Saturday, April 30, 2016

Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania by Eric Larson

On a beautiful morning with a calm sea, it took eighteen minutes for the Lusitania to sink.

Of all the stories of the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915, it is the image of a woman giving birth in the frigid waters that haunts me. And how one surviving passenger, a child, always carried the fear that the woman was his pregnant mother. I am angry to think how nothing was done to protect this family. Instead, information was withheld with secret hopes that American deaths would bring the United States into WWI.

There are certain synopsis of history that we hear over and over again, easily memorized history in one sentence. People who lived the history didn't need more to conjure up stories and memories about it. The one-line history gets passed on through the media or in books or in the classroom to following generations who have no further information. Part of my reading life is finding out the story behind these snippets.

I knew the passenger ship Lusitania was sunk by the Germans, and there were Americans on board, and that people were appalled. I heard that the sinking brought America into WWI. I vaguely thought the ship was American with mostly American passengers. I had heard that Elbert Hubbard was among those who died in the shipwreck.

I chose to read Eric Larson's Dead Wake through Blogging for Books because I enjoyed his Devil in the White City and because I wanted to learn more about the Lusitania.

It was interesting, then tense, then harrowing, then enraging, and finally enlightening. Larson is a masterful story teller.

We get to know the passengers on that fatal voyage--the charming, the famous, the wealthy, the captain and crew. And we also get to know the U-20 commander, his dedication and skill, and how the horror of seeing the disaster he wrought upset him but did not deter him from doing his duty for his country. Meanwhile, President Wilson was a broken man after the loss of his wife, detached and depressed until he meets the vibrant and sympathetic widow who revives his hopes of love and companionship.

Larson exposes several myths of the sinking: the early belief that two torpedoes hit the ship, and that Capt. Turner was at fault.

Why wasn't Cunard warned about the U-20's previous hits and location? Why didn't Britain offer protection to the Lusitania? Why was Captain Turner not warned to take the safer northern route?

Churchill had written a letter to the Board of Trade commenting that it was important to attract "neutral shipping to our shores, in the hopes of especially embroiling the United States with Germany." The British military were decoding every message sent by U-20 and knew where it was.
The Lusitania was in the right place at the right time, a sitting duck. And yet so many things could have prevented the tragedy.

As for the revision of my received history: The Lusitania was a British ship of the Cunard line, like the Titanic. Like the Titanic it was thought to be too big to sink, plus it was so fast it could outrun a sub. 114 American citizens lost their lives, including millionaire playboy Alfred Vanderbuilt who died a hero's death assisting other passengers to safety. The ship was carrying secret military cargo. It was sunk by a German submarine. It took two more years before America entered the war and meantime the Germans stepped back from attacking passenger ships for fear of involving America.
A friend is someone who knows all about you and still loves you.  Elbert Hubbard.
That quotation was in my Sixth grade English textbook. I memorized it and took it to heart. It was all I knew about Elbert Hubbard for a long while.

When my grandfather Lynne O. Ramer passed I was given his library. It included a complete set of Hubbard's Roycroft set Little Journeys into the Homes of the Great. The series was published in 1916 after Hubbard's death. I have carted it around for 40 years. My grandfather collected books in the 1920s, even though he had little money and was working in the kitchen to pay his way through Susquehanna College (now University). Hubbard was one of the most famous men in America when Gramps was growing up. When my grandfather was ten Hubbard set sail on the Lusitania.
There are only two respectable ways to die; One is of old age. the other is by accident. All disease is indecent. Elbert Hubbard
Elbert and his wife Alice retreated to a Boat Deck room and closed the door. He followed his own advice: "We are here now, some day we shall go. And when we go we would like to go gracefully." Their bodies were never identified.

Learn more about the Lusitania at

Learn more about the book at

I received a free book through Blogging for Books in exchange for a fair and unbiased review.

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