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Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania – Book Review Author: Erik Larson

DeadWakeTheLastCrossingoftheLusitaniAuthor: Erik Larson

Publisher: Crown Publishing Group, Division of Random House LLC

Copyright: 2015, ISBN: 0307408860


Reviewed by: Lynard Barnes, May 28, 2015

Summary: The unusual circumstances surrounding the sinking of the British passenger liner, Lusitania in 1915, or everything you thought you did not know about the sinking of the Lusitania and the entrance of America into World War I.

Read enough history and history really does seem cyclical. A sobering and somewhat discouraging thought. Even more discouraging and disheartening is the realization that the mistakes, missed opportunities, and sheer ignorance are as repetitive as the deaths and births giving rise to the perception of change.

Fifty or sixty years from the deed, will some historian look at September 11, 2001 and say, “Yes, it could have been prevented”. More than three thousand people lost their lives on American soil because the country was attacked by a known enemy. Such an assault was unthinkable on September 10th. Not that the event was a complete surprise. There were portents. Terror was in the atmosphere. Was there a government official or some government group like the NSA, CIA or FBI who could have prevented or mitigated the devastation? Fifty or so years after Pearl Harbor similar questions were raised about that event. It is too “early” for clear answers for both events—too many possible embarrassments.

There are two ways a nation can go to war. A nation can be attacked and have no other recourse or, a nation can elect war and attack another nation to achieve a goal. In the win-lose column of history, neither method has an advantage over the other. In the chronicle of civilized behavior, the former is usually viewed as more justifiable than the later. Ultimately however, war is the most glaring canker indicating a weakness beneath the artifice of organization in the nation engaging in war, whatever the rationale.

When the British passenger ship Lusitania was torpedoed and sunk by the German submarine Unterseeboot-20 on May 17 1915, it was not a complete surprise to anyone. The only relevant question left is whether there was something the British could have done to prevent the sinking. Upon seeing the ship sail from New York on May 1, Americans may have been surprised at the sinking. If they had read the newspapers, they would not have been.

Toward addressing questions related to surprise and non-surprise, the author discusses Room 40. While the sinking of the Lusitania is popular knowledge, few are probably familiar with Room 40. As Larson recounts, the room played a pivotal role in the politics of World War I. Unlike the British Enigma operation at Bletchley Park, which contributed to the allied victory in World War II, Room 40 was more concentrated on naval operations of the Imperial Powers. It is one of those delightful twists of history that Winston Churchill had a major role in events impacting history twice: Room 40 and the Enigma operation. As First Lord of the Admiralty in 1917, Churchill had influence over events that could have changed how the Lusitania event unfolded. What he and others in the British war effort could have done and did not do leaves a bad impression for historians.

DEAD WAKE however is about more than the inevitability of 1,198 dying on a sinking ship, including 123 Americans. Larson unearths the activities of Lusitania passengers such as Alta Piper, daughter of Leonora Piper, “the famed spirit medium”. She later claimed to have had premonitions of some type of catastrophe before sailing. Alfred Vanderbilt, before the ship set off for across the sea, dismissed the concerns of a submarine attack and wondered what the Germans could possible benefit from attacking a passenger ship. It is a good question and one Larson provides the answer to by chronicling the mission of U-boat 20.

The picture Larson paints of u-boat Captain Walter Schwieger is of a navy man enthusiastically doing his job. And doing it well. The captain of the Lusitania, William Thomas Turner, does not come across as well. The irony however is that the sinking of the Lusitania does not reveal Captain Schwieger as a skilled predator or Captain Turner as an incompetent steward of his ship. Obviously there is a story here and Larson tells it with his customary skill.

A U-boat captain was charged with racking up tonnage by sinking ships. As Larson reports, on the morning the Lusitania sailed, the German Embassy publicized the fact that the ship was sailing into a “war zone” flying the British flag. We can assume that most passengers like Alfred Vanderbilt were aware of the possible danger. Captain Turner was aware of the danger but apparently also believed that the British navy would protect a ship under the British flag—especially a passenger ship not overtly engaged in military efforts. Today, popular perception probably leans in the direction of Captain Turner: the Lusitania was most likely sunk because the British Navy was unlucky and was caught off-guard by a lucky German submarine. Larson reduces the perception to specifics and, in the process, exposes a couple of fallacies.

Perhaps the powers at the Cunard, owners of the RMS Lusitania, really did not believe that the Germans would sink a passenger ship. The British government as well were as equally skeptical. The American government most assuredly were skeptical. However, unknown to the public at the time was that the Lusitania was carrying war related material. Did the Germans know that? Probably not and Larson does not raise the issue. German naval operations simply saw an enemy ship; U-Boat Captain Schwieger simply saw tonnage to be added to his kill list. No one was in for a surprise with the possible exception of the American Public and possibly President Woodrow Wilson.

Larson, in his usual comprehensive examination of a moment in history, takes us on a cursory tour of Wilson’s courtship of the woman he would eventually marry, Edith Bolling Galt. It was roughly two months before the Lusitania sailed that Wilson, a window since August 2014, began in earnest his courtship of Edith Galt. The President’s personal life did not directly impact his administration’s conduct of relations with Germany. Larson does mention a speech Wilson gave in Philadelphia on May 10. Wilson later confined to Edith that because of his love of her and her refusal to commit to marriage, he was in “an emotional haze” when he coined the phrase, ‘“There is such a thing as a nation being so right that it does not need to convince others by force that it is right.”’ It was not until February 1917 when the Zimmermann telegram (Germany’s foreign Secretary Arthur Zimmermann’s telegraph to Mexican President Venustriano Carranza) proposing an alliance between Germany and Mexico in the advent the United States entered the war that Wilson was propelled to following his Secretary of State in a call for war. Not only did some members of his administration wonder why it took Wilson twenty months to realize Germany was not fighting a “civilized” war, the German war machine itself must have wondered. The British may also have wondered but they also doing a little bit more.

It is difficult to avoid the suspicion that Britian was attempting to pull the United States into the war. This suspicion of course is the backdrop in Larson’s description of the Lusitania’s navigation across the Atlantic into the waters off the coast of Ireland. The conclusion is inescapable that Captain Turner took too much for granted, relying upon the notion that the Germans would not attack a passenger ship. Captain Schwieger was simply surprised to see such an enormous target in his periscope. The only actors in the drama with all the dots on the board were the communication decoders in Room 40. All those dots pointed to an aggressive submarine commander on the prowl in the waters off Ireland and a passenger ship cruising into a hunting zone.

It would not be until the Germans offered to give the western part of the United States to Mexico did the American people decide that Europe required their immediate attention. President Wilson was on-board with the sentiment. The German telegraph sent to Mexico was the second intelligence coup by Room 40 that Larson discusses. Larson’s first and ongoing discussion of Room 40 concerned the itinerary of U-Boat 20 and its proximity to the Lusitania. If Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty, knew about the possible encounter between the two vessels, Larson does not relay the information. But Admiral Jacky Fisher, Churchill’s seventy-four year-old second in command did know.

Larson never says whether Fisher informed Churchill of Lusitania’s imminent danger. Churchill was in France at the time. So the author backs off the generality of naval command operations with general knowledge to the British navy operating in the area with specific knowledge. Why didn’t the British navy warn Captain Turner of the U-Boat 20’s in its vicinity?

Captain Turner was held neither responsible nor culpable in the Lusitania disaster. So it is rather odd that Winston Churchill, in his book, The World Crisis, 1916-1918, blamed Turner for the sinking. Larson also says that Churchill perpetuated the myth that two torpedoes sunk the ship. The investigation as well as subsequent statements by U-Boat 20 Captain Schwieger, as Larson points out, only one torpedoe was fired at the ship. The second explosion reported by survivors had another cause. That other cuase might explain why Chruchill attempted to rewrite history.

Larson has written another expertly researched history showing the context of a big event. He manages to make history suspensful by uncovering both obvious and obscure truths.

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