Sunday, March 29, 2015

Another Great Adventure in History from Eric Larson

Dead Wake is as thrilling as any novel.
This past Christmas week I watched an amazing documentary series called Apocalypse:WWI and realized that I know so much less about the first world war than I do the second. And it's just as interesting! I've been reading bits and pieces since then, and put my name on the waiting list for Erik Larson's account of the sinking of the Lusitania.The 100th anniversary is approaching and it seems an appropriate time to read about it.

Dead Wake takes the events we've read about or watched in documentaries and puts them into a smoothly flowing narrative that  starts in New York City and ends off the coast of Ireland. It includes the American presidency, British code breakers of Room 40, German politics, u-boats, zeppelins, Ypres, the British Admiralty...I could go on and on. It's a lot of information, but Larson tells a logical story and all of the pieces fall into their proper places with ease.

The Lusitania pulling into New York Harbor

Passengers of the Lusitania are no longer an anonymous group. Rich details drawn from the letters and diaries of the dead and first person accounts from the survivors create a vivid picture of the voyage, surprisingly upbeat. Despite a published warning that vessels in British waters will be attacked, the passengers seem hearbreakingly unaware of their true danger.

Captain Walter Schweiger
Captain William Turner

Tension builds as the Lusitania, captained by William Turner, and U boat 20, captained by the aggressive Walter Schweiger, move toward one another. Schweiger's frustration at missed attempts, poor targets, and foggy weather is palpable. Meanwhile, Captain Turner is kept almost entirely in the dark by the British Admiralty and Cunard Lines. Options to improve the Lusitania's chances were available, but purposefully kept from him. 

The account of the sinking itself is terrifying. The speed at which the big ship sank is unbelievable, as is the lack of timely help for a vessel only 12 miles from the coast. The Admiralty's policy of forbidding assistance to vessels under submarine attack is inconceivable when applied to a passenger ship carrying 1,959 people. 

Larson addresses the question of whether or not the British Government  knowingly allowed the Lusitania to come under attack in order to force the Americans into WWI. Between the Official Secrets Act and missing documents, it may be impossible to ever produce adequate documentation to prove conspiracy. However, the facts speak truly.

A genuine 5 star read.