Lusitania: An Epic Tragedy by Diana Preston Download (read online) free eBook (PDF ePub Kindle)

Lusitania: An Epic Tragedy

A brilliantly sunny day, and then the explosion; on what had been an ordinary weekday, there is suddenly fire, smoke, confusion, bodies, panic…

On May 7, 1915, the ocean liner Lusitania was struck by a terrifying new weapon-and became a casualty of a terrible new kind of war. This is a vivid account of the event that shocked the world; of the heyday of the luxury liner a

On May 7, 1915, the ocean liner Lusitania was struck by a terrifying new weapon-and became a casualty of a terrible new kind of war. This is a vivid account of the event that shocked the world; of the heyday of the luxury liner and the first days of the modern submarine; a critical chapter in the progress of World War I; and a remarkable human drama. With first-person survivor accounts and a cast of characters ranging from Winston Churchill and Alfred Vanderbilt to the crew of the German U-boat that torpedoed a ship full of civilians, this is a true tale of terror and tragedy, of heroism and miraculous survival.
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    Matt

    I first read this book five years ago. In honor of the upcoming centenary of the Lusitania‘s sinking, I reread it. Instead of redoing my review, or revising it, I’ve decided to annotate it in bold to reflect my second look, especially in light of the heavy WWI reading I’ve engaged in.

    World War One is in many ways staggeringly complex to understand. It’s a Balkan war gone bad, very bad. To get a feel for it, to understand the various ententes and alliances, you need to know a lot history. Teacher

    World War One is in many ways staggeringly complex to understand. It’s a Balkan war gone bad, very bad. To get a feel for it, to understand the various ententes and alliances, you need to know a lot history. Teachers have cut this Gordian knot by giving us landmark moments to which causation can be attributed. Chief among these moments is the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. His death didn’t cause World War One; it was just one stop along doom’s highway. Still, it’s just easier to pretend it all started in Sarajevo. The same thing for the sinking of the Lusitania; it didn’t immediately drag America into the conflict, but it’s sure helpful to explain what we were doing “over there.”

    When I first read this book, I knew two things about WWI. It started with an assassination, and it ended with AMERICA saving the day. The complexity of the war always scared me off. It took me a couple (or dozen) books, but I’m finally starting to get the gist of it. The lesson, I suppose, is to study. It is a lesson I learned far to late too become a doctor. But just in time to annoy my friends and family with WWI minutiae.

    The Lusitania was torpedoed off the Old Head of Kinsale, Ireland, on May 7, 1915. She sank quickly, killing 1,198 men, women, and children. The sinking immediately became one of the great propaganda tools in history, used by the British to turn world opinion against the Germans. The ship was made into a symbol, and along the way, the truth was obscured. Diana Preston’s Lusitania: An Epic Tragedy removes the ship from the subjective, hyperbolic realm of war hysteria and returns it to its place as an artifact of history. Her real achievement, though, is to always remember that the core of the story is human.

    Preston’s book starts methodically, placing a great deal of value on context. She devotes considerable space to discussing the outbreak of war, the history of the submarine, and America’s strained relationship with Germany (America was technically neutral, but as in World War II, her neutrality was shot-through with Anglophilia.) There is also a chapter on the Lusitania‘s specifications, complete with the obligatory comparison to a skyscraper. (I would like an author with the boldness to compare an ocean liner to something other than a skyscraper or a city block. Come on! I’d love a measurement that gave me cargo capacity in terms of the number of penguins that could fill her hold, or the length of the ship as compared to New York City hot dog carts).

    There is an awful lot of build-up to the sinking. Indeed, some of these early chapters weren’t strictly necessary, or they could have been shortened. However, I liked them. I’m a completist, with a weird thing for factoids. I was continually fascinated with the tiny details peppering the narrative. I liked knowing that 100 detectives watching for pickpockets were present in New York when Lusitania arrived on her maiden voyage. I also liked learning that the passengers had eaten 1,000 pineapples. Does this broaden my understanding of the sinking? Maybe, maybe not. Will I eventually get drunk at a bar and tell someone about this? Certainly.

    In the five years since I first learned those facts, I have yet to pull them out at a bar, though I have been drunk approximately 5,000 times since then. Even with a better knowledge of World War I, I still appreciated Preston’s early chapters. Others might find them soporific. I found them helpful. Preston is aiming high with her take on the Lusitania. She is aiming to be definitive.

    Of course, the comparisons to that other shipwreck are inevitable:

    There were…plenty of life preservers – big, bulky Boddy’s Patent Jackets filled with fiber. They made their wearers look like ‘a padded football player, especially around the shoulders.’ The Lusitania carried life jackets for all 1,959 aboard, with 1,228 to spare and 175 for children. Knowing they would soon be sailing into the war zone and conscious of the terrible lessons of the Titanic disaster, passengers quizzed the crew about the provision of lifeboats. As a result of the Titanic inquiry, Cunard had doubled the number of lifeboats on the Lusitania. She was carrying twenty-two open wooden lifeboats capable of carrying 1,322 people and twenty-six collapsible boats that could hold another 1,283. The collapsibles were boats with shallow, rigid wooden keels and folding canvas sides that could be raised and held in position by wooden pins and iron or steel stays. The action of raising the sides also pulled the seats into position.

    The marvel of this book is that all these details don’t overwhelm the story. When I noted Preston’s methodical structuring, I don’t mean to imply that it is plodding or pedestrian. Rather, each chapter has its own arc while also building and connecting with all that has come before. The Lusitania‘s sinking is not a simple tale of ship meeting torpedo; it is a culmination of a thousand different forces. There’s Britain’s blockade; Germany’s response (unrestricted submarine warfare); Britain’s decision to register the Lusitania as an reserve auxiliary cruiser; Germany’s warning to America’s passengers; and finally, Walther Schwieger’s decision to fire U-20’s torpedoes. Preston’s great realization is that the thread tying all these events together is the people. And so there is a chapter devoted to the passengers and crew of the Lusitania, where you meet the lowly Morton brothers, who washed the decks, as well as Alfred Vanderbilt, who’d inherited his father’s millions. There is also a good deal of space devoted to U-20, and the men who sailed her (in an oddly-humanizing touch, Preston writes how the men rescued a dachshund from a Portuguese merchant vessel they sunk).

    When the torpedo strikes, Preston goes into Walter Lord mode. Though she doesn’t rise to Lord’s level from A Night To Remember (and seriously, who can?), she utilizes his technique of cross-cutting and quoting, so as to present a number of experiences from all around the ship.

    Unlike the sinking of the Titanic, which up until the final minutes unfolded with the stately pace of a tragic opera, the Lusitania sank fast and dirty. Shortly after the torpedo struck:

    [Captain:] Turner ordered Johnson to steer ‘hard-a-starboard the helm,’ intending to make for the shore. Johnson wrenched the wheel thirty-five degrees to starboard and shouted the stock response, ‘helm hard-a-starboard.’ The captain shouted to him to hold the ship steady and ‘keep her head into Kinsale.’ Johnson tried to steady the helm but found he could not…Johnson turned the wheel again, but this time the ship would not respond. The steering mechanism had locked. A despairing Turner tried to check the Lusitania‘s speed by reversing the engines…Down in the engine room Senior Third Engineer George Little heard the bell ring with the order, but there was nothing he could do. Second Engineer Smith was shouting to him in despair that the steam pressure had plunged from 195 pounds to 50. The engines were out of commission. The Lusitania was out of control, arcing helplessly into the wide blue sea…

    Captain Turner ordered the lifeboats away. Here, all the lessons of Titanic became moot, for the ship listed so heavily to starboard that the lifeboats on the port side soon slammed against the deck, and couldn’t be launched. In the haste to get the other boats away, crewmen lost their grip on the falls, sending the boats crashing into the sea. Only 6 boats managed to launch clean.

    The book reaches its dramatic peak in these pages, as stories both heroic and pathetic emerge. There is a drunk stoker, stumbling around on deck with “the crown of his head torn open like a spongy, bloody pudding.” There are three butchers who get stuck in an elevator between decks, left to their fate. Because there is no public address system, the crew has to shout its orders, but in the terrified crush, no one can hear them.

    Strangely enough, the sinking scenes did not strike me the same way upon rereading. I found the sinking, in fact, to be confusingly told. This is partially due to the chaotic nature of the sinking. As I mentioned in my original review, the Titanic took 2 hours 40 minutes to sink on a relatively even keel on an ocean described as a “mill pond.” The Lusitania suffered a series of violent explosions, kept plowing through the ocean on a forward heading, heeled over so badly she almost capsized, and had disappeared in less time than it takes to watch a commercial-free sitcom. So yes, the narrative is going to be a bit fractured. Still, Preston, who does such a good job contextualizing the lead-up to the sinking, does not do a great job contextualizing the stories of the people struggling to survive. It’s hard to place them in the ship. It’s hard to remember who they are. Moreover, Preston makes the odd choice to place all the “technical” details in an appendix that concludes her book. A lot of these details could easily have been woven into the sinking chapter, to ensure a more complete presentation that combines first-person accounts with the actual mechanics of the ship’s failure.

    For me, the test of whether a book is truly working on the human dimension is if I get chills. This is rare enough in novels, and rarer still in non-fiction. Here, it happened several times. Indeed, I challenge you to read about the last moments of Alfred Vanderbilt – the scion of a ruthless capitalist who was handing out life jackets to women and children before he was washed away by the sea – without at least a little shiver. Yes, some of this is testament to the inherent drama in the event. On the other hand, a story isn’t a story until it’s told. Facts, no matter how dramatic, require the talents of an author to make them live.

    I found this even truer the second time around. In the five years since I first picked this up, I’ve had two daughters, and it has made me into a miserable sap in many ways. Accordingly, I was profoundly struck by the number of children lost. Fifty-six kids died on the Titanic, all but one of those youngsters – Lorraine Allison – from third class. The order on the Titanic was women and children first, and the children who died died because of geography. They were in steerage, and the crew did a poor job of getting the steerage passengers to the boat deck. On the Lusitania, 94 children, including 31 infants, were lost. They died because they had no chance.

    The journalist William Langewiesche once wrote an epic piece on the sinking of the ferry Estonia. In memorable prose, he noted the cruel Darwinian nature of survival. “There was no God to turn to for mercy,” he wrote. “There was no government to provide order.” And in his starkest observation, he noted: “Love only slowed people down.” On a heeling ship, wracked by internal explosions, with half the lifeboats unable to be lowered, and the crew a dismal mess, the children were lambs to the slaughter. There was no “women and children” first, there was only swim or drown. Preston tells the story of six year-old Helen Smith, who survived the sinking while both her parents died. There is a picture of her in the book that shows her holding an armful of dolls given to her by the people of Queenstown while she’d been taken around looking for her mom and dad. I started bawling. Swear to God. (She lived to the age of 84, by the way, and she had a daughter she named for her mom).

    Post-sinking, Preston explores the implications the Lusitania had on America’s entry into World War One. She also includes an extended discussion of various myths, such as whether the British admiralty offered up the Lusitania as a sacrificial lamb to nudge the United States toward war. After the fever pitch of the actual sinking – an ocean turned red, bodies in the surf, all within sight of the green hills of Ireland – all this is necessarily a bit of a let-down, one which goes on for quite a while. This is not to say the final sections are not informative, because they are. They do a good job clarifying the muddle of myths, lies, and half-truths that surround the Lusitania. (And for you burgeoning naval architects out there, Preston provides an appendix which gives a detailed “technical account” of the sinking).

    I can see people frustrated with these chapters. I was emotionally involved in the immediate aftermath, the search for survivors, the burial of the dead. I also liked the chapter on the Lusitania inquiry, presided over by the same Lord Mersey who whitewashed the Titanic inquiry. Other discussions, however, such as the moral quibbling of William Jennings Bryan, failed to keep my full attention.

    Preston also presents the argument over whether the Lusitania was a legitimate target. I was a little disappointed in this section, because after marshaling all the facts, Preston comes to the rather bland conclusion that Britain, America and Germany were all to blame. I would’ve liked something a little more daring. In my opinion, World War One is the ultimate example of Victor’s history. As a result, we are all caught in this kind of pre-Nazi mindset, in which we blame the Germans for World War One because we are certain they later started World War Two.

    The reality, though, is that Germany wasn’t all at fault, either in starting the war or in their conduct at sea. True, the Germans unleashed unrestricted submarine warfare. And true, they sank an ocean liner. However, that ocean liner – the Lusitania – was included on the rolls as an auxiliary merchant cruiser. Even though she had never been called into active service, she was undoubtedly carrying weapons and other contraband. Moreover, in violation of international law, Britain had blockaded Germany and prohibited neutral nations from trading with her. Thus, while Britain made hay out of babies snatched from their mother’s arms as the Lusitania plunged beneath the waves, hundreds of thousands of German children were starving on land. I would’ve liked Preston to have made a stronger argument for British culpability.

    When I first wrote that, I knew nothing about World War I. Now, having read a great deal on the topic – in order to fully appreciate the centenary – I know next to nothing. I still think the Germans get too much blame for starting the war. But they certainly deserve all the moral condemnation in the world for the sinking. Moreover, the Germans were stupid for doing so. Their technical excuses pale in comparison to the worldwide outrage. I want to act surprised at the inept German diplomatic response, but this was par for the course. Their diplomacy stunk, and when you start to look at their failures, from the initial “blank check” to Austria-Hungary, to unrestricted submarine warfare, to the Zimmerman Telegram, it becomes patently obvious why they found the entire world against them. The sinking did not plunge America into the war. It did ensure that when America finally entered, it wasn’t going to be hard to come up with reasons. The loss of the Lusitania was a massive propaganda tool. Hanging in my office, is an “ENLIST” poster I purchased from the National World War I Museum in Kansas City. The poster shows a woman clutching a baby sinking into the deep. It came out after the Lusitania went down.

    This is a big book, and it encompasses a lot. Despite the sweep of its scope, it is also intimate, striking that magic Tolstoyan balance between the epic movement of History and the lives of those who lived through it.

    I have some other Lusitania books lined up. I’m willing to wager, however, that they will not be as fully or richly detailed as this.


    …more