O NAUFRÁGIO DO "LUSITANIA"
7 de Maio de 1915
Site do "Lusitania"
The Classic Liners of Long Ago
Site da firma CUNARD
Titanic Historical Society
7 May 2015
Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania by Erik Larson review – how were 1,198 deaths allowed to happen?
One hundred years after the liner Lusitania was sunk by a German submarine, a new account asks whether it could have been prevented, and offers up some surprises
On 7 May 1915 the Cunard liner Lusitania, the fastest ship of its day, steaming from New York to Liverpool, was torpedoed by a German submarine 12 miles off the coast of southern Ireland, not far from Cobh. It sank in 18 minutes: 1,198 passengers and crew, including three German stowaways and 123 Americans, perished. Only six of 22 lifeboats were launched. Many passengers drowned because they donned their life-jackets incorrectly and could not keep their heads bobbing above water. There were 764 survivors. This unprecedented attack on civilians caused a storm of indignation, particularly in the US, which expected its citizens to be immune from international violence.
Until 1914 the established naval rules provided that warships could stop and search merchant vessels, but must safeguard their crews. Passenger ships were exempt from attack. The sinking of civilian ships without rescuing their voyagers, said Winston Churchill, then first lord of the admiralty, leaving them “to perish in open boats or drown amid the waves was in the eyes of all seafaring peoples a grisly act, which hitherto had never been practised except by pirates”.
Both the Royal Navy and the German fleet had envisaged a naval war in which their battleships met in huge showdowns such as the battle of Trafalgar. When instead they found a naval stalemate, British warships blockaded Germany and the Germans resorted to submarine warfare with their fleet of U-boats. The sinking of the Lusitania shocked the world, but it should not have been a surprise. On the morning of the liner’s embarkation, the German embassy in Washington had taken out advertisements in New York newspapers warning that vessels flying the British flag were liable to destruction in the naval war zone, and that their passengers were in jeopardy. The Lusitania’s captain, William Thomas Turner, who thought of his passengers as chattering monkeys, and Cunard’s bullish American managers, however, thought their ship could outrun any submarine.
The Admiralty in London had possessed a German naval codebook since 1914, and its cryptographers in Room 40 were soon breaking the further encryption of intercepted messages. Although the Admiralty knew that Germany’s U20 was prowling the sea route off south-west Ireland used by ships heading for Liverpool, it could issue no warnings to Cunard or the Lusitania about the peril without forfeiting the ultra-secrecy of its code-breaking abilities. U20 first sank the Liverpool schooner, the Earl of Lathom, carrying rocks from Limerick, and soon torpedoed other ships. In Liverpool the alarmed Cunard chairman urged the Admiralty to divert Lusitania to safety at Cobh until the U20 boat threat had receded. A wireless warning from the Admiralty was indeed received on the liner, but it was too terse and muted to convey the full danger. The navy’s failure to provide an armed escort for the liner through the dangerous last stretch of its voyage – despite the fact that its cargo included vital rifle ammunition and artillery shells – receives Larson’s strictures.
On a sunny day of calm seas, shortly after two in the afternoon, U20 fired a torpedo at Lusitania. The liner’s crew and passengers spotted a track advancing towards them across the flat sea, as if an invisible hand was making a straight line with white chalk across a blackboard. A passenger gazing from the window of the veranda cafe saw what seemed to be the tail of a fish raising “a streak of froth” on the starboard side. “We had all been thinking, dreaming, eating, sleeping ‘submarine’ from the hour we left New York,” he said, “and yet with the dreaded danger upon us, I could hardly believe the evidence of my own eyes.” The torpedo blew a hole the size of a house beneath the liner’s waterline. It began to sink immediately amid scenes of turmoil and panic.
Larson speculates that the Admiralty wasn’t more active in protecting the Lusitania as outraging American opinion against Germany would help to draw the US into the European war – but he holds back from making a direct accusation of deliberate endangerment. Perhaps the most astonishing part of this breezy book is the letter that Admiral Lord Fisher, first sea lord at the Admiralty at the time of the incident, sent in 1916 to Admiral von Tirpitz, Germany’s foremost advocate of unrestricted submarine warfare. “Dear old Tirps,” he wrote. “You’re the one German sailor who understands War! Kill your enemy without being killed yourself. I don’t blame you for the submarine business. I’d have done the same myself, only our idiots in England wouldn’t believe it when I told ’em.” He signed off the letter, “Yours till Hell freezes, Fisher.”
Another exceptional image comes from a U-boat commander watching through his periscope the result of torpedoing a ship transporting horses. In the eerie silence that envelops a submerged vessel, the commander witnessed the ship in flames, an overloaded lifeboat rowing away and a panic-stricken dapple-grey horse jumping overboard, landing on the lifeboat and kicking its occupants to death.
This book is at its best when describing the lethal new technology of early submarine warfare. Larson’s vivid evocation of life inside early submarines, the omnipresent danger, the Christmas lunches and dachshund puppies, never flags. He treats the U20’s urbane, witty and joyous captain, Walther Schwieger, and his loyal crew with respect. Readers will feel a shock of disappointment when Larson reveals that in 1917 Schwieger’s new, improved submarine, U88, was ambushed by HMS Stonecroft and herded into a British minefield where it exploded with the loss of all hands.
The most wearisome digressions in Dead Wake concern the protracted wooing from the White House by the widower president, Woodrow Wilson, of a Washington jeweller called Edith Galt. The prominence given to the president’s love life is a contrivance intended to give a human interest angle to Washington’s prevarications over joining in the European war, but it brings a banal, chatty dimension to important events.
Larson is most interested in American passengers (ranging from a Vanderbilt millionaire to a newlywed couple called Shineman from Oil City, Wyoming). He gives surprisingly scant attention to the Canadians, whom he tends to treat as transatlantic British. Some great backstories are missed about non-American passengers, including the Canadian armaments manufacturer Sir Frederick Orr-Lewis, the English art deco designer Oliver Bernard and the redoubtable Margaret Mackworth, Viscountess Rhondda – the suffragette bomb-maker, pioneer female coal-mining executive, who despite being a peer in her own right was excluded from sitting in the House of Lords by sexual chauvinism.
Larson’s approach to history resembles a novelist’s. He paints word-pictures about protagonists, rooms and moods, and propels his narrative forward with dialogue taken from contemporary sources. His artful structure cuts between the liner and the U-boat, the English-speakers and the German, the goodies and the baddies. Chapters switch between New York, Washington, Berlin, London and the open seas. These discontinuities build up suspense, and make for many people’s idea of a rattling read. However, they sometimes complicate and disrupt the narrative, so that readers who want a swift, clear idea of what happened may feel frustrated. Still, there is nothing standoffish about Larson’s book; he makes every reader feel welcome.
Richard Davenport-Hines’s Titanic Lives is published by HarperPress.
The Washington Post
March 13, 2015
Erik Larson recounts the fatal crossing of the ocean liner Lusitania
By Daniel Stashower
The Last Crossing of the Lusitania
By Erik Larson
Crown. 430 pp. $28
A Última Viagem do Lusitania
Bertrand Editora, 464 pags., 2015 ISBN 9789722530866
‘I’d never seen a more uneventful or stupid voyage,” declared one passenger on the Lusitania’s final crossing, but surely this was a minority opinion. On May 1, 1915, this “floating village in steel,” the jewel of Britain’s Cunard line, set forth from New York bound for Liverpool, carrying 1,959 passengers and crew members — including 189 Americans. German U-boats were patrolling the North Atlantic, and Germany had issued a grim warning: British shipping lanes were now a “zone of war,” and vessels flying the flag of Britain would be “liable to destruction.” To some, at a time when the entire world was waiting to see if America would be drawn into the war in Europe, the Lusitania appeared to be tempting fate. “The blowing up of a liner with American passengers may be the prelude,” wrote U.S. Ambassador Walter Page from London. “I almost expect such a thing.”
In contrast to Erik Larson’s previous blockbusters “The Devil in the White City” and “In the Garden of Beasts,” the broad strokes of this story will be familiar to most readers. But this enthralling and richly detailed account demonstrates that there was far more going on beneath the surface than is generally known. Though many believed that civilian ships would be safe from attack, codebreakers in London were tracking the movements of German submarines with the aid of a dead signalman’s codebook and were aware that the German navy considered the Lusitania to be “fair game.” Even so, few measures were taken to ensure the ship’s safe passage, raising troubling questions about the motivations of the British Admiralty.
William Thomas Turner, the Lusitania’s rugged and experienced captain, was not made aware of the codebreakers’ efforts, but he did receive assurances that the Royal Navy would provide an escort through British waters. When that escort failed to appear, Turner seemed unfazed. Outwardly, at least, the captain appeared to share the sanguine views of his employers. “The truth is that the Lusitania is the safest boat on the sea,” Cunard officials claimed. “She is too fast for any submarine. No German war vessel can get her or near her.”
As Larson demonstrates, however, the world had been slow to grasp the dark implications of the Unterseeboot, or U-boat. Some of the book’s most gripping chapters track the evolution of the submarine from “a suicidal novelty” to a brutally effective killing machine, together with the extraordinary burdens placed on the shoulders of the U-boat captains: “He alone determined when and whether to attack, when to ascend or dive, and when to return to base.” The captain alone bore the responsibility for all that occurred during a cruise, and not all of Germany’s leaders were comfortable with this. “Unhappily,” declared Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg, “it depends upon the attitude of a single submarine commander whether America will or will not declare war.”
Thirty-two-year-old Walther Schwieger, in command of the U-20, “a pinpoint in a vast sea,” had acquired a reputation for ruthlessness after firing a torpedo at a presumably unarmed hospital ship. Nevertheless, crewmates insisted that he ran a “jolly boat,” and on one occasion, after sinking a freighter off the coast of Ireland, Schwieger even paused to rescue a struggling dachshund from the wreckage. By May 1915 he was regarded as one of Germany’s most knowledgeable commanders, and when rumors surfaced that Britain was about to launch an invasion, Schwieger was ordered to hunt and attack potential troop transports. Aboard the Lusitania, however, most passengers shrugged off the possibility of a torpedo attack. As one traveler noted, “The idea came to be regarded as a mild joke for lunch and dinner tables.”
Larson uses letters, journals and the accounts of survivors to reconstruct the shipboard experiences, and these are among the most vivid and often heartbreaking passages in the book. In one, Theodate Pope, one of America’s “few female architects of stature,” recalls the consternation of a fellow passenger who had been served a dish of ice cream but no spoon: “He looked ruefully at it and said he would hate to have a torpedo get him before he ate it.” In another, Nellie Huston, a 31-year-old traveling home to England, describes the unexpected challenges of trying to get into her top bunk in second class. “I don’t know if I was supposed to be able to spring right into it,” she explained in a letter home, “but I’m too heavy behind.” Charles Lauriat Jr., a noted Boston book dealer, came aboard with a priceless set of drawings by William Makepeace Thackeray and a one-of-a-kind edition of “A Christmas Carol” adorned with handwritten notations by Charles Dickens. Lauriat neglected to take out insurance, having judged that the risk “is practically nil.” In the end, he lost these literary treasures but managed to save a set of pictures of his baby. “They were my mascot,” he cabled to his wife.
These stories put a human face on the scenes of carnage when the Lusitania finally crosses the path of the U-20 on May 7, 1915. Lauriat’s experiences are especially harrowing, as he finds himself momentarily snagged in the ship’s wireless antenna and nearly dragged to the bottom. Pope was also among the survivors, but her traveling companions were not. She spent the rest of her life trying to contact them through spirit mediums. Huston did not live to mail the account of her struggles with the second-class bunk; her letter was found floating in her purse on the sea.
Turner appears to have been fully prepared to go down with the ship, but in the end his life jacket spared him as the Lusitania “seemed to be plucked from my feet by a giant hand.” The torpedo, as Larson explains, struck the hull at a particularly vulnerable spot, flooding the coal bunkers that ran the length of the ship and sending her to the bottom in just 18 minutes. As Schwieger himself noted, “She could not have steered a more perfect course if she had deliberately tried to give us a dead shot.” In the chaos, only six of the ship’s 22 conventional lifeboats were successfully launched.
“There can be no doubt that for many passengers death came suddenly and utterly by surprise,” Larson writes. “Passengers were crushed by descending boats. Swimmers were struck by chairs, boxes, potted plants, and other debris falling from the decks high above. And then there were those most ill-starred of passengers, who had put on their life preservers incorrectly and found themselves floating with their heads submerged, legs up, as in some devil’s comedy.” Of the 1,959 passengers and crew members, only 764 survived. Among the dead were 123 Americans. “We shall be at war with Germany within a month,” predicted one American official.
In fact, a further two years elapsed before America entered the conflict, and by that time a great many uncomfortable questions had surfaced about the Lusitania. Even Schwieger found it “inexplicable,” as he noted in the U-20’s log, that the ship had not been safely diverted to a more northerly route. Others wondered, in the face of Germany’s public warning and a well-documented surge of U-boat activity, why no military escort had been provided, though Turner himself doubted that it would have prevented the catastrophe. “It might,” he said, “but it is one of those things one never knows. The submarine would have probably torpedoed both of us.”
These questions are still being debated a century later. Larson’s account is the most lucid and suspenseful yet written, and he finds genuine emotional power in the unlucky confluences of forces, “large and achingly small,” that set the stage for the ship’s agonizing final moments. Turner, for his part, understood that some dangers were an unavoidable part of life at sea. Days before the Lusitania set off from New York, he testified at a hearing on behalf of families of passengers who perished aboard the Titanic three years earlier. Speaking to a panel of eight lawyers, the captain scoffed at the notion that a luxury ocean liner could ever be considered unsinkable. “Who told you that?” Turner snapped. When asked if he had drawn any lessons from the Titanic tragedy, he gave a chillingly blunt reply:
“Not the slightest,” he said. “It will happen again.”
Mar 13, 2015
· Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania
· Erik Larson
· 430 pages
When the Lusitania set out from New York on May 1, 1915, the state-of-the-art British passenger liner epitomized the best that ocean-going travel offered at the time in terms of luxury, speed and safety. Under ordinary circumstances, passengers would have boarded the ship that day with every confidence of a pleasant journey consumed with lounging in deck chairs, gourmet meals and, yes, shuffleboard.
But circumstances were far from ordinary. The war raging through Europe was deeply concerning, even if the United States was not yet a combatant. More alarming was the warning – issued by the German embassy just prior to the Lusitania’s departure – that ships passing through the fiercely contested North Atlantic did so at considerable risk. Passenger ships not excluded.
Sure enough, the Lusitania was fatally torpedoed by a lurking German U-boat off the coast of Ireland after nearly a week at sea and little more than a day before its expected arrival in Liverpool. The sinking resulted in the deaths of more than 60 per cent of the nearly 2,000 people aboard, counting passengers, crew members and, ironically, three captured German stowaways. In the 20/20 perfection of hindsight, this gruesome result seemed almost inevitable.
But the outcome, as Erik Larson so brilliantly elucidates in , his detailed forensic and utterly engrossing account of the Lusitania’s last voyage, had as much to do with chance as it did with fate. The vessel’s belated departure from New York, the unpredictable shifts in weather, the many small decisions made by the captains of both the luxury liner and the U-boat, and innumerable other circumstances all contributed to placing the Lusitania in precisely the wrong place at exactly the wrong time.
May 7 will mark the centenary of the Lusitania’s sinking. Because a significant number of Americans were among the dead (123 by Larson’s count), the incident has often been hailed – wrongly, it should be said – as the Pearl Harbor of the First World War, the event that finally roused the United States from its isolationist slumber. In reality, President Woodrow Wilson waited nearly another two years before finally declaring war on Kaiser Wilhelm’s Germany.
Larson, whose most recent book, , focused on the U.S. ambassador to Germany during the Nazi takeover in the 1930s, has conjured another masterful historical recreation. Yes, we know how the story of the Lusitania ends, but there’s still plenty of white-knuckle tension. In , he delivers such a marvellously thorough evocation of the ship’s last week that it practically begs Hollywood blockbuster treatment.
In the principal roles we have a fascinating study in contrast: William Turner, the supremely able but aloof captain of the Cunard-owned Lusitania, and Walther Schwieger, the genial but coldly predatory commander of German submarine Unterseeboot-20. There’s President Wilson, who distracted himself from the daily reports of carnage in Europe by falling madly in love with the widow Edith Galt. (So smitten was Wilson that he seemed more disconsolate about Galt’s initial refusal of marriage than by word of the Lusitania’s demise.) And the rest of the -worthy supporting cast is large and colourful, including New York bookseller Charles Lauriat, who was transporting a priceless edition of Charles Dickens’s , and famed suffragist Margaret Mackworth. Their written first-hand accounts of the sinking enrich Larson’s narrative invaluably. Then there were the many stirring acts of heroism that occurred during and after the 18 minutes it took for the ship to sink, as passengers risked their own lives to save others and an impromptu flotilla of Irish trawlers and fishing boats rushed out from the coast to rescue survivors and recover the dead.
Just as interesting as his characterization of the passengers is Larson’s attention to engineering. It might not sound like a formula for fascination, but the unsparingly detailed descriptions of the mechanical workings of both the Lusitania, with its vast and lavish staterooms, and the German U-boat, with its exceedingly cramped quarters, are anything but dull. There’s also a significant subplot involving the tracking of U-20 by a secret arm of British intelligence which, unbeknownst to the enemy, was capable of deciphering the German military’s coded messages. As a consequence of its spying, the British Admiralty knew a lot more about the Lusitania’s impending peril than it was prepared to share – before or after. Under the leadership of the Admiralty’s First Lord, Winston Churchill (as much the goat of the First World War as he was the hero of the Second), government officials cynically blamed the Lusitania’s faultless captain for what happened. If the Admiralty understood the Lusitania was in danger, why was nothing done to warn the ship or, later, to help rescue survivors? Is it possible, as has been credibly suggested, that the British turned a blind eye, callously weighing the cost of life against the potential benefit of drawing the U.S. into the war? If so, British officialdom was surely dismayed by Wilson’s steadfast unwillingness to be provoked – his cautiousness shared at the time by influential newspaper editorialists and the American public in general. Eventually, sufficient provocation did come in the form of a German promise to help Mexico recover lost territory in Texas, Arizona and New Mexico if Mexico eventually joined the German side.
Larson doesn’t side with – or against – the conspiracy theorists, although he clearly thinks the suspicions have some validity. Inevitably, not all of the questions concerning the Lusitania’s fate are answered in , but the virtuosity of the storytelling is watertight.
An epic tragedy
You’ll have to wait until May 7 for what could be the season’s favorite popular history, “Lusitania: An Epic Tragedy,” by Diana Preston (Walker, $28).
On that date in 1915, at the end of a routine crossing from New York to Liverpool, the 30,000-ton Cunard steamer RMS Lusitania was struck by a torpedo abaft her bridge from the German submarine U-20 a few miles off the coast of Ireland. She sank in just 18 minutes, and some 1,200 people — more than half the passengers and crew — drowned. It was the worst nautical disaster since an iceberg sent the Titanic to the bottom just three years before.
The Great War was in its second
year, and the Germans had declared unrestricted submarine warfare on all
shipping belonging to the enemy. Since the days of Henry VIII, warships of most
nations had permitted crew and passengers to board lifeboats before sinking
civilian vessels, but the Germans felt their vulnerable submarines too exposed
for that kind of chivalry.
What’s more, it seemed that the U-20 had fired a second torpedo into the listing hulk while passengers were leaping into the icy sea for their lives. The United States erupted in anger. More than 100 Americans died aboard the Lusitania, and the disaster eventually led to U.S. entry in the war two years later. The American and British propaganda engines spun into action, portraying the Germans as bloodthirsty, unprincipled Huns, although Berlin had justification for sending the Lusitania to the bottom: she had been carrying ammunition and shells.
Over the decades the story has become a familiar one, an object lesson in how the concept of total war was born during World War I. There are no surprises in Preston’s stylish and elegant retelling, but few popular historians — Walter Lord was one of them — can marshal facts and place them within their times as vividly as she does. Preston — the author of the top-notch “A First Rate Tragedy: Robert Falcon Scott and the Race to the South Pole” — not only relates the human drama of the sinking in terms that rival Lord’s story of the Titanic, but also draws in the powerful personages of the time — Woodrow Wilson, Kaiser Wilhelm II, Winston Churchill among them — and the currents that led to the disaster as well as the waves of history it started rolling.
Some of the most interesting passages of her book appear in the appendix, in which she reports on what recent researchers, Robert Ballard among them, have found in their dives on the wreck of the Lusitania. What caused that second explosion, the one people at the time thought was another torpedo? That is still being argued. Some think the munitions the Lusitania carried had gone up, others argue her boilers exploded, and still others blame inflammable coal dust, but Preston thinks the blast was simply caused by a steam line ruptured by the first and only torpedo strike.
The ship “sank so quickly because she was not designed to withstand a torpedo hitting her in such a vital spot as did that fired by the U-20. On 7 May 1915, her captain, Walther Schwieger, had mounted the perfect attack.”
A second book, not yet seen, is also being published on the tragedy’s 87th anniversary: “Lusitania: Saga and Myth,” by David Ramsay ( Norton, $29.95).
, the book editor of the Chicago Sun-Times, is the author of “What’s That Pig Outdoors: A Memoir of Deafness,” “Zephyr: Tracking a Dream Across America” and “Flight of the Gin Fizz: Midlife at 4,500 Feet.”
of the Lusitania
In harm's way
Apr 18th 2002
was a step towards total war, though few could see it at the time
ON MAY 1st 1915, eight months into war, a 30,000-tonne British liner, Lusitania, pulled out of New York harbour bound for Liverpool. The pride of the Cunard fleet, she carried 1,257 passengers (among them 128 Americans), 702 crew and an estimated three stowaways. Her cargo manifest, a source of controversy later, included small-arms cartridges, uncharged shrapnel shells, cheese, furs and, oddly, 205 barrels of oysters.
Though to save coal Cunard had shut down her fourth boiler-room, it was reckoned she could outrun any German submarine even at the reduced speed of 21 knots. Most voyagers had scoffed at warnings from the German embassy published in the New York press and posted at the pier gates not to cross the Atlantic under a belligerent flag. Once at sea, they had, with few exceptions, voiced no complaint at the farcically inadequate lifeboat drills.
Seven days later, 10 miles off the southern coast of Ireland, a submerged German U-boat hit her amidships with a single torpedo. Using his discretion under German rules of engagement, Captain Walther Schwieger had struck without warning. Though there were lifeboats aplenty—the lesson of the Titanic was well learned—most were unlaunchable because of the ship's sudden list, made worse as water poured through lower-deck portholes, opened for air despite earlier orders to close them. The Lusitania sank in 18 minutes, with a recorded loss of 1,201 lives.
These are the bare facts of a maritime atrocity that in historical legend dragged a reluctant America into the first world war. The shock was widespread. Under so-called cruiser rules, an enemy's merchant ships were traditionally fair game in wartime only if crew and passengers were given time to take to boats. Yet despite justifiable outrage, the aftermath was rather different from legend, as these two thorough and readable accounts remind us.
The Germans apologised and offered compensation (they eventually paid $2.5m). In the same breath they laid ultimate blame for the growing carnage at sea on Britain's blockade of German shipping. They charged also that, contrary to American law, the Lusitania had been carrying Canadian troops and—those dubious oysters?—heavy munitions, whose explosion had doomed her. Nevertheless, the ever-mercurial kaiser, who in February had approved unlimited submarine warfare, now ordered U-boats not to attack passenger ships.
Woodrow Wilson's administration hesitated, split as it was between hawks and doves, sending Berlin three discordant notes in as many months. The sinking deepened American hostility towards Germany. But most Americans did not want war, and it was almost another two years before America did come in.
The British authorities tried, with behind-the-scenes ruthlessness, to impugn Captain William Turner, one of Cunard's most experienced officers. An overstretched Admiralty was anxious to shift blame for what it feared politicians and the press—not to forget potential claimants—would treat as an avoidable calamity. The Admiralty was right to feel vulnerable: it had failed to provide an escort for the Lusitania, to give her adequate warning of U-boat activity or to explain clearly how to avoid the danger.
Egged on by its civilian boss, Winston Churchill, the Admiralty began a whispering campaign to discredit Turner's seamanship. At the inquiry under Lord Mersey, the government had Edward Carson and F.E. Smith, the two most feared legal attack sharks of the day. They duly made a fool of Turner in the witness box. But Mersey, a shrewd old judge who had chaired the Titanic inquiry, read the Admiralty's game. He commended Turner and pointed a commonsensical finger at Germany.
Despite nearly 90 years of speculation and counter-theory, these two books broadly concur with the Mersey findings. Both set their stories against a background of diplomacy, war and Anglo-German naval competition, though they reach their similar conclusions by different routes.
David Ramsay, whose study of the disaster came out last year in Britain and now appears in the United States, is the more forensic. Charge by charge, he rebuts the Admiralty's case against Turner. Contrary to instructions, he had, he admitted, cut speed to 18 knots, not zig-zagged and come near shore. But on each point, Turner could defend himself: he had slowed so as not to have to wait for the tide outside Liverpool, a sitting duck; zig-zagging was not proven protection; and the Admiralty's advice—U-boats lurk mostly near shore, mostly at mid-channel—was a naked self-contradiction. Besides exculpating Turner, Mr Ramsey also exposes several persistent myths: there were no heavy munitions, no devastating second explosion (rifle rounds were found to burn harmlessly like fire-crackers, and not detonate), no Canadian troops and no British plot to sacrifice a ship to bring America to war.
Diana Preston takes a more personal approach. She has mined recollections by survivors to create a harrowing picture of those 18 minutes, her centrepiece. This was in theory a good idea. Disasters evoke powerful, if contrary, emotions: horror, fascination, sympathy—and wondering how well we would do. Unfortunately, the names of victims blur, it being hard in non-fiction to take us inside people's heads during a panic. Novels—think of Joseph Conrad's Lord Jim—tend to do it better.
A related problem is documentary balance. Nobody volunteers for the record: “She was struggling with her lifebelt, so I snatched it away, pushed her aside and leaped into the boat.” Shame and silence are cousins, as Ivan Turgenev, perhaps the finest psychologist among the great 19th-century Russian writers, knew from his own experience: he spent a lifetime denying that, during a shipboard fire, he had scrambled into a lifeboat shouting, “Let me on, I'm my mother's only son!”
In other respects, Ms Preston, like Mr Ramsay, is commendably historical. Both authors record that the Lusitania was a sickening extension of warfare to the civilian sphere, a step towards a form of total war that would become the norm as the century wore on. Yet neither pretend that the participants could have seen this at the time—a recognition of the melancholy rule that the wars people start are seldom the wars they end up with.
Lusitania: Saga and Myth.
By David Ramsay.
Norton; 308 pages; $29.95.
Chatham Publishing (September 2001); £20
Lusitania: An Epic Tragedy.
By Diana Preston.
Walker; 532 pages; $28
May 12, 2002
Review: History: Wilful Murder by Diana Preston
WILFUL MURDER The Sinking of the Lusitania by Diana Preston (Doubleday £18.99 pp532)
It is curious to think that, not so long ago, Glasgow was turning out one-quarter of the world’s shipping. The Glasgow yards were outstanding when it came to matching ship design and engineering, and the Lusitania, launched there in 1906, was the pride of the old Cunard Line.
Just as curious as Glasgow’s ship-building hegemony is the impact once made by liners such as the Lusitania. Before air travel, there was enormous competition between the great shipping companies and the European powers for the fastest Atlantic crossing and the ritziest ships. The Titanic was one example. The Lusitania was another: it managed the journey in four days, and won the Blue Riband. It was enormous, and when it arrived in New York, it dominated the port. “More beautiful than Solomon’s Temple,” gasped the journalists.
But the Lusitania’s days of pomp and circumstance did not last long. When war broke out in 1914, British shipping came under attack from German U-boats, and on May 7, 1915, the Lusitania was torpedoed, just off the southern coast of Ireland. Of the 1,257 passengers, 785, including 128 Americans, died, together with 413 members of the crew. Of the 129 children on board, 94 were drowned, including 35 of the 39 babies.
Preston’s account of this disaster is very good. She pads it somewhat, with references to the origins of submarines (18th century), and how the great ocean liners became more and more elaborate, but she manages to include everything that is historically relevant, including the individual stories of passengers, American or British, and how they survived. She has done an extraordinary amount of work, particularly in tracing the memories of survivors. She learns that some of them never recovered, their lives blasted by the disaster for ever.
The Lusitania’s final voyage was a catalogue of ill fortune. William Turner, the ship’s captain, was experienced and much admired. He was just unlucky in that a U-boat happened to be lurking at the entrance to St George’s channel in the Irish Sea. Even so, if the liner had been doing its full 25 knots it would still have been untouchable by a slow-moving submarine. But because the crew was not complete, one of the engines had been shut down. Furthermore, Turner knew that if he reached the bar of the Liverpool harbour too early, he might have to wait for the port to be cleared of other shipping, so he slowed his speed. The U-boat captain was presented with his target, and the ship went down.
The German government quickly recognised that a colossal blunder had been made. The policy of sinking passenger ships, or neutral vessels entering British waters, was suspended. Even so, America came close to threatening war on Germany; when, in 1917, the Germans proclaimed that they would again start sinking passenger ships, this did provoke an American declaration of war. The trigger was another piece of German blundering.
Aware that the Americans might enter the war, the Berlin foreign office decided that a possible riposte might be to prod Mexico into attacking America, and sent a coded telegram to that effect. In a surreal touch, the Mexicans were also promised the territories lost after Los Alamos. A hasty postscript said that if they felt like approaching the Mikado of Japan with a view to making trouble for the Americans in the Pacific, that would also be all right. The British, reading these codes, realised that they had been given an enormous present, one that would tip the balance against the isolationists in America. The German message was revealed by them (through an ingenious roundabout route) to the American president.
This not only tipped the balance for Congress, but was also the suicide note of Imperial Germany. Once the American war economy got going, as in the second world war, nothing could stand in its way. The German army cracked in France in the summer of 1918, faced with the arrival of millions of fresh American troops.
Time was when the Lusitania story was questioned. Conspiracy theories had it that it was carrying munitions, so the Germans had a right to sink it, or that it was deliberately slowed down in the path of a known German submarine because Churchill wanted to get the Americans into the war against Germany. Preston gives the lie to all these ideas. She restores the original judgment that the great ship was the victim of a war against civilians, even babies, that was inaugurated by the 20th century. On the way, she takes in the human stories, of rich men playing poker in the first-class saloons when the torpedo struck (one man was so engrossed in the cards that he did not notice and was angry that he had not been able to make an enormous killing, as it were, out of the game), and of unidentified babies and small children being placed in mass graves.
It is not easy, nowadays, to write an original book on the first world war — the untold stories are more likely to be Russian or, maybe, Turkish — but Preston has succeeded.
GERMANY'S HATE FIGURE
The British press reacted with fury to the Lusitania’s sinking, focusing much of its anger on Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, secretary of state for the German navy. “What Women and Children Endured When Tirpitz’s Murderers Sent the Lusitania to Her Doom”, screamed one Daily Mirror headline. Tirpitz himself was unapologetic about Germany’s policy of unrestricted submarine warfare, and only resigned in 1916 in protest at its curtailment.
Information on the great liner and her last captain
Lusitania: Saga and Myth by David Ramsay (Chatham Publishing £20)
Objective account of the sinking
'Lusitania: An Epic Tragedy' by Diana Preston and 'Lusitania: Saga and Myth' by David Ramsay
Reviewed by Stanley Weintraub
Sunday, May 12, 2002; Page BW07
By Diana Preston
Walker. 532 pp. $28
By David Ramsay
Norton. 308 pp. $29.95
One of the great luxury liners of a vanished era, the Lusitania is remembered now not for its size and style but for what happened to it in May 1915. Twelve hundred and one people aboard -- three of them stowaways, possibly German spies -- went down with it 12 miles off Ireland after it took a single torpedo from the German submarine U-20. Millions more lost their lives between 1914 and 1918, but the Lusitania remains one of the symbolic atrocities of a gruesome and immensely costly war.
Contemporaries assumed that because 128 Americans were among the dead, the U-20's torpedo would push a reluctant nation into the war, but pleas to "Remember the Lusitania!" evoked only headlines and melodramatic press accounts. Diana Preston (author of The Boxer Rebellion) sympathetically quotes a comment that while the Lusitania failed to deliver its consignment of Americans to England, it finally delivered two million Yanks to France; but nearly two years elapsed after the sinking of the proud Cunard flagship before Congress declared war on Germany. Unrestricted submarine warfare had something to do with President Woodrow Wilson's call for war, but by April 1917 there were more crucial factors involved, some cautiously unspoken. Bled of manpower, Britain and France were increasingly desperate, and the United States had to get involved or watch them go under.
David Ramsay, in his much thinner account, is more realistic, observing that the United States "declared war for reasons which had little to do with the torpedoing of the great liner." Perhaps the question is not why the Germans stupidly targeted a floating hotel of little military consequence, but why its sinking has provoked so many alleged mysteries about why and how it happened.
For the determinedly curious, Preston's new account is much the best of the lot. Unlike some earlier accounts, hers eschews sensationalism about the tracking and sinking of the ship; but it nevertheless offers her own hypothesis about the second, post-torpedo explosion that sent the ship down in 18 minutes. But the cause is insignificant. Whether a boiler failure, a steam-line explosion (Preston's theory) or the detonation of coal dust (the conclusion of Robert Ballard, who explored the wreck in 1993), the follow-up blast was unrelated to explosive contraband aboard. There wasn't any.
Embarrassed by the notoriety of the sinking, the Germans claimed, falsely, that the British were using the Lusitania as an auxiliary cruiser and transport for Canadian troops and forbidden munitions. Small-arms cartridges and empty shell cases were permissible cargo under U.S. law; if the U-20 had stopped and searched the ship, impounding the negligible war materiel aboard, the Germans could have claimed reasonable cause. Instead, the liner was torpedoed without warning.
Could the ship's captain, William Thomas Turner, have outrun the sluggish sub? The overconfident Cunard management was conserving coal by not employing all its boilers, and the Lusitania was moving even more slowly than necessary. Even so, the U-20 never had to give chase; despite his awareness of the sub menace in Irish waters, Capt. Turner had further reduced speed to about 18 knots in order to approach Liverpool at high tide. Hazardously, many portholes remained open, risking the ship's inundation by tons of seawater.
More crucial to Diana Preston's narrative is the human factor. Populated by the famous and the soon-to-be so, by potential heroes and villains, by ordinary folk merely caught in the calamity, a huge liner provides plenty of passenger-and-crew dramatics. For the most part, her narrative follows the popular formulas of similar sea catastrophes, weaving in the good and the bad, upstairs and downstairs. Happily for readers, the passengers included a super-rich gentleman (Alfred Vanderbilt), a Broadway producer (Charles Frohman), a bestselling author (Elbert Hubbard) and an assortment of storybook character types. Passengers and crew responded to the imminence of drowning with "determined selfishness" as well as chivalric sacrifice. While Capt. Turner shouted absurdly and unpersuasively (and belatedly) into the chaos, "Don't lower the boats. The ship can't sink. She's all right," a passenger who could not swim clung to a life jacket with a dead woman in it, and a bellboy clutched an upturned dog kennel. Dead children bobbed up and down "like drowned dolls," and dying adult victims floated face down because, undrilled, they had put their life jackets on backward.
David Ramsay's more cursorily researched account devotes only 20 pages to the human dimension of the sinking, and deals more in background and aftermath. Much of it reads like padding.
Ramsay throws conspiracy straw men into the picture in order to dispose of them, comes to conclusions similar to Preston's about the second explosion and the fatal open portholes, and makes more of the contraband aboard -- thinly legal under American law, and not a sufficient excuse in any case to torpedo a passenger vessel. As for the liner's reduced speed, he claims that the U-20 could have lain in wait for a "flank shot" even had the Lusitania been steaming at 21 knots rather than three knots slower. His book -- no "saga" as subtitled -- constitutes a wan effort compared to Preston's substantial and colorful account.
Although we know the grisly outcome in advance, her Lusitania, alternately sentimental and macabre, tugs at the emotions. That the sinking heralded, to Preston, "the new barbarism of total war" seems, nevertheless, overwrought and unconvincing. New military technology tempts nations into its use. Worse horrors followed. •
Stanley Weintraub is the author of the recent "Silent Night: The Story of the World War I Christmas Truce."
mass watery grave
Alan Judd reviews Wilful Murder: The Sinking of the Lusitania by Diana Preston.
The Lusitania , a British liner, was the largest and most powerful vessel afloat, dubbed a "A skyscraper adrift" by New Yorkers when she docked there on her 1907 maiden voyage. She was the pinnacle of transatlantic prestige and when she left New York on what turned out to be her final voyage, on May 1, 1915, most of her 1,257 passengers were content to ignore German warnings of unrestricted submarine warfare. Captain Turner, her master, did not enforce lifebelt and lifeboat drills for fear of passenger alarm and resistance.
Meanwhile, the German submarine U-20 was cruising the waters off southern Ireland through which the Lusitania was to pass. On May 6, Captain Turner was warned by the Admiralty of possible submarine attack. He passed the warning to his passengers and, following another on May 7, altered course. Unknowingly, he steered directly towards U-20. It was a clear day.
At 2.10 pm, U-20 fired a single torpedo which struck the Lusitania's forward hull, disabling engines and steering. Four minutes later electric power failed. The ship's momentum meant that she was taking on water at over 1,200 tons a minute, with Captain Turner unable to slow or turn her. She quickly developed a steep list to starboard, causing most port lifeboats to swing too far in to be launched - some of them crushing passengers - and most starboard boats to swing too far out to be boarded.
Many of the crew were trapped below deck. Of the passengers who managed to don lifebelts, many fitted them incorrectly and drowned. A clergyman's bride and a policeman were sucked into the huge funnels as they filled with water, only to be blown out seconds later, near-naked, when the boilers or steam-lines exploded. They survived, but 785 of the 1,257 passengers did not; neither did 413 of the 702 crew, 94 of the 129 children or 34 of the 39 babies.
Survivors reported a "long, lingering moan" from the doomed as the ship went down, rising to "a mighty crescendo of screams" which died away to a whisper as the waters closed over her. It took 18 minutes.
While researching this book, Diana Preston was persuaded by her husband to stand up to her waist in the sea off the Irish coast nearest the point of sinking, at the same time of year. The numbing coldness of even that limited exposure brought home to her something of what it was like for those passengers and strengthened her imaginative apprehension of her subject. It also illustrates the thoroughness of her approach.
The result - drawing on survivors' statements, official enquiries, earlier histories and more recent archive material - must be the most comprehensive and accessible account of the sinking there has been, or perhaps will be.
The horror of the ever more tilted deck, awash with the blood of the injured, the plight of those trapped below and the callous lottery of survival for those in the water are effectively and factually evoked. As always, it is the fate of children and infants that is hardest to contemplate, whether reading of them lost in the panic on the ship, or drowning in their mothers' arms, or of their bodies floating and turning gently around the lifeboats, faces down, according to one survivor "like lily-pads on a pond".
After the sinking, which significantly influenced America's attitude to the war and her later entry into it, the governments of Britain, Germany and America struggled for propaganda advantage: was there a second explosion caused by undeclared munitions concealed aboard, as the Germans claimed, or was it a second torpedo? Why was there no Royal Navy escort - did the British secretly permit the Lusitania to be sunk so that they could present the Germans in a bad light?
Sensibly, Preston acknowledges that there is no basis for most such allegations, finding more cock-up than conspiracy. But you sense that she - or perhaps her publisher? - would really have preferred it otherwise. This conspiracy-hunger sometimes leads to unwarranted assumptions, such as her supposition that MI6's refusal to release files on the subject means that something is being held back. (MI6 doesn't release its files but, if it's any help, I don't recall the Lusitania featuring in any I examined when researching the biography of its founder.)
Nor is it really the case that the sinking introduced a new barbarism into warfare, as Preston claims. Granted, it made a difference in that war at that time - as did the Germans' first use of gas, and their massacre of Belgian civilians - but, sadly, the slaughter of innocents has long been a feature of war, and still is. The real difference this disaster made, as Preston rightly points out, is that the outrage it provoked weakened German resolve to continue unrestricted submarine warfare. If that had not happened, the war could have turned out very differently. The innocents aboard the Lusitania did not die wholly in vain.
· Alan Judd is the author of 'The Quest for C: Mansfield Cunningham and the Founding of the Secret Service' (HarperCollins).
REMEMBER THE LUSITANIA
by JOHN UPDIKE
Two new books reëxamine the disaster.
The sinking of the Cunard liner Lusitania, on May 7, 1915, will always play second fiddle, in the ensemble of maritime disasters, to that of White Star's Titanic, a little more than three years earlier. Of the two glamorous great ships, the Lusitania was the smaller by nearly a hundred feet of length and sixteen thousand gross tons; it had been in service for eight years and for exactly one hundred North Atlantic crossings before being torpedoed by a German Unterseeboot off the southern coast of Ireland, while the "unsinkable" Titanic, of course, epitomized human fallibility by rubbing up against an easily avoidable iceberg on its maiden voyage. Yet the scale of the Lusitania disaster, in terms of squandered treasure and lost life, was scarcely smaller—1,198 of the 1,962 on board died, as opposed to the Titanic's 1,523 out of 2,228—and its international repercussions were much graver. The ship had sailed from New York, and a hundred and twenty-eight Americans, many of them women and children, died of drowning, injuries, or hypothermia in its sinking. While the national indignation was not enough to pull the United States and the Wilson Administration into a declaration of war against Germany, when the declaration did come, in April of 1917, recruitment posters urged "Remember the Lusitania!" One poster simply showed a woman submerged in blue-green water with a baby clasped in her arms, above the single blood-red word "Enlist."
Not one but two books have recently joined the ranks of those already devoted to the disaster, its puzzles and its consequences. "Lusitania: Saga and Myth" (Norton; $29.95) was first published, last year, in England; its author, David Ramsay, a native Englishman transplanted to California, states in his acknowledgments that "the saga of the liner Lusitania has intrigued me for many years in the same way that others have been fascinated by the drama of the maiden voyage of Titanic." Conversations with, among others, a former director of Cunard persuaded him that "the liner's history and the reasons behind her sinking had never been adequately told." His purpose has been "to examine and rebut the many myths of Lusitania," and his book has something of the close argumentation and carefully prepared ground of a legal proceeding, so that the disaster almost seems a mere prelude to its aftermath of hearings and evasive governmental maneuvers.
Diana Preston, an English writer of popular history whose previous books include "The Boxer Rebellion" and "The Road to Culloden Moor," has produced "Lusitania: An Epic Tragedy" (Walker; $28). Her creative impetus dates back to when she saw, outside the Merseyside Maritime Museum, one of the ship's recovered bronze propellers, "stark and huge as a dinosaur bone," and when she first examined the "yellowing, cracking photographs of the dead" to be found in the Cunard Company archives, at the University of Liverpool. Her telling excels in its reconstruction of the sailing and of the fatal day when, in eighteen chaotic minutes, the Lusitania took its hit, listed, and sank. Preston, sifting the wealth of survivor interviews and court testimony, has a sharp eye for the animating, poignant touch. Once the human drama of the disaster subsides, she deals with the subsequent "myths" and disputes in a relatively cursory fashion. Ramsay, whose direct description of the wreck concludes a third of the way through his book, quotes extensively from the two hearings—the inquiry under Lord Mersey, in June of 1915, in London, and the trial for compensatory damages brought by American plaintiffs and tried under Judge Julius Mayer, in New York City, in April of 1918—and sets about debunking the numerous rumors and conspiracy theories of the time as vigorously and systematically as if they were current gossip. "Flogging a dead horse" was a non-nautical phrase that occurred to me during his thorough rehash. It must vex both authors that their ably written, devotedly researched volumes, so long in the making, should appear at the same time (and in the same year, for that matter, in which Günter Grass has published, overseas, a novel on the Baltic sinking of the German ocean liner Wilhelm Gustloff, in January of 1945, by a Russian submarine, with the immense human toll of 9,343 dead). Of the Lusitania books, Preston's is the longer and, not only in its human particulars but in a certain nervy sweep to its conclusions, livelier; it is apt to be the more widely read, though I can picture maritime buffs happily settling, with their pipes and braided caps, to Ramsay's seamanlike knots.
Questions surrounded the Lusitania's sinking. Why did the British Admiralty, which in the wartime emergency had ultimate control over Cunard liners, provide no escort in the Irish channel, though it was well aware, through broken codes, of U-boat activity? Was the Lusitania's Captain Will Turner, who had recently taken command of the liner, remiss in following Admiralty precautions, notably its advocacy of zigzagging as a submarine-eluding maneuver? Was the ship carrying undeclared war munitions that exploded when the torpedo hit? If not, what did cause a second explosion, observed not only by passengers and crew but, through his periscope, by the captain of U-20, the intrepid and efficient Walther Schweiger? To what extent was Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty, distracted from his duties in the U-boat war by his cherished, though ill-advised, campaign to seize the Dardanelles? He was off in Paris, concluding an agreement on the use of the Italian Navy in the Mediterranean, when the Lusitania sank, and the once redoubtable John Arbuthnot (Jackie) Fisher, who had been brought from retirement to serve as First Sea Lord when Prince Louis of Battenberg was xenophobically driven from the post, appeared past his prime, if not somewhat demented. Churchill's commitment to the safety of noncombatant shipping was less than keen: three months before the Lusitania sinking, he wrote to the president of the English Board of Trade that it was "most important to attract neutral shipping to our shores, in the hope especially of embroiling the U.S.A. with Germany. . . . For our part, we want the traffic—the more the better and if some of it gets into trouble, better still." This pro-trouble position reappears in a 1937 pronouncement in News of the World:
In spite of all its horror, we must regard the sinking of the Lusitania as an event most important and favourable to the Allies. . . . The poor babies who perished in the ocean struck a blow at German power more deadly than could have been achieved by the sacrifice of a hundred thousand fighting men.
So, just as revisionist theories propose that Roosevelt lured the Japanese into attacking Pearl Harbor so that the United States would be brought into the war against the Axis, the Lusitania was possibly set up to be sunk. Certainly it was left to take its chances, with a new captain on board.
Captain Turner, a crusty salt of limited sociability, is presented more sympathetically by Ramsay than by Preston. Preston reports him saying, at the moment of his rescue from the wreck where more than a thousand had perished, "What bad luck. . . . What have I done to deserve this?" Ashore in Queenstown (now Cobh), he remarked, with rather unbecoming detachment, "Well, it is the fortune of war." Ramsay, who provides vivid portraits of the warring strong personalities within the Admiralty, shows them as initially determined to put the blame on Turner. The report of the canny officer responsible for liaison with merchant shipping, Captain Richard Webb, stated that "the Master . . . proceeded . . . at a speed three-quarters of what he was able to get out of his vessel. He thus kept his valuable vessel for an unnecessary length of time in the area where she was most liable to attack, inviting disaster." First Sea Lord Fisher explosively annotated this report, "As the Cunard company would not have employed an incompetent man, the certainty is absolute that Captain Turner is not a fool but a knave. I feel absolutely certain that Turner is a scoundrel and [has] been bribed. . . . I hope that Captain Turner will be arrested immediately after the inquiry, whatever the verdict." Churchill, who did not return from Paris until three days after the sinking, was more politic, announcing in the House of Commons that Turner should not be prematurely blamed, but he privately confided, "We should pursue the Captain without check."
Turner, however, proved not easy to blame; at the June, 1915, hearing headed by Lord Mersey, he made a gruff, monosyllabic witness but was skillfully represented as "an old-fashioned sailor man" by Cunard lawyers. His most debatable action prior to the torpedo strike was taking a "four-point bearing" from Irish headlands to fix his position, which involved maintaining his direction and a moderate speed of eighteen knots for forty minutes. As it happened, this methodical maneuver headed the Lusitania right toward the enemy U-boat; Captain Schweiger later told a friend, "She could not have steered a more perfect course if she had deliberately tried to give us a dead shot." Schweiger had sighted the liner before the course change and concluded that "I had no hope now, even if we hurried at our best speed, of getting near enough to attack her." A liner's best defense against a submarine was always its superior speed—over twenty knots against the nine a sub could make underwater. But Turner could not know the exact position of the submerged enemy, and his maneuver was defensible, even though one captain testified, at the liability trial held in New York in 1918 under Judge Mayer, that a four-point bearing was unnecessary.
In the sharp light of hindsight, Turner might have held more boat drills, and made sure that the supplemental, collapsible lifeboats were better maintained (a number were hopelessly rusty, and painted fast to the deck), and been stricter about open portholes; but the quickness with which the boat sank, and the severe list that made lowering both port and starboard boats difficult, and the damage that instantly rendered the great ship impossible to steer and even to halt in the water, and the diminished quality of the crew in this time of wartime conscription, and the dreadful fact that many crewmen were trapped belowdecks by the failure of the electric elevators, all contributed to a disaster beyond the captain's control. Both hearings cleared Cunard of negligence, and the American plaintiffs were advised to seek restitution from imperial Germany. Turner went on to command other boats and, indeed, was torpedoed once again, and again survived, retiring in 1919 to a village near Dartmoor. There journalists so harassed him that he returned to Liverpool, dying in seclusion at the age of seventy-six. He found the Lusitania, not surprisingly, a painful subject to discuss. Toward his end, he was heard to complain that he had never received Admiralty instructions to zigzag and had been denied "a fair deal."
"The poor babies"—they became the symbol of the ambushed ship. "There were in fact an unusually large number of children on board," Preston says—fifty-one boys, thirty-nine girls, and thirty-nine infants. They had been, a passenger recalled, "the life and charm of the voyage." Of the hundred and twenty-nine, ninety-four died, including thirty-five of the babies. Drawing upon tearjerking contemporary accounts, Preston makes sickeningly real the confusion and terror of the wreck and its aftermath in the fifty-two-degree North Atlantic. In the flooding corridors and cabins, on the heeling decks, children lost track of their parents and siblings; infants were handed to strangers and tossed into lifeboats. Desperate attempts were made to keep them alive in the ocean, though the young were especially vulnerable to hypothermia; babies were hoisted onto wreckage and even onto a bobbing steamer chair, and a survivor reported seeing "a man pathetically pushing a dying child along on a folded life jacket." Mothers struggled for hours in the water to hold up their infants only to discover, when lifted into lifeboats, that the children were already dead. A witness reported:
Just as we got her to the raft . . . her baby girl closed its tiny eyes in her arms. Almost overcome with exhaustion the mother caught hold of the side of our boat, the lifeless mite still close to her heart, and when we got her into the boat she could hardly speak. . . . Then, lifting the little one in her arms, she turned to those in the boat, and, in a tearful voice simply said, "Let me bury my baby." Within a few seconds the almost naked body of the child floated peacefully on the sea.
One survivor recalled "the bodies of infants laid in life jackets, and floating around with their dead innocent faces looking towards the sky." There were so many that as he swam he pushed them aside "like lily pads on a pond."
Among many false reports of German atrocities—rapes and crucifixions in Belgium that did not, amid much actual brutality, occur—this was the real thing, irrefutable proof of German "frightfulness," to use a favorite word of Allied headline writers. Preston's conclusion is that the sinking of the Lusitania did Germany "far more harm than good." The autocratic German authorities, "wrapped up in a sense of grievance," kept handing propaganda victories to their foes. Kaiser Wilhelm II, Queen Victoria's eldest grandchild, was weakened in his belligerence by admiration of the English, distrust of his fiercest military advisers, and recoil from the global outcry. He was "shocked by the extent to which he was being demonized." Yet he himself had bestowed the epithet "Hun" upon his tribe:
In a notorious speech to German troops departing for China in 1900, he had urged them to "give no quarter! Take no prisoners! . . . Even as, a thousand years ago, the Huns under their leader Attila gained such a name for themselves as still resounds in terror . . . so may the name of Germany resound!"
Captain Schweiger's feat—downing a seven-deck liner with a single torpedo—was hailed by the German press, but the Kaiser and the diplomats seeking to keep America neutral were less pleased. Schweiger was ordered to report to Berlin, where, according to Admiral Tirpitz, the foremost advocate of unrestricted submarine warfare, he was "treated very ungraciously." The captain's diary account of the torpedoing was doctored to include humane scruples and to heighten suggestions of British incompetence; this "official" version was never signed by Schweiger. He went to his own watery death in 1917, while commanding another submarine, having lost the U-20 on the Danish coast. After the war, his fiancée told an interviewer that, when he visited her in the period following the Lusitania's sinking, he was "haggard and so silent and so different"; before his death, he wrote a comrade of his that he longed for the end of "this very sad time."
Faint heart never won fair lady or victory in war, Preston assures us: "Germany's great mistake, having sunk the Lusitania, was to edge slowly away from unrestricted submarine warfare." Only a ruthless exploitation of its submarine advantage, she says, might have produced, after the bloody stalemates of Verdun and the Somme, a brokered peace. By 1917, when the Kaiser's qualms had been dismissed, it was too late. In an extraordinary wartime communication, the erratic Admiral Fisher, now relieved of First Sea Lord duties, wrote Admiral Tirpitz, who had been forced by imperial doves to resign in 1916, a chummy letter beginning "Dear Old Tirps" and ending:
Cheer up, old chap! Say "Resurgam"! You're the one German sailor who understands War! Kill your enemy without being killed yourself. I don't blame you for the submarine business, I'd have done the same myself.
Preston asserts, "A quarter century later, all nations practiced unrestricted submarine warfare." The old Cruiser Rules, which called for a sub to sink a merchant ship only after stopping her and allowing the crew to disembark, were as dead as the protocols of medieval chivalry. The distinction between civilian innocents and combatants who are fair game for annihilation vanishes as war becomes a contest between the entire resources of nations. In the same spring the Lusitania was sunk, Germany introduced poison gas into the Western front and with a solitary zeppelin launched the first air raid on the civilian population of London. These events, according to Preston, "were signposts on the path to Guernica, Hiroshima, and beyond. . . . The new barbarism of total war had begun."
Yet poison gas, one wants to protest, was not used again, between armies, in any European war, and since Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic weapons have never, through a host of armed conflicts, been employed. Humankind does try to avoid repeating its atrocities. As civilization struggles to subdue our innate barbarism, signal disasters have their uses, as boundary markers on the outer limits of the possible; they make us grateful to be on the relatively safe side of them. They argue for the high value of ordinary existence, with its mixed motives and resistance to simplification. It is useful to see Woodrow Wilson, like the Kaiser on his side, entertain ambivalence and doubts. As a Southerner, Wilson dreaded war and its ruinous aftermath; as a devout Presbyterian, he could be rigid in his righteousness; as a widower, he was susceptible to romance, and was distracted at the height of the Lusitania crisis by his courtship of Edith Mary Galt. We are surprised to learn that William Jennings Bryan, now best remembered as the blustering butt of the Scopes trial in 1925, took, as Wilson's Secretary of State, what might now be called a liberal and fair-minded stand against jingoist warmongering and the steep pro-British tilt of American neutrality.
Diana Preston's panorama of the "epic tragedy" of the Lusitania is enlarged by her picture of bustling life aboard the liner before it sank, and by her following pages on the hard, wet, crowded, dangerous existence within a German submarine, where a man off duty was expected to sleep in order to conserve the common oxygen. Her eye for the piquant detail generates a glittering web of trivia. We learn of Admiral Lord Charles Beresford, "He was rumored to have been the lover of the murdered Empress Elizabeth of Austria. He shared her passion for riding to hounds, surpassing it to the extent of having a hunting scene tattooed across his buttocks with the fox disappearing into the cleft." We are told that Jennie Jerome, Churchill's American mother, "discreetly took lovers" and was a neglectful mother until her son showed signs of journalistic prowess. We learn that one proposed British stratagem for combatting submarines was to train seagulls to defecate on the periscopes. During the Lusitania's sea trials, not only was there excessive vibration but steam escaped from the third-class drinking fountains. Under way, the liner consumed a thousand tons of coal a day. Its firemen worked in shifts of twenty-one minutes. Second-class passage for its last voyage had been reduced from seventy to fifty dollars. Card sharks plied the great passenger liners, back and forth.
The reader's heart races, the ship moving toward its doom is so laden with the stuff of life. Preston compulsively notes gaudy costumes in her large cast of characters: the codebreaker Sir Alfred Ewing had "a predilection for mauve shirts and dark blue bow ties with white polka dots"; the lawyer Sir Frederick E. Smith was "tall and vain" and "habitually wore a red flower in his buttonhole"; a grand-jury witness, Gustav Stahl, appeared "wearing his finest clothes—a dark suit, new straw hat, green tie with a stickpin bearing a porcelain dog's head, polished tan shoes, and lavender socks with scarlet-embroidered flowers." Such details pertain, we can say, to the great denuding that a luxury vessel occasions when it sinks—though in fact those passengers who tore off their clothes did worse in the cold water than those who stayed dressed. Bodies damaged beyond recognition, by the sea and its fish, were sometimes tagged with small scraps of fabric snipped from their clothes, for identification. So nothing is irrelevant, and Preston's farraginous method shapes a fitting monument to a multitudinous loss. One lays down these two volumes, which utilize all the yellowing records as well as the fresh data gleanable from underwater dives and German archives, trusting that they will be, well into this century, the last word.
July 12, 2002, 11:43AM
Diana Preston turns attention to Lusitania's sinking
By CHRIS PATSILELIS
An Epic Tragedy.
By Diana Preston.
Walker, $28; 528
ON May 7, 1915, toward the end of her 101st trans-Atlantic crossing from New York to Liverpool, England, the 30,000-ton Cunard liner RMS Lusitania was struck by a torpedo fired from a German submarine 12 miles off the southern coast of Ireland.
The Lusitania, one of the grandest of luxury liners, sank in 18 minutes with the loss of 1,198 lives -- more than half of those aboard. Because 124 Americans died, the tragedy was a major reason the United States eventually entered World War I against Germany.
Diana Preston, author of A First Rate Tragedy: Robert Falcon Scott and the Race to the South Pole (1998) and The Boxer Rebellion (2000), has written a fascinating and vividly detailed story of this major maritime catastrophe.
Drawing upon memoirs, letters and interviews with survivors, plus newly accessible American and British Admiralty archives and German documents, Preston not only carefully reconstructs the disaster but also gives a concise picture of the political/military context in which the event took place.
Preston informs us, for instance, that while much of the world looked upon the torpedoing of the Lusitania as an act of coldblooded murder, technically -- legally -- Germany was in the right. Because England was enforcing a naval blockade preventing food from entering Germany, the latter country had, in February 1915, declared "unrestricted submarine warfare" in most of the waters surrounding Great Britain.
All enemy ships, Germany announced, "would be destroyed even if it is not possible to avoid thereby the danger which threatens the crews and passengers."
The author also points out that the passengers and crew of the Lusitania were, for the most part, aware of the jeopardy involved in sailing into the war zone. The German Embassy in the United States had published a clear warning in the morning newspapers and along Manhattan's pier May 1, 1915, the day of the Lusitania's departure. It read: "Notice! Travelers intending to embark on the Atlantic voyage ... sailing in the war zone on ships of Great Britain or her allies do so at their own risk."
Preston goes into loving detail in describing the ornate quarters and the gracious dining facilities of one of the most luxurious ocean liners ever built. She also paints short biographical portraits of some of the celebrities aboard, including Newport, R.I., millionaire Alfred Vanderbilt and Elbert Hubbard, a best-selling American novelist.
But that gay, high-living world abruptly ended when German Capt. Walther Schwieger, commander of U-20, ordered a torpedo fired at the Lusitania at 2:10 p.m.
The firsthand descriptions are truly horrifying and heartbreaking. We read of the initial blast and a subsequent one (a boiler? ammunition?); of heavy lifeboats falling and crashing onto people already in the water; of improperly worn life jackets forcing their wearers' heads underwater; of passengers crammed in powerless elevators "hammering and screaming ... futilely beating on the elegant metal grilles" as the water rises.
And there are the descriptions of the hundreds of people floating in the numbing 52-degree water desperately struggling to stay alive, a number of them savagely fighting each other for floating debris.
Passenger Doris Lawlor wrote that the dead and drowning were "dotting the sea like seagulls." She saw "a person who had died in the water and another person sitting on top of that person trying to survive." Michael Byrne was horrified by "the bodies of infants laid in life jackets and floating around with their dead innocent faces looking towards the sky."
Preston tells us that at the British Admiralty's inquiry the Lusitania's captain, William Thomas Turner, was accused of not keeping his ship as far from the Irish coast as he had been ordered, of not using prescribed zigzag maneuvers and of maintaining a speed too slow to outrun a U-boat.
While England and the United States as well as other parts of the civilized world considered the sinking "willful and wholesale murder" (in the words of John J. Horgan, coroner of Ireland's County Kinsale), Germany accused England of transporting ammunition (true) and troops (untrue) on the Lusitania and of using "unsuspecting passengers" as "mere human shields," Preston writes.
The author also does a good job in detailing the larger political picture in which the Lusitania disaster fits. She concisely describes the strained political posturings of President Woodrow Wilson, Secretary of State William Jennings Bryan and the young Winston Churchill, Britain's first lord of the admiralty, that eventually brought the United States into World War I as Britain's ally.
In this magnificent, sprawling chronicle of politics, maritime disaster and heart-rending personal suffering, Preston has shown us how the present age of total war began, the kind of war that has no regard for the enemy's "age, sex, and whether or not they were combatants."
Chris Patsilelis is a reviewer in Hamden, Conn.