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Heartbreak & horror: what happened after the sinking of Titanic?

As news of what had occurred in the Atlantic came to light, the wheels were set in motion to recover the bodies of those who were lost and find out what had happened…

Newspaper boy with news of the Titanic disaster, 14 April 1912
Published: April 15, 2022 at 6:57 am

The high number of fatalities from Titanic sent shockwaves around the world, as people tried to comprehend how this ship – of which so much had been expected – could now be lying at the bottom of the Atlantic.

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Four rescue boats were sent out to undertake the grim job of recovering the bodies of those who had died. On 17 April, CS Mackay-Bennet became the first to do so, setting out from Halifax, Nova Scotia. Three more boats would follow when it became clear that one would not be enough for the task. The ships carried coffins (as well as ice to preserve the bodies), and the searches lasted for six weeks. A few bodies were picked up by other vessels in late May and June. Three were even found more than 200 miles away from Titanic's wreck site, carried by the current.

CS Mackay-Bennet was the first ship to recover bodies from Titanic
CS Mackay-Bennet was the first ship to recover bodies from Titanic – three more were sent when it became clear how many bodies would need to be retrieved. (Image by Alamy)

A mere 330 bodies were recovered out of the approximately 1,500 people who lost their lives – the exact number of fatalities is disputed. Some of the bodies were claimed by relatives and taken away for private burial; another 150 were interred across three cemeteries in Halifax. Many were never identified, with their tombstones simply stating that they had lost their lives during the sinking. Those whose remains were too disfigured and who could not be identified by their possessions were buried at sea. This was most often the case with the bodies of crew members or third-class passengers, who carried few personal items.

Searching for answers

Almost as soon as the sinking was reported, the US and Britain both launched investigations into the disaster. The US inquiry, led by Senator William Alden Smith, began four days after the sinking; the senator met the rescue ship Carpathia at the dock to summon its captain, Titanic's surviving crew, and the chairman and managing director of the White Star Line, J Bruce Ismay, to court. The US inquiries were initially held in New York before moving to Washington DC.

Senator William A Smith arrives at the US investigation of the Titanic's sinking
Senator William A Smith arrives at the US investigation. (Photo by Stock Montage/Getty Images)

Titanic's high speed, Captain Edward Smith's seeming indifference to iceberg warnings and a lack of knowledge by the crew on how to carry out lifeboat evacuations were pointed at as significant causes of the collision and subsequent loss of life. Most damning of all was the suggestion that SS Californian was nearby but its captain had allegedly refused to respond to Titanic's distress signals.

As the highest-ranking White Star Line official to have survived, Ismay was particularly vilified by the investigation and in the subsequent press coverage. He was labelled a coward for taking a place on a lifeboat when so many women and children had not survived. There were also rumours during the initial investigation – though they weren't proven – that Ismay had pressurised Captain Smith to increase the ship's speed so they would arrive in New York early, surpassing the previous maiden voyage time of Titanic's sister ship, RMS Olympic.

J Bruce Ismay addresses the Titanic inquiry
J Bruce Ismay addresses the Titanic inquiry. (Photo by: Carl Simon/United Archives/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

The British government inquiry began two weeks later and was carried out by a specially formed commission on behalf of the British Board of Trade – the organisation that determined that Titanic was seaworthy and that was responsible for Britain's maritime regulations. Lord Mersey presided over the commission, which heard almost 100 witness testimonies. Over 36 days, White Star Line officials and survivors were questioned by experts in marine law and shipping architecture. This investigation focused on the nautical and navigational aspect of the tragedy, while the US investigation was more intent on finding someone to blame.

Titanic's captain was posthumously absolved of negligence, although it was acknowledged that he had made "a very grievous mistake", while the US inquiry stated that his "indifference to danger was one of the direct and contributing causes".

The exact causes of the collision with the iceberg and subsequent sinking are still debated to this day. Captain Stanley Lord of SS Californian gave conflicting testimonies and claimed that his ship was further away from Titanic than it actually was. Both inquiries suggested he could have potentially saved many lives; though no official action was taken against him, the sinking of Titanic would haunt him – and his career – for the rest of his life.

A group of survivors joined together to sue White Star Line, asking for more than $16m in damages. This was later reduced when the US Supreme Court ruled that the causes of the sinking were “unforeseen”, and a relatively meagre $664,000 was paid out instead.

Surviving Titanic crewmen pose for a group portrait shortly after the tragedy
Surviving Titanic crewmen pose for a group portrait shortly after the tragedy. (Photo by Stock Montage/Getty Images)

The results of both inquiries led to improvements in maritime safety and better standards aboard ships. In 1914, the first SOLAS (International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea) treaty was established in response to the sinking, and an international ice patrol was set up. Every ship also had to provide enough lifeboats for everyone on board and maintain a 24-hour radio watch. The outbreak of World War I later that same year prevented this from coming into force straight away, but it was adopted into later treaties.

Devastating loss

For the residents of the English port of Southampton, the sinking of Titanic hit especially hard. Some 724 crew members hailed from the town – yet only 175 came home. One school in the area saw nearly half of its pupils lose their fathers. In Belfast, where Titanic was built, grown men cried on the streets. For many years the city sought to distance itself from the tragedy, but in more recent times it has embraced the connection and rejuvenated the docks where the ship was laid down. Both now have museums commemorating the disaster: Titanic Belfast and SeaCity in Southampton (the latter also explores the port's maritime history more generally).

Titanic Belfast Museum
Titanic Belfast, opened in the centenary year of the sinking, is a heritage attraction dedicated to the ship, those who built it and those who perished on board. (Image courtesy Titanic Museum Belfast)

Memorials would be raised to the victims, not only in Ireland and Britain, but also in the US, Australia and Canada. For those who survived – or were left behind – there was the Titanic Relief Fund, established to help the orphans, widows and dependants of the crew and passengers who had lost their lives. A similar scheme was established by the American Red Cross.

The outpouring of grief from Britain, the US and the wider world manifested itself in other ways, too. Commemorative postcards were soon produced, as well as specially composed sheet music such as ‘The Ship That Never Will Return’. Thus, an enduring fascination with this great tragedy began.

Recreating an icon

There have been several proposals to rebuild Titanic, as well as raise the remains of the wreck before it is lost forever, and a host of myths and legends have developed around the sinking. Indeed, such is the captivation with the disaster that it has inspired no fewer than eight English-language films. The first, Saved from the Titanic, came out just a month after the sinking and starred survivor Dorothy Gibson.

In 1958, the film A Night to Remember, based on Walter Lord's 1955 book of the same name, was released. Based on survivor testimonies, it is widely considered to be one of the most accurate depictions of the maritime disaster. However, the most famous depiction of modern times is undoubtedly James Cameron's Oscar-winning epic Titanic, released in 1997 and starring Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio as fictional passengers.

Of the three great White Star Line ships, only RMS Olympic lived up to its expectations as a luxury liner, serving as both a military and civilian vessel, and completing its final voyage in 1935. The third ship, RMS Britannic, never carried passengers. It was only ever used as a military vessel, and sank in 1916 after hitting a mine – earning itself the title of the largest ship to be lost during World War I.

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This article first appeared in the July 2021 issue of BBC History Revealed

Authors

Emma Slattery WilliamsStaff Writer, BBC History Revealed

Emma is BBC History Revealed’s staff writer, covering all areas of history – from Egyptian pharaohs and pirates queens to Queen Victoria and Marilyn Monroe. She also compiles HistoryExtra’s Victorians newsletter and can be heard interviewing historians on the HistoryExtra podcast.

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