Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania

Erik Larson

Crown Publishers


“I took my position at the periscope again,” Schwieger told his friend Max Valentiner. “The ship was sinking with unbelievable rapidity. There was terrific panic on her deck. Overcrowded lifeboats, fairly torn from their positions, dropped into the water. Desperate people ran helplessly up and down the decks. Men and women jumped into the water and tried to swim to empty, overturned lifeboats. It was the most terrible sight I have ever seen…too horrible to watch, and I gave orders to dive to twenty meters, and away.”

                                   from  Dead Wake


Was the Lusitania a bargaining chip?

The sinking of the Lusitania is probably second only to the Titanic in ranking great maritime disasters. One hundred years ago, on May 7, 1915, the British luxury liner was torpedoed and sunk by a German U-boat. Seattle author Erik Larson (In the Garden of Beasts, The Devil in the White City) has created a gripping narrative of the event.

With the assassination of a minor archduke in June 1914, Europe had virtually stumbled into “the Great War.” By the end of that year, the opposing armies found themselves in the deadly stalemate of trench warfare.

Since England imported two-thirds of its food, Germany’s strategy was to starve the island nation by sinking ships, including those of neutral countries, which might be carrying munitions and food. Germany could not compete with the British Royal Navy in surface vessels, but they had built a fleet of submarines—Unterseebooten, or U-boats—that had become terribly effective. As Larson notes, by April 1917, “any ship leaving Britain had a one-in-four chance of being sunk.”

The German Embassy in the United States had issued a warning to the passengers of the Lusitania the morning it set sail from New York. Yet to most people, it was inconceivable that the Germans would dare sink a passenger ship full of civilians.

As in his other books, Larson wraps rich historical detail in a riveting narrative as he gives a day-by-day account of that last fateful cruise, alternating between the sixty-one year old Captain William Turner of the Lusitania and thirty-two year old Kapitänleutnant Walther Schwieger in charge of U-boat 20.

Along the way he provides fascinating information about both ships. The German submarines were so primitive that, to speed a dive, Schwieger needed to order his sailors to run to the bow for added ballast. The conditions were harsh —cramped, dangerous, with extreme humidity and temperatures rising over 100 degrees when submerged.

By contrast, the Lusitania was the largest and most luxurious ocean liner of its day. It was also the fastest—capable of 25 knots, while U-boats could only manage 15 knots on the surface and 9 knots underwater.

As in Walter Lord’s classic account of the Titanic’s sinking, A Night to Remember, Larson introduces us to a wide range of passengers. Heightening the suspense, we don’t know until the end which of them survived and which perished.

The Lusitania was struck at 2:10 pm, on a warm and sunny day off the Irish coast. Incredibly, the huge ship sank in eighteen minutes. Larson vividly captures the horror and panic of those eighteen minutes.

Although the ship had more than enough lifeboats for its passengers and crew—lesson learned from the Titanic’s sinking only three years earlier—when hit, the ship listed heavily on its starboard side, swinging the lifeboats hanging from their divots well out of reach of the crew trying to load them, while on the opposite side, the lifeboats swung in over the deck, making it impossible to lower them. Only six of the ship’s lifeboats were able to be launched.

Schwieger witnessed the terror and chaos through his periscope. His fiancée later told a reporter that the sinking had left him “a shattered man.” (He and the crew of U-boot 20 would perish four months later in a British minefield.)

Of the 1,959 passengers and crew on the Lusitania, including ninety-five children and thirty-nine infants, only 764 survived.

Many questions remain one hundred years later. Foremost, knowing that German U-boats were in the area and sinking non-military shipping, why was the Lusitania not given a naval escort when entering the war zone, as had other ships?

One disturbing theory is that the British Admiralty may have intentionally sacrificed the Lusitania, reckoning that its sinking would draw America into the war. First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill had confided, “For our part we want the traffic (neutral ships)—the more the better; and if some of it gets into trouble, better still.”

If so, it was a costly and brutal miscalculation, for it wasn’t the Lusitania’s sinking, but the discovery of the infamous Zimmerman Telegram that finally brought the Americans out of their neutrality. (The telegram offered the Mexican president an alliance if the United States entered the war, whereby Germany would help Mexico win back their “lost territory” in Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona.)

The United States issued a declaration of war against Germany on April 6, 1917, almost two years after the sinking.


This review first appeared in The Columbia River Reader (April 15-May 14, 2015.) Reprinted with permission.