Henrietta Post
  • SANDER DIAMOND: When the unsinkable sank

  • Today, as we board great cruise ships that can carry upwards of 5,000 people and muster to practice emergency drills before getting into open waters, the lessons of the ...
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  • On April 10, 1912, tugboats gently pushed the R.M.S. Titanic into deeper water as it began the first leg of its maiden voyage from Southampton to New York City. From its decks, First and Second Class passengers waved good-bye to friends and family standing on the piers amid chauffeur driven automobiles that carried aristocrats, plutocrats and the Trans-Atlantic elite to the dock while a small army of cabbies waited patiently for the crowds to leave so they could get back to work. Members of Edwardian Era bands packed up their instruments while photographers and camera’s on tripods recorded the great ship’s departure. In an age when passenger ship companies competed with each other to build the biggest and most luxurious liners which coverted the prestigious Blue Riband for speed in the Atlantic crossing, the owners of the liner, the White Star Line, hoped to take it away from its major competitor, the Cunard line which prided itself in having two new gems in its line-up, the Lusitania and the Mauretania, the latter launched in 1907, 790 feet long, weighing 31,550 gross tons and with a four-blade propeller. It could move at 24 knots. Both Cunard and White Start wanted to make certain the Blue Riband did not go to Imperial Germany, whose massive liners, the Deutschland, Amerika and Kaiserin August Viktoria did not out-shine them in an era when both England and Germany were involved in an arms race, the building of larger and faster battleships.

    The R.M.S. Titanic was a sight to behold with its graceful lines; black hull with a graceful red trim just above the waterline and its camel-colored stacks. From bow to stern it was 882.9 feet long with four smoke stacks, one a dummy for appearance sake. From its keel to the top of the bridge, it was 104 feet or nearly seven and a half stories high and weighed in at 46,328 gross tons. It burned 600 tons of coal per day.

    At its helm was a seasoned Captain, Mr. Edward Smith who had captained the Titanic’s sister ship the H.M.S. Olympic which was launched in June 1911 and weighed in a 45,324 gross tons. In that era and well into the 1950s, ships were paired as nearly identical twins. Captain Edward Smith had made nine voyages to New York’s Pier 59 but not without problems. On his fifth voyage the Olympic had collided with the British cruiser Hawke on September 9, 1911 just off Southampton at the Isle of Wright. The damage was minor. Later, on another trip, it had pushed a tug under its massive bow, but neither accident did anything to tarnish his reputation for seamanship and judgment. But many asked if these Leviathans were simply too big, a question quickly dismissed in an age when technological arrogance trumped public opinion. In the case of the Titanic, it was rumored to be “unsinkable,” a claim not made by the owners of the White Star Line, the American company, the International Mercantile Marine in the hands of the banker J.P. Morgan, or the builders, Harland and Wolff located in Belfast, which enjoyed a pristine reputation.

    The Titanic did not sail directly to New York. It left Southampton on April 10th for Cherbourg to pick up passengers and from there to Queenstown in Ireland where it picked up more passengers, mainly immigrants hoping to start new lives in America in an age when carrying those in steerage was still bread and butter for the owners of these great liners. On Thursday, April 11th, the liner sailed past Ireland’s Old Head of Kinsdale where the last pictures taken of the ship were snapped until it was rediscovered sitting in two sections roughly 375 miles south of Newfoundland on the bottom of the North Atlantic decades later. The voyage was uneventful, the seas calm and the partying continued late into the nights until the early morning hours of April 15, 1912 when it hit an iceberg in the darkness. The unthinkable had happened and it soon became clear that the iceberg had ruptured the hull, a 200 foot long deep gash. Soon the icy waters of the Atlantic flooded six compartments. Captain Smith soon realized the ship was doomed. Given the angle of the hull, only some of the lifeboats could be lowered with women and children from First and Second Class first to be saved in wooden lifeboats. Realizing their fate, others started to jump into the frigid waters, their cork filled life vests providing little protection from death by freezing or drowning. Those fortunate enough to be in the lifeboats watched in horror as the bow dipped into the water at 1:40 p.m. Thirty-five minutes later, the stern moved high into the air and gradually the greatest liner ever built disappeared from the surface.

    Had the R.M.S. Titanic made it to New York City’s Pier 59, it would have been greeted by a small armada of welcoming boats and ships, tugs blowing their horns, and fireboats spraying plumes of water into the air. At the pier, bands would have been on-hand to greet the great liner amid a sea of American and British flags at the completion of its maiden voyage. Once the gangplanks were lowered, the First Class passengers would have disembarked, surely waved through customs. Next in line Second Class, followed by Third Class and Steerage, many of whom had to wait patiently in line to pass through the watchful eyes of immigration officials. Meanwhile, those from First Class, the elite, were surely whisked away in waiting automobiles and cabs to Grand Central or Penn Stations to complete their travels, to the grand hotels facing Central Park or their homes on Fifth Avenue. But all social distinctions would have evaporated when the R.M.S. Titanic, a Royal Mail Carrier with space to hold the mail, currency and gold in a 28,000 square secured area, passed the Statue of Liberty with its horns signaling the end of its first voyage. This was not to be.

    It was the scale of the disaster that deeply shook the Western World. For some in years to come, the disaster was viewed as a harbinger or things to come, two years later the Great War of 1914 – 1918. By comparison, the fatality rate in the war, ten million in all, dwarfed the statistics of the Titanic disaster, which claimed the lives of 1,514 people. In just one battle, what the Germans called “Kindermord,” 36,000 soldiers mainly from Bavaria were killed and at the Battle of the Somme and Verdun 1,517 men were killed in a few minutes. But it was the Titanic that captured the imaginations of generations to come. Perhaps it was the sinking of the Old Order, recently told in the BBC series, Downton Abbey, the end of the placid Edwardian Age. For others, the sinking was a reminder of what can happen when too much faith is placed in technology, only to be reminded that humankind often cannot overcome the forces of nature, the fragility of civilization itself. But for all, as the world saw in the blockbuster film “Titanic” in 1997, we were once more reminded that some of us will do anything to live, men pushing children out of the way in order to get on the lifeboats.

    Had the great liner not met its final end when it did, it would have been pressed into service for the war effort, as a hospital ship repainted in white with red crosses or a troop carrier, repainted in what was called “Dazzle paint” to elude the subs. Its sister ship, the Britannic was used as a hospital ship and hit a mine and sunk on November 21, 1916. Cunard’s Lusitania was sunk in May 1915 off Ireland after Captain Schwieger gave the order for U-20 to launch a torpedo. Out of 1,959 passengers, 1,195 were lost, 123 of whom were Americans. Its sister ship, the Mauretania, sailed on long after the war and was de-commissioned in 1934.

    In the lead-up to the Great War which most people in Britain and Germany thought was inevitable, the battleship or what the British called “The Dreadnoughts,” were the aircraft carriers of their day. Little different than the great liners, they were a sight to behold with their massive 26” guns. The naval rivalry between Berlin and London was measured in each nation’s ability to build larger battleships with Germany now challenging the UK for mastery of the seas. When the Titanic disappeared under the calm waters of the North Atlantic, it must have deeply rattled both those in the ship building industry and those in the Admiralty. If an iceberg could sink a liner, they must have asked if the hulls of the great floating fortresses could easily be penetrated. The competition to build even greater battleships was little different than the arms race.

    But there was a difference. The power of battleships was measured in their guns. The liners in their speed and luxuries. Germany’s Hamburg-American Line or HAPAG owned by Albert Ballin, introduced a swimming pool on board and on the Amerika, a Ritz-Carlton Restaurant. Like the Second Reich under Kaiser Wilhelm, nearly everything appeared to be overdone, including the decoration on-board, Neo-Baroque and grandiose. The British ships, while equally often excessive in décor, were more reserved like the British people. Best remembered is the Grand Staircase on the Titanic. Today, in the competition to get passengers, the cruise liners, some of which can carry upwards of 5,000 passengers, still carry-on this tradition, excess is their appeal. Then, too, not different than the competition between Boeing and Airbus building even larger planes, the cruise lines continue to make bigger and bigger ships. It is noteworthy to remember that after the Titanic disaster, some people questioned if ships had become too big to handle a disaster, a question once again being asked.

    While the Titanic and so many of the great liners went to the bottom in the war, the sinking of the great liner on its maiden voyage did not sink the builders or the White Star Line. Harland and Wolff, the builders of the Titanic, are still in business in Belfast, turning out great ships and wind turbines. Germany’s HAPAG survived both world wars and developed container shipping so familiar today. The White Star Line remained independent until the Great Depression. In 1934, it merged with its old rival Cunard Lines with the agreement until the late 1940s that the Cunard burgee or symbol of the company flew above the famous White Star red burgee with its white star. Three decades later, both were collapsed into Carnival Cruise Lines with Cunard still having a separate fleet of ships, the R.M.S. Queen Mary 2, the MS Queen Victoria, the MS Queen Elizabeth, all of which still use the term “White Star Service” for those who want additional comfort and elegant dining. But there is still one old liner which still flies the White Star burgee, the French Nomandic which started to be restored by Harland and Wolff in Belfast in January 2006. The name also survives for the training of high level staff at Cunard, at the White Star Academy.

    On April 15, 2012, the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the R.M.S. Titanic will be commemorated. The name of this doomed liner has entered our language and is used interchangeably with disaster at sea or in life, most recently the accident off the coast of Italy. It is also used to describe how some people approach the end, the band playing on as the great ship started to sink or people pretending things are normal when they know the end has come, “rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic” is often heard. In the broadest sense, the sinking of the liner continues to be a reminder of how quickly our faith in technology can be thwarted through an error in judgment by those at the helm, when cost trumps safety, or when a single part of a massive project proves to be faulty as was the case in the Space Shuttle disaster. In the case of the Titanic, it was an inferior quality of steel that permitted the iceberg to make such a fatal hole in the hull.

    Few disasters have captured the minds of people like the sinking of the Titanic but it did not doom the industry. Such was not the case when the Hindenburg, the massive Zeppelin, exploded in the late 1930s. It, too, took passengers across the oceans of the world but with its end the Zeppelins passed into history. The age of large aircraft has arrived. When the Great War started in 1914 and later involved the United States, the Titanic was soon a memory but not for the survivors. They moved on but surely never forgot what they witnessed on that day 100 years ago. The last American who survived the disaster died in 2006, Lillian Asplund who along with her mother Selma and six year old brother Felix managed to get into a lifeboat. Five years before, the last passenger who boarded the great ship in France, Michael Navrati, died at his home in Paris. In the 100 years which have followed the sinking, there have been countless disasters in war and in peacetime, massive airliners crashing or exploding in the skies and the sinking of great ships with far more passengers lost than the Titanic tragedy. Such was the case with the Russian sinking of the German ship the Wilhelm Gustloff in January 1945 by a submarine. Over 9,000 people were lost, all trying to get out of the way of the approaching Red Army. But it is the Titanic we remember since it marked the end of an age in peacetime, the Edwardian Era, when some people were more than willing to believe that ships could be made unsinkable. The disaster has become a metaphor for the end of an era. It is both a morality tale and a lesson about the faith we often put into technology when deep down we know that anything can go wrong in an instant. Today, as we board great cruise ships that can carry upwards of 5,000 people and muster to practice emergency drills before getting into open waters, the lessons of the Titanic are worth reflecting on. The gross tonnage on the Titanic was just over 45,000 tons. The gross tonnage of the cruise liner Allure of the Seas, is 225,282 tons.

    Page 2 of 2 - Sander A. Diamond is professor of modern history at Keuka
    College, where he has taught for 43 years.

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