From the Jewish library: ‘Dead Wake’

Dead Wake:  The Last Crossing of the RMS Lusitania by Erik Larson, Crown Publishers, 2015

By Sheila Orysiek

Sheila Orysiek

Sheila Orysiek

SAN DIEGO — When Cunard liner RMS Lusitania sailed on May 1, 1915, from New York City to Liverpool, she was the largest and fastest steam passenger ship afloat.  Many lessons had been learned from the sinking of the Titanic three years previously.  Unlike the Titanic, the Lusitania carried enough life boats for the full complement of 1,960 souls aboard: passengers, crew and three stowaways.  Other improvements such as in communications had been made.  However, none of this could overcome human perfidy; the Lusitania was a non-combatant passenger liner and it was deliberately targeted and without warning torpedoed by a German U-boat.

As in most major tragedies of this kind there were anomalies, coincidences, and unanswered questions.

World War 1 was raging in Europe and German submarines were busy sinking commercial sea traffic that fed, clothed and armed the British military.  The German embassy in New York placed an ad in a newspaper warning that sailing on a British ship was dangerous but few passengers saw the ad and of those that did few thought that included a passenger liner.

Cunard’s answer to any question of danger from a U-boat was that the Lusitania was much too fast for a sub to catch.   The Lusitania was indeed much too fast for a sub to catch but in order to save fuel Cunard ran the ship using only three of its four funnels of steam power.  So, though the ship was still too fast for a sub – it was not as fast as it could be.

Cunard also said that the ship was too large and well built to be sunk by torpedoes.  However, fate placed the U-boat at exactly the correct angle and the Lusitania was doomed by a single torpedo – going down in twenty minutes.

It was expected that when the ship approached British waters it would be escorted by naval vessels as were most commercial ships in that area.  To everyone’s surprise, no naval vessels appeared to escort the liner.

Several unforeseen circumstances – two delays in sailing, a tidal consideration in having to cross the sand bar at the entrance to Liverpool and the weather, placed the huge liner exactly where it was most at risk.  The U-boat which attacked it was going home after a disappointing patrol and only because of a sudden clearing of fog saw the Lusitania at all.

The sub’s commander was known to be zealous and aggressive with no compunction against attacking a passenger ship without warning.  Shortly after the Lusitania went down he was trying to line up a shot at another – though smaller – passenger ship. British intelligence was aware of him and had been tracking the sub for some time.

As usual, conspiracy theories abounded:

Was the liner deliberately unescorted so that it would be attacked and thus bring the United States into the war?  (Two years later the US declared war on Germany)

Did a secondary explosion indicate the ship was also carrying armaments or was it a boiler blowing up?

The crew was exercised at life boat drill but the passengers never were – why?

Erik Larson writes a compelling book dexterously weaving through it vignettes of the passengers – often using their own words when available.  Also of interest is a terrific description of the operation of a submarine one hundred years ago;  periscopes that were hand cranked,  water streaming in from the seams, lack of air conditioning, abysmal living conditions aboard, the crew having to run forward and aft so their weight would aid in submerging or surfacing.  And, because there was no sonar – the boat ran “blind” when submerged.

Of the 1,960 people on board the Lusitania, 1,197 died – 124 of them American citizens.  The deaths included 94 children of whom 31 were infants.

More information can be found at the links below including a listing (as far as is known) of passengers who were Jewish.

Lusitania website:

Lusitania:  list of Jewish passengers –

Orysiek is a freelance writer who specializes in the arts and literature.  She may be contacted via [email protected]. Comments intended for publication in the space below must be accompanied by the letter writer’s first and last name and by his/ her city and state of residence (city and country for those outside the U.S.)


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