Book Summary and Analysis |

History, Philosophy, Politics and Society



A Summary and Critique of

Erik Larson’s

Dead Wake

The Last Crossing of the Lusitania

by I.K. Mullins

Copyright©2015 I.K. Mullins. All Rights Reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or retransmitted in any form or by any means without the written permission of the author.

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The final voyage of the Lusitania made many people wonder about what really happened to the ship. In the years that followed her destruction, some valid questions have been raised: Had the Lusitania been permitted to sail into a deadly trap? Why didn’t the British Admiralty provide a military escort? What caused the second explosion inside the ship? Was the Lusitania carrying war munitions that exploded? Why was a British vessel sent to rescue the dying victims from the Lusitania and then abruptly ordered to return back to port? Did Winston Churchill engineer a conspiracy that doomed the ship? After all, when Churchill later referred to the victims of the sinking of Lusitania, he said, “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.”

Larson points out the convolution of international relations that led to the Lusitania’s tragic end. He describes the merciless actions of the Germans and the scheming of the British Admiralty, which was headed by Winston Churchill. Larson tells the reader that a top-secret British intelligence unit had cracked German codes and was tracing the German U-boat. Furthermore, in spite of the fact that the British knew the whereabouts of the German submarine, they did not make any attempt to save the Lusitania.

The lack of action by the British government to ensure the safe passage of the ship were criminal. Indeed, the Lusitania never should have been on its own, without naval escort, considering that the Germans had made a public threat directed at all British ships. When it comes to the sinking of the Lusitania, the intentions of Winston Churchill, the top official of the British Navy, were just as important as the intentions of the Germans. In Churchill’s mind, it was important to involve the US in the war. Consequently, with all his knowledge of the threat posed by the German submarines, Churchill wrote, “For our part, we want the traffic — the more the better; and if some of it gets into trouble, better still.”

Larson’s Dead Wake is not the only book dedicated to the Lusitania. Greg King and Penny Wilson’s Lusitania: Triumph, Tragedy, and the End of the Edwardian Age is another literary work describing the ship’s last voyage. King and Wilson’s book goes into greater detail describing the ship’s construction and history, as well as presenting the personal stories of those passengers who traveled First Class on the Lusitania’s last voyage. While Larson’s Dead Wake also describes the building of the Lusitania and its grandeur, Larson pays greater attention to the social and geopolitical context of the tragic destruction of the ship, as well as its impact on World War I.

According to Larson’s research, the Germans would have to sink a few more ships in order to make the US declare war against Germany. Moreover, when President Woodrow Wilson addressed Congress asking for a declaration of war against Germany, he did not mention the Lusitania.  Larson discusses in his book how President Woodrow Wilson followed a policy of neutrality for as long as he could, and how he was dealing with grief over the death of his first wife and then falling in love with the woman whom he later married. Whereas Larson’s book tells the reader about the life of President Wilson, it does not provide sufficient discussion of the real reasons why the US delayed entering war.

Overall, Larson acknowledges but does not endorse the speculation that British officials wanted Germany to sink a ship with American passengers in order to bring the US into the war. This is because his research did not find any documents that would confirm with certainty that the British Admiralty deliberately failed to protect the Lusitania. Nevertheless, Larson cannot dismiss the fact the British Admiralty did leave the ship unprotected, without military escort and without any effective warning. Based on these facts one can only speculate about any conspiracy involved in this case.

Larson is not the first researcher who has discussed the possibility of such a conspiracy. Patrick Beesly, a British writer who was also a British intelligence officer during World War II, investigated the same topic in his book, Room 40: British Naval Intelligence 191418, that was published in 1982. The American edition of Beesly’s book is different from its first edition published in the UK. That is, Beesly modified the book in presenting his views of the sinking of the Lusitania and making a conclusion that a conspiracy led to the tragedy (Chapter Seven, “Lusitania: Foul-up or Conspiracy?”).

Beesly researched numerous files pertaining to the sinking of the Lusitania (these files were released to the Public Record Office after 1976). Yet the British government continues to withhold pertinent records from public view. Beesly wrote,

The very unsatisfactory nature of the official enquiry held in June 1915 and the refusal then, and for the next sixty-six years, of the British authorities to disclose all the information in their possession, has only succeeded in fueling suspicions.

Beesly’s research revealed that Room 40 was aware of the fact that a German submarine was in the area where the Lusitania was about to sail. He points out that the Lusitania was carrying a supply of munitions that were stored below the bridge and close to the boiler rooms. Beesly proposed that their location matched the point where the torpedo fired by the U-20 struck the ship, causing the second explosion that destroyed the Lusitania.

Beesly further argued that the British failed to divert the Lusitania to a safer route or to provide an escort even though they knew that the German U-boat was raiding the area where the Lusitania was going to be sailing. In the early 1980s, using the collected evidence, Beesly half-heartedly made the conclusion that there was a conspiracy to put the Lusitania at risk in order to bring the US into the war; and that Winston Churchill approved this conspiracy.

Beesly’s research agrees with that of Colin Simpson, a British journalist, whose book, The Lusitania, was published in 1972. An excerpt from his book was published in the US in Life magazine, drawing public attention to the incident. In his book, Simpson proposed that the Lusitania had been carrying a large load of munitions and that the Admiralty and First Lord Winston Churchill deliberately allowed the Lusitania to sail unprotected toward its encounter with the German U-boat with the hope that the ship’s destruction would encourage the US to declare war against Germany.

In 2008, Sam Greenhill reported in his article, “Secret of the Lusitania: Arms find challenges Allied claims it was solely a passenger ship,” that Gregg Bemis, an American businessman who was the owner of the rights to the shipwreck at that time, funded its exploration. As experienced divers examined the wreck, they found ammunition in the wreck. The diving team estimated that about four million rounds of U.S.-manufactured Remington .303 bullets remained in the Lusitania’s hold. Gregg Bemis said, ‘Those four million rounds of .303s were not just some private hunter’s stash. ‘Now that we’ve found it, the British can’t deny any more that there was ammunition on board.” If this finding is correct, then Britain intentionally disregarded warnings and International Law, smuggling war items on a passenger ship.

When it comes to Larson’s Dead Wake, it is tempting to conclude from his book that the Lusitania sank due to pure luck (or the lack of it). For example, Larson emphasizes the sequence of unfortunate events that led the Lusitania to its final moments: the ship’s departure from New York was delayed by two hours as she had to wait for the passengers transferring from another ship; the Lusitania traveled at reduced speed as only three of its four boilers were lit in order to save money; the Admiralty did not provide the Lusitania with an escort and did not advise  Captain Turner about a safer route; a heavy fog that was hiding the ship lifted when she came close to the U-20. Also, when the Lusitania turned along the southeastern Irish coast, the captain gave an order to slow down the ship even more because he planned to arrive in Liverpool at the high tide (the ship needed the high tide in order to enter the docks). As a result, the Lusitania turned out to be positioned right in front of the U-boat. What is more, there was a good chance that the torpedo would have missed the ship (according to German estimates, about 60 percent of their torpedo firings missed), but it did not.

However, it is difficult to agree with Larson’s inclination to treat the Lusitania’s tragedy as a matter of chance. After all, Napoleon Bonaparte said, “There is no such thing as accident; it is fate misnamed.” Should the U-20 have missed the Lusitania on May 7, 1915, the submarine could have encountered and destroyed the Lusitania or any other British ship on some other day. The conditions were set for the tragedy to happen, and it was only a matter of time before it would happen.

The important contribution of Larson’s Dead Wake is that it makes certain that the victims of May 7, 1915, are not forgotten as the book vividly tells us the drama of the Lusitania and offers many lessons that we should learn. It reminds us how mercilessly any war takes human lives.


Among the people who died because of the sinking of the Lusitania were 27 infants and many older children. Not all the bodies of people who died in that tragic event were recovered from the ocean. A mass grave near Queenstown, Ireland, became the final resting place for 150.

Today, a bronze angel located atop the monument peacefully looks over Casement Square in Cobh, Ireland. An engraving on the monument says: “To the Memory of All Who Perished by the Sinking of the Lusitania.”


Image 4. Lusitania Peace Memorial, Cobh, Cork, Ireland.


The 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Lusitania makes us pause and reflect on the last hundred years of the history of humankind. At the dawn of the 20th century, when technology was booming and the future seemed bright, people envisioned that soon humans would be colonizing other planets, many incurable deceases would be cured, and the idea of peaceful coexistence of all the nations would become more than just a dream.

Today, we can say that the future turned out to be nothing like what people expected. We are far away from the time when humans will walk on the surface of other planets; many diseases can be cured, but most medical services have become expensive well beyond the reach of the common man; and wars have been endlessly shaking our civilization.

In his article “”War and Peace,” Eric Hobsbawm, a British historian, wrote:

The 20th century was the most murderous in recorded history. The total number of deaths caused by or associated with its wars has been estimated at 187m [187 million], the equivalent of more than 10% of the world’s population in 1913. Taken as having begun in 1914, it was a century of almost unbroken war, with few and brief periods without organized armed conflict somewhere. It was dominated by world wars: that is to say, by wars between territorial states or alliances of states.

What we learn from Larson’s book about the tragedy of the Lusitania might shake us for a while, just like we might feel worried when we read about 187 million people killed in the 20th century. But for how long do we remain distressed by this knowledge before we shrug it off and move on with our daily lives?

Just like in case of the Lusitania, today’s politicians and those who possess the real power decide whether people are going to live or die in various military conflicts. This is partially possible because of the social apathy that can be compared to the bystander effect, which takes place when individuals do not help a victim in an emergency situation as long as other people are present. The greater the number of bystanders, the less likely any one of them will help the victim. Psychologists explain the bystander effect by the diffusion of responsibility (when there are too many people, no one takes steps to address the emergency) and social influence (individuals in a crowd match their behavior with the behavior of those around them).

As long as no one takes real steps to stop wars, we all remain to be bystanders, letting politicians and the wealthy decide when the next Lusitania will happen.



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