"It was 2 p.m. on the afternoon of May 7, 1915. The Lusitania had been struck by two torpedoes in succession and was sinking rapidly ..."
- Agatha Christie, The Secret Adversary (1922)
Erik Larson has written several books that I should have read already, including Lethal Passage which traces the history of a single handgun (this, written twenty years ago) and In The Garden of Beasts, about the American Ambassador to Germany during the rise of the Third Reich. Each of these interest me a great deal.
What I have just completed is Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania, his most recent work, an account of the sinking of the RMS Lusitania. Released to coincide with the hundredth anniversary of the tragedy, Larson sheds new light on the sinking from the point of view of passengers who survived - and also from those who did not - as well as from the captain of the U-boat which destroyed it, and those in British intelligence who were monitoring the seas as best they could with early 20th century technology.
With this book he seeks to add to the historical account corrections, most significantly the fact that the German sub "U-20" had by its own account fired only one torpedo, not two. Survivors reported two explosions, in obvious succession, and their assumption was understood. However, British intelligence had intercepted U-20's communique about their attack and chose never to set the record straight. Even Winston Church, at that time First Lord of the Admiralty, intentionally repeated what he knew to be false in one of his books.
Larson does not solve the mystery of what actually called the subsequent blast, though he does have a well-educated theory which has much to do with the physics of calamity. Regardless, why did the British government perpetuate this significant falsehood? No doubt because if firing one torpedo at passenger liner with 2,000 innocent souls aboard was at that time unthinkable, firing two is worse.
This is hardly the only piece of misinformation perpetuated by British intelligence, and a good deal of Larson's work implies (though he never proves this) that they allowed the Lusitania - which had more than 100 Americans on board - be destroyed in the hopes of bringing the United States into the war.
While this plan, if true, may ultimately have been successful, it did not happen straight away. Woodrow Wilson had run a successful reelection campaign in 1916 based in part on his promise to keep the U.S. out of the war.
Cartoonist Winsor McCay, who had lofty and admirable ideas about the power of the new field of animation, was deeply affected by the event. He was at that time working for William Randolph Hearst, who also sought to avoid war with Germany, and compelled McCay to create anti-war editorial illustrations for Hearst papers.
McCay spent his own money to create what was at that time the longest animated cartoon - Sinking of the Lusitania - a photo-realistic recreation of the tragedy, which was of course not captured on any film or through photography. This was also the first time cartoon animation had been employed to depict serious, historical subject matter. He and his team took twenty-two months to create the work, which was released in July 1918. By that time, the United States had already been at war with Germany for more than a year.
Agatha Christie's second novel, The Secret Adversary, begins with a prologue set on the deck of the Lusitania as it was sinking. No mean feat, creating a fictional moment with which to begin a thriller set in a familiar historical context, one already well-reported at that time a mere seven years later. The ship sank in eighteen minutes, I would have imagined complete panic. Larson's book informs me that until the final moments a great many were relatively calm, and so Christie's brief exchange no longer feels unrealistic.
More on The Secret Adversary to come.