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

Published: 2015-03-10
Hardcover : 430 pages
25 members reading this now
160 clubs reading this now
18 members have read this book
Recommended to book clubs by 27 of 27 members
#1 New York Times Bestseller

From the bestselling author and master of narrative nonfiction comes the enthralling story of the sinking of the Lusitania


On May 1, 1915, with WWI entering its tenth month, a luxury ocean liner as richly appointed as an English country house sailed out of New ...
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Introduction

#1 New York Times Bestseller

From the bestselling author and master of narrative nonfiction comes the enthralling story of the sinking of the Lusitania


On May 1, 1915, with WWI entering its tenth month, a luxury ocean liner as richly appointed as an English country house sailed out of New York, bound for Liverpool, carrying a record number of children and infants. The passengers were surprisingly at ease, even though Germany had declared the seas around Britain to be a war zone. For months, German U-boats had brought terror to the North Atlantic. But the Lusitania was one of the era’s great transatlantic “Greyhounds”—the fastest liner then in service—and her captain, William Thomas Turner, placed tremendous faith in the gentlemanly strictures of warfare that for a century had kept civilian ships safe from attack. 

Germany, however, was determined to change the rules of the game, and Walther Schwieger, the captain of Unterseeboot-20, was happy to oblige. Meanwhile, an ultra-secret British intelligence unit tracked Schwieger’s U-boat, but told no one. As U-20 and the Lusitania made their way toward Liverpool, an array of forces both grand and achingly small—hubris, a chance fog, a closely guarded secret, and more—all converged to produce one of the great disasters of history.

It is a story that many of us think we know but don’t, and Erik Larson tells it thrillingly, switching between hunter and hunted while painting a larger portrait of America at the height of the Progressive Era. Full of glamour and suspense, Dead Wake brings to life a cast of evocative characters, from famed Boston bookseller Charles Lauriat to pioneering female architect Theodate Pope to President Woodrow Wilson, a man lost to grief, dreading the widening war but also captivated by the prospect of new love. 

Gripping and important, Dead Wake captures the sheer drama and emotional power of a disaster whose intimate details and true meaning have long been obscured by history.

Editorial Review

An Amazon Best Book of the Month for March 2015: On May 1st, 1915 the Lusitania set sail on its final voyage. That it was sunk by a German U-boat will be news to few—and Larson’s challenge is to craft a historical narrative leading up to the thrilling, if known, conclusion, building anticipation in his readers along the way. To his credit, he makes the task look easy. Focusing on the politics of WWI, on nautical craftsmanship and strategy, and on key players in the eventual attack and sinking of the “fast, comfortable, and beloved” Lusitania, Larson once again illustrates his gift for seducing us with history and giving it a human face. Dead Wake puts readers right aboard the famous Cunard liner and keeps them turning the pages until the book’s final, breathless encounter. – Chris Schluep

Excerpt

A WORD FROM THE CAPTAIN

On the night of May 6, 1915, as his ship approached the coast of Ireland, Capt. William Thomas Turner left the bridge and made his way to the first-class lounge, where passengers were taking part in a concert and talent show, a customary feature of Cunard crossings. The room was large and warm, paneled in mahogany and carpeted in green and yellow, with two fourteen-foot-tall fireplaces in the front and rear walls. Ordinarily Turner avoided events of this kind aboard ship, because he disliked the social obligations of captaincy, but tonight was no ordinary night, and he had news to convey.

There was already a good deal of tension in the room, despite the singing and piano playing and clumsy magic tricks, and this became more pronounced when Turner stepped forward at intermission. His presence had the perverse effect of affirming everything the passengers had been fearing since their departure from New York, in the way that a priest’s arrival tends to undermine the cheery smile of a nurse.

It was Turner’s intention, however, to provide reassurance. His looks helped. With the physique of a bank safe, he was the embodiment of quiet strength. He had blue eyes and a kind and gentle smile, and his graying hair—he was fifty-eight years old—-conveyed wisdom and experience, as did the mere fact of his being a Cunard captain. In accord with Cunard’s practice of rotating -captains from ship to ship, this was his third stint as the Lusitania’s master, his first in wartime.

Turner now told his audience that the next day, Friday, May 7, the ship would enter waters off the southern coast of Ireland that were part of a “zone of war” designated by Germany. This in itself was anything but news. On the morning of the ship’s departure from New York, a notice had appeared on the shipping pages of New York’s newspapers. Placed by the German Embassy in Washington, it reminded readers of the existence of the war zone and cautioned that “vessels flying the flag of Great Britain, or of any of her allies, are liable to destruction” and that travelers sailing on such ships “do so at their own risk.” Though the warning did not name a particular vessel, it was widely interpreted as being aimed at Turner’s ship, the Lusitania, and indeed in at least one prominent newspaper, the New York World, it was positioned adjacent to Cunard’s own advertisement for the ship. Ever since, about all the passengers had been doing was “thinking, dreaming, sleeping, and eating submarines,” according to Oliver Bernard, a theater-set designer traveling in first class.

Turner now revealed to the audience that earlier in the evening the ship had received a warning by wireless of fresh submarine activity off the Irish coast. He assured the audience there was no need for alarm.

Coming from another man, this might have sounded like a baseless palliative, but Turner believed it. He was skeptical of the threat posed by German submarines, especially when it came to his ship, one of the great transatlantic “greyhounds,” so named for the speeds they could achieve. His superiors at Cunard shared his skepticism. The company’s New York manager issued an official response to the German warning. “The truth is that the Lusitania is the safest boat on the sea. She is too fast for any submarine. No German war vessel can get her or near her.” Turner’s personal experience affirmed this: on two previous occasions, while captain of a different ship, he had encountered what he believed were submarines and had successfully eluded them by ordering full speed ahead.

He said nothing about these incidents to his audience. Now he offered a different sort of reassurance: upon entering the war zone the next day, the ship would be securely in the care of the Royal Navy.

He bade the audience good night and returned to the bridge. The talent show continued. A few passengers slept fully clothed in the dining room, for fear of being trapped below decks in their cabins if an attack were to occur. One especially anxious traveler, a Greek carpet merchant, put on a life jacket and climbed into a lifeboat to spend the night. Another passenger, a New York businessman named Isaac Lehmann, took a certain comfort from the revolver that he carried with him always and that would, all too soon, bring him a measure of fame, and infamy.

With all but a few lights extinguished and all shades pulled and curtains drawn, the great liner slid forward through the sea, at times in fog, at times under a lacework of stars. But even in darkness, in moonlight and mist, the ship stood out. At one o’clock in the morning, Friday, May 7, the officers of a New York–bound vessel spotted the Lusitania and recognized it immediately as it passed some two miles off. “You could see the shape of the four funnels,” said the captain, Thomas M. Taylor; “she was the only ship with four funnels.”

Unmistakable and invulnerable, a floating village in steel, the Lusitania glided by in the night as a giant black shadow cast upon the sea. view abbreviated excerpt only...

Discussion Questions

1. In his Note to Readers, Erik Larson writes that before researching Dead Wake, he thought he knew “everything there was to know” about the sinking of the Lusitania, but soon realized “how wrong [he] was.” What did you know about the Lusitania before reading the book? Did any of Larson’s revelations surprise you?

2. After reading Dead Wake, what was your impression of Captain Turner? Was he cautious enough? How did you react to the Admiralty’s attempts to place the blame for the Lusitania’s sinking squarely on his shoulders?

3. Erik Larson deftly weaves accounts of glamorous first-class passengers such as Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt with compelling images of middle-class families and of the ship’s crew. Whose personal story resonated the most with you?

4. Charles Lauriat went to extraordinary measures to protect his Thackeray drawings and his rare edition of A Christmas Carol, but eventually both were lost. In Lauriat’s position, which possessions would you have tried to save? Why does Larson write in such great detail about the objects people brought aboard the Lusitania?

5. Edith Galt Wilson would come to play a significant role in the White House after Woodrow Wilson suffered a massive stroke in 1919. What made her a good match for Wilson? What other aspects of Wilson’s personal life did you find intriguing?

6. Why was Wilson so insistent on maintaining neutrality even as German U-boat attacks claimed American lives? Was his reluctance to go to war justified?

7. How did you respond to the many what-ifs that Larson raises about U.S. involvement in the Great War? Would Wilson have abandoned his isolationist stance without the Lusitania tragedy? Could Germany and Mexico have succeeded in conquering the American Southwest?

8. By attacking civilian ships, were Captain Schwieger and his U-20 crew committing acts of terrorism? Does it matter that Germany ran advertisements declaring the waters around Great Britain to be a war zone?

9. How did Captain Schwieger’s leadership style compare with that of Captain Turner? Did you feel sympathy for Schwieger and his crew?

10. Though the British Navy was tracking U-20’s location, it didn’t alert the Lusitania, nor did it provide a military escort. Why not? Do you consider Churchill and Room 40 partly to blame for the sinking? How should countries balance the integrity of their intelligence operations with their duty to protect civilians?

11. Some have argued that Churchill deliberately chose not to protect the Lusitania in hopes that the sinking of such a prominent ship would draw the United States into the war. After reading Larson’s account, what do you think of this theory?

12. While Germany’s advertisement scared away some would-be Lusitania passengers, most placed their faith in the British Navy to protect the ship, and some laughed off the risk altogether. In their position, would you have cancelled your ticket?

13. What lessons does the sinking of the Lusitania have for us in the twenty-first century?

Suggested by Members

Exploration of the fascination with the paranormal during this time period.
by kayjay219 (see profile) 03/01/17

Yes
by ehult (see profile) 07/09/16

Did the British "allow" the Lusitania to be sunk to attempt the draw America into the war?
by ljspitz (see profile) 07/09/15

Notes From the Author to the Bookclub

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