The RMS Titanic was built to be the largest passenger ship in the world, an Olympic-class vessel 1,000 tons bigger than her sister ship, which was half-again as big as the previous largest ship. The White Star Line had been outpaced in 1907 by Cunard, whose Lusitania and Mauretania had become the fastest transoceanic passenger ships. With German lines already beginning to challenge their market share, Chairman Bruce J. Ismay met with financier JP Morgan, and a trio of new ships would make White Star the largest and most luxurious way to travel in the world. The Olympic launched in 1911, but it was the Titanic whose maiden voyage would be the most anticipated with guests such as the Astors, the Strauses of Macy’s, Margaret Brown, and even her own architect Thomas Andrews. JP Morgan himself was supposed to board, but he canceled shortly before, possibly in relation to the coal strike that postponed many transatlantic crossings.
The strike ended just days before the Titanic left Southampton. Captain Edward John Smith, White Star’s most senior captain, commanded. As stops were made in Cherbourg, France, and Queenstown, Ireland, passengers as well as additional crew were taken on before making the long journey across the Atlantic. Guests enjoyed conveniences modeled on the Ritz Hotel with artistic flare in every fashionable style. The ship offered a library, a telephone system, a pool, gymnasium, and several kinds of baths with nearly as many First Class passengers as Third.
Due to a warm winter breaking up the ice shelves of Greenland, ships had already begun spreading word of ice in the north Atlantic. Despite the warnings, Captain Smith ran the Titanic at near her top speed, not necessarily attempting to break the records set by Cunard for crossing but to assure his passengers arrived in a fit and timely manner. He followed the advisories and relied on his lookouts to keep an eye out for any potential hazards.
The men in the crow’s nest were without binoculars due to an equipment error, but those would have been useless on the night the iceberg appeared. It was a moonless, extremely calm night, causing the glassy water to reflect starlight and create mirages in the cold air that obscured the horizon. Just before midnight on April 14, lookout Frederick Fleet rested his weary eyes before taking another look into the sea and spotting an iceberg floating immediately before the ship. He called to the bridge, “Iceberg right ahead!”
First Officer William Murdoch ordered the engines reversed full astern and the ship to turn, but it was too late to maneuver around the floating block of ice. The Titanic slammed head-on into the berg, causing all of the passengers and cargo to lurch forward. Damage to the bow was substantial enough that the first watertight compartment ruptured, causing icy seawater to flow inside. Fortunately, Titanic had been designed to have as many as four of its special compartments flood without hazard. Multitudinous injuries were reported throughout the ship, but, almost miraculously, no one was killed.
Captain Smith was roused from his quarters and directed the ship’s doctors in caring for the most injured. Emergency flares lit up the sky while wireless calls beckoned for help from nearby ships. Lifeboats were prepared to launch in the case of an evacuation, and it was noted that there was only enough room for half of the people aboard the ship. As the Titanic refused to sink, however, worries were abated. About 4 o’clock that morning, the RMS Carpathian arrived to give aid, and the Mount Temple and SS Californian arrived after dawn, when it was deemed safe to traverse the ice fields. Titanic was eventually deemed seaworthy and continued its journey to New York at much slower speeds. Thomas Andrews was given a special toast from the captain’s table and later commendations from a number of boards and charities.
Inquiry into the accident prompted a great deal of approval for Andrews’ designs. Naysayers who again warned of too few lifeboats were mocked in several editorials saying, “What’s the point of a lifeboat if the ship never sinks?” Others brought up the issue of the Californian switching off its wireless receiver, but investigators finally sided with Captain Stanley Lord’s decision not to risk another ship at night in the ice.
Weather would continue to be blamed for many of the worst maritime tragedies as that fall hundreds of ships would sink in a vicious typhoon in the Pacific, including the Kiche Maru from Japan, which lost over one thousand lives. Most agencies put their efforts into attempting to communicate weather-patterns. Communication failed in the case of the RMS Empress of Ireland, which collided with a cargo vessel on the Saint Lawrence River that led to another loss of over one thousand lives as the ship sank so fast. In most cases, lifeboats were the least of anyone’s concerns.
The peacetime losses were soon eclipsed by the World War. In 1914, Britain established a blockade of Germany, and Germany attempted the same, creating warzones in the North Sea and Atlantic. Thousands perished aboard ships like the Principe Umberto, the Gallia, and the Queen Mary as modern warfare such as the U-boat and mines struck. Ships found themselves woefully unprepared to face sinking, and even emergency refits and additional lifeboats jammed onto the sides of ships were deemed untrustworthy. When U-Boat U-20 sank the RMS Lusitania, once the pride of the Cunard fleet that had been requisitioned into the Navy, thousands perished with only a handful of survivors. International outrage overlooked the Lusitania’s munitions supply, and the German press called the sinking dishonorable even in a war where British ships painted over their names and flew false flags. At last the German command ordered an end to unrestricted submarine warfare, instead following stricter Prize Law rules.
Even with calmer seas, the War dragged on. The infamous Zimmermann Telegram soured American opinions of Germany, but the public did not see fit to join a war unless it directly affected their own rights. After another bitter winter in 1919, Germany finally capitulated and signed a crippling Treaty of Versailles, while Americans watched from the sidelines, maintaining its neutrality in the Eastern Hemisphere, as it would for decades to come.
In reality, the Titanic attempted to maneuver around the iceberg, which struck along the starboard side in a gash that filled five of the safety compartments. It became the most famous maritime disaster, having more than 1,500 lives lost in the icy waters of the North Atlantic, many of them due to the lack of preparation in training and lifeboats.