“Dead Wake.” Read Hampton Sides’ Masterful Review of Erik Larson’s New Book on the Sinking of the Lusitania.
by Chris Dixon
Image: John Shuley & Company/Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division
Few tales in history are more haunting, more tangled with investigatory mazes or more fraught with toxic secrets than that of the final voyage of the Lusitania, one of the colossal tragedies of maritime history. It’s the other Titanic, the story of a mighty ship sunk not by the grandeur of nature but by the grimness of man. On May 7, 1915, the four-funneled, 787-foot Cunard superliner, on a run from New York to Liverpool, encountered a German submarine, the U-20, about 11 miles off the coast of Ireland. The U-boat’s captain, Walther Schwieger, was pleased to discover that the passenger steamer had no naval escort. Following his government’s new policy of unrestricted warfare, Schwieger fired a single torpedo into her hull. Less than half a minute later, a second explosion shuddered from somewhere deep within the bowels of the vessel, and she listed precariously to starboard…
An English drawing of Lusitania being torpedoed; shows disputed “second torpedo.” Source: Wikipedia Commons.
…Though Captain Schwieger apparently bore little sense of pity for his human victims, he had a soft spot for dogs — at one point, the U-20 had six aboard. Larson paints him as less villain than aggressive and essentially amoral predator in full mastery of his vessel, a decent leader of men who did his job relentlessly well while working under nearly impossible circumstances. The view from the periscope was, Larson says, “a crabbed one at best. A captain got only a brief, platelike glimpse at the world around him, during which he had to make decisions about a ship’s nature, its nationality, whether it was armed or not and whether the markings it bore were legitimate or fake. And if he decided to attack, it was he alone who bore the responsibility, like pulling the trigger on a gun, but without having to see or listen to the result. All he heard was the sound of the exploding torpedo as transmitted through the sea. If he chose to watch the tragedy unfold, he saw only a silent world of fire and terror.”