Sunday, April 5, 2015

Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania

The story of the sinking of the Lusitania has fascinated me for a long time. This latest book by Erik Larsen was a complete submersion into the history of the incident of German aggression against American citizens and shipping that decided the United States leadership's step away from isolationism and forced the US entry into World War I.

What this book does better than any other recounting of the sinking of Cunard's luxury liner is put a human face on the ship's manifest of passengers while also painting an incredible picture of the British government's communications intelligence and the German government's aggressive U-boat campaign to disrupt all international shipping in the seas that surround Britain and Ireland's shores.

Into this dangerous environment, Cunard continued to sail its civilian transport liners. To boot, some of the ships' holds were taken up with ammunition and weaponry that were to serve the British war effort against Germany. People, blithely off for a visit with relatives or traveling for specific business, were placed in the delicate position of being deemed party to aggression against Germany. Britain's code breakers knew of increased U-boat surveillance of the seas around England, but did nothing to communicate the danger to the civilian ships passing through the region. They feared discovery by German counterintelligence. British government policy blatantly ignored the need to escort civilian ships to the point that one becomes convinced that the leadership was aware that collateral damage would occur and hoped it would bring the US into the war as an ally sooner rather than later.

The Lusitania, cruising into the waters where U-boats were preying on all forms of ships, made a drastic encounter that, with one perfect torpedo hit, caused the ship to sink within thirty minutes of the strike. Imagine almost two thousand people moving through the ship to attempt to get to life boats. Imagine life jackets that have not been demonstrated for passengers being donned improperly. Imagine a massive ship that begins to list to one side, thus incapacitating the life boats all along that side. Imagine a crew that is ill-trained for launching the remaining life boats. Imagine the disaster.

This book was a real page-turner. Larsen followed several passengers on their voyage, the captain of the German U-boat that sunk the Lusitania, several of the British intelligence officers, and Woodrow Wilson, as he absorbed the ever-increasing aggression of the German navy against American ships and citizens.

Larsen puts a number of faces and lives front and center that tell the story of the Lusitania in a far more interesting and gripping fashion than any history book that I ever used to understand the naval disaster and how it brought the US to the brink of war.

A really good book that I highly recommend for anyone hooked on history ...

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