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The Titanic Tragedy - 1912

The RMS Titanic Ready for Her First, and Last, Voyage

The RMS Titanic Ready for Her First, and Last, Voyage. The Literary Digest (27 April 1912) p. 867. GGA Image ID # 1084c9f3c4

There are tears for the dead, pity for the bereaved, and pride in the heroic victims of the Titanic disaster, but there is some pretty stern comment, too, on the fact that in this year 1912, the greatest of all ships, the "unsinkable Titanic, should, upon her maiden voyage, carry down to Death 1,635 men and women, while but 705 were rescued from a calm sea on a starlit night.

The dramatic circumstances, the long death roll, including many of the world’s most honored names make this the greatest ocean tragedy of modern times, perhaps of all time.

But the fact which stands out in the minds of those who have been called upon to discuss it during the past days is that the sacrifice of life was needless, wanton, wholly avoidable, and many an editorial on the loss of the Titanic bears the brief caption: "MURDER"

In the welter of protest and denunciation, two questions press relentlessly for answer. 

First: Why was the Titanic driving ahead at practically full speed along a dangerous course, through ice-fields, after having received repeated warnings of near-by bergs?

Then: why was this mighty vessel allowed to start across the Atlantic with so few lifeboats that less than half of those on board could have been saved even if proper arrangements had been made for launching and manning the boats?

The answer found by the daily press to the first question is that this steamship company, like its competitors, and with the acquiescence of the traveling public, put speed before safety.

And they point to this statement of the Titanic's quartermaster, who was at the helm at the time of the wreck: "We were crowding her to the limit. Every ounce of steam was crowded on, and she was under orders from the general officers of the line to make all the speed of which she was capable.

"We had made 565 miles that day and were tearing along at the rate of twenty-one knots when we struck the iceberg. The officers were striving to live up to the orders to smash a record."

Guardian Angel of the Sea Pays Tribute to Martyred Heroes.

Guardian Angel of the Sea Pays Tribute to Martyred Heroes. Toll for the Brave! The Brave That Are No More! All Sunk Beneath the Wave, Fast by Their Native Shore! - Cowper. © Pushnell 1912. Wreck and Sinking of the Titanic (1912) p. 10. GGA Image ID # 108998cc7f

Captain Smith of the Titanic, who went down with his ship, admitted her inadequate life-saving equipment while she still was under construction.  He attributed this to the belief of the owners and designers that the ship, because of her size, strength, and water-tight compartments, was practically unsinkable, and that, in any case, she could keep afloat until her wireless outfit should bring help.

But an observant editor who picked up a White Star Line folder in a streetcar found this list of luxuries provided on the Titanic "a sardonic piece of reading":  Sports decks and spacious promenades; commodious staterooms and apartments en suite; cabins deluxe with bath; squash-racquet courts;  Turkish and electric bath establishments; salt-water swimming-pools; glass-enclosed sun parlors;  veranda and palm courts; Louis XVI restaurants; grand dining-saloons;  electric elevators.

That is, in providing excessive luxury, necessary safety was sacrificed. So it is asserted on every hand, and this statement from an explanation made by a White Star Line official after the loss of the Republic three years ago is now found very significant:

Luxuries of Modern Travel -- But Not Enough Lifeboats.

Luxuries of Modern Travel -- But Not Enough Lifeboats. © Montreal Herald. The Literary Digest (4 May 1912) p. 925. GGA Image ID # 10868883f9

 "It is a well-known fact that it is impossible for a steamship in passenger service to carry enough lifeboats to accommodate all hands at once. If this were done, so much room would be utilized for lifeboats that there would be no room left on deck for passengers. The necessary number of lifeboats would be carried at the cost of many present comforts of our patrons."

The Titanic's reign as queen of the seas, the "biggest and finest ship afloat," lasted just five days. She sailed from Liverpool on Wednesday, April 14, on her maiden trip, with a notable list of passengers, who looked forward to a week of pleasure surrounded with every comfort and luxury.

On the following Sunday evening, she was 400 miles off Cape Race. The sea was smooth, the sky clear. Despite repeated warnings of icebergs from other vessels, and the presence of much-floating ice, she was steaming ahead at a speed of probably 21 knots.

Toward midnight, an iceberg was seen ahead. It was too late to slow down or turn aside. But the ship was swerved slightly from her course, and struck the berg a glancing blow, possibly sliding up on a submerged portion of it. The shock was not violent, but wireless calls for help were sent out, and the passengers Were called up on deck.

The officers soon found that the side and bottom of the ship were ripped out and that it was simply a question of how long her pierced air-compartments and leaking bulkheads would keep the Titanic afloat.

Stories of what followed, except in their general outline and in their unanimous tribute to the heroism of the officers and male passengers aboard the Titanic, conflict somewhat widely. The New York papers, on the day after the Carpathia arrived in the harbor with her pitiful load, gave prominence to the detailed, coherent, and consistent tale told by Mr. R. W. Daniel, one of the survivors.

After striking the iceberg the Titanic went on for about a mile before coming to a stop, says Mr. Daniel. The passengers, assembled on the deck, were at first calm, being assured that the Titanic was "unsinkable," and when, a little later, they were ordered to the lifeboats, many refused to go, feeling safer on the great ship.

Destruction of the Titanic.

Destruction of the Titanic. Wreck and Sinking of the Titanic (1912) p. 34. GGA Image ID # 108a4f13cf

To quote at some length from Mr. Daniel's statement, as it appears in the columns of the New York Evening Post:

  • "I learned later that there was a conflict in orders given when the boats were filled. On the starboard, side husbands were ordered to enter the smaller craft with their wives. On the port side, husbands were driven back, the order being women and children first. That explains why so many men survived.
  • "In many instances, within the range of my vision, wives refused point blank to leave their husbands. I saw members of the crew literally tear women from the arms of men and throw them over the side to boats. Mrs. Isidor Straus clung to her husband, and none could force her from his side.
  • "Fully two hours elapsed between the Titanic striking the berg and her foundering. Not until the last five minutes did the awful realization come that the end was at hand.
  • "Deck after deck was submerged. There was no lurching, no grinding or crunching. The Titanic simply settled. I was far up on one of the top decks. Two minutes before the final disappearance of the ship I jumped.
  • "About me were many others, in the water. My bathrobe floated away. It was icily cold. I struck out at once. Before the last, I turned. My first glance took in the people swarming the Titanic’s decks.
  • Hundreds were standing there, helpless to ward off the approaching Death. I saw Captain Smith on his bridge. My eyes seemingly clung to him. The deck from which I had leaped was immersed; the water had risen slowly and was now to bridge. Then it was at Captain Smith's waist." I saw him no more.  He died a hero.
  • "The bow of the Titanic was far beneath the surface. To me, only her four monster funnels and the two masts were now visible. It was all over in an instant. The Titanic's stern rose completely out of the water. Up it went, thirty, forty, sixty feet into the air, then, with her body slanting at an angle of 45 degrees, slowly the Titanic slipt out of sight.  There was very little suction.
  • "Until I die, the cries of those wretched men and women who went down clinging helplessly to the Titanic's rail will ring in my ears. Groans, shrieks, and sounds that were almost inhuman came across the water.
  • "I turned and swam. The water was numbing me. Only the preserver about my body saved my life. When pulled into the lifeboat it was an hour later, but I knew nothing.
  • "This sturdy swimmer is but one of many to declare that "had the steamship company, provided proper life-saving devices, not a soul on board would have been lost."
  • "The Titanic simply lay on the water, settling slowly. The sea was absolutely calm. Boats and rafts were put overboard without difficulty until there were no more."

The Carpathia, summoned by wireless, as were other ships too far away to be of service, reached the spot about daylight and rescued those aboard the 16 boats still afloat and a few from rafts.

Some of the Distinguished Victims: W. T. Stead, Francis D. Millet, Major Archibald Butt, John Jacob Astor, and Isidor Straus

Some of the Distinguished Victims: W. T. Stead, Francis D. Millet, Major Archibald Butt, John Jacob Astor, and Isidor Straus. The Literary Digest (27 April 1912) p. 866. GGA Image ID # 1084a54b26

Among the dead are such well-known men as John Jacob Astor, Isidor Straus, William T. Stead of the English Review of Reviews, President C. M. Hays of the Grand Trunk Railroad, F. D. Millet, the artist; Jacques Futrelle, novelist; Henry B. Harris, theatrical manager; Major Butt, President Taft's military aid; J. B. Thayer, vice-president of the Pennsylvania Railroad; Benjamin Guggenheim, George D. Widener, and W. A. Roebling, 2d.

Many of the rescued women are widows; several, like Mrs. Astor, are brides of a few months. The presence of a few men among the survivors is readily accounted for by the need for strong arms to row the boats and such circumstances as those noted by Mr. Daniel.

But the fact that Mr. J. Bruce Ismay, managing director of the White Star Line, was saved in a lifeboat is something which leads even so careful a paper as The Wall Street Journal to inquire: "Is there any passenger who should not have found place in the boats before the greatest or least official of the line?

The further inference on the part of many that Mr. Ismay was responsible for urging the Titanic to such excessive speed does not increase their very slight feeling of charity toward him. Though he was at first denounced as a "coward" by the more radical press, space was later given to his own succinct account of the circumstances of his departure.

To quote Mr. Ismay's statement before the United States Senate Investigating Committee, in New York:

"The boat was there, and a certain number of the women had been loaded. The officer called out to any other women who might be on the deck to come. There were no other passengers, men or women, on the deck, so I got in. That is all there is to it."

There are those of us, perhaps, who have sometimes smiled inwardly at the church prayer for some one's preservation "from the dangers of the sea," and conduct "in safety to the haven where he would be," as an antiquated petition in these days of rapid ocean transit.

But we "now know, at high cost," as the Chicago Tribune remarks, "that perfect safety in ocean travel is a fiction." The Baltimore Sun is reminded by the disaster to the Titanic "that in spite of all our progress, perils still exist, and that before the forces of untamed nature man is often as helpless as an infant."

The iceberg, others tell us, is still the great unconquered peril of the North Atlantic. When the "unsinkable ship" meets the "irresistible iceberg," she meets the same fate as does the fisherman's dory.

But the generality of editors, though they admit the dangers of a season when the ice has come south farther and sooner than usual, can see but little excuse therein for the loss of the Titanic.

Map Showing Place of Disaster.

Map Showing Place of Disaster. Wreck and Sinking of the Titanic (1912) p. 106. GGA Image ID # 108c85c368

True, icebergs are dangerous, but peril should not be invited by rushing ahead at night through such perilous sea lanes at high speed after those repeated warnings received. Nothing but speed madness, they say, can account for it, nothing but the insistence of the company's officials that the should break a record on her maiden voyage.

This, we are told, made the experienced navigator in command "take chances" and so end an honorable and efficient career by going down with his ship and two-thirds of the passengers entrusted to his care.

"Heedless of warnings, indifferent to disaster, the White Star officials raced with Death, and Death won," is the way the New York American puts it.

Other papers in New York, Philadelphia, Boston, and Washington put the responsibility squarely up to the company, as does the New York World, which, however, adds that "the public that has encouraged and inflamed this speed madness must share the blame."

 And the New York Commercial asks its readers not to "blame steamship-owners too severely without taking into account what is permitted to go on every day on shore."

Furthermore, according to all the accounts of the wreck, a sufficient number of lifeboats, properly equipped, and with a ship's crew drilled in their use, could have saved practically every person on board the Titanic.

And there is a brief editorial paragraph in the New York Herald which sums up an opinion which is apparently held in nearly every newspaper office where the press wires have carried the news of the Titanic's loss. Says the Herald: "Had this latest expression of mercantile naval construction been supplied with fewer fol-de-rols, such as gymnasiums, swimming tanks. and other non-essentials to safety at sea, more boats and life-rafts could have been carried—and every life has been saved under the conditions that prevailed when the Titanic received her death-blow."

It is "abundantly evident" to the New York Evening Post "that on both sides of the ocean public opinion is fastening upon the deficiency of lifeboats as the one great lesson of neglect bitten in by the awful loss of life on the Titanic.

Or, as the Newark News and New York Sun regard the lesson thus taught the world, it is, to quote the New York paper. "the need of an international system of inspection and equipment and uniform requirements as to lifeboats and life-rafts in sufficient number for all on board—every passenger, every officer, every member of the ship's force."

It is to be noted in this connection that Congress is now investigating the loss of the Titanic, that the British Parliament will do likewise, and that several measures have been proposed in each body looking to stricter requirements and more careful inspection.

As for suggestions to prevent the repetition of such sea tragedies like the sinking of the Titanic, their name is legion. Powerful searchlights, eophones, micro thermometers, and other devices to detect the presence of icebergs are endorsed by their inventors and others.

One newspaper strongly urges Government or International Patrol of the North Atlantic during the dangerous season. Another would have all liners cross in pairs, near enough so that one  could render assistance if the other met with mishap; then there is the idea of a scout boat to go ahead of the great steamship, as a pilot locomotive is sometimes sent ahead of it special train.

Life-Saving Appliances Were Inadequate.

Life-Saving Appliances Were Inadequate. © Columbus Evening Dispatch. Wreck and Sinking of the Titanic (1912) p. 310. GGA Image ID # 109540d739

A striking article, written some time ago for The Navy (Wash) by Captain E. K. Roden has been widely quoted by the press since the loss of the Titanic. The writer asserts that improvements in safety appliances on passenger ships are not keeping pace with the growing demand for luxury and comfort in ocean travel. Shipping men have been quoted as saying that these luxuries are offered because the public demands them. No, replies the New York Evening Post. As a matter of fact,

"Each line seeks to outdo the other in new and original features, so that their press agents may have more to talk about, and that the newspapers will give more space to descriptions of the extraordinary success they have attained in duplicating on the ocean 'all the features of the most luxurious modern hotels.' Then they forget to make a few thousands of dollars of expenditure necessary to buy sufficient lifeboats and rafts,  but tell us that it is all the fault of the public!"

In the course of the same editorial, The Evening Post points out some good results likely to come from this horror—"every humanitarian advance in the history of shipping the world over has been purchased by suffering or loss of life." Not in the history of shipping only, says the Philadelphia North Americans.

"It took horror heaped upon horror to establish the aggression upon existing property rights which lay in denying to capital the right of investment in hotels and tenements without fire-escapes. The Titanic disaster will mean the end of allowing 'unsinkable' ships to sail with one-third of the proper number of lifeboats.

"On the Titanic, on the General Slocum,  as in the Triangle Shirtwaist factory, on railroads that fail to provide safety appliances. and in factories where the workmen are regarded as the cheapest raw material, the system is the same—gambling with human life for dollar profit."

"Topics of the Day: The Titanic Tragedy," in The Literary Digest, New York: Funk & Wagnalls Company, Vol. XLIV, No. 17, Whole No,. 1149, 27 April 1912, p. 865-869.

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