The Titanic Disaster – 100 Years On

This is being uploaded to this blog just over 100 years to the day since RMS Titanic hit an iceberg in the North Atlantic on 14th April 1912 and sank just 2 hours and 40 minutes later.

In those 160 minutes a high drama was played out in which all human frailty and weakness, strength and heroism, came to the fore. The largest ship afloat at the time, embodying the epitome of all the White man’s technology in his quest to tame the forces of nature, and which was widely believed to be unsinkable, succumbed to a skirmish with a solitary iceberg and sank to the deepest part of the ocean with the loss of over 1,500 lives.

It has been defined as the moment when the twentieth century lost its innocence. That century certainly consisted of a series of disasters for the White race, and perhaps the sinking of the Titanic portended that.

It has all the elements of an enduring story. People will never tire, it seems, of new books, films, documentaries and conspiracy theories relating to that one ship.

It had everything – fabulous wealth on board (even, some say, a cursed ancient Egyptian mummy), the strictly structured class system of the British Empire in microcosm, a swaggering confidence (it seemed) in its own invincibility, a background of being built in a Belfast shipyard where Catholics and Protestants acted out their ancient hatreds of each other, many dramatic deaths among the ship builders in the process of building and launching it, the White Star line gambling all it had on this one ship to save itself from financial ruin, a captain on his last voyage before retirement allegedly seeking a place in the record books for the fastest maiden crossing of the Atlantic, and so it goes on and on.

There are even stories of how the owners planned to have the ship sunk anyway before it reached New York, though not with the loss of any lives, in order to claim the insurance money and inject some much needed cash into the White Star bank account.

Who was to blame? There were so many unlikely events that came together to cause the tragedy that it’s uncanny.

Shipping reports warning of ice came into the telegraph room, but were not taken up to the bridge for the captain’s attention because there was a huge volume of outgoing messages from the rich First Class passengers, mostly of a shallow and frivolous nature.

The binoculars that should have been in the lookout’s possession had been mislaid (though some say that they wouldn’t have made much difference anyway).

When the iceberg was sighted the officer in charge made the worst possible decision in ordering the ship to steer to starboard, thereby making a glancing collision (the kind of collision most likely to cause fatal damage to the hull) almost certain. It would have been better to plough head-on into the iceberg because, while this would undoubtedly have caused major damage and some injuries, the hull would not have been sliced open the way it was, paving the way for an unending flood of water that sealed the ship’s doom. The Titanic could have remained afloat at least until help arrived.

Instead, the iceberg sliced open five of the sixteen water-tight compartments below the water line. That was enough, even for the mighty Titanic. It went down in the deepest part of the ocean – over 2 miles deep. It was too far from neighbouring ships for rescue to arrive in time before it sank. In the minutes before it went down it exhibited the classic “sinking ship” picture of the stern coming up out of the water to nearly a vertical position before falling back and then submerging.

And of course the water was 2 degrees below freezing, making all hope of survival in it beyond a half minute or so impossible (something that most of the films we have been seeing about the disaster recently seem to have overlooked).

No-one could really have foreseen the incredible coincidence of a huge iceberg right in the path of Titanic. The chances of that happening, even in the Labrador current, must have been a million to one.

The mass media at the time, true to form, sought sensationalism rather than the truth about the disaster, and went searching for heroes and villains where, for the most part, there were only ordinary humans. William Hearst, a powerful US press magnate, had a vendetta against the White Star Line’s chairman, J. Bruce Ismay, who was on board but managed to escape the sinking ship in one of the lifeboats.

It was easy, therefore, to label him a coward who saved his own skin while 1,500 other passengers and crew died. The resulting media blitz on him ruined what was left of the rest of his life – he never lived it down, and probably soon wished he had gone down with the ship.

But it transpires that Mr Ismay only took a seat in the last lifeboat to leave when it was clear that the seat would otherwise have remained empty – there was no-one else around to take it, and the boat had to be launched without further delay. So could he really be blamed?

Captain Smith seems to have managed to avoid most of the blame. Going down with his ship at least salvaged his reputation as the ship’s captain. But he should have resisted pressure from the owners to sail at full speed into an ice field. He should also have acted on the ice warnings that were coming into the telegraph room that night, assuming, that is, that he was aware of them.

No doubt the one hundredth anniversary of the disaster will not by any means mark the end of all the speculation, the books, the films and the conspiracy theories. There will be plenty more.

But let’s hope that all the lives lost and ruined, all the heroism and self-sacrifice, will not have been totally in vain. Let the Titanic live on as part of the Anglo-Celtic story, its triumphs and tragedies.

John Northwind