an excellent scene setter and diligent researcher who tells the story with finesse and suspense. You read "Dead Wake" with a growing sense of dread; war was raging, and the Germans had warned passengers that they sailed at their own risk. But few believed a passenger liner filled with civilians would be fair game.

Larson's account unspools from multiple points of view, from the ship captain's to President Wilson's. We meet passengers like dandyish rare book dealer Charles Lauriat, who is off to London on business. A possible shipboard romance blossoms between handsome medical student Preston Prichard and charming and bubbly Grace French. There is much drinking and smoking. First-class passengers enjoy lavish meals. Though there is chatter of "war and submarines," one traveler in first class grumps that "I'd never seen a more uneventful or stupid voyage."

Larson also takes you into U-20, a German vessel prowling the waters around Great Britain, commanded by Walther Schwieger. Urbane and educated, the 32-year-old Schwieger "was the soul of kindness toward the officers and men under him," said one of his crew. But the commander had no scruples about killing noncombatants. In the cramped, relentlessly dank confines of the submarine, the Germans evaded British patrols and hunted for enemy ships.

The variables slot into place as the Lusitania and U-20 converge on their fateful meeting in waters just off southern Ireland. "In the end," writes Larson, "Schwieger's attack on the Lusitania succeeded because of a chance confluence of forces." One checks off a chilling succession of what-ifs: If the Lusitania had not been delayed two hours in New York; had the liner not been under money-saving speed restrictions; had persistent fog not lifted, giving Schwieger a clear shot. It is haunting to ponder the contingencies.

Even more haunting is Larson's account of the sinking. It took a mere 18 minutes from impact for the Lusitania to disappear into the sea. Larson creates a series of harrowing snapshots in the chaos. A mother, caught on a stair, agonizes about retrieving a toddler on a deck above while her infant sleeps elsewhere. Lifeboats crash into the sea or into one another; survivors drift and bob in "an archipelago of destruction and death." Some find a strange serenity: Dwight Harris felt "so composed that when he came across a floating book, he picked it up and examined it."

Death, however, is the dominant note: 1,198 victims, including 27 infants, perished. (764 survived.) Some bodies were never recovered; Cunard carefully photographed those that were. Larson's description of one image, a 3-year-old girl with flowers laid across her, "her expression . . . one of pure fury," is simply unforgettable.

Schwieger unleashed the torpedo -- Germany argued that the Lusitania was carrying arms (it was) and Canadian troops (it was not) -- but another culprit may have been the British Admiralty, which ran a top-secret intelligence unit, Room 40, that intercepted German naval transmissions. Larson describes how Room 40 carefully tracked U-20's movements in early May, yet the Royal Navy failed to deliver vital information to the Lusitania about alternative routes. Historians have debated over whether there was a conspiracy to deliberately endanger the Lusitania in order to drag the U.S. into the war. (123 Americans died.) Conspiracy or no -- Larson is suggestive but judicious on the point -- U-20 did the killing, but the Admiralty was an accessory to the fact.

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