On May 1, 1915, the British Admiralty commandeered the passenger ship Cameronia, headed for Liverpool out of New York harbor. Forty-two passengers and crew received the equivalent of a windfall first-class upgrade: they were transferred to the Lusitania. A flagship of the Cunard line, it was huge, modern, fast and glamorous. It carried, among others, the rich playboy Alfred Vanderbilt, who three years earlier had canceled his booking on the Titanic at the last minute.
Six days later, the German U-boat known as U-20 would sink the Lusitania, and of those 42, only 13 would survive. The irony is redoubled by the fact that according to Erik Larson’s new book, Dead Wake, the U-boat would have completely missed the Lusitania in heavy fog if it hadn’t waited two extra hours for the Cameronia.
The Lusitania was both a tragedy–it claimed 1,198 lives in all–and a historical watershed that hastened the U.S.’s entry into World War I, but it’s hard to see exactly why Larson wrote a book about it. His usual modus operandi is to dig up fascinating, obscure cases and resurrect them as gripping narrative history, as he did in The Devil in the White City. But the Lusitania is far from obscure, and Larson doesn’t break much news about it.
Still, he’s a superb storyteller and a relentless research hound–he’s very good on the dubious role of the British intelligence agency known as Room 40, which knew exactly where U-20 was but failed to intervene decisively. Larson also plucks priceless details from memoirs by the survivors, like this very English exchange between two passengers amid the chaos of the dying ship: “I always thought a shipwreck was a well-organized affair.” “So did I, but I’ve learnt a devil of a lot in the last five minutes.” (For an illuminating look at the Lusitania in the context of Germany’s pioneering use of weapons of mass destruction, see Diana Preston’s new book, A Higher Form of Killing.)
Five minutes after the Lusitania sank, U-20 fired on another British ship, an oil tanker, at point-blank range. Inexplicably, the torpedo missed. Such strange ironies and nightmare coincidences cling to the Lusitania like barnacles. Its captain, William Thomas Turner, survived the sinking and died at 76, but the tragedy still wasn’t over. “On Sept. 16, 1941, a Nazi U-boat torpedoed and sank a British ship, the Jedmoor,” Larson writes in his epilogue. “Among the lost was a 55-year-old able seaman named Percy Wilfred Turner–Captain Turner’s youngest son.”
This appears in the April 06, 2015 issue of TIME.