After the Summer

Prior to last week’s post, I hadn’t posted anything in a while – soz. As the autumn and winter months draw in, I’ll no doubt be posting a lot more. Summer kind of takes hold, and I did have a busy summer, though I haven’t stopped talking about and thinking about history the whole time. Even on my holiday in Portugal – a relaxing, sunny holiday – I wasn’t completely satisfied until we visited the old town of Sitges, home to a castle from the Middle Ages and an archaeological museum.

But now the Autumn has set in. And there’s something about this time of year, that for some reason always takes me back to my insatiable interest in WWI.

It’s a strange thing.

It’s the smell on the air – damp, muddy, fresh smell. It reminds me of visiting the old battlefields, the memorials, the cemeteries, the preserved trenches, especially when I went there three years ago at the end of October.  I feel like I need to go back there this time of year every year. It’s a strange calling I have.

Instead, I have to make do with entertaining myself with WWI related stuff. Like War Horse – watched that last weekend. It was interesting. I liked the idea. I’ve never read the book. My main criticism of the film? The filters/lighting of the scenes were a little too strong. But obviously that’s more technical. My favourite part? The charge of the cavalry – that realisation that being an arrogant Brit won’t save you from death, especially when you run into machine guns head on, armed with nothing more than a sword.

Benedict Cumberbatch, as usual excelled at playing a well bred English man in this film, and also in Parade’s End – a strange five part BBC drama. Featuring WWI (again) and suffragettes. Quite interesting, but strange as it jumped forward a lot through time. It would spend ten minutes on one scene – a conversation between two people – then jump forward a year. I reckon the books probably fill in the gaps a bit better, a set of three written by Ford Madox Ford in the twenties. I think I’ll have to read them at some point; there’s something comforting knowing a book was written close to the time of the events it references. It’s interesting to see the difference in perspective between then and now.

I also bought Birdsong on blu-ray, the BBC drama, produced by Working Title. Felt that should definitely have won some awards, but it didn’t. People seemed to love it or hate it when it was on in January and I obviously loved it.

I also have three books on my shelf to read. I started reading The Complete Memoirs of George Sherston last year. It’s Siegfried Sassoon’s autobiography. I mostly got it as I wanted to read about his time in the war and about his time at Craiglockhart War Hospital, and his friendship with Wilfred Owen. So I thought I’d get the full autobiography, learn about life in the English countryside before the war etc.

Turns out that Sassoon completely omitted Owen from the biography, as he was anxious not to show his relationship with him as homosexually intimate – as it wasn’t. Or to give any readers the slightest impression that it was – it was just a friendship. I didn’t even get to that bit, and I was already a bit disappointed; this was also because I kind of got a bit bored with stories about cricket and fox hunting. Not a massive interest in either and pretty much half of it is about those two things so far. But it’s cool – I gave up reading purposely at the point when he decides to sign up to the army, so it won’t be too hard to get back into.

I also have to read a new novel on World War One, though I’m a bit dubious of reading more recent war novels, after the awkward ending of Ben Elton’s The First Casualty. I didn’t like the ending or even really like the main character of that book. Anyway, the new book I have is called My Dear, I Wanted to Tell You. Found this after seeing a link to another fairly new war book, hailed as the new Birdsong. As some reviewers on Amazon disagreed with this, I decided not to get it, but got the My Dear… book instead, as most people gave it five stars.

And as a present to my manager when I left my job as a planner for Viasat History the other week, I got her Strange Meeting by Susan Hill – my favourite war book. Even more than Regeneration by Pat Barker. And as my leaving present? The Faces of World War I: The Tragedy of the Great War in Words and Pictures by Max Arthur – an amazing book with haunting images.

Anyway, this was only meant to be a quick catch up, and I’m waffling on as if this is a review blog. Well, it isn’t. So I’m stopping there.


Separate point – was in a pub in Streatham the other weekend and was struck by this portrait:

The pub was called Earl Ferrers. This was a title not a name. This particular portrait is of Laurence Shirley, 4th Earl Ferrers…and the last member of the House of Lords to be hanged in this country. He was hanged on 5th May 1760, for shooting an old family steward. I just thought it was a strange painting especially as the noose is too small.

Tales from the Crypt

Portugal – that’s where I was a week ago. I went to the Algarve. The evenings looked like this:


Nearby the villa we stayed at there was a small town called Alcantarilha, and in this town is a 16th century church – the Capela dos Ossos or the Bone Chapel, as you’ll see by its original decor inside:  


Over 1000 bones are stored in this chapel, which was built over a graveyard. Like many bone chapels throughout Portugal, as opposed to being a gory sight, it was actually built for the honest purpose of protecting the remains of the dead. Which is why inside, Jesus watches over the bones.

Portugal isn’t the only country to have relocated various graveyard bones. From my last post about my family tree of deceased people, to this post with its church of relocated bones…to a tree with relocated graves. Do you know who this man is?

It’s Thomas Hardy, the famous writer of such stories as Jude the ObscureFar from the Madding Crowd, and Under the Greenwood Tree. St Pancras station, London, began construction in 1863, and there was a slight problem with the development: St Pancras Old Church, said to have Norman links and to be the oldest surviving church in London, had a graveyard full of aristocrats and prominent figures such as immigrants like the refugees from the French Revolution, that encroached on the development of the station and later developments. So it was decided that the graveyard should be relocated.

Around the same time as the construction of the station, Thomas Hardy was a student of architecture. He was appointed as the overseer of the exhumation – a sensitive affair considering the nature of the job, and one which he would write about much later, having spent so much of his time managing the movement. The 7,000 bodies were to be placed in a mass grave just north of the graveyard. And the gravestones?


This is known as the Thomas Hardy tree, an ash tree which was planted around the same time as the reinterment of the bodies, later to grow up amongst the headstones. I haven’t actually visited it yet. Maybe I’ll go on Halloween. And to Highgate cemetery.

I’ve visited many cemeteries in my life, due to the two trips I went on visiting First World War memorials and graveyards in France and Belgium. One sticks in my mind in Belgium – the Langemark cemetery, a German cemetery.

During WWI, the Germans buried their dead just as their enemies did, in makeshift graves that became permanent. Here are a couple of original German graves at the preserved trenches of Sanctuary Wood in Belgium:

After WWI, the defeated Germans were made to exhume the bodies of their soldiers in the graveyards in this area of Belgium, and rebury them in fewer graveyards. After WWII, the Germans had to exhume the bodies again from these cemeteries and reinter them again into fewer cemeteries, for the sake of an easy upkeep in a foreign land. Langemark, at the time known as Langemarck-North was one of just three “collecting” cemeteries. It was filled with the bodies from 18 other cemeteries. They were reburied in mass graves, multiple names listed like below. 

There are over 44,000 bodies in this one cemetery.

Everyone I know who I visited this cemetery with on both tours was especially affected by the bleakness here. Aside of the many gravestones, there are three mass graves here, one of which is known as the Comrades’ grave, containing 24,917 servicemen. Worth noting is the small monument at the entrance; inside, this building lists the names of the soldiers’s bodies that were unable to be identified but known to be buried at Langemark.

3,000 of the bodies in one area of the cemetery are those of Kriegsfreiwilliger, which means war volunteer. These soldiers were young, inexperienced German men who made up 15% of the war vounteers who died at the Battle of Langemarck during October and November 1914, as part of the First Battle of Ypres. It was at the hands of highly trained French infantry and British riflemen. It is now known as Kindermord bei Ypern in German, or the Massacre of the Innocents in English.

At one end of the cemetery stands four figures, the bronze statues of a group of mourning men, created by Professor Emil Krieger from Munich. It was taken from a famous print of a group of German soldiers from the Reserve-Infantry-Regiment 238 mourning at a graveside in 1918. Two days later the man on the second from the right was killed.

When you first enter the cemetery, it’s what you immediately see. These four silhouetted figures. And even once you’ve worked out that they aren’t in fact real people, you can’t help but let your gaze return to them, always there in the background, watching over.

Dangerous Jobs for Women

So, you’ve heard of The Dangerous Book for Boys and maybe The Worst Jobs in History series’s. But what about the dangerous jobs for women throughout the ages?

Women have been given very little airtime in historical accounts, and when they are written into anything, it’s to reinforce the age old sterotypes:

– Women did nothing during the First World War except write poetry whingeing about the lack of attention they received from their fiances on the front line, knit socks and dish out white feathers to innocent and unsuspecting young men out of uniform.

– Ancient Athens promulgated the idea of democracy where EVERYONE was involved in voting.

– Women do not and have never held a rightful place in the Christian church.

Well, to the first, if you just read the angry First World War poetry of Siegfried Sassoon, then you will assume that women did very little during the war except what is named in the sentence above. In fact, many women joined up with the war effort as VAD nurses, having to care for all the injured and ill men, became part of the Land Army (yes – there was one in WWI), worked in munitions factories and much more. Are any of these women commemorated? Not obviously.

To the second, the idea of democracy involves all the people, coming from the Greek word that means “rule of the people”. Of course, the Ancient Grecians’ idea of “the people” lacked two major  groups – slaves and…women! Democracy? Pah!

To the last, just watch Divine Women, a new BBC series presented by the legendary Ancient History expert Bettany Hughes (well, I think she’s a leg anyway). She proves that women were pretty much written out of Christianity (and other religions such as Islam), so much so that mosaics and writings and teachings were tampered with to make women look like men, and female names like males’, such as Theodora the Bishop changed to Theodor and much more. And why? They were written out because early men in the church believed women were unequals, shameful. This judgement was sealed in 387 AD, when Augustine of Hippo became a Christian and a Theoligan. On becoming a Christian, he also became celibate. The problem was, prior to this he had been a bit of a sex fiend. So of course, he promoted and embellished the powerful concept of Original Sin – sex breeds sin, and women like Eve are dangerous sexual deviants and temptresses. The rest is history – ignorant history.

So, here is my first example of what struck me as a really dangerous job for women: Munitionettes of the First World War.

During the First World War women did not have the vote. The Suffragette Movement was stalled mid-flow on the outbreak of war, as they thought their resources would be better spent focusing on the war/anti-war effort. Despite the obstruction to their vote, the government nonetheless relied on women in the war effort. The government relied on women more than they paid for it (women didn’t get as high a wage as their male equals). This was during what became known as the “shell scandal/crisis” of 1915, when there just wasn’t enough available ammunition for those on the front (the crisis eventually led to the downfall of the Liberal Governement in 1916). Saying that, when I went on a trip to the First World War trenches, I learnt there, at an excavated trench that still held the remnants of a shell gun station, that British shells were notorious for not exploding on impact, and so maybe a little pointless?

Anyway, it took a little while for the concept of women working for the war effort to catch on, as women were expected to stay at home, and were definitely not thought of as capable replacements for men in the industrial, farming, and generally any of the industries that involved any amount of manual labour. No doubt, the women suffered many vindictive games at the hands of the threatened men they worked with in the factories. Still, women played a large role in keeping the home fires burning. They relied on money as much as their male contemporaries, and whilst these men took advantage of becoming soldiers in return for a stable income, so these women took on the roles that were needed during the war.

I came across the job of the munitionettes in the book Voices of the Twentieth Century: Women at War:


Munition workers worked in the factories with raw materials – such as the explosives and gas used in shells. Rules were followed strictly, and disobedience of these were treated serverely. In this book, I found the story of Lilian Miles, who tells of her friend who accidentally dropped a match, when she took out her handkerchief at work. Although she tried to protest her friend’s innocence, her friend was given a twenty-eight day prison sentence by the court. She never got over this, dying a few months later at the age of twenty. It’s shocking, but not so much when you learn that the army sent pilots up in planes without parachutes, during this war, to “avoid cowardice”.

Aside of the fear of a fire erupting in a shell factory – you can imagine why – is what seems to me as the other most dangerous aspect of these jobs, and that was working with poisons. For example, women who worked with TNT were often nicknamed “canaries” because their skin went yellow. They suffered many long term effects even after the war, such as infertility as a result of the poisons. Even those in other fields suffered similarly; the women who workerd with the toxic dye used to make khaki uniforms, developed painful boils.

Elsie McIntyre, gives an account of working at the Barnbow National Shell Factory in Leeds, in Women at War, saying:

 “…We had a fortnight in the powder and after the fortnight we had a fortnight on the stencil side. That was the dirty side. You could only do a fortnight. And then you had to come out, owing to the poison. And it was those people that you saw going about, they had yellow hands even through the gloves. We had two half-pints of milk a day to keep out the poison from the powder.”

Milk was used to keep the skin colouring at bay, that was caused by such explosives as cordite and TNT. Despite food rationing, munitions workers were given as much milk and barley water as they needed for this reason. Yet, still this wasn’t enough as Isabella Clarke, a munitionette in the First World War, explains: she says that even the pillow cases they slept on would go pink from their hair, and that you could tell by the discolour of the white of someone’s eyes if the gas they worked with had affected them. Her and her friend were both stopped because their eyes were discoloured – her friend’s were more discoloured than her own. She says:

“I was fortunate, my friend refused this herring that was cooked for us and I was a bit greedy and I ate mine and hers. It made me sick. Being bilious after the herring it was what really saved me.”

Later she was informed that her friend had died.


There’ll be more to come on dangerous jobs for women in later posts.


Thanks to Fountain, Nigel, ed., Voices from the Twentieth Century: Women at War (Michael O’Mara Books Ltd, 2002).


What Star Wars Has to Do With the Battle of Passchendaele and Other Things

1. I learnt this one from the film Passchendaele (Canadian film, with the mountie from Due South as a troubled soldier from the front. Tacky, romantic storyline, but one of the best WWI battle scenes I’ve seen…I haven’t seen many): remember the shiny, white folk in the Star Wars films? One of them catches his helmet on the door frame in the most iconic scene of episode IV…remember now? You may also recognise the term “stormtrooper” as the English word for the Nazi SA men, or “Sturmabteilung”. Well, the term stormtrooper actually comes from the battle of Passchendaele, the notoriously muddy battle of the First World War in Ypres in 1917. So muddy, that men, horses, guns etc got stuck and even drowned in the mud. The men who fought here got labelled as storm troopers.

I found this colour image online, but something tells me it’s too colourful for a picture of mud. If you were marching and a man fell in the mud in front of you, you were not allowed to stop and help pull him out, even though many men drowned in this way. Many other men drowned when they were wounded in shell holes that filled with rain water.

2. The Lord of the Rings trilogy evolved from experiences in both World Wars.


Tolkien served in the First World War, and was one of many to be devastated by the deaths of all his friends. He was also one of many to be affected by trenchfoot – where the feet of men who trudged around in waterlogged trenches every day began to rot and parts would drop off – and by trench fever – an illness passed on from lice which were passed from soldier to solider through their uniforms.

Below is an image of Australian soldiers carrying comrades suffering from trenchfoot:

His son also served in the Second World War, and both his and his son’s experiences influenced his books. The idea of the Orcs, the specially created soldiers that fight battles on a grand scale, can be seen from the modern warfare that developed in the First World War. Machine guns, tanks, poison gas and flamethrowers all made their name in this war, and took many by surprised. It was no longer pure guerilla warfare – men and generals armed with simple rifles running from bush to bush to face man on man combat – but vast battles, planned and ordered by generals, against weapons of mass destruction and chemical warfare.

3. Darth Vader’s mask has German helmet and gas mask connotations…

Ralph McQuarrie (RIP: March 5, 2012), the artist for Star Wars, was told by George Lucas that he wanted a sort of Samurai figure for Darth Vader. So he drew someone who appeared menacing and powerful, and who could breathe in all atmospheres. When it came to making the costume, it was Brian Muir who modelled Vadar’s headgear on a German World War II helmet and gas mask.

Gas masks were invented in the First World War. The Germans’ came first:

This picture from 1918 shows a German with a gas  mask that looks pretty much the same as the masks you see being used 20 years later in WWII. Note how even the horses too have gasmasks (horses were a major form of transport in the First World War, and many from farms all around Britain were used in the war. The loss of these horses was on such a grand scale during the war that it was a major contribution to the phasing out of horses as farm labourers – there just weren’t enough of them about after the war. Oddly enough, Germany employed more horses in the Second World War than in the First).

So that’s the German gas mask. Here is the British:

Hardly impressive. The French were the first to use chemical warfare in the First World War in 1914, yet the gas they deployed in their attacks was merely an irritant – tear gas. Of course these gas masks in the image above are primitive because the Germans were the first to use poison gas. The British, French and Canadians were totally unaware that they were being attacked by gas, at Ypres in 1915, when they saw the yellow gas cloud wafting across the land from the enemy trench. They believed that the cloud was a cover for an enemy advance and were ready and waiting. Instead they were caught up in the chlorine gas without any protection. The gas itself could be deadly, as when chlorine mixed with water particles in the lungs, it created hydrochloric acid which could drown the soldier from within.

The British also tried a gas attack in September 1915, but that was a total disaster as the wind they were relying on to take the gas over to the enemy actually blew the gas back on themselves. Combined with the Germans’ shelling, which caused more gas cannisters to erupt, and you can imagine the carnage.

The first makeshift gas masks were handerkerchiefs or gauze – the same stuff used for bandages and women’s sanitary pads – dipped in water, or, what was thought as more effective, urine. Initially, men resorted to handkerchiefs and gauze soaked in their own urine or dipped in the trench toilet, as urea was known to react with chlorine. Eventually, both were replaced with something a bit more substantial, yet still primitive:

Chlorine gas too was replaced with newer chemical developments. In 1915 France made its debut with phosphene gas – deadlier than chlorine.

Yet, most of us have heard of the infamous mustard gas. This was first used by the Germans in July 1917. Men dropped to the ground to avoid it but as mustard gas was heavy it sank to the ground, and would sit there remaining active for days. The effects of it? Severe internal and external bleeding causing stripping of the bronchials, skin blistering, sore, sticky eyes, and vomiting. In some unfortunate victims, this would lead to a 4/5 week painful deterioration towards death. It was too painful for these men to be bandaged, and the baths they took to wash off the gas particles put them in immense pain.

There are even worse pictures than this elsewhere…

Mega Post: Stuff You Probably Don’t Know About the RMS Titanic

“Titanic was called the ship of dreams…and it was. It really was!”

Okay, I apologise straight away for having quoted from that terribly scripted, big-budget film, where the dialogue throughout consists of little more than “Rose!”, “Jack!”, “Iceberg!” and “Surely this ship can’t sink?!”

In case you haven’t already caught on to all the commemorative programmes, articles, 3D film, and recently released underwater pictures, it’s the centenary of the sinking of the Titanic.

The fact is, RMS Titanic wasn’t meant to sink. It’s all in the name – the Titans, the Greek mythological super deities, capable of mass strength and power (who were eventually overthrown by the Olympians). Yet, on 14th April 1912, four days after it set sail on its maiden voyage, the ship was sinking.

At the time, White Star Line was running against its main competitor, Cunard, which had launched the fastest passenger ships in service, the Lusitania and Mauretania – hence, the clunk of a line delivered by Kate Winslet in Titanic,

“It doesn’t look any bigger than the Mauretania.” Well done, James Cameron, for getting that historical reference point in there. Well done.

So, White Star Line presented its three members of the Olympic-class liners: RMS Olympic (launched in 1910), RMS Titanic (launched in 1911), and after that, HMHS Britannic (launched in 1914). RMS stands for Royal Mail Steamer, because as well as being a passenger ship, it also delivered post. HMHS means His/Her Majesty’s Hospital Ship – more on that later.

So, why did the Titanic sink – apart from the most obvious reason which is that it crashed into an iceberg?

1. Arrogance

If you say that a ship can’t sink, then you’re asking for it, especially if you don’t equip it with enough lifeboats for everyone to leave safely. It is widely suggested that J. Bruce Ismay, Chairman and Managing Director of White Star Line, was one of the top officials to suggest this, though Thomas Andrews, the naval architect and head of Titanic’s plans, knew very well that the ship was capable of sinking. As is anything on water, if it gets a bit of a hole in it.

Andrews knew this so well, in fact, that he tried to make Titanic even more steadfast, by suggesting that the liner carry 36 more lifeboats, a double hull and water tight bulkheads that would go up to the B deck. But, probably due to money, weight and arrogance, this was not allowed. Still, even Andrews was highly confident the ship would never sink.

Another occurrence that jeopardized the lives of those onboard was the fact that the lifeboat drill, which was due to be carried out on April 14th – the day of the crash, was cancelled for one reason or another. I would hazard a guess at it being for an arrogant reason: someone thought there was no need to do a drill on an unsinkable ship.

A new novel Good as Gold has now appeared, written by Louise Patten, whose grandfather, Charles Lightoller, was the sole surviving senior officer on the ship. This book has made many claims as to the reality of the sinking, including its covered up secrets. One of Patten’s claims is that J. Bruce Ismay, who we met above and who was on the Titanic’s maiden voyage, ordered the captain to keep the liner moving onwards in his arrogant determination to get to New York on time. Instead, this made it even less likely for the ship to ever arrive at the dock – if it was going to at all, and in fact caused Titanic to sink hours before it would have done had it been stationary. Inevitably, other ships didn’t arrive in time to rescue the people onboard.

2. Technology

Of course, Titanic may have been its own lifeboat, as was suggested at the time, because of its watertight compartments…if they had worked as planned. If the watertight bulkheads had gone further up, or no more than four had been damaged then it may not have sunk. But as the water leaked into the fifth compartment, the Titanic was no longer able to stay afloat, and so began to tip forward, nose first, eventually breaking in two due to the extreme weight at the front. Hey, even lifeboats can sink.

The other technological weakness of the Titanic was the fact that the rivets that were used to secure the 1.5 inch thick steel hull were made of a weaker iron than was standard. In those times, steel was used for rivets, a much stronger material. Not only was iron a weaker option, but the iron itself was of a lower class – “class 3” – compared to the class of iron used on other vessels – “class 4”. Needless to say, this class 3 iron could not stand the amount of stress that was applied to it, that other metals would have been able to stand.

3. Bad Decision Making

To an extent, all of these issues could be attributed to bad decision making. But here are some specifics.

The bad decision making of various morse code telegram operators also had a part to play. In those days, ships relied on each other for warnings of icebergs in places like the Atlantic, and these messages were relayed through morse code. Due to earlier warnings, Titanic had already altered its course to avoid icebergs.

The morse code operators Harold Bride and John Jack Phillips, were actually employed by a wireless company, and not by the Titanic as “crew members”. One of the ways they made money on commission, was to send personal messages from the passengers to land. They ignored several iceberg warnings from other ships such as the Californian (and other warnings were lost in translation), because they were concentrating on delivering the commercial messages, of which there was a backlog due to the lack of signal range earlier that day. Finally, Phillips told the operator on the Californian to “Keep Out! Shut up! Shut up!”.

This standard order of “Keep Out” was intended to stop other operators from sending messages so that the airways were clear for Phillips to send his commercial messages to the coast station. However, the rude “Shut up!” meant that he missed the important iceberg warning that Cyril Evans was sending from the Californian vessel. The Californian switched off its radio and the operator went to bed.

During the late night, the crew of the Californian told their captain that a ship in the near distance – within ten miles away – appeared to be firing rockets. They assumed the ship was having a party, and when it was noticed that it had disappeared, they believed it had moved on. Later, they realised another ship – the Carpathian – was now in the spot where the previous ship had been. Although survivors of the Titanic testified that there was another ship only six miles away, there is no knowing whether this was the Californian and that it was the Titanic that had been seen firing rockets or another ship, as the Californian maintained that it had been 19 miles from the Titanic. This probably would have been known if the operator had left his radio on.

It’s also a well known fact that when the ship hit ice, other vessels did not take the Titanic’s – the unsinkable Titanic’s – messages seriously. Up until that point, CQD was the standardised distress signal, and SOS had only just been brought in. The operator on the Frankfurt, 170 miles away, did not respond to the distress call of “CQD CQD SOS” until half an hour later, and at that point treated it as pretty much a joke. Phillips was frustrated, and ordered him to “Keep Out” so that he could continue to make distress calls to other ships that would take him seriously. The only other ship to respond was the Olympic, which was 500 miles away and the Carpathia which would arrive too late. You can read the correspondence here.

The final message sent from the Titanic before the power failure was:

“SOS SOS CQD CQD. Titanic. We are sinking fast. Passengers are being put into boats. Titanic.”

This was the fist time the SOS signal was used by a British vessel. By the time the Carpathia reached the Titanic’s last given coordinates, there was nothing there. Just water.

In terms of the hit itself, many aspects could have been avoided…

The look-out, Frederick Fleet (below), in the crow’s nest had no binoculars.

Second Officer David Blair sailed with the Titanic in the first leg of the voyage from Belfast to Southampton. Yet, at Southampton he was ordered to step down for the RMS Olympic’s Henry Wilde to take his position, and was greatly disappointed. When he left, he accidentally took the keys to his locker with him – the keys to the locker that held the look-out’s binoculars.

Frederick Fleet later explained that if the binoculars had been available, he would have been able to spot the iceberg sooner and it would probably have been avoided. If Fleet and his colleagues had said at the time that there were no binoculars, someone would have been able to point them in the direction of the second set of binoculars on the bridge.

On sight of the iceberg, First Officer Murdoch ordered the engines to be reversed and for the quartermaster to swing the wheel hard to starboard, causing the Titanic to glance its side off the iceberg. Some suggest that the front of the ship was designed to withstand head on collisions, and that in fact if the Titanic had slowed down and stayed on course, the damage would have been less significant. Others suggest that the ship’s front would have collapsed, causing it to sink in no time at all, as it was only designed to withstand a collision with another boat, not something with the size and stability of an iceberg.  Many also don’t understand why the order was given to reverse engines, because if the wheel had been turned and the engines had kept their pace, the ship would have turned away from the iceberg more quickly. This debate may never be resolved.

However, there is an emerging factor to add to all this:

In Louise Patten’s book, the biggest blunder of the White Star Line, which has been hidden until now, was the confusion between port and starboard, and ultimately the action that made the difference between life and death. Patten suggests that her grandfather was sworn to secrecy over this matter, concerning the direction that the quartermaster, Robert Hitchens, turned the ship due to the confusion between Tiller and Rudder orders.

Tiller orders were old school and referred to the tiller – a lever attached to the rudder post. Rudder orders were becoming the trend in the steam age. The crucial difference between the two is that under Tiller orders, “hard a starboard” meant turn the wheel to the left so that the tiller swung to the right which is starboard. Under Rudder orders, the same command means exactly the opposite. Strangely enough, Titanic was one of many North Atlantic vessels to still use the older Tiller orders. However, Hitchens was used to the newer Rudder orders, and when he was given the order “Hard a starboard”, he turned the wheel the new school way – to the right – through panic. This was the opposite direction to which First Officer Murdoch had intended to move. Evidently, the ship turned to the right, the opposite of which is suggested here and in most well known accounts. This could be one of the central factors as to why the Titanic sunk.


Today, the RMS Titanic continues to fascinate people – from it’s rediscovery on the seabed in 1985, to the conspiracy theory suggesting it was swapped with the Olympic in the dockyard. In the immediate aftermath, the people could only learn from the catastrophe, and safety measures, such as an increased number of lifeboats onboard vessels, were taken more seriously. Of the 2,229 passengers only 713 survived, though these statistics waver from source to source.

After the Carpathia’s rescue mission, hundreds of people stood and waited in the New York dock to see if their friends and relatives had survived.

The crew of the Mackay-Bennet had to return to the site to recover the bodies. As they couldn’t take them all back, they buried many of the steerage passengers at sea. It was up to John Henry Barnstead to think of a way to keep every body with its possessions so that it could be later identified. He did this by numbering the bodies, and their bags of possessions with the same number – a rational system that is still used today.

Today, computer technology has allowed a combined image mapped from the various wreckage parts of the Titanic as printed in the National Geographic magazine:

I recently watched a programme called Saving the Titanic, a period drama that describes the often untold battle that the firemen, electricians and engineers fought to keep the ship afloat for as long as possible – an extra 1.5 hours in fact. If you want to know what it really felt like to be there, forget Titanic 3D and the Julian Fellowes’ Titanic series and watch this. No amount of solemn violin and bagpipe music can compete with the dreaded gulps and pale faces of the characters – all based on real life people such as Joseph Bell – in this programme. None of the senior engineers, that helped it stay afloat for that additional 1.5 hours, survived.

And what of the Titanic’s sister ships?

The Olympic became a troopship during World War One and lived a long life until 1935 when it was withdrawn from service, and parts of it were auctioned off and used as fittings in various halls and homes.

The Britannic also became involved in World War One as a hospital ship.

On 21 November 1916, there was an explosion onboard which damaged some of the watertight doors. History began to repeat itself as the ship began to sink and the lifeboats were ordered to be deployed. This time, after only ten minutes, the Britannic was already at the same stage of sinking as the Titanic was an hour after it hit the iceberg. The rush was on to get everyone off the ship, into lifeboats, and two of the lifeboats and its occupants were dragged into the wrath of the propellors. Violet Jessop, a VAD nurse, was onboard at the time. She had also been a survivor of the Titanic.

Again, she survived to tell the tale. This time, the warmer temperature, the closer proximity of rescue vessels and the greater number of available lifeboats meant that only 30 men lost their lives, and 1,036 survived…

Lessons were learnt from the RMS Titanic.


Please view this great project that colourises black and white photos connected with the Titanic.