Discredited: The disputed splitting of the RMS Titanic
The sinking of the RMS Titanic has remained fascinating despite the fact it sank over a hundred years ago in 1912, inspiring films, books, documentaries, a traveling museum, a mini-series, and even a kid’s slide (insensitive?). As a “Titanic buff,” one of my biggest disappointments was not being able to attend a reenactment of the ship’s transatlantic route on the 100th anniversary. I hope one day to see the wreck in-person before it disintegrates completely.
The wreck was finally discovered in 1985 by an American and French research team led by Dr. Robert Ballard, 73 years after its sinking. This achievement roused intense interest from around the world. Not only was the Titanic being viewed for the first time since its sinking, but it was also discovered in two pieces, confirming eyewitness accounts that were disregarded at the time. Until its discovery, it was believed that the ship had sank in one piece. In fact, Second Officer Lightoller insisted it sank”absolutely intact” when interviewed by the American inquiry held after the disaster, thereby protecting the White Star Line’s reputation.
The “one-piece” belief held for 73 years after the disaster was reflected in the movies that depicted the sinking. Pre-discovery, the number of movies about the Titanic showed it sinking intact. Perhaps the best-known is 1943s “A Night To Remember.”
James Cameron’s 1997 movie “Titanic” is the best-known movie about the disaster now, and showed the ship splitting in two, though with Hollywood’s typical dramatic spin. It should not be viewed as an accurate portrayal of the sinking.
Most survivors did not mention how the Titanic sank since not all were able to see the ship’s final moments in the darkness, or were simply not asked during the inquiry. The few that did were met with skepticism.
First-class passenger Archibald Gracie gave an account of his experience in his best-selling book, “The Truth about Titanic” after the disaster (available on archive.org), for which he did a great deal of research. I was interested to know what he said about the sinking, as I knew that he had said it sank in one piece. Gracie survived by clamoring onto an overturned lifeboat, and although he survived the sinking, he died a few months later as the ordeal negatively affected his already poor health (Wikipedia).
Gracie writes that he was still on the Titanic as it sank and was skeptical of any report that indicated it split. He writes: “One explanation which I offer of what must be a delusion on the part of the advocates of the ‘break-in-two’ theory is that when the forward funnel fell, as hereafter described, it may have looked as if the ship itself was splitting in two, particularly to the young men [who told newspapers that the ship split] who are cited as authority.”
Those “young men” may have included several seamen who manned the lifeboats, who gave their accounts during the American inquiry:
Testimony of Seaman Frank Osman, who manned Lifeboat 2:
“After she got to a certain angle, she exploded, broke in halves….”
Seaman George Moor of Lifeboat 3:
“I saw the forward part of her go down, and it appeared to me as if she broke in half, and then the afterpart went.”
Seaman John Buley of Lifeboat 10 gave a descriptive view of the ship breaking apart:
“I think she must have parted where the bunkers were. She parted at the last, because the afterpart of her settled out of the water horizontally after the other part went down. First of all you could see her propellers and everything. Her rudder was clear out of the water. You could hear the rush of the machinery, and she parted in two, and the afterpart settled down again….you could see she went in two, because we were quite near to her and could see her quite plainly.”
Despite these testimonials, the conclusion of the American inquiry was that “the preponderance of evidence is to the effect that [Titanic] assumed an almost end-on position and sank intact.”
It’s understandable that his eyewitness account was given credence given that Gracie was still on the ship as it was close to sinking completely, and by his account, near the place where Titanic might have split if it did at all, according to the officers of Titanic’s sister ship, the Olympic. However, the book “Everything Was Against Us” writes that Gracie was actually off the ship and underwater by the time of the split, and therefore he wouldn’t have witnessed the ship breaking in two.
Given how long it took to correct the historical “fact” of Titanic floundering intact, it makes you wonder if there are many other historical “facts” that are to be proven incorrect in the future. As we now know how fallible memory is, it wouldn’t be a surprise.