Now that a century has passed, the Titanic and Lusitania increasingly look like fateful fraternal twins, the one so strong it was thought unsinkable, the other so fast that its Cunard Steamship Company owners declared that “no German war vessel can get her or near her.’’
So much for assurances from headquarters.
By iceberg and by submarine attack, both ships fell tragically short of the grand assurances, both ended at the bottom of the sea, and both remain poignant and persistent reminders of the vanity of human boasts. By the time of the centenary of the Lusitania’s demise rolls around, approaching swiftly in May, the doomed “floating village in steel’’ — the apt description by Erik Larson in his new history “Dead Wake’’ — will acquire a lurid allure.
The author of best-selling historical retrospectives such as “In the Garden of Beasts’’ (love and intrigue in pre-war Nazi Germany) and “The Devil in the White City’’ (murder and architecture in the Chicago of the 1893 World’s Fair), Larson has a gift for transforming historical re-creations into popular recreations, and “Dead Wake’’ is no exception. Leaving 1,198 dead (123 of them American) in its wake, the Lusitania was a colossus — and, amid World War I tension, an irresistible target. Here, Larson painstakingly charts its rendezvous with destruction.
One of its passengers was Charles Emelius Lauriat Jr. Book lovers of a certain age will remember his namesake bookstores — the mothership was on Washington Street — and many of us bookish Bostonians still cherish volumes with the small “Lauriat’’ sticker on the bottom of one of the front endpapers. Lauriat asked the ticket agent in Boston whether the Lusitania would traverse any maritime war zones. He was told every precaution would be taken.
Lauriat and the Lusitania’s crew did not know that beneath the sea roamed Unterseeboot-20, a German attack submarine, and Larson portrays the passage of U-20 with as much care and devotion as he devotes to the Lusitania. “She was a jolly boat, the U-20, and a kindly boat,” one of the sub’s junior officers said.
Perhaps. But there was nothing jolly about the German warnings that appeared in the newspapers as the Lusitania prepared for its transatlantic voyage. Most of the passengers ignored those warnings — or didn’t see them. The only two who withdrew from the voyage were Bostonians, a shoe dealer named Edward Bowen and his wife. “A feeling grew upon me that something was going to happen to the Lusitania,’’ he said later. Good on him.
It is the details that animate this book — how, for example, the men aboard the U-20 breakfasted on bread with marmalade; or how the women aboard the Lusitania had a separate section in the first-class reading and writing room (the curtains were silk, the carpets a rose hue); or how, to save fuel due to wartime privations, the Lusitania used only three of its four boiler rooms, adding a fateful day to its voyage.
Along the way we learn how a submarine descends, how the buoyancy of seawater changes with temperature and salinity, and how a sub crew adjusts the air/water ratio in the dive tanks. We learn how the dining room of the Lusitania had frescoes of cherubs, and how the diners feasted on halibut in a sauce Orleans with mignons de sole souchet — and celery-fed duckling.
Along with the accounts of first-rate sustenance, Larson provides first-rate suspense, a remarkable achievement given that we already know how this is going to turn out. The Lusitania barrels forward. The U-20 approaches its target. The tension, in the reader’s easy chair, is unbearable — a marked contrast with the calm on board that prevailed even as the ship proceeded with its lifeboats swung over the sea and with growing worries on the ship’s bridge.
Despite being laden with valuable cargo of rifles and shrapnel shells, the Lusitania nonetheless stayed its fateful course instead of diverting into safer waters, nor did it take protective measures as it approached the south coast of Ireland. With astonishing clarity Larsen describes how the torpedo — 20 feet long, 20 inches in diameter — hurtled toward its target and how the passengers stood, transfixed, watching the torpedo’s movement toward them, 350 pounds of explosives that changed history.
There followed the panic familiar in shipwreck stories but terrifying in real time: the rush to lifeboats, the rushing water. The commander of the U-20, recalled the devastation and despair he witnessed through the periscope: “The scene was too horrible to watch, and I gave orders to dive to twenty meters, and away.’’
He averts his eyes. In Larson’s telling the reader cannot take his eyes off the page. Nor can he answer the ultimate Lusitania question, the one that haunts us a century on, the one that prompts the pages of this book to turn ever faster as disaster moves ever closer: Why, as Larson asks, “was the ship left on its own, with a proven killer of men and ships dead ahead in its path?’’ The question lingers, like an iceberg on the surface of the sea, and in history.
David M. Shribman, for a decade the Globe’s Washington bureau chief, is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .