On May 7, 1915, one of England’s premiere ocean liners, the Lusitania, en route from New York to Liverpool met its end off the coast of Ireland when U-boat 20 sent a torpedo into its hull, killing over one thousand people, over one hundred of those Americans. Most remember this as the precipitating event that finally pulled the U.S. into WWI, though President Wilson did not sign the war resolution until nearly two years later. Some speculate that Churchill almost ensured that such an event would happen in order to yank the U.S. – kicking and screaming – into the war.
As in most maritime disasters, the Lusitania sunk in a “perfect storm” of events, any one of which, if changed, might have prevented the disaster. If it hadn’t been such a calm, clear day; if Turner hadn’t made the fateful turn to starboard; if the ship had been ordered to take the safer North Channel route; if Room 40 had given Turner explicit instructions, including information on how many boats had just been attacked in the vicinity by U-20; had all four boilers been in operation…if only. This is the stuff of catastrophic disasters. But it makes for a fascinating story, with every last piece of the puzzle necessary to produce the outcome – a time when truth is much better than fiction.
The most unbelievable aspects of the story include the infamous “Room 40” stories – a secret wireless decrypting unit that was so secret that England was afraid of using its information too much, lest the Germans realize their codes had been broken. The information was rigorously guarded, and some might argue, not used enough to protect innocents. (If you’ve seen the recent movie “The Imitation Game”, you understand this dilemma.) Room 40 knew much about the U-boats – who captained each, their general locations each time they reported back to base, the frequency with which they had attacked ships. But none of that information was used to prevent an attack on the Lusitania. No order was given to take the safer, more northern passage; no military escort to ensure her safety. This is particularly baffling as the Lusitania was delivering badly needed munitions to the country. Therein lies some of the greatest mysteries surrounding the sinking. Was this Churchill’s doing? We will probably never know.
Thanks to the relatively recent sinking of the Titanic, the Lusitania did have sufficient life boats for all aboard. Because of the list during sinking and the lack of coordination and skill of the crew, many of the life boats could not be deployed, however. Life jackets existed, but many were unable to get them or put them on properly.
I could have done with less of President Wilson’s romantic intrigues and the in depth descriptions of the recovered corpses. Better maps and some pictures of the ship and/or her passengers would have been nice to have as well. Overall though, I thought the book an engrossing, detailed read. Larson excels at making history come alive – the backstory behind the headlines you read about in school – and even though I’ll always say “Devil in the White City” is my favorite of his, this one is certainly a worthy read.
Amazon link is here.