Saturday, March 28, 2015

What the Torpedo in Eric Larson's Dead Wake Really Brought

Reading Eric Larson's Dead Wake is like reading about a wake. You are reading really about dead people. The sinking of the Lusitania took eleven hundred souls to the bottom of the Atlantic and that is really the nub of it. Now how that event took place and the aftermath of course is really what Dead Wake is all about. A dead wake by the way is what is left when a ship passes or a torpedo. So what I am looking for is a thesis to emerge. It is the historian in me.

Larson gives us the U Boat with Schweiger in command. This is really the fascinating part of the book. It must be something about submarines or about Germans in submarines. See Das Boot. But when they go to the bottom of the sea to have Christmas it is really hard to imagine. A UBoat literally sitting on the bottom of a bay where no one can detect it so they can hang a wreath and sing Christmas Carols. Fascinating.

And then we have all those passengers on the doomed Lusitania. These are the ones that survived mostly. And they are interesting and here is why. They are early century Victorians who may have seen themselves as modern but they know nothing about what is going on in the Western Front. They have no idea that the world has changed and so has warfare. They have no idea what the twentieth century has in store for them.

It takes the clear white translucent trail of a compressed air torpedo to be the harbinger of this new world. It crosses the Irish Channel like a meteor from another world and the passengers watch it in awe and fascination as something from a  New World. These people most of them had never seen a plane and to many the automobile was a marvel. So here is this strange missile bringing death from the sea and they watch in disbelief as it slams into the ship.

And so the thesis I draw and not Larson is that the silky trailing torpedo is really a messenger that Total War has arrived. And even as these people drown in the 55 degree water they don't really understand what has happened. They are in shock but they have no point or reference for the true barbarity the twentieth century will unleash. It is in their expressions in the numbered pictures Cunard took of a every victim.

Men, women, children, and infants.

Books by William Hazelgrove