Sunday, 15 April 2012

Aftermath of Titanic - Captain E J Smith



"A seaman and an officer who died most manfully at his post of duty", these words were written in June 1914 in a letter of protest. The writer Rev. William Fuller was objecting to the erection of a statue in Lichfield, Staffordshire, England  (pictured above) of Commander Edward John Smith RD RNR. Fuller's argument was, "what are we going to memorialise?"

Captain Smith, or "E.J" as he was known throughout the shipping world, entered the annals of history at 2.20 a.m. on Monday, April 15th 1912, the approximate time his ship sank. His last commmand was RMS Titanic on her maiden voyage to New York.

Born in Hanley, Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire, England, he began his apprenticeship in sailing ships. On gaining his master's ticket, not only had he earnt the respect of his employers, but also the confidence of the men under his command. Rising to the rank of Commander in the Royal Naval Reserve, he received the RD award in 1910. Also, he held the Transport Medal and clasp for the South African War 1899-1901. But it was with the White Star Line that he sailed over two million miles during 31 years service, 25 of them as captain, finally rising to the covetous rank of Commodore of the Fleet.

Smith's reputation as one of the safest master's afloat spanned the Atlantic. In the flamboyant days before the Great War competition was fierce for the transatlantic passenger traffic. Registered in England and staffed by British crews, White Star was the line most favoured by the new wealth of America. Regular transatlantic passengers often preferred to sail with "E.J.", such was their confidence in him.

An important part of a liner captain's job, weather permitting, was to cultivate the passengers, especially the wealthier ones. There was a level of prestige to be gained among regular travellers on being recognised and remembered by the captain. In order to command such a role, he had to look the part.

Newsreel film of 1912 allows us a glimpse of E.J.  A grey bearded, large broad-shouldered man, uniform frock coat, four gold rings emblazoned on each sleeve,  he looks dignified, fatherlike, reminiscent of the late monarch King Edward VII, but above all, dependable. It wasn't surprising that the company requested their most respected captain to ccommand their 'largest and most luxurious' liner. It was to be his last command before he retired.

The whole myth of Titanic was one of confidence. In a  much quoted interview given to the New York Times in 1907, Smith said that he had never been in trouble at sea in all his long career, except storms and fog, "Modern shipbuilding has gone beyond that," he is quoted as saying. Beyond what? If that question was asked of him, the answer was not reported, so we don't really know what he meant.

Smith's sea-going career didn't remain entirely untarnished. Before Titanic he commanded Olympic. Whilst taking her out of Southampton on her sixth Atlantic crossing she collided with HMS Hawke. The cruiser's bow tore a gash ten feet deep in Olympic's starboard quarter. The Admiralty Court found Olympic had gone too close to the cruiser. White Star, and hence Captain Smith, were blamed for the collision. Smith was displeased. White Star appealled, but the verdict was upheld, however, it was thought that the huge bulk of the Olympic may have drawn the smaller ship towards her.

A similar incident happened again in Southampton when Titanic sailed. Her wash caused ropes holding the liner New York to snap, but this time the collision was averted by Smith cutting his engines in the nick of time. I use this incident in my novel, Tomorrow Belongs to Us: A Titanic Novel as a taste of danger.

Was Smith a risk-taker? Perhaps of all the characters involved in the Titanic disaster, Smith is the most difficult to understand. He had the respect of his senior officers, all had sailed with him before. The senior surviving member of the crew, Second Officer C. H. Lightoller remembered him as the best captain he had ever known. Commendable words, however, people tend to be generous in obituaries.

Undoubtedly, Lightoller admired Smith's fortitude, the way Smith pressed on despite high seas and fog to make port on time. Such was the rivalry between the steam ship companies, captains had to be bold. Smith's route was the normal one and he wasn't going for a record crossing. Did he believe the dangers of the sea had been overcome by technology? Much had been made of Titanic's water-tight compartments. It was because of these she was considered "virtually unsinkable".

Smith knew the sea, he respected it, surely he would never have underestimated its force? So why did he not reduce speed having entered a reported ice-field? It was an unusually clear night. He expected the look-outs to spot an ice-berg and the bridge to steer around it. That was normal practice.

Smith wasn't on the bridge when the collision occurred but soon he knew of it and its consquences. We have only reported glimpses of the Smith in those last two hours when his ship was sinking. Reports, some inevitably inaccurate, have him muttering "My God!" when he saw the commutator registering a five degree list to starboard, shortly after the collision. Other accounts have him giving Lightoller permission to uncover the lifeboats, telling the Marconimen to signal for help, issuing arms to the officers - present day opinion has Smith suffering some kind of mental breakdown when he realised the significance of his ship's situation.

It was the belief that Titanic wouldn't sink despite being holed that prevented many passengers from taking to the lifeboats. In my novel I have the heroine Lucy asking Captain Smith if a rescue ship was coming. He tells her Carpathia is on her way but not that Titanic will sink before rescue arrives. Researching Smith's final moments I have found five accounts of his death, possibly they are all conjecture. However, as the captain of a sinking ship where there is no chance of saving all those for whom he is responsible, Smith took the honourable option and went down with his ship. One imagines him on the bridge when the liner reared her stern and slid beneath the icy water.

There were fifteen hundred deaths that night including Captain Smith. His body was never recovered. Two enquiries followed. The American one commented on Smith's indifference to danger as a direct cause of the disaster claiming he was overconfident. The British Inquiry did not find Smith or the White Star Line guilty of negligence because by maintaining speed despite the presence of ice, Smith was following a long established practice of North Atlantic crossings. Many have since described the latter inquiry as a white-wash.

As a result of the tragedy the first International Convention for Safety of Life at Sea was held in 1913. Afterwards, ships were required to have sufficient lifeboat space for those on board. Lifeboat drills became compulsory, ships were required to maintain 24-hour radio watch and the International Ice patrol was established to warn ships of icebergs in the North Atlantic shipping routes. Lessons had been learnt.

Rev. William Fuller's letter of protest did not sway Lichfield District Council. Kathleen Scott, widow of the Antarctic explorer Captain Scott, was commissioned to produce a slightly larger than life-size statue of Smith. Subscribers and those who attended the unveiling represented the upper echelons of British Society. In his tribute at the ceremony Lord Charles Beresford recalled Captain Smith's career, his patriotism, his unrivalled skill as a seaman and his heroic end. But the Great War followed within days of the unveiling and there would be very many more heroic ends. Smith was forgotten.

The law hadn't finished with Titanic. Cases claiming negligence were brought against White Star. The company was found culpable and paid out compensation. In 1985 the final resting place of Titanic was exposed to the world. Technology had again triumphed and allowed us to peer into a lost world. But what of Smith?

"He paid the penalty," wrote George Bernard Shaw in 1912, "and so did most of those for whose lives he was responsible. Had he brought them and the ship safely to land, nobody would have taken the smallest notice of him."

Captain Smith's statue stands to this day in Lichfield, Staffordshire, England. It is the only memorial to him and perhaps the most controversial of all the Titanic memorials.

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