A Night To Remember. 1955, by Walter Lord. 8/10

Very good take on the Titanic tragedy. Like many others, I too was left hanging at the end, wanting more information on the legal follow-up. Nonetheless, Lord set out unambiguously to write of that night only, and, for the most part, did a great job. His style suits the documentary nature of the subject. A huge advantage to writing in the mid-50s was the ability to still get comments from survivors. Yes, there has been plenty of more recent information that Lord couldn’t have known about, but some of that is in the conspiracy theory realm; stuff that is suspect by its often amateurish nature.

A Night To Remember must be accepted as an authoritive text on the subject because it lent its title to the 1958 movie, and seems to have been used as a primary source for at least one other Titanic book, published in the ’90s. I haven’t finished reading that more recent book, but I can’t help noticing a great deal of similarity in many passages. Obviously, factual stuff (numbers, especially) will be repeated, but I don’t see any attribution given to Lord’s book.

I somewhat agree with those who feel that Lord sort of puffs up the tone by including plenty of celebrity tidbits. What’s interesting about his continual references to that by-gone Edwardian Era, with its ornate feel of implicit rules and niceties, is that, by now, we’re at a further remove from 1955 as Lord was from 1912. In a very real way, we’re looking at the world of the Titanic through the lens of the early post-WWII Atomic Age. In most instances, there doesn’t seem to be much difference in the mores of Lord’s time to our own. Did the world change more between the 1910s and 1950s than between the ’50s and 2019? Maybe, but I can attest to the great deal of change in the latter era. We would probably share Lord’s rather disdainful impression of the treatment accorded the 3rd class passengers. Another shard of snobbery that I’m glad he alluded to recalls how the social regestries were prevailed upon to note that certain eminent passengers had disembarked from the ‘Titanic-Carpathian’ instead of simply from the Carpathian–a ship of lesser status, no doubt. As though mere survival wasn’t as important as how one arrived.

I wonder if the women-and-children-first policy would adhere today. Not that it shouldn’t, but, as a matter of current custom, would women still be given preferential treatment? It goes without saying that children should be the first saved. But then who? Probably those with families, the childrens’ parents. I bring this up because it’s a moral dilemma; I’m attracted to books that make me think. For the record, I’m a somewhat elderly single male. My priority would be for those who have the most to lose (obviously the children and then their parents). After those two groups, I don’t know, by age maybe (us older folks having at least lived a while)? It’s interesting, that, in the event, the ‘rules’ were variously interpreted depending on who was in charge of a particular boat (or boats). I think that, regardless of the criteria for evacuation, it made sense to fill as many boats as possible. But that wasn’t always done: it’s horrible that some people were left to die because a hastily arranged group ran short of women and children.

Another thought on the passengers’ mentality: would people behave differently today than they did 117 years ago? For the most part, I think so. Unfortunately, though, there would probably be a few jokers who ignored orders, just because it’s become fashionable for some people to assume that the rules don’t apply to them. As it was, getting a lifeboat ride was no picnic either, as none of the passengers could’ve known if and when they might be rescued–while they shivered, most of them subject to spray by the frigid water. Lord gives us a palpable sense of the horror, suspense, and despair of that long night; the folks floating up to their life-jackets had it the worst. We’re not spared the gruesome ways that people died, but the author avoids lurid details. I suppose that’s one gift from the more circumspect ’50s.

The matter of the boats is worth thinking about, because it opens up one of the significant, preventable flaws leading directly to the loss of c.1,500 people. If one assumes about 50 people per lifeboat, then the Titanic should’ve carried more than twice the boats it did. The utterly obsolete regulation–determining the ratio of boats as the same as that for a ship of a fourth the Titanic’s displacement–was an incredibly negligent oversight on the part of the authorities (the Board of Trade).

An oversight in the ship’s construction–for which the shipbuilder bears responsibility–was, ironically, a feature of the otherwise safety-conscious water-tight bulkheads. In fact, this honeycomb of compartments was probably more secure from flooding than the internal structure of many contemporary warships. The weakness of the system, as Lord mentions, was that the compartments only extended up from the keel to the waterline. At first glance this makes sense, as only underwarer damage (from ramming other ships or icebergs) would be very dangerous. However, how could the shipbuilders not have figured on what would happen after a below-the-waterline collision?

Unless there’s a weird symmetry to the damage, the ship would either list to one side or tilt back to front. In fact the Titanic did both, listing to starboard (right) and tilting up at the stern (nose down). That meant that undamaged compartments were flooded because the water could force its way over the non-watertight areas, submerging what hadn’t been torn by the iceberg. So, by a chain reaction of flooding compartments, the ship sank. Maybe they did wrestle with this problem, because they knew that four forward compartments (but no more) could flood, and the ship could still float. Still, what’s the point of ‘watertight’ compartments if they can be breached by water?

The other two problems have to do with leadership, both on the Titanic, and, especially, on the Californian. The numerous iceberg warnings sent all day from various ships to the Titanic went completely unheeded, until it was pretty much too late. I’m somewhat reminded of accounts of December 7, 1941, and the many warnings of unidentified approaching aircraft that weren’t taken seriously. As in the prelude to the Pearl Harbor attacks, the author lists the hopeful pathway of warnings given to the Titanic. This of course serves to highlight what’s in the back of our minds–that the ship will dead end into disaster. Additionally, he gives us a table of all the warnings in the timeline.

Despite the professional, even stellar status of all of Titanic’s officers, their teamwork with the wireless messages was almost nonexistent. That’s ultimately Capt. Smith’s fault. In his defense, however, the state of wireless technology in 1912 was very primitive, not least because of the extreme unevenness of each sender’s signal. The maze of private messages is laughable, a lot like the gee-whiz big deal that email was twenty or so years ago.

Even the seemingly small detail of the missing binoculars–ok, I got this from another book–was important. If the lookouts had had binoculars, they could have sighted the iceberg sooner. A few minutes might’ve made a great deal of difference. Granted, not everything is going to work out perfectly according to plan. But they stopped twice before setting out for New York. There were no binoculars to be had in either Cherbourg or Cork?

My last lamentable issue is the most egregious: why didn’t the Californian help? This was much more negligent than the Titanic’s decision-making. After all, the Titanic was in trouble from 11:40p.m. on, and let the Californian know quickly and repeatedly. It wasn’t a matter of not anticipating a potential problem, but ignoring one that obviously occurred…I’ll have to dig into other sources to get at the Californian’s lapses.

I could see the difficulty in grasping that the Titanic could really be in serious danger; even the intrepid Carpathian could scarcely believe it. Still, even if Titanic isn’t sinking, might they still need assistance for other reasons? Some damage, fire, casualties, immobilized by ice? It’s one thing to make a bad decision, and not realize it until it’s too late; but to make a series of bad decisions–rather, non-decisions–seems much worse.

A Night To Remember is in fact a memorable book. It’s very accessible, flows steadily, and paints an engaging portrait of a mesmerizing sequence of events. Great read; could’ve been a bit more comprehensive, but very worthwhile having.

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