Best Defense

What do you know about the Lusitania?

As a kid, in grade school, we saw an old movie about the sinking of the Titanic. I don’t remember, but it might have been Roy Ward Baker’s A Night To Remember. Whatever it was, the sinking of the Titanic was always in the front of my mind when someone mentioned the words “passenger ship” and “sunk.” The attack and sinking of the Lusitania, however, was a footnote in our history books; maybe it made half the page — if that.

1280px-RMS_Lusitania_coming_into_port,_possibly_in_New_York,_1907-13-crop

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By LCDR Christopher Nelson, USN
Best Defense guest columnist

As a kid, in grade school, we saw an old movie about the sinking of the Titanic. I don’t remember, but it might have been Roy Ward Baker’s A Night To Remember. Whatever it was, the sinking of the Titanic was always in the front of my mind when someone mentioned the words “passenger ship” and “sunk.” The attack and sinking of the Lusitania, however, was a footnote in our history books; maybe it made half the page — if that.

So I was interested to read Erik Larson’s most recent book, Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania. If you’ve read some of his other stuff — In the Garden of Beasts or The Devil in the White City — you know he is great at writing narrative nonfiction. Dead Wake is no different. We all know how the story ends, but Larson still makes you want to turn the pages, and turn them quickly.

What makes the story, is that Larson takes a few main characters — the Lusitania’s Captain William Thomas Turner, President Woodrow Wilson, U-boat Captain Walther Schweiger, Boston bookseller Charles Lauriat, architect Theodate Pope, and a few minor ones — and weaves them together towards the inevitable and tragic conclusion.

Larson has done his research. The number of details and anecdotes that he has managed to cobble together are fascinating in themselves. Here is just a few of the more interesting ones:

  • Charles Lauriat was carrying Charles Dickens’ personal copy of A Christmas Carol and over 100 drawings done by William Makepeace Thackeray.
  • There were published warnings prior to setting sail that the “Lusitania is doomed… do not sail her.” Only two passengers cancelled their trip due to the warning.
  • Elbert Hubbard, author of Message to Garcia, was on board for the crossing. And the most famous passenger, Alfred Vanderbilt, son of Cornelius Vanderbilt II, paid just over $1000.00 for two rooms: one for his valet and one for himself. Or “equivalent to over $22,000 in today’s dollars.”
  • German torpedo firings failed 60% of the time.
  • U-20 had one dog onboard; Larson says that they had up to six at one point, four of which were puppies.
  • American first class passengers that had died and whose bodies were recovered were embalmed on behalf of the U.S. government. The others…sealed inside lead coffins to “…be returned to America whenever desired.”

Another interesting thing is neither Churchill nor Wilson come off really well here. Wilson, recently having lost his wife, comes across as love sick, pining for Edith Galt (who would end up running the White House after Wilson’s stroke in 1919). And Churchill tries to lay the blame for the Lusitania’s sinking at the feet of Captain Turner. Yet Churchill and eight other senior British government officials, Larson says, had access to captured radio transmissions between German naval headquarters and underway U-boats. Churchill apparently knew that Turner was not responsible for the loss of the Lusitania. A number of messages that were intercepted by “Room 40” — the secret listening station in London — even gave British leadership a good understanding of the personalities of individual U-boat captains.

On May 1st it will be 100 years since Cunard’s great ocean liner — and briefly the largest in the world — went down off the coast of Ireland, killing over 1,000 passengers. You’ll have to pick up the book and see for yourself what happens to Captain Turner, Captain Schweiger, Vanderbilt, and many others. Or if Charles Lauriat was able to save the Dickens book and Thackeray drawings. It’s worth finding out.

LCDR Christopher Nelson, USN, is a career intelligence officer and recent graduate of the U.S. Naval War College and the Navy’s operational planning school, the Maritime Advanced Warfighting School in Newport, RI. The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the DOD or the U.S. Navy.

Erik Larson/Amazon

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com.

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