When RMS Titanic plunged beneath the starlit Atlantic on the early morning of April 15th, 1912, she left more than fifteen hundred souls behind her, thrashing and gasping desperately for their lives in the freezing cold water.
She also left a whole raft of unanswered questions behind her. Questions that need answers now as much as they did back then. And, because of the shocking roster of lives lost among the senior staff on board, they are answers that we will never, ever get.
And, of course, that is part of her appalling, compelling mystique; what we actually know is just the tip of the iceberg- pun wholly intentional. But the real conundrum is in what lies beneath.
If some cosmic force could somehow grant me the means, what I would really like to know is what was said between three key players in the tragedy during those last few hours, as the Titanic sagged helplessly into the abyss. The slowly unfolding tragedy would have brought all three to within a close, enforced proximity during those last, ghastly hours.
Those three men were Edward Smith, the captain; J. Bruce Ismay, the owner, and Thomas Andrews, the chief architect for both the Titanic and her almost identical sister ship, the Olympic.
Two of these men would perish in the disaster; a third would survive. For reasons of his own, he would prove to be somewhat less than forthcoming on any conversations he may have had with the other two men. But, in truth, he was never pressed by the largely deferential courts of inquiry held into the sinking on both sides of the Atlantic.
Conjecture on the subject is fascinating, but in the absence of definitive answers, conjecture is all it will ever be. Still, let us look at what all three men did know for certain, not long after midnight on Sunday, April 14th, 1912;
1) They knew that the Titanic was going to sink within three hours, and that the nearest responsive rescue ship was more than four hours’ steaming time away.
2) They knew that there were lifeboats for just 1180 of the 2200 plus passengers and crew on board.
3) They knew that the water temperature was well below freezing, and that no one could be expected to survive immersion in it for more than a few minutes.
And, the inescapable logic to be deduced from those three facts was that at least a thousand people were going to die before even a slight chance of rescue could reach them.
Of course, most of this shortfall hinges on the lifeboat capacity. The British Board of Trade regulations required that the Titanic carry only sixteen lifeboats. The White Star Line had provided her with twenty in all.
As the overall architect, Thomas Andrews had specified no less than forty-eight lifeboats each for the Olympic and Titanic. He even installed a special kind of lifeboat launching gear, called the Welin davit system, that was capable of launching three boats in succession from the same spot.
But Andrews was over ruled. By Bruce Ismay no less, in his capacity as managing director of the White Star Line.
Why? Each of those five ton lifeboats would have cost relatively little to build. And, because of the revolutionary Welin system, those twenty eight extra boats would have taken up no more floor space on the boat deck.
It has been argued in recent years that shipping line owners like Ismay saw lifeboats simply as rescue ferries, to be used to evacuate a ship in the event of fire or collision. That he did not conceive that they would actually have to be used as fully fledged survival craft in their own right.
Ismay’s supposed thinking was based on the experience of losing another, much smaller White Star liner, the Republic, back in 1909.
The Republic had been rammed in thick fog, off the coast of Nantucket, by a much smaller Italian immigrant ship, the Florida. The Republic immediately sent out a distress call as she began to sink very slowly but surely.
Luckily, the Republic was very close to land; right near the spot where most ocean liners begin their final run in to New York. As a result, she was soon surrounded by a small, rapidly growing rescue fleet, and in quite short order.
The boats on the Republic were then used to simply ferry all of her passengers and crew over to the ships standing nearby, waiting to pick them up. Thus, every life on board was saved after the initial collision. It was, indeed, a text book operation, and it gained world wide attention at the time.
But Ismay either drew the wrong conclusions from the loss of the Republic, or simply went into denial. Either way, it proved fatal to the huddled throng on the sloping boat deck of the Titanic, just over three years later.
For Titanic was not near any land; she was four hundred miles out in the Atlantic. All the ships in the general vicinity that did answer her desperate wireless messages were too far distant to respond in time. And, from the outset, the Titanic was far more seriously wounded than the Republic had ever been. So Ismay’s argument that lifeboats were only necessary as short distance ferries was turned completely on its head, and with disastrous consequences.
The pathetic handful of lifeboats on board the Titanic would all have to serve as fully fledged survival craft, and quite possibly for hours on end. What was worse was that there was room in those boats for less than half the people on board.
Ismay knew that. And so did both Captain Smith and Thomas Andrews.
I will always wonder if Ismay used the Republic near escape as an excuse not to provide more boats- the same boats that the experienced, hugely dedicated Thomas Andrews clearly did feel were necessary. What could his motivation have been in such a case?
I don’t think it was necessarily about the boats per se, but rather, accommodating the larger extra numbers of crewmen that would have been needed to lower and man them properly. Even on ships as huge as Olympic and Titanic, space was not infinite. Providing more crew for more boats would have meant creating extra cabins for them. And that could only be done at the expense of giving something else up- like valuable cargo space, for instance.
Of course, this larger crew would also have resulted in a larger wage bill. Did Ismay use his fatuous optimism over the Republic rescue as a shield to cover his reluctance to increase the total number of boats and crew, simply as a cost saving expedient?
I’d love to know what Thomas Andrews had to say about it on the night of April 14th-15th, 1912. Because if anyone was entitled to feel aggrieved with Ismay, it was surely him.
As it was, the evacuation of the sinking ship was very badly botched. Only 705 people were saved in boats capable of carrying 1180- an appalling shortfall of some 475 souls.
This, largely, can be laid at the door of the popular, hugely experienced Captain Edward Smith. He ordered that the boats be swung out, and filled with ‘women and children first’ before being lowered.
On the port and starboard sides of the sinking liner, that same order was interpreted very differently by the respective supervising officers. On the starboard side, First Officer Murdoch read it as ‘women and children first’, and then subsequently allowed men into the boats when no more ladies were in evidence.
On the port side, Second Officer Lightoller read it as ‘women and children only’- end of. No men at all. Even when there were just twenty-seven souls aboard a lifeboat built to hold seventy people.
This resulted in something like three quarters of those saved leaving in the starboard side boats. Andrews, his world already crumbling around him, was struck numb with horror when he realised that Lightoller was lowering boats at nothing like their full rated capacity.
According to his own account, Lightoller told Andrews that he was worried about filling the boats at deck level, in case the full weight load of seventy people caused them to buckle under the strain. An incredulous Andrews told Lightoller that two of the boats had been tested in Belfast, fully loaded, and that there had been no problems at all. After this, Lightoller did step up the number of people in each successive boat that he lowered.
Andrews, of course, was by this time unable to comment.
That said, one man could have cut straight through this appalling dichotomy; where your actual chances of survival were much better, or worse, depending on which side of the deck you happened to be standing on. That man was Captain Edward J. Smith.
Smith could- and should- have overruled his feisty second officer. But he did not.
Ever since the collision, no one had been more acutely aware than Smith of how desperate the situation was. He was the first to see any wireless messages coming through to the sinking ship .He knew all too well that the lifeboat capacity was woefully insufficient. And, just like Andrews, he knew exactly who was responsible for that shortfall.
No matter how you view his actions leading up to the actual collision, it is impossible not to feel some sympathy for Smith; he knew that at least a thousand people were going to die. And he knew that, as the captain of the Titanic, the ultimate responsibility for that loss would be laid to his charge, and not that of Bruce Ismay. If he felt that to be both unjust and inevitable, then who can blame him?
So, what was said between captain and owner? They were in very close proximity for at least the first fifty minutes or so after the collision. Again, Ismay was not forthcoming on the subject. Again, Smith was unavailable to provide any kind of possible counter narrative.
For sure, many of the deck officers on the Titanic would have been privy to any exchanges between those two men. But most of them went down with the ship. There may have been some ‘in the know’- and Lightoller comes to mind- but he maintained a discreet silence. The Second Officer retained an extraordinary devotion to his late captain right up to the last days of his own, quite extraordinary life.
Quite simply, Smith seems to have quietly imploded, going to pieces even as the cold ocean devoured the innards of his ship. The shock of inevitable disaster, coupled with that massive, unavoidable loss of life, probably overwhelmed him. Almost everything was left to the isolated efforts of his deck officers- Wilde, Murdoch, Lightoller, Lowe and Moody- in a nightmare situation that completely tore up the rule book.
This handful of essentially leaderless, desperately over worked men were constantly trying to improvise short term solutions for a situation that grew increasingly desperate with each new minute. If they were over stressed and made some impulsive mistakes, it is hardly to be wondered at under the circumstances.
But it is Thomas Andrews that I feel truly sorry for. For his story is nothing short of heart breaking.
I would love to sit down and ask him how he felt, as the ship he had laboured to bring to life over three long years, died slowly beneath his feet. How he felt about Bruce Ismay leaving the ship in one of the last lifeboats (if, indeed, he knew at all). Knowing that his recommendations about lifeboats had been ignored by the same owner that left in one of the few boats on board, while at least a thousand people were about to die as a result- that would have broken most men.
I cannot get them out of my head even now. The thought of Smith, stunned and ruined, watching helplessly as the water rose slowly but unstoppably towards him, about to obliterate both his life, and the enviable track record he had built up among the travelling public over some thirty-eight long years. Andrews, still trying desperately to save others even at the end, with no intention of ever doing anything to help himself. And yes, even Ismay, shivering in a little wooden lifeboat as his credibility sank with the dying leviathan that he could not bring himself to look at as she plunged under that stark, starlit ocean.
I would love to have been party to those anguished exchanges between these three, central figures as their worlds fell apart all around them. Because it is their story that is the kernel, the very epicentre, of the entire, needless tragedy of the Titanic. No one knew the truth in the way that they did.
All we have instead are questions that can never, ever be answered.