Bearing in mind that today marks the anniversary of the Titanic disaster, I’ve been giving some thought to putting together this post.
It mainly concerns Captain Smith, and his situation once the ship had already hit the iceberg.
This is not a condemnation, nor yet another of those attempts to rationalise the events and omissions that led up to the actual accident itself. It is simply an attempt to put the man in context at the most extreme and momentous point of his life.
By midnight on April 14th/15th, the situation of his command can be summed up as follows:
The Titanic was sinking, without any hope of salvation. At best estimates, she had less than three hours to live. The nearest responsive rescue ship- the Cunard liner Carpathia- was a minimum four hours’ steaming time distant.
In the meantime, he had 2,200 plus passengers and crew on board under his charge, and lifeboats with a maximum capacity of 1,180, assuming every boat was correctly loaded to capacity and lowered safely.
Even then, under those optimum conditions, that left over a thousand people with nowhere to go, other than into a freezing ocean where they would almost certainly expire within minutes.
And Smith- as the sole master, under God, for the duration of the voyage- would ultimately be held to blame for their loss, as he very well knew.
Under those circumstances- the sure and certain knowledge that responsibility for at least a thousand deaths would be laid at your door forever- that would be enough to break any man.
So, for those wondering at Smith’s almost complete lack of involvement in the botched evacuation of his ship, there largely lies the explanation. Captain Smith imploded mentally under the sheer strain, the awful enormity of it all simply overwhelmed his normal rational thought processes.
In terms of the actual evacuation, almost everything was left to a handful of increasingly desperate deck officers, literally working against both time and tide, who were constantly having to improvise in a situation that worsened every minute. And all without any overall sense of direction.
This is why Smith’s initial ‘women and children first’ order was interpreted differently on opposite sides of the ship. Separated by just ninety-four feet, Lightoller and Murdoch each formed his own interpretation of the order.
In that situation, Lightoller- loading the port side boats- allowed ‘women and children only’ into the boats. No men at all.
Slaving away on the starboard side, Murdoch allowed men in the boats if no more women and children were in evident sight.
Smith, of course, never clarified the order either one way or the other. He ruled in favour of neither of his officers. But was he ever asked for a clarification? We’ll never know, of course.
But that fateful lack of co-ordination was largely responsible for the needless loss of at least another four hundred plus lives over the night of April 14th-15th, 1912.
Other than joining the officers for the issuing of firearms at about 1.30 in the morning, exact information on Smith’s whereabouts during those final, desperate hours is scant indeed. As with the luckless Murdoch, there are numerous theories on his final fate, but no really substantive evidence.
I think it extremely unlikely that the emotionally shattered Smith would even have contemplated trying to survive the loss of his command. The sinking of the Titanic also marked the wrecking of his mainly superlative, glittering thirty eight year career. As his great command sagged helplessly into the freezing ocean underneath his feet, Edward John Smith would have known that, too.
No, the evacuation of the Titanic was not a ‘text book’ situation, but there is no such thing as a ‘text book disaster’, either. It is easy to be critical of the individuals involved, and the decisions that they made. Indeed, for the sake of posterity, some rational attempt at analysis is absolutely vital.
But, once the full, ghastly horror of the situation became clear to them, both the captain and his deck officers were placed in an appalling conundrum, one that got more acute with every passing minute. If the sheer scale and horror of what they faced almost overwhelmed then, it is hardly to be wondered at.
Placed in such a horrifying predicament, I sometimes wonder how any of us might have fared. And that is why, today of all days, I retain more than just a little sympathy for that handful of embattled men and their stunned, effectively neutered captain.