The Sunday Magazine

The sinking of the Lusitania

Best-selling author Erik Larson tells the story of the doomed passenger ship, the Lusitania. Its sinking by a German U-boat is popularly believed to have spurred the United States into World War One. Larson tackles this and other myths about the great luxury liner in his fascinating new book, "Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania".
The British cargo and passenger ship Lusitania sets out for England on its last voyage from New York City. (The Associated Press)

The Titanic seemed commissioned for tragedy, in retrospect. The fanfare, the outsized ambition, the triumphalism of its name. The fact that the world's greatest ocean liner was dispatched to the bottom of the ocean on its maiden voyage by something as commonplace as an iceberg, taking with it 1500 people, made it the stuff of myth. An Icarus for the machine age. 

Three years later, on May 7, 1915, another powerful, only slightly less gigantic ocean liner sank just off the coast of Ireland. Not quite as many people died when the Lusitania sank, but it still took a grievous toll of 1,198 people.

The Lusitania has not become as synonymous with maritime disaster and human folly as the Titanic, but in some ways, it was a tragedy even more appalling: a ship full of civilians destroyed by a German torpedo in an act of war, deliberately targeting non-combatants. And a ship knowingly put in harm's way by hubris and poor judgement or, perhaps, something more sinister.

James Cameron hasn't gotten around to making a blockbuster movie about the Lusitania, but there's a raft of new books coming out to mark the 100th anniversary of its sinking, including the latest book by the acclaimed author Erik Larson.

He is one of the world's best-selling historical writers, whose previous books include The Devil in the White City and In the Garden of Beasts. His new book is called Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania.

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