Titanic in perspective

I’m not sure if it’s just me, but as interesting as the whole Titanic thing is, are we losing some kind of perspective? There are a couple of issues about the Titanic where the romanticism and popular culture has overshadowed some important parts of history. Sure, the Titanic was a marvellous ship, and its cultural impact, and its effect on safety at sea, stands for itself. But how many people know about other ships that were sunk just four years later, with a much higher loss of life and a less than 2% chance of survival?While it is popularly thought that the Titanic set sail from Southampton, it subsequently called at Cherbourg and then Queenstown in Ireland. Admittedly, Southampton was home to many of the crew, and it was the point at which the majority of the wealthy passengers boarded. But what about those who boarded in France and Ireland – in particular the many poorer steerage emigrant passengers from Queenstown? And what about the thousands of men who spent years slaving over the construction of the ship at Harland and Wolff in Belfast? Might they not have a strong claim to cultural ‘ownership’ of the Titanic? I suspect that many of us have been seduced by the glitz and glamour of the wealthy, influential Kate Winslet-esque passengers who joined the ship at Southampton, rather than Northern Ireland’s shipyard workers who spent years grafting over her.

When the Titanic foundered, she was carrying 2,224 passengers and crew. 710 of these survived (32%), whilst 1514 perished (68%). Perhaps, in retrospect, the sinking of the Titanic did prove to be the beginning of the end of the carefree Edwardian period, and in a rather more sober manner, it did lead to more serious legislation regarding safety at sea. But we only need to look at more catastrophic loss of life only a few years later to try and put things into context.

In November 1914 two Portsmouth battleships were sunk. HMS Bulwark work lost at anchor off Sheerness in the Thames due to an accidental explosion. Of her 750 crewmembers, 738 were lost. Only 12 survived – a survival rate of just 1.6%. And this for a ship anchored close to shore, in British waters, in the estuary leading to London. Also in November HMS Good Hope was sunk off South America in the Coronel. All of her 900 crew were lost. Yet who knows about HMS Bulwark and HMS Good Hope?

On 31 May the British Grand Fleet joined battle with the German High Seas Fleet in the North Sea of Jutland. Jutland saw perhaps the greatest loss of life in a single action that the Royal Navy had ever witnessed. The Battlecruiser HMS Invincible was sunk, and of her 1032 crewmen, only 6 survived, while the other 1026 men lost. A crewman on HMS Invincible at Jutland had a chance of survival of 0.58%. Another Portsmouth Battlecruiser, HMS Queen Mary, was also sunk. Of her 1284 crew, an incredible 1266 men lost, with only 18 – 1.4% – survived. The other large ship from Portsmouth sunk at Jutland – the armoured cruiser HMS Black Prince lost all of her 857 crew, with no survivors. That’s 3,149 men on three ships – and that’s just the Portsmouth based ships.

Why is it that one liner, sunk in peacetime by misadventure, completely overshadows the even more catastrophic and perilous loss of life just over four years later? Why, and how have forgotten about these thousands of sailors, their ships and the battles in which they were lost? Surely righting a wrong of history has to be a motivation for all of us heading into the 2014-18 Centenary period.

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12 Comments

Filed under Navy, Uncategorized, World War One

12 responses to “Titanic in perspective

  1. x

    I have never understood the Titanic obsession either. Well perhaps up to a point but only so far. As I have said many times here we don’t do maritime history very well in the UK. And we don’t do UK history very well either especially wars. You know my complaint is historians spend too much time exploring obscure narrow avenues and not enough time trying to recount the broad narrative of the history of our islands in an engaging manner. Armband politics and civil rights are deemed more suitable topics than kings, queens, and battles for today’s history syllabi.

    There was once a plan on the anniversary of the Titanic sailing for SS Shieldhall to depart the same berth at the same time for a cruise down Southampton Water. Obviously this never happened as poor Shieldhall is resting waiting for some £500k to be raised for structural repairs to her frame. She is better off than poor HMS Plymouth in this anniversary year of the Falklands War as the T12 is going to be scrapped. Yet it seems money can be found to celebrate a sinking.

    PS: I dare not mention all the rhubarb about conspiracies of insurance frauds relating to Titanic and Olympia…….

  2. John Erickson

    I think it’s what I refer to as the “fighter pilot obsession” from WW2. People can name several fighter pilots, few bomber pilots, and NO ground crew or factory workers – yet it was the factory workers cranking out the B-17s and Lancasters, and the ground crews keeping them flying, that allowed the air forces to accomplish their goals. There’s no glamour in the multiple sinkings of Liberty ships with blue-collar crew, but plenty of romance about the loss of a fancy ship and it’s upper-class passengers. (Quick, how many steerage-class passengers are mentioned by name in the movie? ;) )
    Don’t worry too much, there are a number of psychopaths like myself who will keep flying the flag of the builders and maintainers of famous technology, rather than just the over-glamourised jockeys that ride ‘em. :D

  3. pompeydoomcrew

    I’ve been debating how to respond to this the last couple of days.. as I’m sure you know i have quite an interest in the Titanic tragedy. The problem i see is as you mention through the films/tv series. Etc.. people have come away with this romanticised image of the titanic due to rediculous love stories in the james cameron film for example and almost seem to forget that the sinking led to the deaths of over 1500 people. The other reason i see for peoples fascination is basically almost like a multiplier effect, it was a brand new ultra luxury cruise ship which people can relate to easier than naval vessels in my opinion because its something that alot of people still do today… The fact also that it was a civilian ship sunk in peacetime plays a role.. as although I agree with you that what happened at Jutland was a tragedy of higher proportions there is as much as I despise the term a certain ammount of ‘it’s all fair in love and war’ in the public consciousness, it’s like when people talk about the WW1 in general they’ll say about how tragic the somme was with its unbelievable loss of life but then almost wrongly in my opinion (and i know you’ll agree) rationalise it as a by product of war and accept it. Also there are the individual stories such as the band playing on to keep calm despite all the chaos around them.

    For me my interest in Titanic is two-fold 1st there is the fact that it has to be one of the most avoidable disasters in history, all history has hindsight and a certain level of what ifs.. but Titanic has to have more than most. Secondly it confounds me beyond belief how an outdated immoral quintessential british class system led to a situation in which those with wealth were loaded on to often half full life boats yet the steerage and working crew were left below decks to basically die until the last possible moment.

    Going back to your mention of the Jutland i don’t think you needed to drift that far away from home to make your point as you could have mentioned the Lusutania or even closer to home the Titanic’s sister ship Brittanic which went down even faster in a worse condition when torpedoed serving as a hospital ship in the first world war both of which are relatively unknown in contrast.

    The problem is as you know from writing your superb book (which everyone should buy) that not every story can be told… And unfortunately the stories told are the ones that the writers believe will capture public imagination. One of the previous comments mentioned bomber crews that is a perfect example.. if you mention Dambusters everyone immediately knows what you are talking about and at least a basic knowledge of the events yet there were thousands more bombing raids several of which more sucessful and against higher value targets yet they go relatively unrecognised in comparison. Unfortunately history as a whole is like an unfinished book of short stories where several of the stories will remain untold or out of the public eye.

  4. pompeydoomcrew

    Theres a couple of errors in that post… thats what i get for doing it on my phone at work… Britannic obv.. was a mine not a torpedo and didn’t have the loss of life that Titanic had.. and i mispelt RMS Lusitania…

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