In April 1912 the unthinkable happened: Titanic sank taking over 1500 lives to the cold North Atlantic. People were stunned. With the headline Titanic Sunk blazing across newspapers around the globe, it made people wonder what had happened to a ship that defined an age of progress. For those with family, either passengers or crew, it was even more dire. Did my husband live? What happened to that family down the road that decided to go to America for a new life?
In the aftermath two investigations would seek to answer the question of what happened. A short concise statement is that Titanic collided with an iceberg that punctured the hull in many places causing water to enter the forward compartments causing her to founder and sink. Yet the investigations showed all kinds of things that were not right: out of date government regulations about lifeboats, the lack of manning wireless communications during all ship watches, the inattention given to numerous ice warnings, the lack of binoculars for the lookouts and much more. Captain Rostron of Carpathia would be labeled a hero for racing to the scene and retrieving the survivors. Captain Lord of California would come under criticism for his indifference to rockets being seen and failing to investigate.
The world of 1912 was a world on a precipice. Ominous clouds were already gathering over Europe. Titanic represented perhaps the pinnacle of the dying Edwardian age. It had everything that a person of means wanted: a comfortable way to cross the Atlantic in style. Down below was the other side, immigrants desperate to leave home and find a new life in the United States. And sadly many of those third class (or steerage as they were called)would perish. Titanic sinking left a mark on many that something was wrong and would be confirmed when war broke out in 1914. And that war would cut a wide swath in the upper classes that would have lasting effects.
The lessons of Titanic are many. The most important of all is to never become complacent nor think you are so clever as to be divine. It is a lesson that is sometimes forgotten resulting in tragedies like the Challenger explosion. Sometimes Greek mythology delivers warnings about complacency. Icarus forgot his wings were made of wax when he flew up to the sun resulting in his death. And saying Titanic was practically unsinkable comes pretty darn close as well.
Titanic. Put that into a search engine and you get a lot back. Lots of sites to explore devoted to the subject (shameless plug alert for Titanic News Channel) along with sites that incorporate it in some fashion. Of course the entertainment news sites are full of stuff about the stars of that Cameron movie and what they think today about their roles. The movie is still widely popular and many will likely see the 3-D version. It is a visually stunning movie with perhaps the best recreation of what the ship and people looked like in 1912.
The 100th anniversary has come and gone. And yet people still flock to Titanic Belfast and other Titanic connected sites and exhibits. The question I posed in 2012 still holds true today: Why Does Titanic Still Grab Us? I said back then that a National Geographic documentary provided a clue and that is images linger long after leaving. And with Titanic its images remain with us. There are a lot to choose from: photos of the ship, the crew, the passengers, stories of their lives, the names of the band that played on that fateful night. The list goes on. The image of the grand ship stays with us because it has so many stories to tell and those stories have images that linger.
There have been numerous books on Titanic to keep those images such as Walter Lord’s A Night To Remember (and later its sequel The Night Lives On) that connect us to what happened in 1912. And the movies that follow bring it even more alive in the big screen. Add to it the Titanic memorials and exhibits all over the world. Some ask why this ship is remembered while other maritime disasters with great loss of lift isn’t. The images linger.
Some images provoke disagreement. To salvage or not or was Captain Stanley Lord a villain? The images of the wreck itself are testament to the final outcome. It lies, broken in two, two miles below the surface of the ocean. And it is slowly being claimed by the sea. The artifacts brought up by the various salvage expeditions will soon be all the remains of that once great ship. At Titanic memorials on land and sea, people will remember those who died on Titanic. We know it ought not to have happened. So many what-ifs could have changed the outcome but they all added up to the same deadly outcome for over 1500 people.
Prior to sinking of Titanic, Stanley Lord was a well regarded ship master. He had started out at age 13 and by 29 given command by the Leyland Line. Considering that most ship masters had to wait till near fifty years of age for a command, it tells you he was considered extraordinary. Some even say that by 1912 he was more experienced that most of Titanic’s officers (Captain Smith excluded of course). But at the end of both American and British inquiries, the conclusion was that he could have done more. Discrepancies in the respective ship positions could not be reconciled resulting in doubts about Lord and his officers. While neither inquiry recommended any legal action be taken against him, the damage to his reputation had been done. He asked for a hearing to bring witnesses and submit evidence before the Board of Trade. He was denied.
Though the Leyland Line had supported him (and provided evidence that his reported position was backed up with wireless messages)he was asked to resign. Fortunately the owner of the Nitrate Producers Steamship Co, John Natta, was sympathetic and offered him command of a ship. He would work for them from 1913-1927 when failing eyesight forced his retirement. From then on he disappeared from public view until the 1950’s. First the publication of A Night To Remember in 1955 rekindled interest in Titanic and depicted Lord in a very unsympathetic life. The 1958 movie of the same name did the same. He sought assistance from Mercantile Marine Service Association(MMSA) and its general secretary, Leslie Harrison took up his case.
Lord though passed away in 1962 at age 84 not knowing if Harrison’s efforts would result in anything. Harrison’s two petitions for a new hearing were twice rejected by the Board of Trade. Harrison’s book A Titanic Myth lays forth the case for Lord’s defense he was never able to give.
Titanic was found in 1985 and its position showed that Titanic fourth officer Boxhall had miscalculated the ships SOS position by 13 nautical miles. This was significant since both inquiries discounted any discrepancy of Titanic’s position and held that Californian’s position was in error. Eventually the U.K. Marine Accident Investigation Branch (MAIB) was asked to reappraise the role of SS Californian in sinking of Titanic. The report was issued in 1992. While those undertaking the report differed on whether Titanic was seen by Californian, they were unanimous that Lord’s failure to take action when rockets were sighted was wrong. While rockets had other uses than distress, it ought to have been investigated with the ship’s wireless operator awakened to find out what was going on. Why this was not done remains unknown.
There is a natural tendency to reject the signals of disaster and to hope that all is well despite the evidence of one’s own eyes and senses, Of course, Mr Stone should have gone down himself to the Master when there was no proper response from him, but the impression one gets of Captain Lord is that, far from being slack as has sometimes been suggested, he was in fact something of a martinet, and the young officer may have feared to leave the Bridge (normally a grave dereliction of duty) even though under the circumstances it would have been safe and right to do so. One can readily imagine Mr Stone on the Bridge, knowing in his heart what ought to be done (he is recorded as saying to Mr Gibson that “a ship doesn’t fire rockets for nothing”) but trying to persuade himself that there was no real cause for alarm – and desperately wishing it was four o’clock and the Mate was there. I sympathise with Mr Stone, but it must be said that he was seriously at fault. (FN#1)
Note the use of the word “martinet” to describe Captain Lord. That word is not used much these days but instructive on what people of his day thought of him (and today when they read what others said about him). To call someone a martinet is to describe someone who demands strict adherence to rules and doles out punishment for those who fail to follow them. And Lord was strict on following the rules and you did not break them for any reason lightly.
However the report also notes that had Lord done all the right things, the outcome would likely have been the same. The error in navigation would have been found but the time lost doing this would result in Californian not arriving until Titanic sank. The report concludes:
I do not think any reasonably probable action by Captain Lord could have led to a different outcome of the tragedy. This of course does not alter the fact that the attempt should have been made.(FN#2)
It is a partial vindication for Lord. It absolves him of providing a false position of California nat both hearings. It does not absolve him or his officers of doing nothing. While the outcome might have been the same, at least attempting to investigate the rockets (by waking the wireless operator and finding out who was sending them up and why)was preferable to either being indifferent or unconcerned that people may be at peril on the high seas.
FN#1:MAIB Report: Reappraisal of Evidence
Relating to SS CALIFORNIAN,page 17.
FN#2: IBID, page 18
This seems to be the year of Stanley Lord as we have another book examining his culpability that tragic night in 1912. The Titanic and the Indifferent Stranger written by Paul Lee is now out in an expanded paperback edition. According to the press release, the book is a 440 page detailed anaylsis that follows the controversy from its roots all the way through the books published for and against Stanley Lord, and the internal deliberations of the British government.
“The Titanic and the Indifferent Stranger” is a 440 page detailed analysis of the case, chronologically following the controversy from initial press reports of the mysterious ship seen from the Titanic’s bows, to the pronouncements made in later years by authors keen to promote their books and opinions over their rivals. Assisting in Dr. Lee’s conclusions is the first printing of the internal deliberations of the UK Government as the campaigns to clear Captain Lord’s name in 1965, 1968 and the early 1990s were ignited by Lord’s friends. The bequeathed papers of Captain Lord’s foe and namesake Walter Lord, and the Captain’s ardent supporter Leslie Harrison have been scoured and provide a rich source of information on the tactics employed on both sides of the argument – culminating in a legal bid to suppress a book critical of the Californian and its crew.
A review by Paul Rogers on the electronic edition at Encyclopedia Titanica gives it high marks. “Lee’s book is, quite simply, the most comprehensive presentation of evidence in relation to Captain Lord and his infamous ship that I have read to date. Rather than relying on footnotes and references, Lee presents, within the text itself, the full transcripts from the American and British Inquiries that relate to the Californian and the other ships implicated in the Titanic disaster. There is no bias whatsoever that I could perceive and Lee treats all those involved with scrupulous fairness.”
I have no doubt that both sides of the debate (the Lordites and Anti-Lordites) will be making their own appraisals known of Lee’s work in the near future (if they have not all ready done so by now).
Two issues split the Titanic camp into warring factions: salvage and the Californian issue. The latter issue involves the role of Captain Stanley Lord of the SS California. On the night Titanic went down in 1912, his ship was in the vicinity. Due to the ice on the ocean, he had decided to shut down and wait till morning to proceed. His wireless operator had gone to bed and while rockets were spotted he did not believe it was a distress signal. In the aftermath of the tragedy, Captain Lord came under fire for failing to act. It was something that would haunt him for the rest of his life.
The two camps, the Lordites (pro-Lord) and the anti-Lordites (against Lord) have very different perspectives on the role of Captain Lord. The Lordites argue that the enquiries were hasty and a rush to judgment. The anti-Lordites argue the enquiries got it right, that Lord failed to act when the rockets were sighted. Now comes a new book that will likely reignite the debate. Daniel Allen Butler’s The Other Side of Night, according to the Scotsman makes a startling claim that Captain Lord was a sociopath. According to the article, Butler had commissioned a series of clinical psychologists to examine Lord’s sworn testimony as well as reports of his actions both before and after the tragedy.
“White rockets meant that somebody, somewhere, was about to die, yet Lord choose to ignore them. What has remained unexplained for more than nine decades is why Lord would so callously choose to disregard such a plea for help. “The answer, which lies in medical science, is that Stanley Lord was a man without conscience: he was a sociopath.”
The article notes that there were allegations that the officers under Lord were coerced to testify to support his position and that the ship’s log, which would have proved the exact location of the California, disappeared. And Butler argues Lord’s story changed over time while others stayed the same. Add to allegations he falisified entries in the logbook and the fact he expressed no sympathy for the victims over the years lends credence, Butler argues, that Lord was a sociopathic personality.
Well that is surely going to get those who support Lord fuming and dashing to their keyboards to type out responses. As for the book, I have not read it so I cannot say whether it is good, bad, or just okay. However relying on psychologists to render an opinion about a historical person is dubious. There was a trend in history many years ago to apply the techniques of psychology to historical figures. The problem is that you do not have the person right there so that you can make a proper clinical analysis. In the case of historical figures you have to rely on what was written about them or what they wrote about themselves. Certainly you can gain insights but it is far from a proper analysis or even a diagnosis. Without the person right there it is difficult to render a truly objective opinion as to what the true mental state was.