Book Review Thursday: Dead Wake


This book written by Erik Larson tells the story surrounding the sinking of the Lusitania on May 7, 1915.  The war in Europe had begun the year before and Germany was becoming increasingly aggressive in its efforts to terrorize ships flying the flags of their enemies.  Ships passing through the North Atlantic and making their way toward England and Europe were regularly targeted by Germany’s submarine force.

By declaring the seas around England a war zone, the Germans justified their actions by regularly sending out submarines to patrol the area.  On May 1, the day the Lusitania left New York, the newspapers had printed a cryptic message (more like a veiled threat) from the German Embassy.   The message appeared directly across from an advertisement on the shipping page, placed there by the Cunard Steamship Company, the owners of the Lusitania.

Many passengers saw the message and likely a few decided to change their plans.  Nevertheless, the ship set sail with almost two thousand passengers and crew unaware of any specific dangers which lay ahead.  Some believed that the British Navy would meet the ship as it neared its destination and escort it to safety, but of course that didn’t happen.

Larson’s books are always both well-researched and well-written, but this one covered more of the “back story” of events occurring in the lead-up to America entering World War in 1917, rather than the sinking of the luxury liner, the pride of the Cunard fleet.  He also includes highlights some of the struggles President Woodrow Wilson was experiencing as he attempted to keep America neutral and out of the war in Europe.

Wilson was also dealing with the loss of his beloved wife, Ellen, who had died in August of 1914, and the increasingly close relationship he was developing with Edith Galt.  There are other stories (Larson’s books always have lots of these, which is why I love them), of both well-known and ordinary everyday people who made that fateful voyage together.

I have to say this book, although well-written, seemed a little less meaty (for lack of a better term) than most of Larson’s other works I’ve read.  I suppose I expected more about the sinking of the Lusitania, but that part was actually fairly brief.  Instead, Larson spent more time on the passengers’ stories, and quite a bit about William Turner, the ship’s captain.  I found it interesting, but somewhat disappointing that more details of the actual event were not part of the narrative.

It’s still an enjoyable book with interesting information about that era and also provides insight into Winston Churchill’s desire to draw America into the war.  For instance, one tidbit of history I learned was that a young Austrian U-boat commander by the name of Georg von Trapp (remember Sound of Music?) had fired two torpedoes and sunk a French cruiser, killing 684 sailors.  In his memoir he wrote, regrettably, how they had attacked an “unsuspecting ship in such a cowardly fashion.”

If you’ve read other books about the Lusitania, this one may be of interest merely because it is told from a different perspective.  While heavy on details about the passengers, the ship’s captain, President Woodrow Wilson and Britain’s Admiralty, it is still a compelling work about an interesting and volatile time in world history.

Rating: ★★★★

Have a GREAT day . . . someday it will be HISTORY!

© Sharon Hall (Digging History), 2015.


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