Dead wake The last crossing of the Lusitania

Erik Larson, 1954-

Large print - 2015

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Large type books
[New York] : Random House Large Print [2015]
Main Author
Erik Larson, 1954- (-)
Physical Description
672 pages ; 24 cm
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Review by New York Times Review

ONE DAY seven years ago, while on a magazine assignment, I found myself on a boat off the coast of Ireland, bobbing in dark, heavy seas 300 feet above the slumbering wreck of the R.M.S. Lusitania as sport divers returned triumphantly to the surface. When they came aboard, the gleeful explorers, part of a marine archaeology expedition sanctioned by the Irish government, produced a piece of history - a plastic container holding a handful of .303 rounds they'd found inside the plankton-hazed ruins, rounds that had been manufactured in America and bought by the British to kill Germans during World War I. One of the divers peeled back the lid, and the corroded ammunition greeted fresh air for the first time in 93 years. "There's thousands of cases of ammo down in that hole!" one of the Irish divers cried out. "You could just scoop the stuff up!" But then he turned somber. Even though he had dived the great wreck dozens of times before, the expression on his face was that of a spooked man. "It will always be a scary place, a daunting place," he told me. "There's a lot of lost souls down there." Few tales in history are more haunting, more tangled with investigatory mazes or more fraught with toxic secrets than that of the final voyage of the Lusitania, one of the colossal tragedies of maritime history. It's the other Titanic, the story of a mighty ship sunk not by the grandeur of nature but by the grimness of man. On May 7, 1915, the four-funneled, 787-foot Cunard superliner, on a run from New York to Liverpool, encountered a German submarine, the U-20, about 11 miles off the coast of Ireland. The U-boat's captain, Walther Schwieger, was pleased to discover that the passenger steamer had no naval escort. Following his government's new policy of unrestricted warfare, Schwieger fired a single torpedo into her hull. Less than half a minute later, a second explosion shuddered from somewhere deep within the bowels of the vessel, and she listed precariously to starboard. The Lusitania sank in just 18 minutes. Nearly 1,200 people, including 128 Americans, died with it. The casualties included the millionaire Alfred Vanderbilt, the Broadway impresario Charles Frohman and the noted art collector Hugh Lane, who was thought to be carrying sealed lead tubes containing paintings by Rembrandt and Monet. The world was outraged to learn that the war had taken this diabolic new turn, that an ocean liner full of innocent civilians was now considered fair game. The sinking turned American opinion against the Germans - demonstrating, for some, the incorrigible treachery of the "Pirate Huns" - and became a rallying cry when America finally entered the war in 1917. But in the years that followed, unsettling questions clung to the Lusitania case, contributing to a persistent hunch that the ship had somehow been allowed to sail into a trap. (Or, at least, that important aspects of the story had been assiduously covered up.) Why had the British Admiralty failed to provide a military escort? What was the cause of that catastrophic second explosion? Why was a British cruiser sent to rescue the Lusitania's dying victims suddenly called back to port? And what about Winston Churchill, then first lord of the Admiralty, who conveniently left Britain for France just days before the sinking? What did Churchill know, and when did he know it? Shortly before the disaster, Churchill had written in a confidential letter that it was "most important to attract neutral shipping to our shores, in the hopes especially of embroiling the United States with Germany." Afterward, he all but celebrated the sinking as a great Allied victory, saying, "The poor babies who perished in the ocean struck a blow at German power more deadly than could have been achieved by the sacrifice of a hundred thousand fighting men." The Germans, for their part, argued, and with good reason, that the British had long been using passenger liners like the Lusitania to ferry troops, weapons and ordnance from supposedly neutral America to war-weakened Britain. The Lusitania, in fact, was known to be carrying many tons of war matériel that fateful day (including four million rounds of ammunition, samples of which the Irish divers discovered seven years ago). The U-boat captain, Schwieger, was surprised that a single torpedo had sunk such a massive ship - and so quickly. Yet from his periscope, he noted a second explosion, apparently the same one that so many aboard the ship also felt and heard. Over the years, many people have contended that this second explosion was very likely caused by secret stores of volatile munitions - like aluminum powder or guncotton - that detonated within the ship's holds. This nagging question of the second explosion is one of many Lusitania riddles that persist to this day. And with the hundredth anniversary of the ship's demise almost upon us, the subject would seem to be ripe for a new and fresh interpretation. ERIK LARSON is one of the modern masters of popular narrative nonfiction. In book after book, he's proved adept at rescuing weird and wonderful gothic tales from the shadows of history. Larson is both a resourceful reporter and a subtle stylist who understands the tricky art of Edward Scissorhands-ing multiple narrative strands into a pleasing story. Few nonfiction books have employed this technique better than his best seller "The Devil in the White City," a horrifying account of a serial killer lurking at the edges of the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago. It's a contrapuntal tale of depravity and sophistication, of evil and beauty, of the hunter and the hunted. And so Erik Larson and the sinking of the Lusitania would seem to be an ideal pairing. The mighty ocean liner was the paragon of civilization, big and fast, strong and sleek, tricked out with every kind of innovation, a White City on the high seas. And hunting it was an ever sly and furtive machine of the deep, a nautical sociopath with an unquenchable thirst for bringing down tonnage. When it comes to the story of the sociopath, the Larson magic is very much on display in "Dead Wake." The passages concerning the U-20 knife along with a clean and wicked élan. These sections are so well done that the reader scarcely notices the considerable research Larson obviously logged. Maybe it's a perverse thing to admit, but for much of the book I found myself rooting for the German submariners, sympathizing with their loneliness and claustrophobia, their mad dives and other maneuvers as they groped through the murk, the perils squeezing in from all sides. The U-boat stank like a sty. There was, Larson says, the "basal reek of three dozen men who never bathed, wore leather clothes that did not breathe, and shared one small lavatory. The toilet from time to time imparted to the boat the scent of a cholera hospital and could be flushed only when the U-boat was on the surface or at shallow depths, lest the undersea pressure blow material back into the vessel." Though Captain Schwieger apparently bore little sense of pity for his human victims, he had a soft spot for dogs - at one point, the U-20 had six aboard. Larson paints him as less villain than aggressive and essentially amoral predator in full mastery of his vessel, a decent leader of men who did his job relentlessly well while working under nearly impossible circumstances. The view from the periscope was, Larson says, "a crabbed one at best. A captain got only a brief, platelike glimpse at the world around him, during which he had to make decisions about a ship's nature, its nationality, whether it was armed or not and whether the markings it bore were legitimate or fake. And if he decided to attack, it was he alone who bore the responsibility, like pulling the trigger on a gun, but without having to see or listen to the result. All he heard was the sound of the exploding torpedo as transmitted through the sea. If he chose to watch the tragedy unfold, he saw only a silent world of fire and terror." What makes the story of Schwieger's ceaseless predations so much more discomfiting is that the British Admiralty apparently had a very good idea of his whereabouts in the days leading up to the sinking - and yet did nothing. Encryption experts working with the Admiralty's Room 40 regularly intercepted Schwieger's transmissions and closely followed his movements around the British Isles. "It was a curious moment in the history of naval warfare," Larson writes. "Room 40 knew a U-boat was heading south to Liverpool - knew the boat's history; knew that it was now somewhere in the North Atlantic under orders to sink troop transports and any other British vessel it encountered; and knew as well that the submarine was armed with enough shells and torpedoes to sink a dozen ships. It was like knowing that a particular killer was loose on the streets of London, armed with a particular weapon, and certain to strike in a particular neighborhood within the next few days, the only unknown being exactly when." LARSON'S PASSAGES concerning those aboard the Lusitania, however, are less engaging. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that he was writing "Dead Wake" around the time of the recent media orgy surrounding the Titanic disaster's 100th anniversary, but in places he seems bored by this steamship and its Edwardianera passengers. We are treated to the familiar lists of clothes and personal effects and obligatory discussions of hat styles. As the Lusitania makes its final Atlantic crossing, Larson's language grows slack. "The usual shipboard tedium began to set in," he writes. There were "books, and cigars, and fine foods, afternoon tea. ... Now and then a ship appeared in the distance." Passengers "drank and smoked. Both; a lot." Larson paints a nuanced and empathetic portrait of the Lusitania's fate-ravaged captain, William Thomas Turner, but he seldom lingers long enough with any of his other characters to establish a lasting connection. When the torpedo strikes, the reader has little sense of suspense, and little concern for who will live and who will die. To be sure, in the final moments before the impact, there are masterly Larsonian touches - the staccato cross-cutting, the crisp zeitgeisty vignettes, the interweaving of chills and thrills. But after the torpedo blast, the narrative rarely gains emotional traction again. I could see the disaster unfolding. But I couldn't feel it. In an interview, Larson once said: "It is not necessarily my goal to inform. It is my goal to create a historical experience with my books. My dream, my ideal, is that someone picks up a book of mine, starts reading it, and just lets themselves sink into the past and then read the thing straight through, and emerge at the end feeling as though they've lived in another world entirely." If creating "an experience" is Larson's primary goal, then "Dead Wake" largely succeeds. There are brisk cameos by Churchill and Woodrow Wilson, desperate flurries of wireless messages and telegrams, quick flashes to London and Berlin. These passages have a crackling, propulsive energy that most other books about the Lusitania - often written for disaster buffs or steampunk aficionados - sorely lack. Yet from the standpoint of scholarship or human drama, there's not much fresh ground here. Readers of Diana Preston's definitive (if occasionally soporific) "Lusitania: An Epic Tragedy" (2002) will find little in the way of new evidence or new revelations. To his credit, Larson refuses to descend into the many rabbit holes of conspiracy and esoteric forensics that could have bogged down his story. But he seems curiously incurious about the second explosion - which remains the single greatest mystery of the Lusitania's rapid sinking, and the ultimate cause of the terrible carnage. In a brief wrap-up, he devotes less than a full page to the question, then brusquely declares, on the basis of scant evidence, that it was caused by a rupture of the Lusitania's main steam line. Anniversaries, even big ones, rarely provide a compelling rationale for writing a book, and at times Larson's pages have the rushed quality of a writer laboring to meet a pressing deadline. If "Dead Wake" is not (by Larson's standards) a great book, it is an entertaining book about a great subject, and it will do much to make this seismic event resonate for new generations of readers. A century later, the Lusitania remains a daunting subject just as it remains a daunting shipwreck - a dark realm, full of secrets and lost souls. The question of the second explosion is one of many Lusitania riddles that persist. HAMPTON SIDES, author of "In the Kingdom of Ice" and other histories, is journalist in residence at Colorado College.

Copyright (c) The New York Times Company [March 8, 2015]
Review by Booklist Review

*Starred Review* The sinking of the British ocean liner Lusitania in 1915 is one of a trio (including the iceberg-wounded Titanic in 1912 and the Italian liner Andrea Doria, which collided with another liner on the high seas in 1956) of the most dramatic and most remembered maritime disasters of the twentieth century. With the narrative skills shown so effectively in his The Devil in the White City (2003), a lively account of Chicago's 1893 World's Fair, Larson reconstructs the last and fatal voyage of what was widely considered the most beautiful ship of the day, the giant four-stacker Lusitania. Reader engrossment is tightly sustained as we move back and forth between the Lusitania on its return from New York City to its home port of Liverpool under a black cloud of warnings that the imperial German government considered the waters around Britain to be a war zone, and the rapacious German submarine U-20, stalking the seas for prey like a lion on the Serengeti. Factual and personal to a high degree, the narrative reads like a grade-A thriller. HIGH-DEMAND BACKSTORY: The popularity of Larson's previous books guarantees public-library demand for his latest.--Hooper, Brad Copyright 2015 Booklist

From Booklist, Copyright (c) American Library Association. Used with permission.
Review by Publisher's Weekly Review

Reader Brick's measured, natural voice is a soothing counterweight to Larson's tragic recounting of the 1915 sinking of the British passenger ship Lusitania by a German U-boat-one of the catalysts for the United States' eventual entry into World War I on the side of the Allied Powers. Brick maintains a steady hand when describing scenes of heightened emotion, such as the critical 18 minutes it took the ship to sink. He does not engage in showy voice characterizations or individual accents for the story's international cast of characters, which includes English officers, American passengers, and the captain of the German U-boat (though Brick's pronunciation of the book's German words and names is excellent). Brick's understated approach is fitting for this work of history, bringing poignant humanity to those who survived and those who lost their lives on the Lusitania. A Crown hardcover. (Mar.) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
Review by Library Journal Review

The Lusitania was justly famous in her day as one of the largest and fastest ocean liners plying the waters between America and England. Like the Titanic before her, she was believed by many to be unsinkable. The German navy thought otherwise. The year is 1915, and England and Germany are at war. This European conflict provides the background for one of the most dramatic stories of life and death on the high seas. With perspectives taken from the crew and passengers as well as the German submarine commander, the drama unfolds through many twists and turns culminating in a fateful encounter on the Atlantic Ocean. Larson's (The Devil in the White City) work is full of tense, heartbreaking, and unforgettable moments. Scott Brick's narration is wonderful, occasionally taking on prophetic tones when highlighting the interesting quirks of history that led to the disaster. VERDICT Recommended not only for those with an interest in World War I but for anyone desiring a thrilling story. ["This suspenseful account will entice readers of military and maritime history along with lovers of popular history": LJ 2/1/15 starred review of the Crown hc.]-Denis Frias, -Mississauga Lib. Syst., Ont. © Copyright 2015. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

(c) Copyright Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
Review by Kirkus Book Review

Larson (In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin, 2011, etc.) once again demonstrates his expert researching skills and writing abilities, this time shedding light on nagging questions about the sinking of the Lusitania on May 7, 1915."Lucy," as she was fondly known, was one of the "greyhounds," ships that vied for the Blue Riband award for the fastest crossing of the Atlantic Ocean. A gem of the Cunard fleet, she drew the cream of society, and life aboard was the epitome of Edwardian luxury. The author works with a broad scope, examining the shipping business, wartime policies, the government leaders and even U-boat construction. More fascinating is his explanation of the intricacy of sailing, submerging and maneuvering a U-boat. Gaining position to fire a torpedo that has only a 60 percent chance of exploding belies the number of ships sunk. Throughout the voyage, many omens predicted disaster, especially the publication of a German warning the morning of sailing. The British Admiralty had broken the German codes and could track the whereabouts of submarines, particularly the deadly U-20. They knew that six U-boats left base during the last week of April, and three ships sank in the same channel the week before the Lusitania. The admiralty had decided to open a safer northern channel to merchant shipping but hadn't directed the Lusitania to use it. Larson explores curiosities and a long list of what ifs: If the Lusitania had not been late in sailing, if the fog had persisted longer, if the captain hadn't turned to starboard into the sub's path and if that one torpedo hadn't hit just in the right spot, the Lusitania might have arrived safely. An intriguing, entirely engrossing investigation into a legendary disaster. Compared to Greg King and Penny Wilson's Lusitania (2014), also publishing to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the sinking, Larson's is the superior account. Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

A WORD FROM THE CAPTAIN On the night of May 6, 1915, as his ship approached the coast of Ireland, Capt. William Thomas Turner left the bridge and made his way to the first-class lounge, where passengers were taking part in a concert and talent show, a customary feature of Cunard crossings. The room was large and warm, paneled in mahogany and carpeted in green and yellow, with two fourteen-foot-tall fireplaces in the front and rear walls. Ordinarily Turner avoided events of this kind aboard ship, because he disliked the social obligations of captaincy, but tonight was no ordinary night, and he had news to convey. There was already a good deal of tension in the room, despite the singing and piano playing and clumsy magic tricks, and this became more pronounced when Turner stepped forward at intermission. His presence had the perverse effect of affirming everything the passengers had been fearing since their departure from New York, in the way that a priest's arrival tends to undermine the cheery smile of a nurse. It was Turner's intention, however, to provide reassurance. His looks helped. With the physique of a bank safe, he was the embodiment of quiet strength. He had blue eyes and a kind and gentle smile, and his graying hair--he was fifty-eight years old---conveyed wisdom and experience, as did the mere fact of his being a Cunard captain. In accord with Cunard's practice of rotating -captains from ship to ship, this was his third stint as the Lusitania 's master, his first in wartime. Turner now told his audience that the next day, Friday, May 7, the ship would enter waters off the southern coast of Ireland that were part of a "zone of war" designated by Germany. This in itself was anything but news. On the morning of the ship's departure from New York, a notice had appeared on the shipping pages of New York's newspapers. Placed by the German Embassy in Washington, it reminded readers of the existence of the war zone and cautioned that "vessels flying the flag of Great Britain, or of any of her allies, are liable to destruction" and that travelers sailing on such ships "do so at their own risk." Though the warning did not name a particular vessel, it was widely interpreted as being aimed at Turner's ship, the Lusitania , and indeed in at least one prominent newspaper, the New York World, it was positioned adjacent to Cunard's own advertisement for the ship. Ever since, about all the passengers had been doing was "thinking, dreaming, sleeping, and eating submarines," according to Oliver Bernard, a theater-set designer traveling in first class. Turner now revealed to the audience that earlier in the evening the ship had received a warning by wireless of fresh submarine activity off the Irish coast. He assured the audience there was no need for alarm. Coming from another man, this might have sounded like a baseless palliative, but Turner believed it. He was skeptical of the threat posed by German submarines, especially when it came to his ship, one of the great transatlantic "greyhounds," so named for the speeds they could achieve. His superiors at Cunard shared his skepticism. The company's New York manager issued an official response to the German warning. "The truth is that the Lusitania is the safest boat on the sea. She is too fast for any submarine. No German war vessel can get her or near her." Turner's personal experience affirmed this: on two previous occasions, while captain of a different ship, he had encountered what he believed were submarines and had successfully eluded them by ordering full speed ahead. He said nothing about these incidents to his audience. Now he offered a different sort of reassurance: upon entering the war zone the next day, the ship would be securely in the care of the Royal Navy. He bade the audience good night and returned to the bridge. The talent show continued. A few passengers slept fully clothed in the dining room, for fear of being trapped below decks in their cabins if an attack were to occur. One especially anxious traveler, a Greek carpet merchant, put on a life jacket and climbed into a lifeboat to spend the night. Another passenger, a New York businessman named Isaac Lehmann, took a certain comfort from the revolver that he carried with him always and that would, all too soon, bring him a measure of fame, and infamy. With all but a few lights extinguished and all shades pulled and curtains drawn, the great liner slid forward through the sea, at times in fog, at times under a lacework of stars. But even in darkness, in moonlight and mist, the ship stood out. At one o'clock in the morning, Friday, May 7, the officers of a New York-bound vessel spotted the Lusitania and recognized it immediately as it passed some two miles off. "You could see the shape of the four funnels," said the captain, Thomas M. Taylor; "she was the only ship with four funnels." Unmistakable and invulnerable, a floating village in steel, the Lusitania glided by in the night as a giant black shadow cast upon the sea. Excerpted from Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania by Erik Larson All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.