This is a familiar story about a famous disaster during a conflict so vast and bloody contemporaries called it simply the Great War. On May 1, 1915, nine months after the conflict began, the HMS Lusitania, a passenger ship almost 800 feet long that was the pride of British maritime commerce, left New York Harbor for a weeklong voyage to Liverpool. Near the end of the trip, the speedy liner passed through a stretch of water south of Ireland where German submarines had already sunk scores of vessels belonging to their enemies. On May 7, the commander of U-boat 20 stumbled upon this massive prize and destroyed it with a single torpedo. The ship sank in just 18 minutes. Nearly 1,200 people lost their lives, including 123 U.S. citizens.
For weeks, American newspapers devoted their front pages to such heart-breaking details as the corpses of drowned mothers with babies clinging to their breasts. “Nothing in the annals of piracy can, in wanton and cruel ferocity, equal the destruction of the Lusitania,” editorialized one daily. The Literary Digest curtly summarized the reaction: “Condemnation of the act seems to be limited only by the restrictions of the English language.” For the rest of their lives, millions of Americans would remember where and when they heard the terrible news—an experience future generations would repeat when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and when the World Trade Center and everyone trapped inside it crumbled into ash.
Erik Larson has an enormous talent for writing popular history, yet in his latest book, Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania, the familiarity of the tragedy tests his skills in a way his previous books did not. Most readers surely came to his Isaac’s Storm ignorant about the hurricane that devastated Galveston in 1900; certainly, most started his In the Garden of Beasts having never heard of William Dodd, the first U.S. ambassador to Nazi Germany, or his gullible and hypersexual daughter Martha. But, for exactly a century, countless journalists, scholars, and naval buffs have been sifting through and arguing about the details of the Lusitania’s demise. How can Larson make the tale seem fresh again?
He takes an approach the great anthropologist Clifford Geertz termed “thick description,” which a non-academic might call “empirical seduction.” Larson includes such narrative essentials as the changing weather in the North Atlantic and biographies of the Lusitania’s captain, William Turner, and Walther Schweiger, the German officer who became his nemesis. But Larson also stuffs his book with anecdotes about the dachsunds the U-boat crew rescued from a sinking vessel and kept as pets, the ordinary sailor’s routine drudgery of painting and cleaning so the ship would resemble a luxury hotel, and the complete menu of a dinner in first class which included 11 different entrees, five desserts, and an assortment of excellent French wines and cigars from both Cuba and the Philippines.
Fortunately, this surfeit of minutiae doesn’t get in the way of telling a dramatic, if dreadful, tale. Several passengers on the Lusitania voice premonitions of doom, while others are quite certain a ship so large and fast can outrun, outmaneuver, or ram and crush any submarine. A shipboard romance between a pair of beautiful and witty young Americans seems about to begin, minutes before the torpedo hits. Larson points out how easily the Lusitania might have completed its voyage—if a dense fog off the Irish coast had not lifted that day, if the U-boat had not been cruising through the area on its way back to its home base, if Captain Turner had not unknowingly turned his ship right into the path of the U-20, if the torpedo had misfired as did nearly half its counterparts, if the British Admiralty, headed by Winston Churchill, had dispatched a destroyer to escort the Lusitania as it had during the liner’s earlier wartime passages. As Larson concludes, “Even the tiniest alteration in a single vector could have saved the ship.” I assume a Hollywood studio will option his book, if one has not done so already.
However, Dead Wake strangely contains neither a chart of the converging routes taken by liner and U-boat nor any photographs, though Larson does describe a few. Couldn’t the executives at Crown spend a little cash to illustrate the latest effort by an author whose earlier books have sold more than 5 million copies?
I do wish Larson cared as much about the question of how the destruction of the Lusitania changed the course of World War I as he does about crafting a thrilling disaster at sea—his own Titanic sequel, with the U-20 now playing the role of the iceberg. He thankfully avoids repeating the charge, beloved by conspiracy mongers, that Churchill left the Cunard liner unprotected because he hoped its sinking would bring the U.S. into the war as Britain’s ally. In fact, the First Lord of the Admiralty was actually in France at the time, meeting with generals, and his next-in-command, a nearly senile gentleman, subscribed to the received wisdom that no submarine could sink an ocean liner much larger and faster than itself.
Yet Larson rushes through the aftermath of the disaster, perhaps because it was something of an anti-climax. The horrific attack ended any real chance that most Americans would remain impartial in the Great War. But President Woodrow Wilson, unlike FDR after the assault on Pearl Harbor and George W. Bush after the attacks of 9/11, spoke against rushing to war, and most Americans agreed with him. Many suspected, correctly, that the Lusitania carried munitions in its hold; they also recognized that Schweiger was not purposely seeking to murder American civilians.
The sinking of the Lusitania did begin nearly two years of tense negotiations between the U.S. and Germany. They ceased only in the winter of 1917 when the Kaiser ordered his U-boats to target any ship crossing the Atlantic, including ones flying the stars and stripes, which might be carrying supplies for their enemies. If, as anti-war activists urged, Wilson had earlier used his status as leader of the world’s leading neutral nation to arbitrate a peace treaty, Americans would not have gone into battle at all. That is a less familiar counter-factual tale, but, perhaps, a more momentous one.
Michael Kazin teaches history at Georgetown University and is co-editor of Dissent. He is writing a history of the Americans who opposed the First World War, to be published by Simon and Schuster.