Erik Larson writes non-fiction that reads like a novel, enthralling the reader and keeping them up page-turning with the same intensity as a beach read thriller. Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania is no exception. History tells us on May 7 1915 a German submarine attacked and sank the British cruise liner, RMS Lusitania, on a voyage from New York City to Liverpool with several hundred American citizens on board. This act of war that took American lives drew the US into World War I on the side of the Allies. That’s the high school history class version. The reality is far more complex, thrilling, and human than our dry history books would have you believe.
Drawing from hundreds of sources and recollections, Larson gives details without getting mired in minutia which keeps the read informative and brisk. The short chapters keep momentum building as the setting shifts back and forth between the Lusitania herself, the captain and crew of German sub U-20, the top-secret intelligence gathering Room 40 in England, and the presidency of Woodrow Wilson in the US. The reader gets intimate knowledge of day-to-day activity aboard the Lusitania and U-20, as well as the ongoing war in Europe.
Personalities of all involved are vividly described and the human aspect to the tragedy is well rendered. There is mystery regarding the sinking itself and while Larson doesn’t cast blame there were a lot of odd decisions made by the English Admiralty that may have indirectly lead to the successful torpedoing of the ship. The reader is left to come to their own conclusions regarding the culpability of the British navy in the attack either through omission, malfeasance, or just plain old negligence.
To wit, Room 40 had broken the German cipher unbeknownst to the enemy and was desperate to keep that information secret. As such they were tracking U-20 and knew it was hunting off the southern coast of Ireland with Lusitania on approach. They sent warnings to all ships in the area but these warnings were contradictory and confusing. Despite a warning from Germany on the morning of sailing that targeted Lusitania specifically, the British navy provided no armed escort for the ship once it entered the war zone. Was it conspiracy to put this ship knowingly in harm’s way to force President Wilson’s hand? That’s a question still up for debate but the question and evidence are fascinating (and infuriating) to consider.
Larson has written a tremendously entertaining and moving account of a disaster that is usually relegated to a scant paragraph in our history books. His focus on the people involved makes the story immediate and easily relatable bringing the world in 1915 to life.
Very highly recommended.