On May 7, 1915, toward the end of a routine crossing from New York to Liverpool, England, RMS Lusitania—pride of the Cunard Line and one of the greatest ocean liners afloat—became the target of a terrifying new weapon and a casualty of a terrible new kind of war. Sunk by a torpedo fired from the German submarine U-20, she exploded and sank in eighteen minutes, taking with her some twelve hundred people, more than half of the crew and passengers. Cold-blooded, deliberate, and unprecedented in the annals of terror, the sinking of the Lusitania shocked the world. It also jolted the United States out of its neutrality—128 Americans were among the dead—and hastened the nation’s entry into World War I.
In her riveting account of this enormous tragedy—which caused controversies that continue to this day—Diana Preston recalls both a pivotal moment in history and a remarkable human drama. The story of the Lusitania is a window on the maritime world of the early twentieth century—the heyday of the luxury liner, the first days of the modern submarine, and the climax of the decades-long German–British rivalry for supremacy of the Atlantic. It is a critical chapter in the progress of World War I, and in the political biographies of Kaiser Wilhelm II, Woodrow Wilson, and the young First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill. Above all, it is the story of the passengers and crew on that fateful voyage—a story of terror and cowardice, of self-sacrifice and heroism, of death and miraculous survival.
With a historian’s insight and a novelist’s gift for characterization and detail, Preston re-creates the Lusitania’s voyage through the eyes of those who experienced it. Captain William Turner, steadfast and trustworthy but overconfident, boasted that “a torpedo can’t get the Lusitania—she runs too fast.” Passengers included the rich and the powerful (American millionaire Alfred Vanderbilt, theater producer Charles Frohman, Boston bookseller Charles Lauriat) and the rest of the human comedy: newlyweds and nursemaids, galley cooks and stokers, Quakers and cardsharps, ship’s detectives and German stowaways. Preston weaves their stories into her own dramatic narrative, giving her book a powerful immediacy.
Lusitania: An Epic Tragedy is the definitive account of this pivotal event in western history. Drawing on a vast array of sources, including letters and memoirs, Cunard and Admiralty archives, and previously untranslated German documents, Diana Preston also visited every key location connected with the story. She has written a book that deserves to stand beside Walter Lord’s A Night to Remember, pairing the two great sea disasters of the twentieth century.
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