Wednesday, February 21, 2018

Guest Review: Dead Wake

Summary: On May 1, 1915, with WWI entering its tenth month, a luxury ocean liner as richly appointed as an English country house sailed out of New York, bound for Liverpool, carrying a record number of children and infants. The passengers were surprisingly at ease, even though Germany had declared the seas around Britain to be a war zone. For months, German U-boats had brought terror to the North Atlantic. But the Lusitania was one of the era’s great transatlantic “Greyhounds”—the fastest liner then in service—and her captain, William Thomas Turner, placed tremendous faith in the gentlemanly strictures of warfare that for a century had kept civilian ships safe from attack.

Germany, however, was determined to change the rules of the game, and Walther Schwieger, the captain of Unterseeboot-20, was happy to oblige. Meanwhile, an ultra-secret British intelligence unit tracked Schwieger’s U-boat, but told no one. As U-20 and the Lusitania made their way toward Liverpool, an array of forces both grand and achingly small—hubris, a chance fog, a closely guarded secret, and more—all converged to produce one of the great disasters of history.

It is a story that many of us think we know but don’t, and Erik Larson tells it thrillingly, switching between hunter and hunted while painting a larger portrait of America at the height of the Progressive Era. Full of glamour and suspense, Dead Wake brings to life a cast of evocative characters, from famed Boston bookseller Charles Lauriat to pioneering female architect Theodate Pope to President Woodrow Wilson, a man lost to grief, dreading the widening war but also captivated by the prospect of new love. -- Crown

I remember when DEAD WAKE: THE LAST CROSSING OF THE LUSITANIA by Erik Larson came out a few years ago. I immediately thought my dad might enjoy it. Here are his thoughts:

In studying world history in high school I learned that the Lusitania passenger ship was sunk by the Germans on May 7, 1915 and was the cause for the United States entry into World War I. But that's not the whole story. In DEAD WAKE, The Last Crossing Of The Lusitania, author Erik Larson goes into great detail in describing the crossing from New York to Liverpool.

He begins the story by pointing out the warnings that Germany posted in the New York papers the morning the Lusitania was to embark on her voyage. Germany reminded readers of the existence of a war zone and that any ship flying the Flag of Great Britain or its allies is at risk of destruction. Even after receiving information of U-boat activity off the Irish coast, ship captain William Turner assured the passengers that the Lusitania was too fast for any German war vessel and was the safest boat on the sea. Larson goes on to give the reader a history of Captain Turner's career and describes many of the more prominent passengers, mainly Americans, traveling on the Lusitania.

At the same time Larson focuses on three additional story lines. First he gives the the reader an insight into President Woodrow Wilson's state of mind at the time. He had lost his wife within the past year and was now smitten by Edith Galt, who would later become his second wife. Wilson also struggled with maintaining the United States position of neutrality? Larson also focuses on submarine U-20 and it's captain Walter Schwieger. U-20 was the submarine that sunk the Lusitania. Larson provides interesting details on the German U-boat warfare at the time. A third and very interesting story line focuses on Great Britain's codebreakers, referred to in the book as Room 40. At the time they were intercepting all communication to and from Germany's U-boats but were very careful not to release so much information that the Germans would become aware of their activity. In telling these stories Larson switches the scene back and forth from New York to Washington to Berlin to London to submarine U-20 and to the Lusitania.

The author gives the reader dramatic detail of the actual torpedo attack and the chaos that followed. He describes the disasters with safety vests and the launching of the life boats. The Lusitania was only 12 miles from shore and amazingly sunk in less than 20 minutes. The author proceeds to discuss several of the 1198 people (123 Americans) who died and actually provides a few stories about some of the survivors and the aftermath of investigations.

Larson describes many factors that had to come together for this disaster to happen. For example a late start from New York, the calm seas, the reduced speed of the Lusitania and lack of a Royal Navy escort and lack of information from Room 40 warning of the submarine U-20 in its path. Larson presents a theory that the latter two issues may have been purposeful actions to draw the United States into the war. If so, it didn't work since the United States did not enter the war until two years after the Lusitania was sunk.

DEAD WAKE is a well written account of the sinking of the Lusitania and will be of interest to anyone who enjoys reading history.

I was happy to see that there's a reading guide for DEAD WAKE. I don't always find them for history/nonfiction books, but this one sounds like it might be interesting to discuss!

Thanks to the publisher for providing a review copy of this book and to Booking Pap Pap for his review.


bermudaonion said...

I enjoy non-fiction books from time to time and think I'd probably enjoy this, especially since I know next to nothing about the Lusitania.

Kim@Time2Read said...

This one has been on my TBR practically since it was released. I'm not sure why I haven't found time for it yet. I really DO want to read it!