Review: Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania , by Erik Larson

The Lusitania tragedy is grippingly recounted, says Keith Jeffery

 Illustration of the sinking of the Cunard liner Lusitania by a German submarine off the coast of Ireland.  Illustration: Norman Wilkinson/Illustrated London News/Ullstein Bild via Getty Images

Illustration of the sinking of the Cunard liner Lusitania by a German submarine off the coast of Ireland. Illustration: Norman Wilkinson/Illustrated London News/Ullstein Bild via Getty Images

Sat, May 9, 2015, 01:40


Book Title:
Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania


Erik Larson


Guideline Price:

The loss of RMS Lusitania, torpedoed by a German U-boat 18km off the Old Head of Kinsale on the afternoon of May 7th, 1915, with the loss of nearly 1,200 lives, was one of the most shocking tragedies of the first World War. The deliberate sinking of such a famous passenger liner – the pride of the Cunard fleet – marked a new and terrible manifestation of “total war”, by which technological advances enabled death and destruction to be applied far from the traditional battlefield and which brought civilians into the front line, almost as if they were uniformed soldiers.

In Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania Erik Larson deftly narrates the ill-fated voyage, noting how crew and passengers largely ignored the explicit warning issued by the German embassy in Washington DC (and published in the US press) that “vessels flying the flag of Great Britain” were “liable to destruction” in the waters around Ireland and Britain, which the Germans had declared a war zone from February 4th, 1915.

This German strategy to use submarines to cut the transatlantic route bringing essential war supplies and food to Britain and France marked a sharp intensification of the conflict at sea, but it also came with the risk of alienating neutral opinion, especially that of the US should American ships or citizens suffer.

So it was to be with the Lusitania, which carried 190 Americans, 123 of whom perished. President Woodrow Wilson issued a strong note of protest that helped persuade the Germans to suspend the submarine campaign. The savagery of the attack, moreover, had a powerful impact on American public opinion, bringing it behind Wilson when he eventually brought the US into the war, in February 1917, after Germany had begun a new campaign of unrestricted submarine warfare – which is to say warfare in which it would attack civilian shipping without warning.

Larson, a historian, focuses less on the wider ramifications of the sinking than the human drama. He tells a gripping story well, alternating between the unsuspecting liner and Kapitänleutnant Walther Schwieger’s U-20 as they travelled towards their fateful encounter.

Larson inevitably discusses some of the numerous conspiracy stories surrounding the sinking. Faced with a torrent of international condemnation after the event, the Germans claimed that the Lusitania was a legitimate target, as it was armed and had been carrying a huge cargo of munitions. The former was false, the latter partially true, as the liner was carrying shell casings and small-arms ammunition. Yet the vessel was primarily a passenger liner carrying some cargo, not a munitions carrier or troopship.

Churchill conspiracy Another allegation is that Winston Churchill, as first lord of the admiralty, conspired to let the ship be sunk, in order to help bring the US into the war. This is the stuff of perfervid imaginings. British naval intelligence knew that U-20 was operating somewhere in the Western Approaches – the area of the Atlantic immediately to the west of Britain and Ireland – but the notion that it and the Lusitania might be manipulated into a collision course is absurd, for the sea is a very big place. What Larson demonstrates above all is the sheer improbability of what actually happened and the role of contingency in the events, sensibly concluding that “Schwieger’s attack on the Lusitania succeeded because of a chance confluence of forces”.

Indeed it is above all the fragility of the U-20, and the thinly stretched German threat, that impresses rather than the vulnerability of the liner. U-20 was one of only seven German submarines in service at the time, and it was comparatively lightly armed, carrying just seven torpedoes, of which only three remained by the time the submarine met the Lusitania. These were tricky weapons, with a 60 per cent failure rate. Astonishingly, the 44,000-ton Lusitania was destroyed – it sank within 18 minutes – by a single torpedo carrying just over 150kg of explosive. Schweiger managed by chance to hit the ship in precisely the right place to ensure that seawater would fill the longitudinal coal bunkers, producing a fatal list to starboard.

The Irish dimension of the tragedy gets comparatively short shrift in this book. Sir Hugh Lane, director of the National Gallery of Ireland, is dismissed in a line merely as “a Dublin art collector”.

While Larson says nothing about the subsequent controversy about Lane’s art collection and his disputed will, he does mention the case of oil paintings included in Lane’s luggage, which was rumoured to have included works by Rubens, Monet, Titian and Rembrandt, and was insured for $4 million (equivalent to more than $60 million now).

Larson’s assiduous and well-referenced research does not appear to have taken him to Ireland; nor does he list Senan Molony’s vivid and informative book Lusitania: An Irish Tragedy among his numerous sources. Molony tells us that about 90 Irish passengers and 80 Irish crew were on the ship. Among the Irish on board was Jane Hogan from Miltown Malbay, Co Clare, a third-class passenger who escaped with “all her money secured, it being stitched on to the inside of her corset”. Robert Mackenzie, a fish and poultry merchant of Cavendish Row in Dublin, who claimed to have been “absolutely the last man to leave the ship”, survived only to be shot dead by insurgents during the Easter Rising, a year later, when he reportedly refused to allow them the use of his premises. A crewman, “Lucky” Frank Toner (or Tower) from Dublin, was said to have already survived both the Titanic and the Empress of Ireland, which had been lost in the St Lawrence river in 1914.

Irish sailors The fate of crewmen reminds us that a vessel like the Lusitania carried sailors from many Irish seaports, victims of the war as surely as their generally much better recorded soldier compatriots. Eight men from the Newry district went down with the ship. Many of them were among the 200 working in the coal holds or as firemen, most of whom were trapped in the bowels of the ship when it went down. Charles Scannell, a fireman from Cork, reported that only two of his 17 cabin mates were saved.

The seafaring folk of the district were also much involved, both in rescuing survivors and in collecting bodies; about 150 victims are buried in a mass grave in the Old Church Cemetery in Cobh. The work of the local fishermen is commemorated in the Co Cork town with the striking Lusitania peace memorial, by the Irish-American sculptor Jerome Connor (paid for by American relatives of the victims), which was completed only in 1968.

The wreck of the Lusitania has been of much interest to divers over the years, and in the 1980s two of the ship’s propellers were raised and melted down for scrap; a third has been preserved at Merseyside Maritime Museum, in Liverpool. Various other artefacts were removed, including the ship’s bell, before the wreck was protected by an underwater-heritage order, in 1995.

In the 1960s, however, a Kilkeel fisherman, Gerry Doyle, raised a ship’s davit or small crane while trawling near the site of the wreck. Plausibly from the Lusitania, it lay for some years in the front garden of a local dentist, Jack Mullan, but now stands in the Marine Park at Annalong, Co Down.

Keith Jeffery is professor of British history at Queen’s University Belfast and author of Ireland and the Great War