Read Dead Wake Online

Authors: Erik Larson

Dead Wake (4 page)

Complaints had to be taken seriously, and there were always complaints. Passengers grumbled that food from the Kitchen Grill came to their tables cold. This issue was at least partly resolved by changing the route waiters had to walk. The typewriters in the typing room were too noisy and annoyed the occupants of adjacent staterooms. The hours for typing were shortened. Ventilation in some rooms was less than ideal, a stubborn flaw that drove passengers to open their portholes. There was a problem, too, with the upper-level dining room in first class. Its windows opened onto a promenade used by third-class passengers, who had an annoying habit of peering in through the windows at the posh diners within. And there were always those passengers who came aboard bearing moral grudges against the modern age. A second-class passenger on a 1910 voyage complained that the ship’s decks “
should not be made a market place for the sale of Irish Shawls, etc.,” and also that “card playing for money goes on incessantly in the smoking rooms on board the Company’s steamers.”

Cunard’s foremost priority, however, was to protect its passengers from harm. The company had a remarkable safety record: not a single passenger death from sinking, collision, ice, weather, fire, or any other circumstance where blame could be laid upon captain or company, though of course deaths from natural causes occurred with regularity, especially among elderly passengers. The ship carried the latest in safety equipment. Owing to the epidemic of “Boat Fever” that swept the shipping industry after the
disaster, the
had more than enough lifeboats for passengers and crew. The ship also had been recently equipped with the latest in life jackets, these made by the Boddy Lifesaving Appliances Company. Unlike the older vests, made of cloth-covered panels of cork, these resembled actual jackets. Said one passenger, “
When you have it on you look and feel like a padded football
player, especially around the shoulders.” The new Boddy jackets were placed in the first- and second-class staterooms; third-class passengers and crew were to use the older kind.

No safety issue escaped the notice of Cunard’s board. On one crossing, as the
moved through heavy seas, crewmen discovered that a section of third class was “full of water.” The culprit was a single open porthole. The incident underscored the dangers posed by portholes in rough weather. The board voted to reprimand the stewards responsible for that section of the ship.

For all the respect afforded Turner by Cunard and by the officers and crew who served under him, his own record was far from impeccable. In July 1905, four months after he took command of the
, the ship collided with another, the
Carlingford Lough
. An investigation by Cunard found Turner to be at fault, for going too fast in fog. The company’s directors resolved, according to board minutes, that he was “
to be severely reprimanded.” Three years later, a ship under his command, the
, “touched ground” in the Ambrose Channel in New York and earned him another reprimand: “The
should not have left the dock at such a state of tide.”

The winter of 1914–15 was particularly hard on Turner. One of his ships, the newly launched
, caught a gust of wind while undocking in Liverpool and bumped against a White Star liner, causing minor damage. In a second incident that winter, the ship collided with another large liner, the
, and in a third got bumped by a tugboat.

But these things happened to all captains. Cunard’s confidence in Turner was made clear by the fact that the company consistently put him in charge of its newest and biggest liners and made him master of the
for three different cycles.

The war had made the matter of passenger safety all the more pressing. For Turner’s immediate predecessor, Capt. Daniel Dow, it had become too great a burden. On a March voyage to Liverpool, Dow had guided the
through waters in which two freighters had just been sunk. Afterward he told his superiors at Cunard that he could no longer accept the responsibility of commanding
a passenger ship under such conditions, especially if the ship carried munitions intended for Britain’s military. The practice of transporting such cargo had become common and made any ship that carried it a legitimate target for attack. Cowardice had nothing to do with Dow’s decision. What troubled him was not the danger to himself but rather having to worry about the lives of two thousand civilian passengers and crew. His nerves could not take it. Cunard decided he was “
tired and really ill” and relieved him of command.


Wilson pulled into the station at Rome, Georgia, at 2:30 in the afternoon, Tuesday, August 11, 1914, under gunmetal skies, amid the peal of bells. The casket was placed in a hearse, and soon the cortege began making its way through town to the church in which the funeral service would take place, the First Presbyterian, where Mrs. Wilson’s father had been a pastor. The streets were thronged with men and women come to pay their last respects to her and to show support for her husband, President Woodrow Wilson. They’d been married twenty-nine years. Family members carried the casket into the church as the organist played Chopin’s Funeral March, that dour, trudging staple of death scenes everywhere. The service was brief; the chorus sang two hymns that had been her favorites. Next the procession made its way up to the cemetery on Myrtle Hill, and the rain began. The hearse rolled past girls in white holding boughs of myrtle. Behind the girls stood townspeople and visitors, their hats off despite the rain.

An awning had been erected over the gravesite to shelter Wilson and the friends and family who made up the funeral party. The rain became heavy and thudded against the cloth. Onlookers saw the president tremble as he wept; those near at hand saw tears on his cheeks.

Afterward, the mourners moved back to their cars, and the
spectators—a thousand of them—dispersed. Wilson stood alone beside the grave, neither speaking nor moving, until the coffin was fully covered.

With the death of his wife, Wilson entered a new province of solitude, and the burden of leadership bore on him as never before. His wife had died on Thursday, August 6, of a kidney illness then known as Bright’s disease, two days after Britain entered the new war in Europe and
just a year and a half into his first term. In losing her he lost not merely his main source of companionship but also his primary adviser, whose observations he had found so useful in helping shape his own thinking. The White House became for him a lonely place, haunted not by the ghost of Lincoln, as some White House servants believed, but by memories of Ellen. For a time his grief seemed incapacitating. His physician and frequent golf companion, Dr. Cary Grayson, grew concerned. “
For several days he has not been well,” Grayson wrote, on August 25, 1914, in a letter to a friend, Edith Bolling Galt. “I persuaded him yesterday to remain in bed during the forenoon. When I went to see him, tears were streaming down his face. It was a heart-breaking scene, a sadder picture no one could imagine. A great man with his heart torn out.”

Later that August, Wilson managed to get away to a country home in Cornish, New Hampshire, called Harlakenden House, a large Georgian residence overlooking the Connecticut River on which he held a two-summer lease. Wilson’s friend Col. Edward House came to join him and was struck by the depth of his sorrow. At one point as they talked about Ellen, the president, his eyes welling, told House that he “
felt like a machine that had run down, and there was nothing in him worth while.” The president, House wrote in his diary, “looked forward to the next two and a half years with dread. He did not see how he could go through with it.”

There were crises on all fronts. The United States was still in the grip of a recession now in its second year.
The South in particular suffered. Cotton, its main product, had been transported mainly on foreign vessels, but the war had brought an acute shortage of
ships, whose owners, fearing submarine attack, kept them in port; the belligerents, meanwhile, commandeered their own merchant ships for military use. Now millions of bales of cotton piled up on southern wharves. There was labor trouble as well. The United Mine Workers of America were on strike in Colorado. The preceding April, the state had sent a force of National Guard troops to break the strike, resulting in a massacre at Ludlow, Colorado, that left two dozen men, women, and children dead. Meanwhile, south of the border, violence and unrest continued to plague Mexico.

Wilson’s great fear, however, was that America might somehow find itself drawn into the war in Europe. That the war had begun at all was a dark amazement, for it had seemed to come from nowhere. At the start of that beautiful summer of 1914, one of the sunniest Europe would ever see, there had been no sign of war and no obvious wish for it. On June 27, the day before Europe began its slide into chaos, newspaper readers in America found only the blandest of news.
The lead story on the front page of the
New York Times
was about Columbia University at last winning the intercollegiate rowing regatta, after nineteen years of failure. A Grape-Nuts ad dealt with warfare, but of the schoolyard variety, extolling the cereal’s value in helping children prevail in fistfights: “Husky bodies and stout nerves depend—more often than we think—on the food eaten.” And the
’ society page named dozens of New York socialites, including a Guggenheim and a Wanamaker, who were scheduled to sail for Europe that day, on the
, the
, the
, and two German-owned ships, the
Prinz Friedrich Wilhelm
and the gigantic
, 24 feet longer than the

In Europe, kings and high officials set off for their country homes. Kaiser Wilhelm would soon board his yacht, the
, to begin a cruise of the fjords of Norway. The president of France, Raymond Poincaré, and his foreign minister departed by ship for a state visit to Tsar Nicholas II of Russia, who had moved to his summer palace. Winston Churchill, forty years old and already Britain’s top naval official, First Lord of the Admiralty, went
to the beach, a home in Cromer on the North Sea, 100 miles north of London, where he joined his wife, Clementine, and his children.

In England, the lay public was transfixed, not by any prospect of war, but by Sir Ernest Shackleton’s planned expedition to the Antarctic in the square-rigger
, set to depart August 8 from Plymouth, on Britain’s southeast coast. In Paris, the big fascination was the trial of Henriette Caillaux, wife of former prime minister Joseph Caillaux, arrested for killing the editor of the Paris newspaper
Le Figaro
after the newspaper had published an intimate letter that the prime minister had written to her before their marriage, when they were having an adulterous affair. Enraged, Mrs. Caillaux bought a gun, practiced with it at the gunsmith’s shop, then went to the editor’s office and fired six times. In her testimony, offering an unintended metaphor for what was soon to befall Europe, she said, “
These pistols are terrible things. They go off by themselves.” She was acquitted, after persuading the court that the murder was a crime of passion.

Far from a clamor for war, there existed a widespread, if naive, belief that war of the kind that had convulsed Europe in past centuries had become obsolete—that the economies of nations were so closely connected with one another that even if a war were to begin, it would end quickly. Capital flowed across borders. Belgium had the sixth-largest economy in the world, not because of manufactures, but because of the money coursing through its banks. Enhanced communications—telephone, telegraph, cable, and most recently wireless—further entwined nations, as did the increasing capacity and speed of steamships and the expansion of railroads. Tourism grew as well. No longer just for the rich, it became a passion of the middle class. Populations increased, markets expanded. In the United States, despite recession,
the Ford Motor Company announced plans to double the size of its manufacturing plant.

But old tensions and enmities persisted. Britain’s King George V loathed his cousin Kaiser Wilhelm II, Germany’s supreme ruler; and Wilhelm, in turn, envied Britain’s expansive collection of colonies and its command of the seas, so much so that in 1900
Germany began a campaign to build warships in enough quantity and of large enough scale to take on the British navy. This in turn drove Britain to begin an extensive modernization of its own navy, for which it created a new class of warship, the
, which carried guns of a size and power never before deployed at sea. Armies swelled in size as well. To keep pace with each other, France and Germany introduced conscription. Nationalist fervor was on the rise. Austria-Hungary and Serbia shared a simmering mutual resentment. The Serbs nurtured pan-Slavic ambitions that threatened the skein of territories and ethnicities that made up the Austro-Hungarian empire (typically referred to simply as Austria). These included such restive lands as Herzegovina, Bosnia, and Croatia. As one historian put it, “
Europe had too many frontiers, too many—and too well-remembered—histories, too many soldiers for safety.”

And secretly, nations began planning for how to use these soldiers should the need arise.
As early as 1912, Britain’s Committee of Imperial Defence had planned that in the event of war with Germany, the first act would be to cut Germany’s transoceanic telegraph cables.
In Germany, meanwhile, generals tinkered with a detailed plan crafted by Field Marshal Alfred von Schlieffen, the centerpiece of which was a vast maneuver that would bring German forces through neutral Belgium and down into France, thus skirting defenses arrayed along the French frontier. That Britain might object—indeed, would be compelled to intervene, as a co-guarantor of Belgian neutrality—seemed not to weigh heavily on anyone’s mind. Schlieffen calculated that the war in France would be over in forty-two days, after which German forces would reverse course and march toward Russia. What he failed to take into account was what would happen if German forces did not prevail in the time allotted and if Britain did join the fray.

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