One hundred years ago, on May 7, 1915, the Cunard luxury liner Lusitania was sunk by a German torpedo off the Irish coast. It was the fastest, most luxurious passenger ship ever to have sailed the seas and, like the Titanic, was believed to be invulnerable. But of the 1,959 passengers on board, 1,195 perished, among them 128 American citizens.
Like 9/11, the callous murder of civilians caused outrage on both sides of the Atlantic and led to calls for the United States to enter the war. But to the dismay of the First Lord of the Admiralty, a certain Winston Churchill, it would take another two years and millions more deaths on the Western Front before President Woodrow Wilson ordered American boots on European ground.
In his new book Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania, best-selling author Erik Larson takes readers inside what he calls “a disaster of monumental proportions.” From his home in New York, he explains how, as with the Titanic, a concatenation of events caused a catastrophic tragedy; how Britain’s top-secret anti-submarine intelligence unit, Room 40, may have organized a cover-up after the event; and what it felt like to come face-to-face with the morgue photographs of the dead.
An obvious question: Why is your book called Dead Wake?
Dead wake is an old maritime term for the disturbance that remains on the water long after a boat has passed. There’s the live wake, I suppose you could call it, which comes off the engine. But in the case of a liner, the wake can persist for many thousands of yards, if not miles, behind the ship. And that was called, at one time, the dead wake. It’s an allusion to a number of things, but primarily to the track left by the torpedo that sank the Lusitania.
Put the Lusitania into the historical context of the war between Britain and Germany for control of the seas.
The war had broken out in August 1914. We all know about the horrific land battles. What’s happening at sea is that Germany recognized England was an island nation, and that one way to bring England to her knees was to destroy as much seaborne commerce as possible.
The submarine proved to be a very effective weapon in that respect and one that Germany decided to use in a major break with naval warfare against merchant and civilian vessels. The Lusitania was thought to be immune from such an attack because nobody could possibly imagine it. It was hard enough to imagine the German Navy going after merchant vessels. But the Germans had started sinking merchant vessels, often without warning.
Then, along comes the Lusitania in May 1915 in waters that Germany had determined to be a war zone. They said: “If you enter these waters, you do so at your own risk.” The rest, as they say, is history.
The German High Command actually warned of an attack. Some passengers canceled out of security concerns. But wasn’t the Lusitania cloaked in the same myth of invincibility as the Titanic? Should the ship ever have set sail?
It’s very important, doing the kind of history that I do, to always keep the reader in the era’s point of view—POV, as screenwriters call it. Today, you think: “Oh, my gosh, what were they thinking? Why did this ship even set sail from New York when there was a war zone declared and German submarines were everywhere, attacking without warning?”
But people at the time didn’t see it that way. They saw this ship as so fast it could outrun any submarine. They saw it as being so immense, so well built, so safe, and so well equipped with lifeboats in the wake of the Titanic disaster that even if it were hit by a torpedo, no one imagined this thing actually sinking. But no one could imagine a submarine going after the Lusitania in the first place. That seemed such an absurd and immoral concept. So in the end only a couple of people actually canceled.
The hero of the story is the captain of the Lusitania, William Thomas Turner. Introduce us.
I’m not much of a believer in heroes, frankly. And I have a feeling that Churchill, if he were with us on this conference call today, would have argued very much in the opposite direction, though he had his own motives.
Turner was a staunch Cunard captain of the old school who had come to Cunard after serving in the hard school of sailing vessels. He believed in doing things the classic way, like making his crew tie absurdly complex knots that they would most likely never use.
But he was utterly unprepared for the new age of submarine warfare, as were all captains. Nobody understood the submarine. People didn’t understand torpedoes. So, here was this captain of the old school forced suddenly to confront this horrendous situation of submarines hunting his ship.
The villain of the story is a German U-boat captain, Walter Schwieger. He was kind and jolly with his crew, but a cold-blooded psychopath toward the enemy; he even attacked a Red Cross ship.
Walter Schwieger was, by all counts, loved by his men. A friend of his in the submarine service said of him: “He wouldn’t hurt a fly.”
Unless it were a British fly?
[Laughs] He loved animals. He rescued a dachshund that was adrift after he had attacked the ship in which the dog was traveling, and brought it aboard. So here was this young, humane, handsome guy, who was dispatched by the German Navy to do what submarines were supposed to do.
He is clearly in my view the villain. Nobody made him press the button and launch the torpedo that sank that ship. The British Admiralty later tried to lay the blame on Captain Turner. But in the end it all comes down to Schwieger. He killed almost 1,200 people at the push of a button.
The British mounted an amazing anti-submarine espionage operation reminiscent of Bletchley Park, which featured in the recent movie The Imitation Game. Tell us about Room 40 and one of my favorite characters, “Blinker” Hall.
Room 40 was this super-secret organization founded by the Admiralty to take advantage of the miraculous recovery of three German codebooks. Using those codebooks, they successfully intercepted and read German naval communications.
One of the best moments of my research came at the National Archives of the United Kingdom. One of the boxes I’d ordered from the archive came up. I put it on my desk in the reading room, opened it up, and there was this very large codebook which was said to have been in the arms of a German sailor washed ashore after his destroyer was sunk by the Russians. It contained all the German code words for some 30,000 code crypts. Seeing it there in the archives, touching this thing, was incredible!
Blinker Hall is often thought to have been the head of Room 40. He was, in fact, the head of British Naval Intelligence. But Blinker Hall was the guy who understood how this information could be used to best advantage. He was nicknamed “Blinker” because of this odd, neurological quirk where his eyes blinked ceaselessly. He had the features of a woodpecker and a keen imagination. He was a very, very cunning guy.
The encounter of ship and submarine is like the Titanic and the iceberg: the fatal conjunction of improbable events.
It is incorrect to say that Schwieger was stalking the Lusitania. That’s not what happened at all. It is this confluence of chance forces that converged in the Irish Sea. The ship departed two hours late because it had to take on passengers from a ship that had been commandeered by the British Admiralty. Those two hours put the ship right on the path of contact with the submarine.
Schwieger had actually decided to go home and end his patrol because of fog and bad weather. But he came up for a look and found that the weather had suddenly cleared. In the distance, he saw this large collection of masts and antennae. At first he thought it might be a number of ships. But as he watched, he saw that it was just one ship. It was too far away to catch. But he decided to follow and see what would happen.
And sure enough, the Lusitania made a starboard turn that put it directly in the path of the U-20, and Schwieger was able to set up his shot and attack.
A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences showed that the speed of the Lusitania’s sinking (18 minutes, compared with two hours 40 minutes for the Titanic) affected both the way people behaved and who survived. Women and children first it was not.
That study contends that time was the crucial element in what kind of “disaster decorum” prevailed. In the case of the Titanic, it was women and children first on the available boats. In the case of the Lusitania, the study argues that the very short time it took for the ship to sink caused mores to break down and it became every man for himself.
But you can’t really compare how the passengers behaved on the Titanic and the Lusitania. The passengers on the Lusitania actually behaved with great courtesy and calm. The problem was that, after the torpedo struck, the ship immediately took on this very severe list. Half the lifeboats were unusable. The other half were slung out 60 feet above the sea and 8 to 10 feet out from the hull, so it was definitely not for the faint of heart to try and board them. In fact, relatively few people went into the lifeboats at all. Most people jumped or remained on the ship—for reasons that are very hard to fathom—and were ultimately swept away in the final cataclysm.
Winston Churchill was scathing about Woodrow Wilson’s delay in entering the war. “What he did in April 1917 could have been done in May 1915,” he wrote. “And if done then … in how many millions of homes would an empty chair be occupied now?”
You can argue for both sides of this. Churchill saw it from a British point of view. And there is a lot to his argument. In fact, what he wrote in his book enhanced my appreciation of him. He was a unique, if at times erratic, genius. But I think Wilson was doing the right thing for his country. It wasn’t his job to keep the young men of Britain safe. He didn’t feel America was ready for war.
It is a misconception that America was champing at the bit to get into the war after the Lusitania was sunk. Teddy Roosevelt and his party were. But the vast majority of Americans did not want to get into the war. In fact, many charming petitions were filed with the President endorsing his calm reaction to the Lusitania [sinking], expressing confidence that he would do the judicious thing and not be affected by the passions of the moment. [Laughs] Can you imagine that today?
In that respect, Captain Turner shapes up very well. He stayed on the bridge to the last moment. He did put on a life jacket, but I’m not going to fault him for that. He stayed on the bridge until the ship was washed away below him. I believe he was the last member of the crew off, but I can’t say for sure because by the time he was washed from the bridge a portion of the ship that was still above water was packed with passengers. Was he the last man off? No. But he would have been if the ship had sunk differently.
One of the shabbiest aspects of the story is how the Admiralty tried to pin the blame on Captain Turner. What was their argument?
It’s not exactly clear why the Admiralty went after Turner. But what is very clear from the record is that the Admiralty went after him immediately, within 24 hours. Turner was going to be made the scapegoat, which is odd, because the publicity value of laying the blame on Germany would have been enormous. I believe it’s because the Admiralty was trying to protect Room 40. Hence, the whole idea of letting it stand in the historical record for decades that the Lusitania was sunk by two torpedoes, when Room 40 knew beyond a doubt that it was only one torpedo.
So it was a cover-up?
Cover-up is a very contemporary term. But one of Churchill’s top priorities when he was in the Admiralty was to keep Room 40 secret. Even to the point, as one of its members said, of not passing along actionable information that could have saved lives.
A prominent naval historian, who is now dead, wrote a book about Room 40. In it, he said that he believed it wasn’t a plot by the Admiralty but, as the British say, an incredible “cock-up.” In later life he was interviewed—there is a transcript in the Imperial War Museum in London—and had changed his mind. He said: “I’ve thought and thought about this and there’s no other way to think about it except to imagine some sort of conspiracy.”
I’m not saying that there was or there wasn’t [a cover-up]. I’ll leave that to the conspiracy theorists. My goal was to capture the magnitude and drama of this episode and show it for what it was: a disaster of monumental proportions, filled with tragedy and horror.
Your research took you all over Europe. What were some of the high points?
The single most interesting and moving moment was at the University of Liverpool, in England, which is the keeper of the Cunard archives. I managed to get permission to look at the morgue photos of the people killed in the disaster. It was not easy to get access, and I was not allowed to bring in a camera. But, sitting there, looking at these photographs, really brought home to me that this was not some little node on a high school time line. These were men, women, and children who were suddenly struck down in the midst of the most beautiful day, on the most beautiful ship.
In the photos, they look as if they had just stepped off the ship and fallen asleep in the morgue. They were still fully dressed and, in some cases, impeccably dressed. Some even still had a light sprinkling of sand from when they were pulled from the beach. It was just very, very moving.