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Dead Wake by Erik Larson

Eric Larson, best known for his books In the Garden of Beasts and The Devil in the White City has now written a book about the Lusitania. Dead Wake chronicles the last voyage, and the sinking of this great ocean liner on 7 May 1915, a century ago this year.

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The Lusitania was a grand ship, a luxurious vessel making the run from New York to Liverpool, for the last time, early in the conflict that became known as the First World War. Great Britain and Germany were at war – the Germans had established superiority in their development of submarine vessels – and the British were following them closely by de-coding messages in a very secret government division.

The cruise line, Cunard, the captain and the passengers, had been warned of the danger of a possible submarine attack on this particular crossing. But, they proceeded regardless, confident that they would be escorted into harbor when they reached the waters off Great Britain.

The British chose not to issue more strident warnings, as they did not want the German government to know how much they were able to understand of their coded messages.

No one believed that the Germans would purposely torpedo a passenger ship from a neutral country knowing that many men, women and children would perish. But they did.

This book follows the passengers, as they spend a week aboard this grand ship, establishing new friendships, some dreaming of being reunited with loved ones in England, others returning home – many, many with young children on this voyage. There were wealthy businessmen among people of all ages and all strata of society.

We also follow the thoughts and plans of the captain of U-20, a skilled naval officer patrolling the seas around Great Britain with the sole mission of sinking as many ships as possible – with no concern about the fate of the passengers.

This is all happening at a time when President Wilson of the United States is showing no interest in being drawn into this European War. It was, in fact, several years before the United States declared war on Germany and in the end, after so many American vessels were torpedoed, it was because of a possible alliance between Germany and Mexico (according to Erik Larsen’s research).

And war it was, with German warships were shelling British coastal towns, killing and injuring civilians. Zeppelins were in the sky. There was trench warfare in France and Belgium, and in the Dardanelles – men were being slaughtered – and poison gas was killing anyone who survived being shot. 

Erik Larson has researched this subject so thoroughly I was sometimes tempted to skim a bit – but always found myself brought to a halt, and reading every word as I was drawn into the story of the passengers, some who survived and many who did not, along with the political figures in both the United States and Great Britain - and even the German sailors who caused such as tragedy at sea.

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