“JUSQU’AUBOUTISTE”: A Review of Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania by Erik Larson

I never formally studied World War I in school, so it may be that most of what I know about the war comes from Stanley Kubrick’s film Paths of Glory. If you’ve seen the film, you’ll know it has little to do with the war’s historical timeline, or the reasons for the war itself. It focuses on one French army unit commander, fighting for the lives of several of his soldiers accused of cowardice when failing to execute an impossible attack order. The film tells a wide-angle story about courage, morality, and war through examining a few characters engaged in a single battle.

The war zone, as proclaimed by Germany in 1915, with Lusitania site indicated. (wiki)

The war zone, as proclaimed by Germany in 1915, with Lusitania site indicated. Click to enlarge. (wiki)

Erik Larson’s books tend to follow that formula as well. His most famous, The Devil in the White City, juxtaposes the stories of Daniel Burnham, architect and mastermind behind Chicago’s World Fair in 1893, and that of serial killer H. H. Holmes, who preyed upon single women lured to Chicago by the fair’s excitement and publicity. That book also introduces a cast of supporting characters well known both in their time and beyond it. Larson engages the reader in the minutiae of a specific place and time to tell a much larger account of creativity, industry, and a rapidly changing, urbanizing American society, with all its requisite vices and dangers.

Larson’s newest book, Dead Wake, comes out in March of this year. It details the last crossing and sinking of the British ocean liner Lusitania by German submarine U-20. Scrutinizing events from a distance of 100 years, Larson tells a story that enables the reader to see the chain of events where, had one occurred slightly differently, or with different timing, or not at all, the tragedy could have been averted.

The book is primarily divided among four narrative perspectives: one on the Lusitania, one on the German submarine U-20, one in Washington, D.C. with President Wilson, and one in Room 40, Britain’s Admiralty Building. Room 40 was a secret military intelligence office set up to break German codes sent between submarine captains and their home base. Once broken, the British were able to track locations of German U-boats patrolling the Atlantic and other waters (similar technology to that showcased in the recent film The Imitation Game, set during World War II).



Larson paints vivid portraits of the myriad personalities involved: there is the stoic and introverted Captain Turner of the Lusitania; Walther Schwieger, the U-boat captain who is merciless in general yet tender towards his crew; Theodate Pope, feminist, architect, and sometime medium, traversing the Atlantic with her much younger male companion; and the grieving President Woodrow Wilson, attempting to navigate America through World War I without entering it.

As is often true with well-crafted narrative non-fiction, Larson imbues his story with suspense as events unfold despite the outcome being known. Purportedly, the Germans sank the ship because they believed a great deal of ammunition was aboard the luxury passenger liner. Larson’s depiction of Schwieger, however, indicates that nothing but genuine German markings painted on Lusitania’s side would have prevented him from firing on the ship. U-boat captains were rewarded according to the total tonnage they sank, and the Lusitania was a grand prize in that category. (It turns out the ship was carrying ammunition to Britain’s shores).

The last recruitment poster issued in 1916 before conscription. (dailymail.com.uk)

The last recruitment poster issued in 1916 before conscription. (dailymail.com.uk)

Larson’s penchant for details is extraordinary. Indeed, the book contains approximately 55 pages of notes. He is able to conjure visions of the ship’s vast and ravenous coal furnaces, of the chaos in attempting to lower and fill lifeboats while sinking at an extreme angle, as well as of the cramped, claustrophobic, and odorous life of a submariner. Larson excels at storytelling, at transforming numbers and facts, bringing those details to life. His portrayal of the Lusitania’s final crossing is a microcosm of an entire war, of monolithic nations at odds with one another, all seen through one ship that went from a “greyhound of the sea” to wreckage on the sea floor, in eighteen minutes.

Do you have a favorite war novel? War narrative? Or narrative nonfiction on another subject?



10 thoughts on ““JUSQU’AUBOUTISTE”: A Review of Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania by Erik Larson

  1. Great review—my interest is piqued—having been fascinated by The Devil in the White City. War novels are certainly not my first choice of reading, especially if they involve war strategy, but recent favorites with WWII backdrops come to mind as great reads: The BookThief and The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society. Also, The Time In Between, by Maria Duenas, about a dressmaker who designed clothes for Nazi wives, and became an undercover agent for the Allies.

    • Thanks Deb. I’m definitely not a military history buff, but I do love Larson’s writing, and this did not disappoint. The Invisible Bridge is a great WWII novel as well.

  2. This is a timely review, what with 2015 beginning the WWI commemorations.Has there ever been a more foolish–and yet devastating– war than WWI?The Ghost Road trilogy by Pat Barker, which Claudia Fedarko reviewed on this blog, is a terrific series on the effects of shell shock. And of course All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque, if you haven’t ever read it…

    Deb, I don’t willingly choose to read war novels, and yet I think we must so we don’t forget what war is. Recent novels like The Yellow Birds by Kevin Powers powerfully show the folly of our Iraq misadventures.

    • Good point about the Iraq war oeuvre opening onto shelves. I’ve read some great short stories written by vets, but does anyone have any other (longer) suggestions (besides Yellow birds – thanks Chris!)? Has anyone read Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk?

  3. Nice article! Those English! Why does every army hide weapons with civilians and then act so indignant/blameless when their gamble doesn’t pay off?!

    My favorite “war book” (not many to choose from in my repertoire) is The English Patient. Also, there’s a book called Shades of Grey by Carolyn Reeder that I read as a kid… best pacifist book on the Civil War ever! I should totally re-read it as an adult. Thomas Pynchon’s V and Gravity’s Rainbow were both great (to re-read those though I think I’d need a lot more espresso in my blood than I did in my early twenties). And I will mention The Engineer of Human Souls because it’s got scenes in WWII Czechoslovakia and as my favorite book ever I am compelled to mention as much as I can;)

  4. Great review, Jessica–I just finished a galley of this incredible
    book just last week and thought it another amazing offering from
    the amazing Erik Larson. He can take any historical event and
    turn it into a book that reads like a novel. The most recently
    read war book that I would recommend would be “Yellow Birds.”
    Not usually the kind of reading I would be drawn to, but it is an
    eye-opening first person look at the horrors and aftermath of
    the experience by soldiers who are in the thick of it.

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