Cunard has been a leading operator of passenger ships used on the North Atlantic since 1840. The company, now owned by Carnival (the cruise line corporation), built the 787-foot superliner Lusitania, which was famously sunk by a German torpedo off the coast of Ireland on May 7, 1915.
German U-boat Captain Walther Schwieger fired only one torpedo at the Lusitania, but there were two big explosions, one some twenty seconds after the first, and the ship went down in just eighteen minutes. By way of comparison, the Titanic, with a much more serious initial rupture of her hull, took well over two hours to sink. In fact, one rescue ship came to help the Lusitania and, seeing nothing, thought the telegram must have been in error and turned around. 1,198 lives, including 128 American civilians and almost 100 children, were lost in the incident. The British hoped American outrage would propel it into joining them in “making the world safe for democracy” in World War I, but the U.S. did not join the war until two years later. Even so, 1917 recruitment posters urged would-be enlistees to “Remember the Lusitania!”
But Britain’s desire for America to enter the war raised many questions about the sinking. The German Embassy had issued clear warnings about the vulnerability of the Lusitania. [In spite of this, Larson often refers to the “uncanny” or “eerie” forebodings of some of the passengers.] Passengers moreover erroneously believed the British Admiralty would provide a military escort, but it inexplicably did not, although fully aware of U-boat activity in the area. On 12 February 1915, Winston Churchill had written to the president of Britain’s Board of Trade:
“It is most important to attract neutral shipping to our shores in the hope especially of embroiling the United States with Germany . . . . For our part we want the traffic — the more the better; and if some of it gets into trouble, better still.”
Nor has the cause of the second explosion ever been conclusively identified, although the supposedly “neutral” passenger liner was carrying a great deal of war matériel for the British (including four million rounds of ammunition, as well as volatile materials for explosives).
[In fact, whereas successive British governments continued to maintain there were no munitions on board the Lusitania, once salvage operations began they were forced to acknowledge, for safety reasons, the large amount of dangerous ammunition that would be found in the wreckage. A number of such operations have been conducted; Larson does not refer to any of them, nor to their findings. You can read an excellent account of one of those dives by author Hampton Sides, here.]
Captain Schwieger was as surprised as anyone about the second explosion, and telegraphed to his own naval authorities that he had only fired one torpedo. The British Admiralty intercepted this and other communications from Schwieger thanks to a top-secret operation monitoring U-boat communications in their “Room 40.” Winston Churchill, at that time Britain’s First Lord of the Admiralty, not only suppressed this information, but along with the rest of the Admiralty publicly asserted that two torpedoes had been fired. The Admiralty attempted to put the blame squarely on the shoulders of the Lusitania’s Captain Turner for not taking adequate evasive action, and take attention off of the Admiralty’s lack of escort; its failure to redirect Turner’s course in light of known U-boat activity; and of course the stash of ammunition in the Lusitania’s hold.
Later, Churchill observed:
“The poor babies who perished in the ocean struck a blow at German power more deadly than could have been achieved by the sacrifice of a hundred thousand fighting men.”
As with other books about the disaster, Larson fills in his narrative by depicting life aboard the liner, including – in sometimes tedious detail – the background of some of the passengers, down to descriptions of clothes and stores of tobacco they brought along for the trip.
The author also chose to include U.S. President Woodrow Wilson in his account by focusing on Wilson’s hormone-addled pursuit of Edith Bolling Galt. She met the President in March 1915 and they married nine months later. Apparently right from the beginning, in the “courting” stages, Wilson was confiding in her about sensitive policy issues. Although this was a much more egregious breech than, for example, the Petraeus scandal, times were different then, and since he eventually married Edith, the information did not get leaked. But the whole affair shows Wilson in a decidedly negative light.
In any event, in the lead-up to the Lusitania incident, Wilson was quite preoccupied with chasing after Edith. In fact, after a very controversial speech made on May 10 after the Lusitania incident, he wrote to Edith that he didn’t even know what he had said; he was too busy thinking about her. While there are a number of avenues one could take to discredit Wilson (such as by a discussion of his belief in white supremacy and policies he enacted to express those beliefs), Larson certainly doesn’t add anything favorable to the reputations of either Wilson or Churchill. But whereas Larson’s discussions of Churchill were germane to the story of the Lusitania, I wasn’t convinced the long digressions about Wilson’s courtship played a significant role.
The much briefer sections on how the liner and the U-boat were constructed and operated were much more interesting to me.
Evaluation: Bestseller Erik Larson brings the Lusitania to life on the 100th anniversary of its sinking. For those unfamiliar with the contours of the tragedy, Larson’s book is a good place to start. I thought some of the details about miscellaneous passengers were a distraction rather than stories that might make me feel more invested in the outcome of the voyage. It was almost as if Larson selected these mini-portraits just because they were available. But of course that could also just reflect my own lack of interest in them.
A Few Notes on the Audio Production:
The narrator, Scott Brick, is an accomplished reader of non-fiction books, although he is not always so careful about pronunciation. He continues, as in other audiobooks, to pronounce “err” as if were “air,” although this mispronunciation is now unfortunately so common as to be considered “acceptable,” in a nod – I suppose – to inevitability. But he adds a great deal of inflection and drama to the prose, and holds the listener’s interest.
Published unabridged on 11 CDs (13 listening hours) by Random House Audio, an imprint of the Penguin Random House Audio Publishing Group, 2015