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


Teaching history has always been a difficult task. I would say that the people – professors or writers, who can do this right is a very small minority.

“Doing it right” is more than just reciting names and dates.  It involves taking the people, whether considered historical or simply ancillary, and bringing them to life in the eyes of the reader or student. One not only has to bring the people back to life, but show the circumstances of the times that they were in. Each is equally important.

I was no stranger to writer Erik Lawson, having read 2 of his previous books.

The Devil In The White City dealt with 2 seemingly disparate subjects: The building of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair and a serial killer who was also in Chicago at the time.  I learned a lot about this book – committees don’t change much and evil hasn’t changed.  This killer made Charlie Manson look like a Girl Scout.

In the Garden of Beasts  is about a professor from the University of Chicago with no State Dept experience  who was picked by FDR to be ambassador to Germany, just as Hitler was consolidating his power.  I felt like I was a Berliner in 1933. For one I did not realize in Berlin that year  there were over 100 locations where Nazis would take less than enthusiastic Berliners – not giving the Hitlergruss, or Nazi salute,  for example – where they would be tortured or even killed.

So for the Lusitania Lawson took for me was just an ancient passenger liner that was torpedoed 101 years ago and brought it – and her people – back to life. The Titanic disaster was just 3 years old, and it affected operations on the Lusitania. For one, there were enough lifeboats for every passenger, but when she was torpedoed only 6 of the 22 could be used. She sank within 20 minutes.

From what I have read of the Titanic to me anyway her Captain, Edward Smith, was certainly negligent by not slowing down at night even with iceberg warnings. The Lusitania’s captain, William Turner in my opinion, based on the information that he had, did the best that could have been done.  I don’t want to be a spoiler and tell you why; you’ll have to read the book.

One thing that I will say after reading the book that surprised me was the circumstances that the US entered the first world war. I had thought, as the author himself thought before researching, that the Lusitania’s sinking was the main reason. But that was 2 years before we finally entered the war.

After the Lusitania there were numerous American ships sunk by German U Boats.

It was a change of policy by the German Navy for unrestricted warfare to starve Britain. It was suggested that by 1917 Britain would have capitulated  had we not entered the war.

Lawson did a wonderful job describing not only the Lusitania and her people, but President Wilson’s life at the time and life aboard a WW1 German U-Boat.  I was surprised at how advanced submarines were 101 years ago.

If you’d like to take a trip back to those times, this is an excellent read.


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3 responses to “Book Review – Dead Wake:  The Last Crossing of the Lusitania

  1. A fine read, Bill, and it is the details that drew me in. The Lusitania was loaded with munitions fromthe U.S. for the British war effort, a fact that was somehow hidden/overlooked by our port authority at the departure end. The Captain of the Lusitania was given conflicting orders about avoiding the known position of the German Uboat, there were misunderstandings and…it all come together with a ship and a sub in the same place. And munitions or coal dust that helped blow the ship away with the torpedo impact.
    The poor captain of the Lusitania. He was again torpedoed while in command of another Cunard line ship and lived through that event as well. One of his sons died in WWII. Torpedoed by a uboat….

    • Bill Brandt

      I found a lot of things interesting Busbob – not the least of all the individual things that had to line up to place the Lusitania in line with that sub.

      (spoiler alert) From the restriction to Captain Turner to use only 3 of the 4 boilers to save coal, to the 2 hour or so delay while 50 (unlucky) passengers were moved from another ship to the Lusitania, to the fact that Capt Turner was changing course right into the sub’s path.

      Then was the fact that the Royal Navy knew the sub was in the area but Turner never got that information. Then they are trying to place the blame on him (with Winston Churchill as the driving force!)

      I thought that the amount of historical research that Lawson did was superb.

      As far as the munitions I remember there was just rifle ammunition and artillery shells that were not primed and ready, but it was still munitions.

      Remember the 3 German stowaways sent to check out the cargo?

  2. Pingback: Book Review: The Splendid and the Vile | The Lexicans

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