Margaret Mackworth recalled a conversation at dinner aboard the ill-fated Lusitania in which one at the table made an imprudent remark.
“I can’t help hoping that we get some sort of thrill going up the Channel,” said Dorothy Connor, a 25-year-old Oregonian who, according to bestselling author Erik Larson, was wont to demonstrate her candor with no apparent form of self-censorship.
As fate and negligence would have it, the 1,959 passengers and crew aboard the mighty Lusitania — the world’s largest passenger ship thought unsinkable, if not because of its size then its speed — got exactly what the German government warned could happen.
An ad in the May 1, 1915, edition of The New York Times, purchased by the Imperial German Embassy, advised that waters adjacent to the British Islands were a war zone and travelers sailing on ships of Great Britain or her allies “do so at their own risk.”
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School history books brief us on one of the great tragedies of World War I, in which 1,198 were killed in the waters just off the south coast of Ireland.
Larson, an authority on nonfiction accounts, expounds on our primary education, putting faces to the disaster and crafting an intimate portrait in Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania.
A lover of history will get so close to the story — using the testimony of 764 survivors — that it is hard not to feel as if you are on board with new friends, though certainly not with Alfred Vanderbilt, the wealthy heir who traveled first class and was among the 600 victims never found.
Among the others on the ship were American architect Theodate Pope and publishing maven Charles Lauriat, both of whom survived the harrowing attack and subsequent several hours in the cold southern reaches of the Irish Sea.
We even get to know well the commander of the U-20 submarine who ordered the firing of the torpedo. Capt. Walter Schwieger was carrying out the unrestricted submarine warfare of the belligerent German imperial state.
Among the dead were 27 infants and many other children. Of the casualties, 123 were Americans. A mass grave in Old Church Cemetery near Queenstown, Ireland, is the final resting place for 150.
Larson’s new release is part of the soaring interest in all things WWI during the 100-year commemoration of the war that should have ended all wars.
Sadly, of course, it did not. Yet, the Lusitania brings to life lessons for the present, and Larson makes note of them.
The sinking of the Lusitania likely should have never happened. It depended on a number of factors. Chief among them was the confluence of dumb luck, including the ship’s delay of two hours in New York while waiting for a transfer of passengers from another ship.
If the Lusitania had left on time, it likely would have passed Schwieger in the fog, when the U-20 was submerged. Even still, the U-20, at the initial sighting of the Lusitania, wouldn’t have been able to catch up to the speedy ship until its captain, William Turner, turned in its direction.
Moreover, by German estimations, 60 percent of torpedo firings missed.
The Lusitania, 100 years later, details for the living the dangers of unchecked power and its capability to deceive.
Another likely factor in the sinking was intent, and not on the part of the Germans, but rather of the Brits and the top official of the British Navy, a young Winston Churchill.
It was important for the Allied war effort to involve the United States, then a neutral state.
Wrote Churchill, noting how sharply sea traffic from America had been reduced: “For our part, we want the traffic — the more the better; and if some of it gets into trouble, better still.”
The actions of the British government in regard to the safe passage of the ship were indictable, considering the Lusitania never should have been on its own after the very public threat the Germans had made through The New York Times, which many at the time believed to be specifically directed at the Lusitania.
Though many passengers, including the ship’s captain, believed the Lusitania would be escorted to its Liverpool destination, no military chaperone was ever dispatched.
Worse still, through intelligence intercepted by Britain’s highly effective “Room 40,” royal naval officials failed to recommend diverting the Lusitania even though it knew the whereabouts of U-20, which had sunk three craft in the previous 24 hours. (A couple of years later, Room 40 also uncovered the Zimmerman Note, which ultimately brought the U.S. into the war.)
In the aftermath of the sinking, the British government then lied about its culpability, placing all the blame for the incident on Capt. Turner. The reason should have been obvious, considering it would have been quite easy — not to mention just — to incriminate the Germans, whom the Brits wanted to isolate all the more anyway.
An inquest rightfully found the captain blameless, rather pointing the finger where it belonged: Germany and her unchecked aggression.
Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania has many morals of the story, not the least of which is the need for a healthy and robust media to find the truth among the muck of falsity.
That alone ensures that the victims of May 7, 1915, were not lost in vain.
Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania
by Erik Larson
Audiobook: Random House Audio $45; read by actor Scott Brick.