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Tuesday, April 05, 2016

Review: Dead Wake by Erik Larsen

Wonderfully told story of the last voyage of the liner Lusitania. It’s no spoiler to reveal that its sinking had profound political effects, especially in the United States. 126 of the passengers killed were Americans.

The ship itself was quite a story. It was a series of hyperboles. It burned 140 tons of coal per day while in port, standing still, just to keep the dynamos going. While at sea it burned 1600 tons per day. This required over 100 stokers per shift to feed the furnaces that kept the boilers going. Coal dust was a ubiquitous problem. “The dust posed its own hazard. In certain concentrations it was highly explosive and raised the possibility of a cataclysm within the ship’s hull. Cunard barred crew members from bringing their own matches on board and provided them instead with safety matches, which ignited only when scraped against a chemically treated surface on the outside of the box. Anyone caught bringing his own matches aboard was to be reported to Captain Turner.”

Captain Turner did not fit the usual Cunard captain mold. He would sooner “bathe in bilge” than interact with passengers whom he described as “a load of bloody monkeys who are constantly chattering.” He preferred dining in his quarters to holding court at the captain’s table in the first-class dining room.

The sinking of the Titanic had had a profound effect on the shipping industry resulting in “boat fever.” More than enough lifeboats were available and Cunard was anxious to protect its sterling reputation of never having lost a passenger due to its own negligence. First- and second-class passengers were issued a new kind of life jacket; third-class continued to be issued the older, cork-filled type. They were to need them.

The United States was still neutral in 1915 but the Germans warned passengers in newspaper ads that they suspected the British ships were carrying munitions and that the passengers were putting themselves in harm’s way by sailing on British ships. (Documents discovered many years later showed it to be true that the Lusitania was carrying munitions.)

That the submarine U-20 was even in the vicinity was accidental. The ship was traveling slower than usual to save coal, running on only three boilers instead of four, Captain Turner was also trying to adjust his speed to arrive at the bar outside Liverpool at high tide to facilitate entry into the harbor, port holes being left open because of the nice weather, the fog lifted leaving a glassy sea and perfect visibility for the Lusitania to be spotted. Everything seemed to be conspiring against her. And we were deprived of some Thackeray drawings. (Readers of the book will learn about that.)
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