In April, 1915 the German Embassy placed an ad on the shipping pages of various newspapers, warning that all those who crossed the ocean on ships bearing the flag of Great Britain would “do so at their own risk.” Yet passengers aboard the British Lusitania, which was then the fastest cruise ship in the world, were more concerned with teatime and shuffleboard. The United States had not yet entered World War I when the ship left the New York harbor, bound for Liverpool. Days later, when it was torpedoed and sunk by a German U-boat, causing the deaths of 1,198 civilians (including 128 Americans), public opinion shifted. Shortly thereafter, America entered the war.
In his latest book, Erik Larson (Devil in the White City, In the Garden of Beasts) tells the story of this great tragedy. A skillful reporter and admirable storyteller, Larson crafts the tale of two captains: 58-year-old Englishman William Thomas Turner of the Lusitania and 32-year-old Walther Schwieger, commander of the Unterseeboot-20 (dubbed the “iron coffin.”) The former is seasoned, curt, and fearless. The latter is aggressive, but kindly (he nurtured a litter of dachshund puppies on board his U-boat) who said of the damage he had inflicted on the Lusitania, “It was the most terrible sight I have ever seen.”
Drawing upon telegrams, war logs, love letters, and survivor depositions, Larson recreates the Lusitania’s majesty—its dining room adorned with frescoes of cherubs; its guests feasting on celery-fed duckling. Sadly, the ornate ship became a gilded coffin. One hundred years later, it still lies at the bottom of the ocean off the coast of Ireland. And yet, in this gripping, 448-page read, it rises once again to command the seas and recreate its final voyage.
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