The story of the sinking of the liner Lusitania is murky with the passage of more than a hundred years. While most people will remember the Costa Concordia tragedy or the illness that struck passengers on board the Royal Caribbean liners, few people can say they know something about the May 7, 1915 attack on the Lusitania. There are others who mistakenly believe this attack led the United States into the First World War; it would be two years after the Lusitania before the United States declared war on Germany, and it takes a great narrative historian like Erik Larson to clear up the details, breathe new life into this story and create a compelling book.
Larson’s writing moves at a breakneck pace as he parallels the story of the passage of the liner with that of the predatory U-boat that sank it. Captain William Thomas Turner of the Lusitania is a competent leader who knows his ship better than anyone else; he understands her capabilities and chooses to cross the Atlantic knowing full well of the newspaper articles threatening his voyage. Kapitanleutnant Walther Schwieger’s mission is to sink as much tonnage as he can on his tour aboard the U-20 – in the German military, a commander’s success is judged by how many ships he destroys. Schwieger is not a monster, but he knows the bigger the ship the bigger the accolade. When he has a chance to use the torpedo, he does not hesitate.
Behind the actions of both captains, a shadowy presence was aware of the impending disaster but would do nothing to save the ship. In one of the book’s most revealing parts, Larson goes into great detail about the role of the British Admiralty before, during, and after the attack. Blinker Hall, the legendary spymaster who wanted most of all to bring America into the war, had plenty of reason to attempt to have Turner face court martial – the more the public could blame the captain, the less they would look into the details of the sinking. There was an important “fog of war” element to this – the British did not want to advertise that they knew more that they were willing to tell.
One can speculate forever about what would have happened if the Lusitania were not delayed in departing; or if traveling a little faster would have helped the liner bypass the trap laid by the U-boat; or if the British Admiralty would have done more. Larson’s story highlights the glamor days of the old ocean liners when people could travel in absolute luxury across the Atlantic, but he also includes an element of dread that all the passengers felt on this war time journey. That civilians bore the brunt on the casualties on that day make this act of war a horrible reminder that it is always the innocent who suffer the most.
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