Dead Wake by Erik Larson

book cover

The track lingered on the surface like a long pale scar. In maritime vernacular, the trail of fading disturbance, whether from ship or torpedo, was called a “dead wake.”

On May 7, 1914, only a few years after that most famous of ocean-liners had had an unfortunate encounter with an iceberg on its maiden voyage, RMS Lusitania, popularly referred to as “Lucy,” having already crossed the Atlantic dozens of times, this time carrying 1,962 souls, was sunk by a German U-boat off the Irish coast. Almost 1200 people perished. Erik Larson casts his perceptive eyes on the event, looking for explanations. Why was the ship sunk? Had it been possible for the ship to have avoided its fate? What were the global circumstances at the time and how did those effect the disaster? Who and what was on the ship? Why? What was the big deal about the Lusitania? Other ships had been sunk by U-boats during this conflict. How did the sinking of the Lusitania affect American entry into The Great War?

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The New York Times headline – From PBS

We all have preconceptions, notions that hardly seem worth examining. I expect for most of us, the details of the sinking of the Lusitania are clouded by the fog of time. We might believe that, as with the sinking of the USS Maine in Cuba, the national response was immediate and violent. Turns out the reality was far different.

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Artist rendering of the sinking – from Cinewiki.wikispaces.com

Larson looks at events in several threads. Mostly he follows the events on the Lusitania and on the German sub (U-20 – U-boat is an abbreviation of Unterseeboot, or undersea boat) that would bring it down. In parallel, he looks at the politics involved in, not so much the causes of World War I, but in the stages between the commencement of hostilities and the eventual drawing of the USA into the war. He looks at the milieu in which American president Woodrow Wilson existed, politically and personally. He looks at the people involved in making tactical decisions, and at a special, secret intelligence gathering location in the UK. He stops, also, for a look at the sad accumulation of the victims in Ireland.

Larson offers a view of the Lusitania that might not be obvious to those of us looking back a hundred years. We might, for example, think of it as a relatively slow moving ocean liner, but it was the fastest civilian ship of its time. Its exceptional speed was a major selling point. There is plenty more detail about the ship, the different sorts of lifeboats, with their potential benefits and downsides, the unusual hull it used. Lucy carried a relatively inexperienced crew, due to so many able-bodied seamen having been drawn into the military. New, unusual life vests were used on the ship, and training in their use was lacking, as was training in using the lifeboats.

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The sinking was used for recruiting – in Britain and the USA

On the other side, it is remarkable how fragile U-boats were, and the limitations they faced in pursuing their mission. Larson offers us a look aboard the sub that did the deed, captain’s log and all. How fast were these boats? What was their range? What was their mission, their command structure? What was the physical environment like for submariners? What could they not do? Where could they not go? How did they keep in touch with their land-based command? What were their orders? What was the mindset of the captain, of his crew? Lots to look at here, eye-opening stuff. Don’t sign me up for life on a sub.

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The wrecked U-20 after a failed attempt to scuttle – from Lusitania.net

And of course there was the interaction between militaries. How did the allies cope with the very effective plague the U-boats presented? Could they track them? If so, how did they track them? What were the capabilities of the super-secret Room 40? What was the decision process the German command used in deciding how to use this powerful weapon?

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Room 40 – from Lusitania.net

One thing Larson does is follow the narrative of several of the passengers aboard the big boat. This brings the disaster away from technical details to actual human experience. You will get to know some of the passengers, and learn their fates.

There is a wealth of information in Dead Wake. For example, the biggest surprise for most readers, and perhaps the most controversial element in the book is the suggestion that Britain did not exactly do all it might have to protect Lucy from enemy attack, as there were some at the highest levels of government who believed that such an event might hasten the enlistment of the USA into the war. There were other factors for sure that contributed to why Lucy was where she was when she was, but most of those lack the bitter flavor of dark calculation. And maintaining the sour taste is a description of how shameless members of the admiralty sought to evade personal responsibility for the sinking by pointing fingers at a designated patsy. Despite the denials all around that the Lusitania was purely a civilian ship, the fact was that it was carrying a considerable supply of military materiel for use against Germany. Lucy would most definitely have had some ‘splaining to do’ had it been known that supposedly neutral America was using her as a military transport to support the Allies.

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Erik Larson – from New Hampshire Public Radio

There is plenty of drama to go around here. Even though we know what will happen, Larson succeeds in instilling tension into the coming together of Lucy with her killer. The descriptions of life aboard the sub are compelling; information about the physical realities of the Lusitania is fascinating, and looking at the probable decision-making involved is enraging.

This is not to say that there are no rents in the hull taking on a bit of the briny. While it seemed clear that tracking individual passengers was intended to take the story from an emotionally removed overview down a bit closer to sea level, I found that most of these passages were not all that engaging. It also seemed not entirely clear that Woodrow Wilson’s domestic situation was necessarily all that important in his reluctance to bring the USA into the war.

On the other hand there are bits that are depressingly resonant with more contemporary outrages, as left hands not keeping right hands informed of their actions contributed to the ultimate catastrophe. Information that could have identified a sub in a shipping lane was available, but was not put together in time. Very reminiscent of 9/11. Our species certainly seems well practiced in learning nothing from history. One contributing factor was a corporate cost-cutting measure that kept Lucy from making her best time across the Atlantic. Had she been allowed to use all four of her boilers instead of only three, she would never have encountered U-20. The Deepwater Horizon disaster, and many more such incidents remind us that pursuit of the almighty dollar/pound/euro/(insert your currency here) will always be assigned a higher value than human life or the safety of the environment for many of the people making such decisions.

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President Wilson and First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill

Germany actually posted newspaper notices in American newspapers, before the Lusitania set sail from New York City, that all ships entering what was considered a war zone were at risk of being sunk. It would not be the last time clear messages of intent from Germany would be ignored to our everlasting regret.

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Dead Wake is a wonderful piece of writing, not only diving down into details of what is probably a murky subject for most of us, offering a greater understanding of the physical event, but providing a context within which we can achieve a greater understanding of the causes and implications of the sinking of the RMS Lusitania. As a bit of historical reporting is it definitely a case of “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead.”

Review posted – 7/3/15

Publication date – 3/10/15

=======================================EXTRA STUFF

Links to the author’s personal, Twitter and FB pages

Lusitania Online is a wonderful source for all things Lucy

Video from the National Archives of passengers arriving and Lucy embarking on its final voyage- the first 1:50 is mostly people getting out of cars, so feel free to skip ahead a bit

A 1918 animation of the sinking

Arthur Conan Doyle’s story Danger! was written about 18 months before the outbreak of WWI. It anticipated in considerable detail the submarine warfare to come. You can read it on Gutenberg. In the preface to the 1918 collection in which it appears, Doyle noted that he attempted to present his notions to the government, noting that he:

…did indeed adopt every possible method, that he personally approached leading naval men and powerful editors, that he sent three separate minutes upon the danger to various public bodies, notably to the Committee for National Defence, and that he touched upon the matter in an article in The Fortnightly Review. In some unfortunate way subjects of national welfare are in this country continually subordinated to party politics, so that a self-evident proposition, such as the danger of a nation being fed from without, is waved aside and ignored, because it will not fit in with some general political shibboleth.

If this reminds you at all of Bill Clinton and Richard Clarke trying to warn the incoming Bush administration of the danger presented by Osama bin Laden, it should.

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