“The problem every writer faces when trying to write about the “Titanic” is that we are all shackled to using mere words to describe something that is beyond language. The Titanic sinking is a historical event so primal, so visceral, and so horrible that it soon becomes obvious to the chronicler of such an event that language has not yet evolved to the point where words can truly convey the tragic essence of the disaster.”
– Stepehen J. Spignesi in his book “the Complete Titanic“
The RMS Titanic struck an iceberg at 11:40 on the evening of April 14, and sunk at 2:20 a.m. on April 15, in 1912, one hundred two years ago today. Of the 2200 souls whom she carried on this, her maiden voyage, only 700 survived, mainly because Titanic only stowed enough lifeboats for about a third of her compliment. Many of those who were killed died of hypothermia from the freezing water of the North Atlantic Ocean while they floated in lifejackets. But these are facts which every one of you already knows. Let’s face it: this is one historical event which has been covered and recovered many times over. I waited until 2012, the centennial, not from lack of interest. Afterall, the address here is “historysstory” , and there is surely no single historical event that is more rich in stories than this one. But as Mr. Spagnoli so aptly puts it above, words pale before this tragedy. And how to do something that you have not already read or seen in the movies? As I am a musician, I shall focus primarily on those men who played on in the face of what they surely knew to be certain death.
RMS Titanic, the “Unsinkable” Ship of Dreams Strikes an Iceberg
The Royal Mail Steamer (RMS) “Titanic” was to be the pride of the White Star Line. At over 800 feet in length, she was the biggest, most luxurious ship afloat. White Star, the shipping company had constructed her and her sister ship the Olympic to compete with their rivals, the Cunard line. There was much money to be had in transatlantic crossings, mainly by filling as many Third Class, or “Steerage” passengers as possible on board at @ 900 Pounds Sterling. This was a lot, but immigrants lured by the accommodations – which in Titanic made Third Class as good as second class on most ships, flocked to this big new ship. Everything after that was pure profit for the White Star Line. And Titanic had the most luxurious accommodations in the world to attract the cream of society’s elite. With extra luxurious state rooms (pictured above), an exercise gym, a heated pool, a Turkish Bath and countless other high-class frills, Titanic had attracted J.J. Astor, Benjamin Guggenheim, Isador Strauss, and countless others of society’s notables to make this truly the ship of dreams for the upper crust in the First Class, and the lower class in Steerage, and everyone in between. Captain Edward J. Smith was in command of Titanic, this was to be his final voyage before retiring. And Thomas Andrews, who had designed the Titanic was also aboard lovingly checking every detail of the ships operation, and determined to note and fix anything that wasn’t working.
And in the true spirit of the age she was deemed “unsinkable” due to her division into sixteen water-tight compartments. In the event of an accident, each one of these compartments could be sealed off. Titanic could still float with any four of these compartments flooded. Thus she was practically unsinkable. But after four days of idyllic happiness, this wonder of this age of progress met her match in a ten thousand year old hunk of ice. At @11:40 on the night of April 14, she was making a speedy 22 knots. Captain Smith had retired for the night, leaving the ship under the command of his First Officer , William T. Murdock. The water was extra calm, almost like glass. It was a moonless , but very clear night. Thus the icebergs from the Greenland Ice field through which Titanic was passing had no illumination, and no waves braking against their water lines. So when Titanic came upon an iceberg, Seamen Frederick Fleet stationed in the crow’s nest of Titanic’s foremast did not see it until it was too late for the great ship to avoid.
“ICEBERG RIGHT AHEAD!!” Fleet yelled into his phone to the bridge. “Jesus Mary!!” First Officer Murdock whispered as he struggled to dodge the berg. “Hard-a-starboard!!” he yelled to Wheelman Robert Hitchens. Hithcens threw himself against the Titanic’s wheel with all of his might. “Wheel hard over!” Hitchens yelled. “Hard-a-port” Murdock yelled back. Titanic seemed to miss the berg by a few feet, but she had in fact struck it hard on her starboard side sustaining a gash of over three hundred feet in her hull. The rivets which held her together had popped out of their moorings under pressure from the jagged edge of the iceberg, and the steel plates which they held in place gave way. Slowly, inexorably the mighty and unsinkable Titanic began to fill with water. And the watertight compartments which only went as high as “E” Deck were powerless to stop it as the water pulled her down by the bow and began to flow over the top of the compartments, one filling into the next just like an ice cube tray (note diagram above). Mr. Andrews, called by Captain Smith to inspect the damage quickly came to the conclusion that Titanic was doomed, and that she had about an hour and a half to live.
Titanic’s Orchestra Plays to the End
Titanic’s Orchestra was actually divided into two separate groups which played at different times and in different parts of the ship, lead by Violinist Wallace Hartley (right), whose quintet played at most of the main functions such as dinner, and a Trio which played in the reception room outside of Titanic’s “Cafe’ Parisien”. The other members of the Orchestra were: Georges A. Krins &; John L. Hume (violin), Theodore R. Bailey and Percy C. Taylor, Piano, Roger M. Bricoux and John W. Woodward, Cello, and John Frederick Preston Clarke, Double Bass, who is also listed in some sources as playing Viola as well. Once the berg had been struck, and the passengers began assembling in their life jackets, Hartley and his fellow orchestra members assembled in the First Class Lounge and began playing mostly ragtime tunes in order to help keep the passengers calm. Whether they were ordered to play, or did so of their own volition is unknown. And exactly what instrumentation they used is something which I have been unable to find recorded anywhere which is hardly surprising. Doubtless, people had more important things on their minds than noting which members of the Orchestra were playing. But play they did. When the passengers actually began to board the lifeboats, following the orders of the Captain, women and children first, they moved to the front half of the boat deck. The following quote from http://www.titanictitanic.com/titanic_band. shtml sums up their experience as well as anything I have read:
“What went through their minds as they played together on that night can only be guessed. As the slant of the decks increased more and more, did they even consider that this was their last hour alive, or did one or two of them hold out a slight hope that eventually one of the officers would amble over, and instruct them to a life boat? Whatever their thoughts were, we will never know. All eight bandsmen were lost.”
My guess, as a musician is that they were aware that women and children were being taken off the ship first, that they were unlikely to find a spot for themselves. And they therefore elected to spend what were clearly going to be their last hours on earth playing rather than in a panic about their inescapable fate. Frankly, I’ve often thought that had I been Mr. Clarke, I may have given some thought to making my Double Bass into a floatational device. But Fred Clarke (I’ve read his name listed that way in at least one source) evidently decided to help his fellow musicians in the selfless task of calming their fellow passengers in their final moments. Every survivor’s account testifies to the fact that the orchestra played throughout the final crisis; clearly they were made of sterner stuff than I can imagine finding in myself. There have been reports that the violin owned by Wallace Hartley may have been recovered and will be auctioned soon. For my take on that see the special “Today in History” posting on March 28: “The Titanic Violin?”
“Nearer My God to Thee” or “Song D’Automne”?
There have been conflicting reports over the years as to which tune was the last that the Orchestra was heard playing. There is at least one report that it was “Song D’Automne, which was among the tunes which the Orchestra had in it’s playbook. But there are many more accounts that the last tune heard was the Hymn “Nearer My God to Thee”. The hymn certainly seems appropriate for the situation, and that has been the tune which the orchestra was depicted playing in three major film versions of the story. But the answer to this question is something which will never be known. I have also found conflicting information both in print and online as to how many of the musician’s bodies were ever recovered. Wallace Hartley’s body was certainly recovered, as was Fred Clarke’s. In fact Hartley’s body was interred while “Nearer My God to Thee” was played by an orchestra. As reported in the Calgary Herald:
” ‘I shall never forget hearing the strains of that beautiful hymn as I was leaving the sinking ship,’ an anonymous rescued sailor told the ‘Western Daily Mercury’ in 1912. ‘It was a favorite hymn of mine, but at such a time and under such tragic circumstances it had for me a solemnity too deep for words.’ “
Most of Titanic’s Passengers Go Down With Her.
Only seven hundred five of those who sailed on RMS Titanic managed to survive the night of April15, 1912. Millionaire Isador Strauss met his God in the company of his wife, who refused to leave without him. Another millionaire, Benjamin Guggenheim, determined to leave his earthly life as a gentleman, dressed , as did his loyal valet, in his finest evening coat, and drowned so attired. Thomas Andrews, who had taken such filial pride in his ship, spent a great deal of time helping passengers into the life boats, and was last seen in the First Class Lounge staring into space. There have been conflicting reports over the years as to the last siting of Captain Smith, but he definitely followed the old tradition that the captain goes down with the ship. Not so White Star’s General Director, Bruce Ismay who, like Mr. Andrews also spent considerable time helping passengers into seats in the life boats, before helping himself to one. He lived in infamy forever after. Fifteen hundred seventeen men women and children perished that night. About 75% of the Steerage passengers, whose hopes for a better life formed such a big portion of Titanic’s economic base were lost. The survivors were all picked up by the liner “Carpathia” whose captain, Arthur Rostron heroically rushed his ship beyond her expected endurance to the scene of the disaster.
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