Dead Wake

As for submarines, I have no fear of them whatever.
Charles Sumner, New York agent for Cunard lines, May 1 1915

It wasn’t heralded as an unsinkable ship like the Titanic three years before, but the Lusitania was marketed as so fast that submarines couldn’t catch it, and even if they could, it was believed that it was so strong that submarines couldn’t sink it. The note I made when reading this quote was “Titanic all over again” and again, over a thousand people would die in part because of the hubris of a shipping company and crew. The position of the German government couldn’t be more clear – the embassy took out an ad in the New York Times – travelling by ship, especially by British ship, into the war zone around Great Britain, was risky, yet 1,266 passengers and 696 crew, as well as Cunard Lines and the British Admiralty, (which was in charge of civilian shipping because of the war), decided it was worth the risk.

Or maybe the Admiralty wanted something to happen. With the years that have passed formerly secret information has revealed that they knew that U-20 was in the area, had an alternate, safer, route available, and had destroyers in nearby harbours that could available to escort the Lusitania to port, yet they didn’t tell the captain that the alternate route was available, left the escorts in port, and provided very little, and often contradictory, information to captain of the ship about U-boat activity in the area, despite two ships being sunk the day before in the same area. There is correspondence, (read the book for details!), suggesting some of the people in power in Britain felt that some sort of incident to prompt the USA to join the first world war would be a good thing. There’s nothing showing clear intent to leave the Lusitania exposed with the hope that she would be sunk, but the leap isn’t hard to make.

Some other tidbits that I learned:

  • Captain Georg von Trapp of the Sound of Music fame was a U-boat captain in the first world war.
  • There’s a video of the final departure from New York. We can see Captain Turner on the bridge.
  • Cunard tickets did not identify babies by name, “possibly out of quiet resentment that they traveled free” – just like Air Canada!
  • It’s fascinating how people from all over North America were on the ship. There was a medical student at McGill University, and a reverend from Rossland, BC, among others.

One thing that I expected, and hoped for, was more detailed coverage and analysis of the inquests and attempted blame-shifting that happened after the sinking. I actually expected another whole part of the book to take a deep dive into the inquests and reasons why the Admiralty acted as they did, but that didn’t happen. We learn the inquests happened, the positions of several participants, and the general outcome, but the depth I expected never materialized.



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