God’s Iceberg

Mary-Kay Wilmers

  • The ‘Titanic’: The Full Story of a Tragedy by Michael Davie
    Bodley Head, 244 pp, £12.95, October 1986, ISBN 0 370 30764 X
  • The IT Girls: Elinor Glyn and Lucy, Lady Duff Gordon by Meredith Etherington-Smith and Jeremy Pilcher
    Hamish Hamilton, 258 pp, £14.95, September 1986, ISBN 0 241 11950 2

Some passengers were playing cards in the second-class smoking-room when the Titanic hit the iceberg. It was Sunday night, quite late, and most people had gone to bed. One card-player had seen the iceberg go by a few minutes before, ‘towering above the decks’. He pointed it out to the others: they watched it briefly, then went back to their game. No one was interested enough to go out and take a closer look. One man, indicating his glass of whisky, turned to a bystander and suggested he run along the deck to see if any stray pieces of ice had come on board.

Elizabeth Eustis and Martha Eustis Stevenson, sisters from Haverford, Pennsylvania, travelling first-class, were asleep in their cabin. The collision, though almost soundless – ‘like tearing a strip of calico, nothing more’ – woke them up. Elizabeth Eustis, putting on ‘her wrapper, her slippers and her cap’, went out to see what was happening. Her sister decided to move, she recorded later, only when ‘I had seen a gentleman in one of the rooms opposite pull his shoes in from the passageway,’ where they were waiting to be cleaned. When the two women eventually went up on deck, they left the lights on in their cabin, and the electric heater – so that it ‘would be warm on our return’.

John Thayer, a young neighbour of the Eustis’s in Pennsylvania, shared a suite of rooms with his parents. After the impact, which he noticed hardly at all (‘if I had had a brimful glass of water in my hand not a drop would have been spilled’), he told them that he ‘was going up on deck to see the fun’.

Lucy Duff Gordon, a fashionable dress designer, whose life, together with that of her sister Elinor Glyn, is told in the second of these books, was on her way to New York with her husband, a Scotch baronet, and her secretary. She heard people running along the deck outside her cabin, and though they seemed to be talking about an iceberg, ‘they were laughing and gay.’

Another first-class passenger couldn’t gel his cabin door open. Norris Williams, a tennis player, heard him call out, put his shoulder to the door, and broke it down. An indignant steward, Martha Eustis Stevenson remembered afterwards, ‘threatened to have him arrested for defacing the beautiful ship’.

Lower down in the boat, in the forward steerage area, water was coming in. An emigrant called Daniel Buckley jumped out of bed and soon found his feet were getting wet. He shared a cabin with three others: when he told them that water was coming in, they laughed. ‘Get back into bed,’ one of them said. ‘You’re not in Ireland now.’

August Wennerstrom, a Swedish pastor travelling with some of his flock, went straight to the third-class smoking-room. ‘We tried to get something to drink,’ he reported afterwards, ‘but the bar was closed. Nothing else to do, we got someone to play the piano and danced.’

There were 2227 people aboard the Titanic: 1522 lost their lives when it sank, on Sunday, 14 April 1912, the fourth day of its maiden voyage. Later on, wondering why they’d had no premonition of disaster, people remembered one old lady who, fearing a calamity, had gone to bed each night in her clothes. But old ladies are like that and no one paid any attention. Long before it was launched the idea had somehow got about that the Titanic was unsinkable – and that one way or another was what most of the passengers believed. A few, it’s true, had wondered why at the service that morning they hadn’t been ask to sing ‘For those in peril on the sea’ but they can’t have been thinking of themselves: ‘not even God,’ so it was said, ‘could sink the Titanic.’

The official inquiries that were later held, first in Washington, then in London, found a great deal to criticise in the arrangements that had been made for the passengers’ safety: but in most people’s minds a disaster on that scale had to have a grander cause. In some cases it was thought to be capitalism (or greed, as it was then called). The Americans by and large blamed the British character: the British, while praising their own character, blamed the modern age and its heedless self-confidence. According to Filson Young, a down-market man of letters, it was ‘an impious blasphemy’ even to have conceived of building a ship of such ‘monstrous proportions’. The Bishop of Winchester described the Titanic as ‘a monument to human presumption’ and told his congregation that of the two contestants only the iceberg had a right to be there. God had, after all, shown his hand – and not everyone was displeased. Wilfred Scawen Blunt, for example, took comfort from the evidence thus provided that Nature, ‘not quite yet the slave of man’, was still ‘able to rise in her wrath and destroy him’.

The iceberg was sighted just before 11.40 p.m. by Fred Fleet, one of two lookouts on duty. The night was almost unbelievably clear – no one, it was said later, had ever seen stars of such brilliance – which was perhaps unlucky. Had the weather been hazier, more care might have been taken and the collision avoided. In that case, Michael Davie suggests, it’s likely that no one would ever have known how close to disaster they’d been: ‘not all near-misses by aircraft are reported now; and the Ice Patrol wonder how many near-collisions by ships were reported then.’ At the inquiries much was made of the fact that the lookouts, exceptionally, didn’t have binoculars – they’d been mislaid or left behind at Southampton – though some experts believed they wouldn’t have made any difference. After his retirement in 1936, Fleet worked as a newspaper seller for the Southampton Evening Echo; and from time to time the paper would carry a story about him and his previous life. In the course of it Fleet was always quoted as saying that if he had had binoculars the Titanic might have been saved. An unhappy, truculent man, an orphan who’d gone to sea when he was 12, he eventually hanged himself from a clothes post in his brother-in-law’s garden. Perhaps appropriately, the telephone line down which he had shouted ‘Iceberg right ahead!’ to the officer on the bridge can still be seen dangling from the crow’s nest at the bottom of the ocean.

The captain of the Titanic, Edward Smith, had known all day that he was heading into ice. Not only had the weather turned much colder: messages had been received from four other ships warning him that there were icebergs in the vicinity. Just before lunch Smith had shown one of these messages to Bruce Ismay, the chairman of the White Star Line which ostensibly owned the Titanic. (The real owner was J.P. Morgan, but that was a well-kept secret.) Ismay, who seems to have had something wrong with his brain, looked at it, stuck it in his pocket, and went into lunch. At the American inquiry he said he hadn’t really understood what it said. Asked by the Attorney-General in London, ‘Had you no curiosity to ascertain whether or not you would be travelling into a region in which ice was reported?’ he replied: ‘I had not.’ The ship meanwhile was travelling towards the icebergs at very nearly full speed.

Edward Smith was the commodore of the White Star fleet, his salary the highest of any man afloat. He was also a figure much admired by his crew for what Michael Davie describes as ‘the robustness of his captaincy’. Carried away by his robustness, he had only just missed crashing the Titanic as it made its way out of Southampton harbour. Now, with equal robustness, he failed to reduce the ship’s speed. There were plenty of other things he should have done that day and didn’t: he should, for instance, have held a boat drill but unaccountably skipped it; the Titanic, unusually, had provision for six specialist lookouts – Smith, despite what he knew about the icebergs, stuck to the customary pair. Two hours before the collision the radio operators picked up a final message, reporting ‘much heavy pack ice and a great number of large icebergs’: had Smith seen it, the warning might at last have struck home, but the telegram was put under a paperweight in the wireless room and forgotten. At ten o’clock Smith went to bed. Ten or 12 miles away, the captain of another ship, the Californian, also went to bed: but he had taken the precaution of stopping his ship for the night.

The iceberg, about a hundred times the weight of the Titanic, tore a 300-foot gash in its hull. Three watertight compartments were breached, and as the ship’s head started to go down, adjoining compartments filled up with water ‘like the sections of an ice-cube tray’. In the hoo-ha that followed the sinking, attention was focused on the number of lifeboats and who got into them and who didn’t. By contrast, the real cause of the disaster, the failure to carry the bulkheads right through the upper decks, elicited hardly any interest at all. For one thing, neither Harland and Wolff, who built the Titanic, nor the White Star Line were strictly speaking at fault: the Titanic had received more than two thousand visits from Board of Trade inspectors in the course of its construction and all the new liners were built in the same way. Had more thought been given to the bulkheads, however, the ship would have remained afloat very much longer: it might even have been towed safely to port.

As it was, the idea that the Titanic was unsinkable persisted long after the collision. Most of the lifeboats were already loaded when the officer in charge of the evacuation, Herbert Lightoller, saw water coming up one of the staircases and finally realised that the ship was doomed. The passengers – at least those who had made it into the boats – only understood that it was sinking when they saw it go down. The crew grasped the situation more quickly – which helps to explain why a quarter of the ship’s employees got away compared with 16 per cent of the passengers.

Smith himself must have known pretty well from the start that the Titanic had little chance of remaining afloat: he toured the ship accompanied by a team from Harland and Wolff, told the radio operators to send out the international distress signal and did what he could to make sure that the pumps went on working, but he was scarcely seen on the decks where the passengers had gathered and except at the very end took no part in the evacuation, with the result that the majority of the boats were lowered into the water half-empty because no one other than Smith knew the strength of the davits. It was Lightoller, obeying, as he put it, ‘the law of human nature’, who decided that the women and children should be sent away first. But in the absence of a general announcement from the captain it was difficult to round them all up and a great many women were drowned who might otherwise have been saved. It seems likely, as Michael Davie suggests, that the reason Smith behaved as he did was that he knew how little room there was on the lifeboats and was anxious to avoid a general panic. Instead of a panic, however, there was catastrophic confusion. ‘It seemed,’ John Thayer said later, ‘that we were always waiting for orders and none ever came.’

Just before 2.20 a.m., as the bow began to go under, Thayer jumped overboard. Sucked down into the freezing water, he came up about forty yards away and, ‘as if tied to the spot’, watched the great crowd of people that remained on board edging further and further back towards the stern. He was sucked down again, and as he came up the second time, was pulled onto an upturned lifeboat. Meanwhile the crowd aboard the Titanic had moved back as far as it could go and was clinging together ‘in clusters or bunches, like swarming bees’. As ‘the great after-part of the ship rose into the sky,’ they fell – ‘in masses, pairs or singly’ – and slid away into the sea. The Titanic’s lights went out, came on again, and went out altogether. When the stern reached the perpendicular it paused, its gigantic propellors hanging directly above Thayer’s head, and a tremendous noise was heard from inside, which some thought was an explosion and others the sound of engines and machinery crashing through the bulkheads. Still the Titanic remained upright – ‘a column outlined against the star-specked sky’. After ‘what felt like minutes’, it sank back a little at the stern and dived out of sight. As for the captain, he had last been seen where captains of sinking ships should be seen, standing on the bridge. The great tradition was also, in his case and no doubt in many others, a useful one: it got him out of a lot of trouble.

Of the 1522 people who went down with the Titanic relatively few had been travelling first-class. In the case of the men, 34 per cent of those who survived were first-class passengers against 8 per cent in second and 12 per cent in third. That figure didn’t, however, include the very richest of all – which according to Scawen Blunt was just as well. ‘If any large number of human beings could be better spared than another,’ he noted in his diary, ‘it would be just these American millionaires with their wealth and insolence.’ The press of course felt differently. ‘The great merchants, the princes of trade, the controllers of the world’s markets’: these were the deaths that interested them. The English journalist Sir Philip Gibbs drew up a list of known millionaires. At the top of the league were Colonel Astor (£30 million), Ben Guggenheim, Peggy Guggenheim’s father (£20 million) and Isidor Straus, the owner of Macy’s (£10 million). The real heroes of the occasion were the elderly Straus and his wife, both of whom declined the places they were offered in one of the lifeboats: 40,000 New Yorkers attended their funeral and the 34th Street entrance to Macy’s is still known as the Memorial Entrance in their honour. Unlucky Ben Guggenheim, the man who’d put on a dinner jacket in order to die like a gentleman, turned out not to be as rich as everyone, including his daughter, expected. Though his estate was valued at well over two million dollars, Peggy’s sister Hazel told a friend that after their father’s death they were so poor that her mother ‘made eggs’, as she put it, ‘by the hot water from the faucet’.

There is little doubt that the crew didn’t have the same regard for the lives of the poor as they had for those of the rich. Nor did anyone else. The sinking of the Titanic has always been seen as an episode in the history of wealth. On the other hand, the officers knew that 1200 people at most could be accommodated in the lifeboats. Given the lack of time and organisation, it wasn’t unnatural that those who were nearest them should have the advantage. More reprehensibly perhaps, the officers feared that the people whom even the sympathetic Michael Davie refers to as ‘the hordes from steerage’ would panic and swamp their endeavours. Many of them didn’t speak English, and those who did make it up on deck brought their belongings with them tied in bundles: unlike the rich, they didn’t have any spares waiting for them in Fifth Avenue apartments. The usual English disdain for excitable foreigners played its part in the events of that night, but so, too, did the passengers’ own expectations. August Wennerstrom, the Swedish pastor, was one of the few among those who were travelling steerage to have left a record of what happened there. The thing that struck him chiefly was not the iniquitousness of the arrangements but the ease with which his fellow passengers abandoned themselves to their fate.

One of our friends, a man by the name of John Lundahl who’d been home to the old country on a visit and was going back to the United States, said to us: ‘Goodbye, friends; I’m too old to fight the Atlantic.’ He went to the smoking-room and there on a chair was awaiting his last call. So did an English lady. She sat down by the piano and, with her child on her knee, she played the piano until the Atlantic grave called them both.

As the ship started to founder, hundreds of passengers gathered round Father Byles, a Catholic priest: ‘praying, crying, asking God and Mary to help them, they lay there till the water was over their heads ... They had lost their own will power and expected God to do all the work for them.’ The rich would never have done that.

So far everyone, however rich or poor, had by and large done their best. Hardly anyone, apart from Ismay, panicked; hardly anyone, apart from Ismay and a few members of the crew, got into the lifeboats who shouldn’t. ‘Never in my life,’ Lightoller said many years later, ‘have I been so unspeakably proud of the English-speaking races as I was during that night’; and although Bernard Shaw thought the Titanic elicited altogether too much guff about the nobility of the English character (which it did), Lightoller had a point. What happened after the ship itself sank was altogether less fine. The people who were left on board the Titanic didn’t all go down with it: hundreds of them were in the water crying for help. The lifeboats, many only partially-filled, were no more than a few hundred yards away. For the people safely in them, the noise – Thayer likened it to the ‘wailing chant’ of the ‘locusts on a mid-summer night, in the woods of Pennsylvania’ – was unbearable: so unbearable, in several cases, that they simply rowed away from it, some of them hoping that the sound of their oars would muffle the cries of the drowning whom they should have gone back to save.

At the official inquiries the passengers in these boats which had failed to go back blamed each other, and no satisfactory explanation was ever arrived at, though some women were in no doubt that the arrangements had been misconceived: that if their own husbands, ‘athletes and men of sense’, had been allowed to accompany them, things would have gone very differently. On the other hand, the one man who did accompany his wife, Lucy Duff Gordon’s husband, Sir Cosmo, though a very fine athlete, was the one person who was generally thought to have behaved like a shit and a coward. The boat he was in was one of the emptiest, yet its crew alleged that he had not only refused to go back but had later tried to buy their silence. The couple appeared at their own request before the British inquiry, where Sir Cosmo said in his defence that they ‘had had a rather serious evening, you know’ – as if the same somehow didn’t apply to everyone else. In Etherington-Smith and Pilcher’s snobbish account ‘they were vindicated completely.’ Michael Davie gives a different impression. Either way, they never got over it. ‘For years afterwards,’ according to The IT Girls, ‘Lucy was used to hearing people who did not know her whisper: “That is Lady Duff Gordon, the woman who rowed away from the drowning.” ’

The other person who never quite got over it was the incomparable Ismay. The survivors were rescued at dawn. In the three days it took them to get to New York Ismay stayed in his cabin, spoke to no one, and mostly worried about his shoes. It didn’t occur to him, for example, that some arrangement should be made for the surviving members of the crew, whose wages automatically stopped when the Titanic went down. Described in the DNB as ‘a man of striking personality’, he claimed at both inquiries to have known nothing about anything, and gnawed his moustache. In America he was vilified and resented it deeply: ‘the injustice,’ he whinged, ‘lies heaviest on me.’ His compatriots, predictably, were more generous. His entry in the DNB, written by the editor of a shipping journal, didn’t even mention the Titanic.