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.