There have been worse maritime disasters but none has been more famous or had a greater impact than the loss of the “Unsinkable” RMS Titanic for it destroyed in an instant the Edwardian myth that man had conquered nature.
The RMS Titanic was the largest passenger liner in the world and the pride of the White Star Line. She had been designed with the intention of transforming trans-Atlantic travel. Passengers would be able to sail at speed, in unparalleled luxury, and absolute safety. Ocean travel would never be the same they said, though few people at the time could have imagined why.
She had been built at the Harland and Wolff shipyard in Belfast and was designed to be the last word in opulence, less a ship and more a floating hotel. There were numerous saloon bars, restaurants, and dining areas. There was a swimming pool, sauna, Turkish bath, barber shop, library, gymnasium, and squash court. The decor and furnishings were luxury unparalleled and the journey to New York was intended to be not just a sea cruise, but an unforgettable experience to be relived again and again.
On 10 April 1912, the Titanic set sail from Southampton on her maiden voyage bound for New York, stopping at Cherbourg in France and Queenstown in Ireland on the way where she picked up additional passengers.
Although she had never been described as unsinkable by the White Star Company or her designers with her many safety features, including automatically closing watertight doors that could be sealed at the press of a button, she was widely believed to be so. It had also been well-trumpeted that even with four of her compartments entirely flooded she would still float. As a result, the procurement of lifeboats hardly seemed a priority and she had in fact only 16 with a further 4 collapsible rafts, enough capacity for around half of the 2,240 people aboard, if full. This was actually more than was required by Board of Trade rules and when it was suggested to the owners that they should carry more it was dismissed out-of-hand for to do so would take up too much room on the promenade decks and damage the aesthetic appeal of the ship. In any case they were already doing more than was required by law.
The portents for the voyage appeared ill from the start when she almost collided with the liner New York as she prepared to leave port and a disaster was only averted when a tugboat managed to pull the New York away at the last moment.
The Titanic’s Captain, the 62 year old Edward Smith, was much-praised for his swift action during the incident but then such would have been expected from one of the most experienced Captain’s then serving. Indeed, he was the Commodore of the White Star Line and was due to retire at the end of the Titanic’s maiden voyage. His captaincy was deemed to be tribute to both the man and the ship.
On board the Titanic were some of the most prominent people of the age including the billionaires John Jacob Astor and Benjamin Guggenheim, the businessman Sir Cosmo Duff Gordon, the noted cricketer and President of the Pennsylvania Railway, John Borland Thayer, the silent movie actress Dorothy Gibson, the Countess of Rothes, and the founder of Macy’s Department Store Isidore Strauss and his wife, Ida – the very people who dominated the society pages of newspapers around the world.
Also aboard was the White Star Lines Managing Director J Bruce Ismay and the Titanic’s designer Thomas Andrews who was there to assess the ships performance. Also booked to be aboard was the ship’s owner J.P Morgan but at the last moment he had been unable to travel.
The sea-crossing had been trouble free and the Titanic had performed well though some passengers had suggested at the time that they thought it was travelling too fast. Indeed, one later reported that he had heard J Bruce Ismay tell Captain Smith that he wanted it to go even faster the following day. If so then this was an odd request, for calls were frequently being received that there were Icebergs in the area. These were only intermittently conveyed to the bridge however as the Radio Operators Harold Bride and Jack Phillips were inundated by messages from passengers.
On the night of 14 April 1912 just before going off watch at around 21.30 Second Officer Charles Lightoller told his replacement William Murdoch to inform the Crow’s Nest to keep a close watch for small ice-floes. Those on duty that night had been unable to find the binoculars and were staring into the darkness with their naked eye.
At 23.40 the lookout Frederick Fleet spotted an iceberg directly in their path. He sounded the ships bell and contacted the bridge with the shouted message that barely disguised his anxiety “Iceberg, right ahead.” First Officer Murdoch immediately ordered hard-a-starboard and slowed the engines. This was standard practice but as it transpired it proved a fatal mistake. Had the Titanic struck the Iceberg head on then with its automatically locking bulkhead doors the likelihood is that she would have remained afloat. As it turned out the Iceberg cut a deep gash along the side of the ship and the water rushed in quickly flooding five watertight compartments. The sheer weight of the water now meant that the ship began to lay low at the bow. As a result the sea continued to flood in and the other bulkheads were soon immersed in water whether they had been closed or not. A design flaw had meant that the doors did not reach to the top and as the ship sank lower the water simply flowed over into the next compartment.
Captain Smith alerted to the danger rushed to the bridge. He ordered that the ship’s engines be stopped and asked the Titanic’s designer Thomas Andrews to survey the damage.
He reported back some thirty minutes later that the ship was doomed and that she had at most two hours. Captain Smith appeared stunned and asked Andrews to repeat what he had just said. After some hesitation he ordered that the lifeboats be lowered and that it should be women and children first. But he did not yet alert the passengers afraid of causing panic.
In the meantime, the Radio Operator Jack Phillips was frantically sending out a C.Q.D message. This was the established distress signal of the time. Failing to elicit a response, on the advice of Harold Bride, he sent out the new distress code of S.O.S. It was the first time it was ever used.
Captain Smith had not given the order to abandon ship and as a result life aboard carried on much as before. Most passengers had retired to bed but some others remained in the bars and salons. The collision with the Iceberg had been noticed but had caused barely a ripple of concern. So when the order for all passengers to attend their lifeboat stations was given it was greeted at best with mild amusement and at worst with some disgruntlement. It was after all a freezing cold night, being -2 degrees, and it was difficult to persuade the women aboard to abandon the cosiness of their cabins with their children to float around on an open boat in mid-Atlantic for what many thought was just a lifeboat drill or an unnecessary precaution. As a result many of the lifeboats were launched only half or a quarter full.
On the port side of the ship Second Officer Lightoller strictly adhered to the dictat women and children first. He had been issued with a revolver to help maintain order and at one point threatened to use it should men keep trying to board the lifeboat’s and he had those that had forcibly removed. Only crewmen were allowed onto the boats to serve as oarsmen.
On the starboard side First Officer Murdoch adopted a more flexible approach and permitted men to board the lifeboats if no women were present.
The first ship to respond the Jack Phillips’s increasingly frantic distress calls was the S.S Carpathia but she was 58 miles away and could not possibly arrive for another four hours and by then it would be too late. Even so, its Captain, Arthur Rostrom had his own passengers locked in their cabins before ordering full-steam ahead through the dangerous ice-floes towards the Titanic’s last known position.
However there was another ship nearby, perhaps no more than 5 miles distance. Fourth Officer Charles Boxhall later testified at the subsequent Inquiry into the disaster that this ship got so close that he could see its sidelights with his naked eye and that at the time it was steaming towards the Titanic. Some claimed that this was the steamship Californian. Its Captain, Stanley Lord, was later to be made the scapegoat for the disaster.
Unable to hail the nearby ship by radio or Morse lamp, Captain Smith ordered the distress rockets to be launched at five minute intervals. But instead of responding the ship was seen to turn and steam away.
On board the Californian Captain Lord was in bed when he was informed that rockets had been seen in the night sky. He asked his Chief Officer if he believed these were distress rockets. When he received an unequivocal yes, he ordered that the bridge keep an eye, try to contact the ship by Morse lamp, and went back to sleep. He did not order that his Radio Operator be roused from his own slumbers and try to make contact. At 02.15 he was awoken again to be told that the ship could no longer be seen. Still he did nothing. It wasn’t until 05.30 that he ordered the Californian to steam towards its last known sighting. It was later proved that even if the Californian had responded immediately it could not have arrived in time. Even so his seemingly tardy response to others in peril at sea was to haunt Captain Lord for the rest of his life.
Because Captain Lord had ordered a full-stop amid the ice-floes until daybreak the Californian could not possibly have been the ship that was witnessed sailing away from the Titanic. It was later suggested that this had been the Norwegian Whaler Sampson which had been fishing illegally. But this has never been proved.
On board the Titanic Jack Phillips continued to send his distress calls and the crewmen in the boiler room continued to stoke the fires in order to ensure that the lights remained on for as long as possible. Meanwhile on deck the last remaining women and children amongst the First and Second Class Passengers were being loaded aboard the lifeboats.
Ida Strauss refused to enter a lifeboat despite her husband’s insistence that she should do so. She told him “We have lived together for many years. Where you go, I go.” They both drowned.
John Jacob Astor helped his pregnant wife aboard a lifeboat and then politely asked if, given his wife’s delicate condition, he could join her. Second Officer Lightoller refused as long as there remained women and children to be safely evacuated. He thanked Lightoller, waved to his wife, and departed. His was never seen alive again.
Benjamin Guggenheim and his Manservant made no attempt to escape the ship. Instead, they helped the women and children into the boats before retiring to their cabins to change. Guggenheim told a crewman:
“We have dressed up in our best, and are prepared to go down like gentlemen.”
Sir Cosmo Duff Gordon secured a place for himself and his wife the noted fashion designer Lucy Sutherland in Lifeboat 1. It had been lowered into the water with only twelve people aboard seven of whom were crewmen who were to grumble that they had left all their possessions on the Titanic. Duff Cooper was to pay them £5 each in compensation for their loss.
It was later suggested that he had actually bribed the crew not to return to the wreckage to pick up survivors and
Lifeboat 1 was to be to disparagingly referred to as the Money Boat.
The Countess of Rothes also survived the sinking but she complained constantly about the cold, the inconvenience, and made such a fuss about everything that she was given the tiller of the lifeboat just to keep her occupied and to shut her up.
John Borland Thayer had refused to enter a lifeboat and was last seen looking very scared and tightly gripping the mid-ship rail.
Dorothy Gibson had escaped on the first lifeboat launched. Later that year she was to make a movie based on her experience of the sinking wearing the same clothes she had worn that fateful night.
Thomas Andrews, who was often seen with the plans to the ship tucked under his arm, toured the decks explaining to people the urgency of boarding the lifeboats. He was last spotted in the ship’s lounge staring vacantly at a portrait of Plymouth Sound.
By 01.00 most of the lifeboats had been launched and it had by now become evident to everyone on board that the Titanic with its bow rising high out of the water was going to sink, and for the first time panic began to break out as there was a rush towards the few remaining lifeboats.
Fearing that the panic would spread should the Third Class passengers (who could not be expected to behave with the same decorum as their social betters) learn of the danger, they remained locked in steerage and it wasn’t until the last lifeboat had been launched that they were finally released. They rushed up towards the deck, trampling on one another as they did so, only to find the lifeboats gone and the ship in its death throes. It was reported that they had panicked and that shots had had to be fired to maintain some semblance of order. Indeed for many years it was suggested that Protestant Anglo-Saxons aboard had behaved well but that the Catholic Irish, Italians, and the Jews had sullied the whole affair with their cowardice. If it was true that they panicked then it is hardly surprising; kept below decks in poor light as the ship listed heavily and with water up to their knees.
People now began to throw themselves from the ship but with the temperature of the water below freezing life expectancy was less than twenty minutes. By 02.05 the Titanic’s bow was entirely out of the water and her lights had at last failed and she had been plunged into darkness. They were to briefly flicker on again as she began to slip beneath the waves. By 02.20 she had gone.
Second Officer Lightoller was still aboard the Titanic as she sank, with the waves lapping over the decks he simply swam away and finding an upturned collapsible clambered aboard. Also clinging to the collapsible were Radio Operators Harold Bride and Jack Phillips who had continued to send out distress calls to the very last moment.
Phillips did not survive the night and Harold Bride was to say: “I learned to love that man in those final moments.”
Fourth Officer Boxhall was in charge of the final lifeboat to leave Titanic at 01.45. It had only 18 people aboard out of a capacity of 40. First Officer Murdoch went down with the ship, though it was later reported that he had in fact shot himself.
Those in the lifeboats later said that they could hear the strains of the band playing Nearer Thy God to Thee as she began to slip beneath the waves. None of the band members survived. Captain Smith was last seen helping a young child into a lifeboat before being washed from the deck though some later said that they had seen him near a collapsible but that he had chosen to swim away from it. His body was never recovered.
J Bruce Ismay, the Managing Director of the White Star Line, did manage to procure for himself a place in a lifeboat and by doing so he became overnight one of the most despised men in the world. It was even suggested that he had disguised himself as a woman wrapping a shawl around his shoulders and wearing a bonnet.
In fact, other survivors reported seeing him helping the women and children into the boats and had only entered one himself at the last moment and when invited to do so but his behaviour in not going down with his own ship was considered an act of cowardice and flew in the face of Captain Smith’s demand – to be British!
Ismay may have survived but his reputation was in tatters. When years later his racehorse won the prestigious Epsom Derby it was disqualified solely on the grounds that it belonged to – J Bruce Ismay.
The Titanic did not go quietly.
The sound of the ship as it shuddered and broke apart and the terrible cries of the terrified passengers still on board were to haunt those safely in the lifeboats for the rest of their lives. Despite the pleas of many of the women desperate to find their husbands, few of the lifeboats, afraid of being swamped, returned to pick up survivors and even then they only did so when the screams of those struggling in the water had died away.
Only 7 survivors were to be plucked from the icy sea and of these 2 later died.
Of the 2,240 passengers and crew on board the Titanic that fateful night 1,517 drowned or died of hypothermia. The class divisions of Edwardian society were reflected in the balance sheet of survivors. Of the First Class passengers aboard the Titanic 60.5% survived, Second Class 41.7%, but only 24.5% of Third Class passengers – it seemed there was no greater equality in death than there was in life.
The Carpathia arrived on the scene at around 04.00 just under two hours after the Titanic sank beneath the waves.
The survivors were taken from the lifeboats and provided with blankets and a mug of tea. She then took three days, slowed by ice packs and a descending mist, to steam to New York. When she arrived at Pier 54 at 21.30 on 18 April in pouring rain she was greeted by 40,000 anxious people cramming the quayside. They were to be shocked by the condition of the survivors, pale, shivering, and clearly traumatised by their experience. They were to be even more shocked when the full list of victims was released. For in the time that it had taken the Carpathia to reach New York it had been reported that though the Titanic had struck an Iceberg there had been no loss of life, and even as late as 18 April it was rumoured that the crippled ship was being towed to safety by the S.S Virginia.
Inquiries were held into the disaster in both New York and London.
The London Inquiry, presided over by Lord Mersey was largely held to be a whitewash:
The White Star Line was held not to be culpable in any way and that the sinking was the result of a tragic accident. Stanley Lord, the Captain of the Californian, was criticised for his neglect and lack of urgency and the opportunity was taken to lay most of the blame for the huge loss of life on him. He was to deny that he had done anything wrong but it wasn’t to be until some forty years later that he was finally to be cleared of any responsibility.
The city of Southampton, the port from which Titanic had set sail on her tragic maiden voyage was devastated. Most of the ship’s crew had been recruited from the city and more than 500 households had lost someone and more often than not they were the family’s sole breadwinner. As the White Star Line was not found culpable the families received no compensation. Indeed, those crew members who had survived were later billed for damaged uniforms and the loss of White Star property.
The sinking of the Titanic shattered the illusion that man had at last conquered nature and it marked the beginning of the end of what Mark Twain referred to as the Gilded Age.