Federal Politics


Titanic's fateful final hours

Interest in the great liner's story has continued unabated for the past century, recounted in books and movies, J. R. NETHERCOTE writes

When readers of the Sydney Morning Herald opened their papers on Tuesday, April 16, 1912, they read that the world's largest liner, the White Star's Titanic, was sinking following collision with an iceberg. The headlines told the story: ''Titanic sinking - Disaster on Maiden Voyage - Two Thousand souls aboard.''

Ships were sailing to aid the Titanic but readers were cautioned: ''It is doubtful whether the vessels will arrive in time, as the last wireless signals from the Titanic were blurred and ended abruptly.''

The following day's edition carried a hopeful report that the Titanic was ''steaming slowly'' towards Halifax, Nova Scotia, but also a grimmer warning of fear that ''many passengers have perished''.

Any ship reaching the scene found ''floating wreckage … all that remained of the Titanic''.

Thereafter, for more than a fortnight, the Titanic and the rescue led the news summary on page one, and the reporting, rumour as well as truth, within the paper.

Not until the end of April did normal reporting resume. References to Olympic no longer referred to the Titanic's sister ship but to the upcoming 1912 Olympic Games beginning in Stockholm on May 5. Concern about icebergs was as likely to be about a voyage to Antarctica organised by Dr Edgeworth David of Sydney University as to the situation in the North Atlantic.


Interest in the Titanic's fate has continued unabated for a century, starting with inquiries in Washington and London, and a flurry of activity on ships to guard against repetition. Almost as quickly, human interest stories flowed, starting with wealthy survivors, particularly Bruce Ismay, chairman of White Star, who escaped the sinking ship on the last lifeboat, but not the obloquy for the remainder of his life.

A growing library of books has combined fascination with memorabilia and a succession of movies.

The huge scale of the disaster was all of a piece with the great liner's brief life. It pushed the boundaries in size, luxury, celebrity and, eventually, in tragedy. It epitomised the conceit and confidence of late Victorian and Edwardian England, the triumph of science and engineering over nature.

Launched in Belfast in 1911, the Titanic sailed for Southampton early in April 1912 to collect passengers and mail, stopping at Cherbourg and Queenstown before heading into the Atlantic.

The first class passengers, from American millionaires to card-sharps, were the stuff of a BBC soap. There was the richest man in the world, John Jacob Astor, returning to New York where his second wife was to give birth to their first child, hoping to transcend the notoriety of his divorce. He had neglected the rule that ''appearances must be respected even if morals might be neglected''.

Another, Benjamin Guggenheim, was returning to his wife in New York having wintered in Paris with his mistress, Madame Aubert.

Neither survived. Nor did the former editor of The Times, W. T. Stead, described by Barbara Tuchman as ''a human torrent of enthusiasm for good causes. His energy was limitless, his optimism unending, his egotism gigantic.'' He was travelling to New York at President Taft's invitation to address a conference on peace at Carnegie Hall. Celebrity couple Sir Cosmo and Lady Duff Gordon were travelling as Mr and Mrs Morgan. He had fenced for England at the 1908 Olympics; she was the pioneer of sexy underwear in London, Paris and New York. They survived but the business thereafter languished.

Alfred Vanderbilt had booked a passage but belatedly changed his mind. But he had been marked by fate; he was among the dead when Lusitania was torpedoed off the Irish coast in 1915.

The third class had a goodly proportion of political émigrés, mainly from Eastern Europe.

The Titanic carried at least four Australians, three in the crew, and one second class passenger, Arthur McCrae, educated at Sydney Grammar School and Sydney University, assistant manager of a copper mine in Siberia, en route to visit relatives in Canada.

Of the four, only Evelyn Marsden from South Australia, a stewardess, survived. She had learnt to row boats on the Murray, a skill she utilised after the sinking. She married a doctor from the Titanic; they settled in Sydney where she died in 1938 and is buried in Waverley Cemetery.

On the Sunday, approaching the Grand Banks of Newfoundland, the Titanic, like others, received reports of ice, a result of warmer weather in the Arctic in previous winters.

Daniel Butler, author of Unsinkable, tellingly observed, ''If anyone on the bridge had bothered to plot all the positions in these reports, he would have seen an immense belt of ice seventy-eight miles wide stretching across the Titanic's projected course. Instead the messages were scattered across the ship …''

Captain Arthur Rostron of the Carpathia commented, on receiving similar messages,''I suppose the Titanic will have to slow down.''

But the Titanic did not slow down. Shortly after midnight, upon receiving news of the collision, it was Rostron who was ordering his own ship to lift its speed from 14 to 17 knots so as to reach the stricken liner as quickly as possible. The Californian, only 10 miles from the Titanic, had hove to for the night, aware of flares from a nearby vessel but not so interested either to rouse the wireless operator to listen for any traffic, or to sail towards the lights.

There are many stories of the ship's final hours, from Captain Edward Smith's courage, the reluctance of men to leave, occasional disorder and reports of shots, to the plight of those in the second and third classes.

Smith intended to retire upon return to England. The evidence suggests he was overly attentive to Ismay's desire to reach New York ahead of schedule. The central problem, however, was that he, like the ship's designers, failed to understand the power and might of the new liners. The Titanic was simply too strong for the iceberg; a lesser ship would have been stopped well before the fatal damage was done.

Although he had no connection with Lichfield, two years after the sinking a larger than life statue of Smith was unveiled near the cathedral, the work of Lady Kathleen Scott, widow of the Antarctic explorer who had perished in the snow only a fortnight before the Titanic disaster.

The plaque referred to ''a brave life and heroic death,'' but not to the Titanic.

The hero of the rescue, Arthur Rostron, had honours heaped upon him on both sides of the Atlantic. He was later part of the naval force at Gallipoli, and became commodore of the Cunard Line.

The stone on his grave records that his efforts saved more than 700 of the Titanic's passengers and crew. Admiration for Rostron derived not just from the rescue but from the calm, orderly, disciplined and dignified manner of his conduct from the moment he learnt the Titanic was in trouble.

Stanley Lord, master of the Californian, something of a Captain Bligh, fared poorly in the two inquiries into the sinking, was dismissed by the ship's owners and spent the rest of his life defending his actions on the fateful night.

The most senior officer of the Titanic to survive, Second Officer Lightoller, never rose to command at sea but captained one of the small ships which rescued the troops from Dunkirk in 1940; he brought back 131.

The Second Officer on the Carpathia subsequently retired to Sydney after a career in which he captained both Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth.

J. R. Nethercote is adjunct professor, Public Policy Institute, Australian Catholic University.