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RMS Lusitania: One minute they were strolling on deck, the next they spotted the torpedo

A new book on the centenary of the loss of the Lusitania off the Irish coast asks if the tragedy could have been avoided

By John Spain

They saw it coming. A lookout first spotted "a burst of foam about 500 yards away", then a track moving across the flat plane of the sea as clear as if drawn "by an invisible hand".

It was just after 2pm, the sun was shining, the sea was like glass, the Irish coast was visible just over 10 miles away and passengers were strolling on deck after lunch.

Some saw the torpedo approach. One noticed "a streak of froth" arcing across the surface towards the ship. Another leaned over the rail to watch what would happen when it hit the side. He described the torpedo as "a beautiful sight", covered with a silvery phosphorescence as it sped through the green water.

A woman asked: "That isn't a torpedo, is it?" The man beside her later said: "I was too spellbound to answer. I felt absolutely sick."

It was surreal. The giant steamer was a few miles off the Old Head of Kinsale, slicing through perfectly calm water on a beautiful afternoon. But, in spite of the feeling of unreality, this was the very thing that everyone on board had feared and joked nervously about since leaving New York five days earlier, on May 1, 1915, bound for Liverpool. What followed was appalling, as the ship went down in just 18 minutes and 1,198 people perished.

Three years earlier, 1,514 people had died when the Titanic hit an iceberg and that tragedy has remained in the public imagination. The sinking of the Lusitania, however, has largely been forgotten.

Yet the story is just as horrific, as shown in this compelling account by New York Times reporter and narrative historian Erik Larson, published to mark the centenary of the sinking next month.

The "Dead Wake" of the title refers to the visible trail of the torpedo on the surface formed by bubbles of compressed air released from the torpedo engine 10 feet below. The bubbles take several seconds to reach the surface, so the wake is 'dead' because by the time it forms, the torpedo is far ahead of it.

That we know the outcome does not lessen the impact of this book, which is as gripping as a thriller. Larson builds the story from several perspectives at the same time, switching between what is going on in different places in short scenes. It is the story mainly of hunter and hunted, the U-boat and the liner.

But it is also the wider story of love-lorn US president, Woodrow Wilson, reluctant to enter the war, and the young Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty, impatient to get America involved.

Early on, we meet some passengers, glamorous types, like multi-millionaire Alfred Vanderbilt, the "Champagne King" George Kessler, and Boston bookseller Charles Lauriat, who was carrying Charles Dickens' own copy (priceless) of A Christmas Carol.

Another was Dublin art collector Sir Hugh Lane with a large case of paintings rumoured to include works by Rubens, Monet and Rembrandt, insured for the equivalent of over $90m today.

They all had ways of rationalising away the danger of wartime travel, despite an American newspaper notice that had appeared beside an ad for the Lusitania's voyage. In the notice, the German government had warned that shipping lanes around Britain were now a war zone and ships were "liable to destruction". U-boats were known to be active in the area.

Yet few passengers early in 1915 believed the Germans would attack a passenger liner. Even if attacked, Lusitania was twice as fast as a submarine and could outrun any danger, they told each other. They also believed a Royal Navy escort would be provided as the Lusitania neared Ireland. Despite all this, nervous chatter about submarines continued throughout the voyage.

Larson explains the coincidences that led to the disaster - why the Lusitania was late leaving New York, why it was sailing parallel to the Irish coast at less than maximum speed, how it accidentally came in range of the submarine, how the fog cleared at the crucial time, why the U-boat was there instead of where it was supposed to be, near Liverpool.

He is very good at describing the complex workings of the steam-driven Lusitania - one of the great "transatlantic greyhounds" - and the limitations of early submarines like the U-20 which sank it.

Details of the converging voyages of the Lusitania and U-20 have a horrible fascination, and the sinking and aftermath are brilliantly described using accounts of survivors, the U-boat captain's log and documents from the two main inquiries into the disaster.

Because of the ship's rapid listing, only six of the 23 lifeboats were successfully launched, many people were crushed by debris and there was no ship close enough to pick up people in time.

As well as telling an absolutely compelling story, Larson deals with the suspicion that, because there was a second powerful blast inside the ship after the torpedo had exploded, the Lusitania must have been carrying explosives.

It was - 170 tons of rifle ammunition and 1,250 cases of artillery shells, as well as 50 barrels each of aluminium and bronze powder - all of which was legal under US neutrality rules at the time.

It sounds like a lot, but was not a significant amount in terms of war supplies. And it certainly did not provide a retrospective justification for the sinking, which claimed over 1,000 civilian lives.

Larson also explains why it is most unlikely that any of this exploded and why the second explosion was caused either by the ignition of coal dust in the ship's vast bunkers, then nearly empty, or cold seawater hitting the superheated boilers and pipes.

Most interesting by far, is the section in which Larson reveals the workings of Room 40 in an old Admiralty building in central London, centre of a secret operation run by Churchill, which monitored and decoded German radio messages. This clearly shows the Admiralty knew all about U-20 and where it was, and the danger it posed to the Lusitania.

Yet nothing was done to protect the liner and its passengers, even though it was known that 23 British merchant ships had been torpedoed around the coast of Britain and Ireland in the preceding seven days, three of them by the U-20.

At the same time, destroyers were being used to protect the battleship Orion, and other destroyers that could have protected the Lusitania were tied up in British and Irish ports.

Given the known submarine activity in the area at the time, the Lusitania should have been diverted to the safer North Channel (around the top of Ireland). It also should have been given a naval escort as it approached from the Atlantic.

Neither was done and this looks very suspicious, given earlier remarks by Churchill implying that it would take a major disaster to get America into the war. The sinking of the Lusitania, with many Americans on board, provided such a disaster.

  • Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania by Erik Larson is published by Doubleday, £20

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