Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania
Reviewed by Clark Shilling

Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania
by Erik Larsen
Crown Publishing, 2015

The term "dead wake" is used by sailors to describe a dissipating wake. It is used in this case to describe the trail of bubbles left by a submarine's torpedo as it streaks towards its target.

Lusitania in Its Heyday 

Timed for release on the centennial of the sinking of the Lusitania, best-selling author Erik Larsen has again done what he does best — taking a large historic event and through extensive and meticulous research, retelling the true stories of the famous and not so famous participants, and here and there sprinkling in little known facts and technical tidbits, making his creation read like a thrilling work of fiction.

The two main protagonists are of course the two ships, one a huge passenger liner, flagship of the Cunard Line, carrying almost 2000 passengers and crew; the other, a small, slow, cramped German U-boat carrying 36 crewmen and a lethal cargo of torpedoes. As the two ships begin their journey to their fateful encounter, Larsen gives us a primer on the design and operation of both. The Lusitania represents the technological apogee of an age and empire caught in a destructive war that was rapidly producing new ways to kill people. The other ship, U-20, was one of those lethal new ways.

Captain William Turner, the old, solid, competent captain of the Lusitania was in every way a skilled and brave mariner. His only shortcoming was a desire to avoid the social responsibilities required of the captain of a large passenger liner. Turner's opposite, Kapitänleutnant Walther Schweiger, captain of the U-20, was much younger than Turner but was a skilled and experienced submariner. Known by his crew for his humor and kindness, he was an aggressive U-boat commander with a reputation for ruthlessness.

Among the other famous protagonists of this story is the president of the United States, Woodrow Wilson. Our first glimpse of Wilson is in August of 1914 as the Great War is starting. He is a grieving widower, burying his first wife in August 1914. Only eight months later he meets a new love and engages in an ardent courtship. During the week that the Lusitania was heading toward Liverpool, Wilson was emotionally crushed by her rejection of his marriage proposal. One of the interesting sidelights that Larsen includes is the fact that Wilson often took walks by himself, unescorted, and he enjoyed taking long drives in the White House limousine to unwind.

Winston Churchill flits in and out of the story as First Lord of the Admiralty, visiting the Western Front and watching disaster unfold in the then two-week-old battle he had championed on Gallipoli. We meet Captain William "Blinker" Hall, the director of intelligence in the British Admiralty, who worked out of the now famous Room 40, where German radio messages were intercepted and decoded, and where German ships including the U-20 were being tracked.

We are also introduced to a multitude of passengers on the Lusitania. Their experiences become the core of the story: the millionaire playboy, the Broadway producer, the Boston bookseller, the famous artist and philosopher, the first female architect, and the many families traveling with small children.

One of Larsen's trademarks is to create vivid images through interesting stories that have not been told before. For example, most people who are students of World War I have a mental picture  of Christmas Day 1914 during the famous Christmas Truce; images of British and German soldiers meeting in No Man's Land in Flanders to trade cigarettes and candy for buttons and cap badges. Add to that image now one of the captain and crew of the U-20, on that same Christmas evening, on a shallow, sandy spot on the bottom of the North Sea having their Christmas celebration, which included a wreath and music provided by a violin, a mandolin, and an accordion. The rum ration was brought out and the crew enjoyed as riotous a party as could be had in a cramped vessel sitting on the sea bottom under 60 feet of water.

And then there is the sinking of that fine vessel. Larsen uncovers the fact that Turner was not ordered to zigzag, as has been widely reported in other accounts. Ironically, the only time he did zigzag, he was taking a bearing off the coast of Ireland, and the maneuver put him right into the crosshairs of U-20. As the unthinkable event unfolds 11 miles off the coast of Ireland, Larsen vividly captures the panic and the drama of the 18 minutes it took the ship to sink. Then finally, he deals with the aftermath: children without parents, parents without children, families broken by the loss of loved ones, and finally the mass graves for many of the almost 1200 victims.

Mass Burial of Lusitania Victims at Queenstown, Ireland

The author is not out to prove any new conspiracy theories about the Lusitania being sacrificed in order to bring the United States into the war on Britain's side. He does not contend that the ship was armed or was carrying a secret cargo. Larsen concludes the fatal rendezvous was the product of several unrelated events and distractions that allowed the proud ship to sail unprotected into the known path of Schweiger and his crew on that fateful sunny afternoon 100 years ago.

With the publication of Dead Wake, Erik Larsen has landed his fourth book on the New York Times Best Seller list. In addition, Amazon named Dead Wake as the Best Book of the Month for March,2015. To paraphrase the author in his introduction, it is a very, very good story.

Clark Shilling


  1. In my opinion, perhaps the only book on the NYT list worth reading; I enjoyed this novel a great deal, even though it is in some ways too reminiscent of Titanic (the movie).


  3. Thank you for the review. Looking forward to reading it.

  4. I have enjoyed all of Larsen's books and pre-ordered this one. It did not disappoint. He does not deal in conspiracy theories but does point out that despite knowledge of U-Boat activity in the area, the Lusitania was not given any kind of naval escort on arriving at the Irish Sea. Admiralty focused that week on getting HMS Orion super-dreadnought up to Scapa Flow with 4 destroyer escort. Shocking also how little Cunard had learned about passenger rescue from White Star's Titanic just 3 years before - on Lusitania, many lifeboats failed due to the severe list of the ship and its continued forward progress. Life jackets were kept in passenger cabins, and "Cunard had not established a policy of having passengers try on life jackets at the start of a voyage," so a large number of passengers put them on incorrectly and thereby lost their lives.

  5. I liked the book as a narrative, but was frustrated by it as a work of WWI history. My grumpy thoughts lie here: