Friday, October 10, 2008

The Story of the Titanic

The Story of the Titanic, as Told By Its Survivors
Edited by Jack Winocour; 320 pages.
Dover Publications, Inc. New York
© 1960

The story of the R.M.S. Titanic, of the White Star Line, is one of the most tragically short is is possible to conceive. The world had waited expectantly for its launching and again for its sailing; had read accounts of its tremendous size and its unexampled completeness and luxury; had felt it a matter of the greatest satisfaction that such a comfortable and above all such a safe boat had been designed and built -- the "unsinkable lifeboat" -- and then in a moment to hear that it had gone to the bottom as if it had been the veriest tramp steamer of a few hundred tons; and then with it fifteen hundred passengers, some of them known the world over! The improbability of such a thing ever happening was what staggered humanity. - Lawrence Beesley


The Story of the Titanic is a collection of four survivors' accounts from the loss of the Titanic in April 1912. If you are interested in seeing 1912 video footage of the Titanic's survivors, the ice field where Titanic went to its death, and other related material, click here.

When I was just a child, I owned a pack of "cards" -- I'm not sure if that's the best way to describe them, as it seems they were bigger than 5 by 7 index cards -- that displayed historical events. The front of each card displayed a picture of the event, while the back of it supplied generous information. One particular card that I remember quite vividly depicts the Titanic sinking. Its stern is high in the air, still well-lit, and appears to be quite dramatic set against the background of the stars. Small lifeboats filled with shadowy human forms occupy the foreground. You can see a similar scene if you click here and forward the video t the 8:34 mark.

The picture struck me, and from that moment on the Titanic held fascination for me. I remember drawing pictures in second grade of that scene, with little stick-figures in lifeboats watching the ship go to its death. My interest in the subject has not waned, and as such I've read a lot of literature on the subject -- but until this week, I've never read any primary source material, nothing from the actual survivors. I've read quotations from them in the Walter Lord books, of course, but not their actual accounts. Titanic, the 1997 blockbuster, was on television a few days ago, and I watched it for a few minutes before having to go somewhere. Seeing it reminded me that it's been some time since I read anything on the subject, and I decided to remedy that.

My local library happens to have access to The Story of the Titanic, As Told By Its Passengers. The book is really a collection of four survivor accounts, two of which are full-length books in and of themselves. The accounts are by Lawrence Beesley, a science instructor from England; Colonel Archibald Gracie, a native Alabamian and an amateur historian; Second Officer Charles Lightoller, and Junior Marconi Operator Harold Bride. Since there are four separate accounts, I shall be commenting on each one separately.

Beesley's book The Loss of the S.S. Titanic (1912) is quoted liberally by Walter Lord and other Titanic historians, and with good reason. Beesley wrote it in the month following the sinking, and has an incredible mind for seeing and memorizing details Given his profession as scientist, it comes as no surprise that he comments on the technical aspects of the ship with an idea for details. To add to all of this, he is also a talented writer, at least in my opinion and in the opinion of Colonel Gracie, who will quote him in his own book. Beesley travels as a second-class passenger (I believe) and was on his way to the United States for a bit of sight-seeing. He was the only person in this collection who actually got into a lifeboat before the ship sank: he was offered the chance to go down when there were no more women on his part of the ship, and he took up the opportunity. (The rest were all washed over and managed to swim to overturned lifeboats in the water.) Beesley ends his account with a chapter on "Lessons Learned", and makes suggestions for making the Atlantic safe. (Not that it will matter much longer: commercial avitation will begin to come into its own after the Great War.) You can read his account at Project Gutenberg for free.

Colonel Gracie (who you can spot in the 1997 movie: click here for a list of characters and look at the bottom of it) was an amateur historian with a particular interest in the Civil War, unsurprising given that he's from Alabama. Even today rural whites in the deep south sport Confederate flags and talk of "General Lee" with great veneration. Gracie states in The Truth about the Titanic (1913) that he was on the Titanic to recover from writing his The Truth About Chickamauga. Gracie's account is the largest, as the last two chapters include a gorge of information from the American and British inquiries.

The next account, "Titanic", is by the only senior officer to survive, Charles Lightoller. He dedicates it to "my persistant wife, who made me do it." Lightoller will, incidentally, live to help out at the evacuation of the British army at Dunkirk in 1939. Lightoller's account betrays the period most: he is a career officer of the White Star Line and is quite proud of it. He writes of the differences between the merchant marine -- his fellow commercial sailors -- and the Royal Navy. While the "Bluejackets" of the Royal Navy are trained to obey every order without question, the men of the merchant marine pride themselves on being able to think on their feet and respond to problems out of a commitment to duty. Lightoller also speaks sneeringly of the American Inquiry because of its naval ignorance, and he records his experience of forcing a group of "Dagos" to leave an unattended lifeboat at the point of a gun -- probably the inspiration for the scene in the 1997 blockbuster where Lightoller brandishes a gun on a crowd of passengers and yells “Get back, I say! Or I'll shoot you all like dogs! Keep order here! Keep order, I say!” Before reading Lightoller's account, I had scoffed at the scene, but that's really no better than forcing a few men out of a boat and then sending it down with empty seats. During the final moments, when people are drowning in the ship, Lightoller writes that "It was mostly men, thank God."

The last and shortest account is by Junior Marconi Operator Harold Bride. The "Marconi" was the Titanic's wireless set. It was included mostly as a luxury, much like the elevators, and so the two operators were not really seen as part of the "crew". They were paid separately by the Marconi company. Thre was no rationalized procedure for conveying iceberg warnings directly to the bridge (the merchant marine liked winging it, as we've learned from Cmdr. Lightoller), which is in my opinion one of the causes for the accident. I would like to believe that had Captain Smith received all six messages, he would have put them together and realized that the Titanic was steaming into a massive ice field.

Bride's account is really rather short, and the most memorable incident he mentions is that after the Captain released the men from their duty, Senior Operator Philips stayed at his post. Bride went into their berths in the next room to gather Philips' and his belongings (the water already covering the floor), and when he returned he saw someone trying to remove Philips' life-belt. Philips was oblivious, concentrating on his work. Bride writes that he hit the intruder over the head and left him to die. "I hope I finished him," he said.

There are common threads woven through the three main accounts -- other than "The ship sank. People died." Beesley, Gracie, and Lightoller all speak well of Captain Smith, although Beesley does write that the captain has to take some of the blame: he took a gamble and lost. All three agree that the whole Titanic incident was conducted with dignity and self-control. They all write that the officers and sailors did their duty quickly, quietly, efficiently, and safely -- while the passengers never lost their heads and conducted themselves like proper Britons. Beesley in particular writes about the self-control of the "Teutonic Race", the way the officers did their duty and the way the passengers complied with them completely. Bride doesn't mention this, but he and Philips were in the Marconi cabin the entire time, practically until they were both washed overboard.

Beesley and Gracie also maintain that the ship did not break apart. Beesley states that the accounts in American newspapers of the great ship breaking into two are pure fiction. We know that they're incorrect: the ship currently lies in three pieces. The bow is completely shattered and is scarcely recognizable as being part of the ship, while the stern is relatively intact but rotting quickly. There's a hunk of wreckage near the bow that is unidentifiable, and the physics of the sinking explain all of this. So why did they not witness it?

1. Beesley: in a lifeboat at the time of the breaking. He writes that the night is so dark that he couldn't even see the face of the woman next to him. Consequently, when the lights on the Titanic failed, I imagine all he could make out was a shadowy mass that was constantly moving and impossible to define. Thus, when he heard the boilers crashing through the ship and the ship breaking apart, he thought it was just the sound of the boilers. Who would imagine a ship breaking in two like an twig?

2. Gracie: he would have been in the water swimming as all of this happened -- very near the sounds of screaming people, the roar of the ship's beds and boilers tearing from the floor and falling downward. He's also in darkness and immersed in chaos. He writes that he was under the water for four minutes, and by the time his head emerged the ship was gone. Others have written that the ship seemed to speed up as it sank -- but still, four minutes for half of a ship to sink? That's pretty quick.

Being on a ship as large and grand as the Titanic, I can't blame them for not believing it could be snapped in two. Gracie mentions having visited the Olympic (Titanic's sister ship, built on the same plans) to confirm details of the ship's layout. That trip must have been rather haunting. On a similar note, I read in a Titanic encyclopedia that Lawrence Beesley visited the set of A Night to Remember and tried to stay on the ship as it sank. You can see the trailer here.

Each account was informative. While each of these accounts were written in the nineteen-teens, the language isn't overly stilted. Beesley is rather wordy, but in an eloquent way. To students of the Titanic I would reccommend this, so long as they realize that these are only four perspectives and not necessarily wholly reliable. I would especially recommend Beesley's account, however, because of his way of coming to terms with how and why things happened the way they did.

There seemed to be a sense of loneliness when we were left on the se in a small boat without the Titanic; [...] we waited head on for the wave which we thought might come- - the wave we had heard so much of from the crew and which they said had been known to travel for miles -- and it neer came. But although Titanc left us no such legacy of a wave as she went to the bottom, she left us with something we would willingly forget forever, something which is well not to let the imagination dwell on -- the cries of many hundreds of our fellow-passengers struggling in the ice-cold water.

I would willingly omit any further mention of this part of the disaster from this book, but for two reasons it is not possible -- first, that as a matter of history it should be put on record; and secondly, that these cries were not only an appeal for help in the awfuld conditions of danger in which the drowning found themselves -- an appeal that could never be answered -- but an appeal to the whole world to make such conditions of danger and hopelessness impossible ever again; a cry that called to the heavens for the very injustice of its own existance; a cry that clamored for its own destruction. - Lawrence Beesley

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