Dead Wake The Last Crossing of the Lusitania: Review

**Thanks to Blogging for Books for a copy of Dead Wake for an affiliate review**

We all know about the Titanic, which famously went down after hitting an iceberg. But, although the name Lusitania sounded kind of familiar to me, I have to admit that if I had known its story, I’d forgotten.

The Lusitania was another huge ocean liner that also sank, and within 5 years of the Titanic. But the culprit this time wasn’t an iceberg, but a torpedo shot from a German U-Boat during WWI.

Erik Larson tells about this tragedy in his latest book, Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania.  I have enjoyed every one of Larson’s books that I’ve read (my favorite being “Devil in the White City”), and I’ve even heard him speak when he visited locally. He has a way of making true events read like fiction.

One of my favorite things about Erik Larson’s books are when he makes connections between the events and people he’s writing about, and who and what are happening elsewhere at the same time. For instance, in this book we got a shout out to Captain Von Trapp of Sound of Music fame, who was captain of a U boat near Italy at the time. We also peek in at a German infantryman stationed in Belgium, who wrote of the fighting, “Things can’t go on like this forever.” That soldier was a young Adolph Hitler.

I enjoyed the side-story of President Woodrow Wilson, who was widowed during his White House years and suffered severe depression following this, until meeting Edith Galt. She was charmed by Wilson, who was extremely bright while still warm and solicitous of her feelings. Wilson was similarly taken with Galt, with his valet observing, “He’s a goner.”

Some basic facts — of the 1960 passengers on board the Lusitania, 1193 died. During the voyage, one passenger wrote, “I think a happier company of passengers would be impossible to find. They were of all ages: a large number of babies in their mothers’ arms, children of various ages and men and women up to the age of seventy.” Of 33 babies aboard, only six survived. 123 Americans died. 3 Germans who had sneaked aboard as stowaways died as well.

There were many bits of irony, with one passenger writing, “I’d never sen a more uneventful or stupid voyage.”

I have to say that I took a hearty dislike to Germany in this book. Schwieger, the captain of U-20 that torpedoed the Lusitania, seemed to have no qualms about attacking a boat that clearly was carrying civilians. “His crew was jubilant: they had destroyed the Lusitania, the ship that symbolized British maritime prowess.” The Germans attacked civilian boats regularly: “The Royal (British) Navy behaved in civil fashion and often paid for the contraband it seized; Germany, on the other hand, seemed increasingly willing to sink merchant ships without warning, even those bearing neutral markings.” I can kind of see why Germany was so severely penalized following the end of the war. Of course, in retrospect we can all see how awfully they responded during the next war.

It was also disconcerting to see how Britain failed to provide escort and protection for the Lusitania, even though Germany had sent out a warning against passenger ships just as the Lusitania sailed. Britain seemed to hope that if a ship were attacked carrying Americans, it might induce the US to enter the war.

First Class Dining Salon on The Lusitania

First Class Dining Salon on The Lusitania (public domain)

Other interesting things:

  • Elbridge and Maude Thompson of Seymour, Indiana (my hometown) were on the ship. He died, she survived.
  • Some of the most interesting bits of writing in the book come from comments written by those who had been on the ship: “I did not think that anybody, even women and children, were so much terrified as they were astounded and stunned by the consciousness that the fears, cherished half in ridicule for five days previous, had at last been realized. The German “bluff” had actually come off.”
  • The title of the book is a maritime term for a track lingering on the surface of the water like a long, pale, scar — in this case, from the torpedo as it traveled from the submarine to strike the ship.
  • When word reached England the Lusitania had been struck, they rejected sending out a fast boat to the rescue, fearing that it would be an attractive target for any submarines that might still be in the area. Instead, slower boats were called into action, which took hours to reach the wreckage.
  • Cunard, the ship line that owned Lusitania, offered survivors a lifetime 25% discount. With this major disaster following just a few years after that of the Titanic, I can’t imagine wanting to travel across the Atlantic by ship!
  • Of the 791 passengers listed as missing, only 173 bodies were recovered. Most of these were buried mass graves in a large cemetery in Ireland. One body was being returned to its family in the US when the ship carrying it was attacked and sank.
  • William Turner was the Lusitania’s captain. His youngest son was killed during WWII when a Nazi U-boat torpedoed the British ship he was working on.
  • Schwieger, captain of the U-boat that sank the Lusitania, was killed just a few years later when he steered his boat into a British minefield.

Did you know the story of the Lusitania? Have any interesting facts to add? I recommend this book. You’ll learn something in an interesting way.

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9 thoughts on “Dead Wake The Last Crossing of the Lusitania: Review

  1. If I have heard of the Lusitania, I did not retain it. I find this very interesting and love how the author pulls in other bits of related trivia. It seems amazing a couple from Seymour were aboard. I will run this by some friends who are avid readers.

  2. I, too, had heard of the Lusitania but didn’t recall it’s story. Your review is so thorough and interesting. Erik Larson is a great writer and must do a tremendous amount of research. Amazing that someone from Seymour was on the voyage.

  3. “One of my favorite things about Erik Larson’s books are when he makes connections between the events and people he’s writing about, and who and what are happening elsewhere at the same time.” I love when authors do that too. Makes it all seem more authentic. This book sounds fascinating, like one I would enjoy. Thanks for sharing!

  4. I have heard of the Lusitania before but didn’t know much about it. Last year, when this book was being released, I was fortunate to meet Erik Larson, he is fascinating to listen to. The vast amount of research that he puts into his book is mind boggling and admirable. I have this book, it’s signed, I’ve not read it mostly because other books have bumped it – I think because I feel like I’ll need to make time to read this book slowly instead of powering through without much thought (as you can do with many fictional books).

  5. I’m like you said in your intro – I vaguely knew the name Lusitania but really nothing about it. Thanks for the info! If I had been on it I don’t think I’d have been interested in a 25% discount for future voyages!

  6. I had heard of the ship, but knew almost nothing about it. I would not enjoy reading this book, knowing the outcome of it to be such a dark one. I just can’t get “into” books like that.

  7. I think my husband would love this book- I love historical fiction and I think this is more a narrative non-fiction, where he makes a story from non-fiction that happened. The best way to read it in my opinion!

  8. The Lusitania was mentioned from time to time when I was very young in WW11 days, but your commentary brought the story to real life for me. This is a book that I could get into without hesitation in spite of eye problems. Thanks for your excellent job of describing this book!

  9. If you haven’t read this author’s book, “The Devil and the White City,” it’s good…horrifying, but good.

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