Saturday, May 1, 1915: Britain was at war with Germany. George V was on the throne and Winston Churchill was the First Lord of the Admiralty. To the disappointment of Britain and France, the United States had not yet entered the war. President Woodrow Wilson and his Secretary of State, William Jennings Bryan, were pacifists. Wilson was preoccupied with personal matters. The stage was set for a major disaster.
May 1, 1915: the Lusitania, a Cunard Lines passenger ship had been not-so-secretly outfitted with ammunition magazines and gun mounts (though not guns) hidden under her decks. The ship was sleek and speedy and it was thought she could easily outrun a German submarine. On this day in 1915, May 1, the ill-fated liner set sail from New York City towards Liverpool, carrying passengers and a hidden cargo of munitions and supplies needed by the British war effort.
All was well until Friday, May 7, when, just off the coast of Ireland, all hell broke loose. A lurking German submarine fired on the Lusitania, despite knowing it was carrying civilian passengers (but probably also knowing or guessing it was carrying munitions). 1119 of the 1924 persons aboard died within minutes. Of course they were sitting on top of explosives, so no surprise that there was a huge conflagration and the ship sank so quickly that most passengers and crew had little chance of survival.
This story and many of the individual stories within are what Erik Larson has been researching for the past few years and he has just published Dead Wake. In spite of the death and destruction, it is an entertaining read. Larsen is an expert at describing the issues of concern and some of the politics of the day in 1915. We get insights into the interior workings of the British government of the time and into the mindset of the German U-boat commander. We learn about many of the passengers on the Lusitania, some famous and privileged, others much less so, but when one's life is on the line class distinctions start to unravel.
My book club friends and I really enjoyed Devil in the White City, which Erik Larson published in 2003 about the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago - the putting together of the Fair's architecture and landscaping and about the serial murderer who took advantage of the chaos to ply his trade. I highly recommend this book if/while you're waiting for Dead Wake arrive at your local library.