A century ago, 1915, Europe was at war. Britannia still ruled the waves, but German submarine warfare was nibbling away rapidly and heartlessly at England’s maritime supremacy. At first the German U-boats targeted military and cargo vessels, but passenger ships soon became fair game. Then ships from neutral countries were fair game. U-boat captains – most of which were in their twenties or thirties – had total control over their actions while at sea, and elevating their reputations and advancing their careers was measured in terms of the tonnage they managed to sink. The most successful submarine crews and captain were usually pretty ruthless and often made the least possible effort to minimize human loss.
Britain, on the other hand, was apparently eager to draw neutral U.S. into their war, and probably didn’t do much to warn ships with U.S. citizens and cargo about impending danger. Certainly, they didn’t do much to help the Lusitania.
A confluence of circumstances including the ones mentioned above – added to by good luck, bad luck, poorly organized emergency plans, inadequate lifeboats, smugness, and a several of other circumstances led to the sinking of the largest passenger ship in the Cunard line, the (supposedly) unsinkable Lusitania. Yet, in May 2015, the Lusitania and its somewhere around 2,000 passengers and crew were sunk within about 15 minutes of being hit by a single torpedo. More than half of them perished. Among them were many Americans.
The great thing about this story is the way Larson puts it together. We all know what’s going to happen to the Lusitania, so this piece of history could be fairly dry despite all of his research on times, dates, maritime factoids, naval strategy, and so forth. Larson populates this story from the very first with real people – people who made that fateful journey on the Lusitania. We learn their names, their circumstances, their backgrounds, their personal troubles and joys. Larson puts a human face on this story which makes it gripping, suspenseful, and harrowing as any tragic adventure story in fiction. And he adds the political backdrop in which this disaster took place, introducing us to the recently widowed U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, his personal life, his passions, and his challenges as a world leader.
One thing about Larson’s research sides against some of the theorists who over time have insisted that the Lusitania would not have experienced more than one explosion (1 torpedo = 1 explosion) had it not been carrying munitions for Britain in its cargo hold. (Turns out that wasn’t the cause of the second explosion.) I always love it when someone debunks a long and widely held theory, and Larson doesn’t disappoint!
Don’t miss this great read! And please note: The Literary Circle will discuss this book at its gathering on Monday, September 26, 6:30 p.m.