The Sinking of the Titanic

In our third installment on the sinking of the Titanic, Daniel Allen Butler discusses the events that unfolded on the night of April 14th and the early morning of April 15th.

Upon colliding with the iceberg, how would you describe the actions and demeanor of Captain Smith? Did he do everything he could, or did the situation become too overwhelming for even him to handle?

After the collision occurred Captain Smith’s behavior and decision-making underwent a dramatic change.  For the first twenty or twenty-five minutes after the impact, the captain was very much the embodiment of command, crisply issuing orders and instructions as he went about determining just what had happened to the Titanic.  But just about midnight, something changed, and his command ability began to slowly desert him, as he began to isolate himself on the bridge, failing to pass on critical information to his officers and senior seamen, acting and reacting slowly, as if in a daze, to reports and rapidly changing circumstances and giving half-hearted orders, some of which the crew would openly defy.  Clearly something had happened, the question is what?

The answer lies in the what passed between Thomas Andrews and Captain Smith when they had finished their inspection and returned to Andrews’ cabin, A-36.  The knowledge that the Titanic was doomed, and that over a thousand people were going to die because of the insufficient number of lifeboats was devastating. All of Smith’s superb seamanship, his forty years at sea without a serious accident, his twenty-seven years of command without ever having lost a single life entrusted to his care, his unqualified confidence in the capabilities of modern shipbuilding, had all been swept away in the ten seconds it took for the iceberg to open up the Titanic‘s starboard side.

From that moment on, Smith would exhibit all the characteristics of someone suddenly overwhelmed by circumstances they were not prepared for mentally or emotionally.  What orders and instructions he would give would often be incomplete or impractical; he failed to make it clear to his officers and  senior seamen–the quartermasters, Bosun’s mates and able-bodied seamen–that the ship was in mortal danger, and so didn’t impart any real sense of urgency to them.  While no doubt Smith wanted to avoid a panic among the passengers, and quite possibly the crew as well, not letting his officers know just how serious the emergency was  may well have contributed to a false sense of security among them, which in turn caused them to allow a number of the boats to leave the ship less than half full.

What had happened to Captain Smith?  Smith was in a state of mental shock, what psychologists call “a temporary  dysfunctionality.”  Smith had believed that the ship was unsinkable, had believed in his abilities as a ship’s captain, had believed that he had taken all the necessary precautions.  Now the entire edifice around which his authority was built had come crashing down.  Completely dumbfounded by the situation, he was in a blank state of immobility, a mental void similar to that of a boxer who has taken too many punches, and though he refuses to go down, can no longer defend himself or fight back.  In such a case the referee would step in to stop the fight, but there was no referee on April 15, 1912.

Instead, Smith was confronted at every turn by the awful finality of what had occurred:  every order he gave and every instruction he issued reminded him anew of the dreadful conclusion the night’s events must lead to, and the knowledge inhibited his ability to make decisions.  As a consequence indecision was easier, and isolation on the bridge made it easier still.  It was quite possible that Smith couldn’t bring himself to go out onto the Boat Deck and see the faces of so many people who were very shortly going to die.

Captain Smith was confronted with a situation that he wasn’t prepared by emotion, experience, or training to handle.  That he was overwhelmed by circumstances is something for which he should be pitied, but never condemned.  It is highly doubtful that any of us could have done any better.

 In The Other Side of the Night, you talk about Stanley Lord, Captain of the Californian, and his dismissal of the Titanic’s distress signals.  Why do you think that he chose to ignore them?    

Captain Stanley Lord

Under the weight of the evidence, and despite the workings and machinations of those who supported him, Stanley Lord, the captain of the S.S. Californian, has stood condemned generations as the model of that to which no merchant marine officer must ever aspire.  In the decades which followed the Titanic disaster, the conclusions of the both the American and British Inquiries, echoing each other with devastating precision, have withstood all the legal maneuvering, political posturing, and forensic legerdemain that has been employed in the attempt to refute them, and so Lord continues to stand condemned.  It has often been maintained and it may be true, at least superficially, that Stanley Lord in person was charming, warm, kindhearted, and a devoted family man, but in a moment of crisis which would bring out the very best in the character of other officers, the deadly flaw in his own would be revealed for all the world to see.  Arthur Rostron was a man who would risk everything in the hope that he would reach the Titanic in time to save as many lives as he could.  Stanley Lord was a man who simply didn’t care enough to awaken his own wireless operator in an effort to learn why a ship nearby was firing distress rockets into the night sky.

Captain Arthur Rostron

It was the British Attorney General, Sir Rufus Isaacs, who at the time came closest to understanding what compelled Stanley Lord to do nothing in response to those white rockets.  It was there, lurking in the dry, almost detached language of British jurisprudence that the truth about Stanley Lord has abided since that day in May 1912 when these words were uttered by sir Rufus:  “…I am unable to find any possible explanation of what happened, except it may be the Captain of the vessel was in ice for the first time and would not take the risk of going to the rescue of another vessel.”  It was with those five words, “would not take the risk,” that Sir Rufus struck what for Stanley Lord’s reputation and career was a mortal blow: the man who “would not take the risk” was a coward.

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