An Epic Tragedy
(Walker)She was a gorgon of a ship, 785 feet long, with a beam of 85 feet, four boiler rooms, four propellers, designed for 2200 passengers and a crew of 850. The Lusitania could go twenty-five knots, and after it was launched in 1906, it was the fastest passenger vessel afloat, being able to cross the Atlantic in just under five days. She burned 1,000 tons of coal a day, and had four smokestacks, one of which was fake: the more funnels, it was thought, the faster the ship.
She was built by the Cunard Company, who had been transporting people across the Atlantic since 1840. She was underwritten by the English government, a product of the need to compete with France, Germany and the United States for domination of the seas. She was named by a Professor G. G. Ramsay who recalled the "evocative names of such ships as the Umbria, Etruria, Campania, and Lucania." Cunard named the Lusitania after Roman Portugal.
The disaster occurred in 1915, as a result of being hit directly mid-ship by a torpedo fired by a German U-Boat (officially the U-20). The Lusitania sank in eighteen minutes. Of the 1,959 passengers and crew, 1,198 died of injury, drowning or exposure, including 49 children. As the author notes dryly,
Compared with daily casualty figures at the Front, the Lusitania fatalities were tiny. But world reaction to what had occurred off the Irish coast Friday 7 May 1915 was enormous.
Although the sinking occurred within fifteen miles of the coast, it took rescue boats almost four hours to arrive.
The lowering of the lifeboats constituted as much a disaster as the torpedo. Because the Lusitania quickly listed so heavily to starboard, those lifeboats were too far out for most to jump to; those on the port side were hampered in their descent by protruding rivets. There had been no lifeboat drills, and many of the mariners who were in charge of lowering the boats were trapped below decks by the explosion of the torpedo and shortly after, one of the boilers.
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Germany had been blockaded by the English navy since the beginning of World War I nine months before, and --- in retaliation --- the Kaiser had proclaimed "unrestricted submarine warfare" against all shipping en route to England, military or not. The Lusitania was thought to be shipping arms and ammunition from America --- indeed, there was evidence for the latter --- but the sinking was ill-timed, appalled the world, and was instrumental in bringing the United States into the war ---- especially with the death of 128 Americans and the careful propaganda of the English concerning the plight of the women and children who had succumbed to the disaster.
By May 12, the world knew that the Germans were responsible through their coded cables, intercepted by the British, included one sent from naval high command headquarters in Germany to the U-20:
My highest appreciation of commander and crew for success achieved of which the high seas fleet is proud and my congratulations on their return.
The German press "applauded the attack as an 'extraordinary success,'" but the English newspapers referred to "The Hun's Most Ghastly Crime."
Images of confused, pale-faced orphans, bereaved women, and dead babies stared out from the pages. Survivors' accounts depicted the liner's last moments with grim pathos. They conjured traumatic hours spent clinging to wreckage among a harvest of dead bodies. The Daily Mirror played on readers' emotion with a tale of how a two-year-old boy was tossed into a lifeboat at the last moment. An elderly woman tried to comfort this "Little Unknown," but he "pressed his chubbie fists into his eyes and sobbed, 'Mummie, mummie.'"
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Ms. Preston's book, almost as hulking as the Lusitania, doesn't get under way until Chapter Six. Before that, we are foundering in desultory accounts of the origins of WWI, mini-biographies of the political leaders of the time, and a tedious history of the evolution of the submarine. Finally, on page 92, the lead character appears on stage and we can get up a bit of steam:
As New York's docks stirred into life early on Saturday, 1 May 1915, the Lusitania's sailing day, a rumor began to spread from pier to pier...
In the same way, when the good ship is finally lodged at the bottom of the Irish Sea, the book peters out into endless rambles about hearings on why and how and whether there were spies involved and why there were two explosions and whether Captain Turner, in command of the ship, was responsible (operating, as he was, at reduced speed, in the "War Zone.")
The most fascinating and concise chapter, tucked at the end, at Appendix B, is "A Technical Account of the Sinking," and readers in a hurry might turn at once to this and, for some of the flavor of the disaster, Chapter Eighteen, "A Long Lingering Moan," is impossible to put down with its wonderful/horrible vignettes drawn from testimony of passengers and crew, including Alice Middleton's seeing, after she had torn herself free from the sinking ship, "a screaming woman in the process of giving birth," and Michael Byrnes' telling of
the bodies of infants laid in life jackets, and floating round with their dead innocent faces looking towards the sky.
As he swam, he reported that he had to push them aside like "lily pads on a pond."
The vision of the floating dead, the "sight and sound of people drowning all around," and the pictures of those in overloaded lifeboats bellowing and hitting at others to keep them from pulling themselves in are dramatic, unforgettable. We could only hope that the next tome that Ms Preston launches will include a proofreader or two. "The two men baled out frantically with their hands..." does jar some of us old nautical types, since these two, according to the author, and my beloved Webster's, are frantically trying to make the bilge "into a bale, as in a bale of hay."
Which is probably as futile as saving the sinking ship --- and, consequently, the world --- from a ghastly disaster.