You did know the Titanic was a real ship, didn’t you? Laughing Squid did a Twitter-trawl to find people for whom this came as news. Amusing as it is, it’s not so surprising that there are now adults who have no memory of the Titanic from before James Cameron’s film. Those who were five when it came out are twenty now. They’ve grown up in a world where Titanic is, and has always been, the most successful film ever.
And the opposite misconception – that it was the worst tragedy in maritime history – is far more widespread, and every bit as wrong. Believe it or not, it doesn’t come close. Even if you restrict the definition of disaster to accidental losses, it doesn’t appear in the five worst on record. If we include deliberate sinkings such as acts of war and piracy, it’s hardly on the radar.
So why is this the sinking everyone remembers? To be blunt, because it’s a great story. The key factor is that the Titanic had just become the largest ship ever afloat. At once you have a story of hubris; overambitious humans tempting fate is one of the great templates of drama. And to stoke the irony, the owners had unguardedly described it as “virtually unsinkable”. Then there’s the needlessness of the deaths caused by the under-provision of lifeboats. That gives the story a terrible pathos. And her passengers included some of the richest people in the world, so you have the vital celebrity angle. The rich surviving at the expense of the poor makes it a story about injustice too.
No wonder so many people think it was invented for the cinema. It’s ideal. The first film about it was made within a month! And even before that it was entering folklore as story and song – hundreds and hundreds of songs, including one I remember my grandfather singing. The Titanic was an instant legend.
The actual greatest tragedy at sea? For a single ship, almost certainly the Wilhelm Gustloff, on which at least six times as many lives were lost as aboard the Titanic. Six times. Why is this not the subject of a wildly successful film?
Because we sank it.
Well, “we” if you identify with the Allied side in World War II. Though it was packed to the gunwales – literally – with civilian refugees, it was also carrying Nazi officers and troops retreating from the Russian advance in 1945. No icebergs, no Edwardian frocks. Germans sunk by Soviets as part of a bitter and ruthless war. Tragic, yes. But not in the least romantic. So no multi-Oscar film for the Wilhelm Gustloff and her nine thousand dead.
The Lusitania – remembered throughout the Western World as “you know, that other ship that sank”, but actually a disaster of virtually the same scale as the Titanic. And perhaps, far greater consequence.
Far greater, because its sinking in 1915 just off the Irish coast arguably brought the United States into the First World War, turning its tide and changing the course of history. Arguably, because if you say this historians will argue with you. And this is not the only aspect of the disaster that remains controversial. Hit by a single German torpedo, the ship was shocked by not one but two explosions. Was it secretly carrying munitions to Britain? If so, then sinking it wasn’t the mindless act of German aggression against civilians that the British made out in their propaganda, but a legitimate act of war. Right?
This rumour was exacerbated by the apparent fact that the British dropped depth charges on the wreck in the 1950s – presumably to destroy the evidence that the Germans were perfectly justified in sinking it. Because the Americans would be so pissed if they found out that they were tricked into joining a war they won by… by secretly smuggling weapons to the British unbeknownst to themselves.
Unfortunately for the theory it had been known since precisely all along that the Lusitania was carrying weapons. They’re in the cargo manifest. It’s just that it was rifle ammunition and the non-explosive parts of shell fuses, which wouldn’t explain the second explosion. There must therefore have been some other sort of weapon that they were keeping secret, but which would have justified the Germans sinking the ship if they did know about it – which they didn’t because otherwise they would have mentioned by now I think – if they needed any more justification, which they didn’t.
What I’m broadly saying here is that this is not a very good theory.
Besides, the Germans were trying to blockade Britain for Christ sake, they were going to make an exception for luxury liners? Just wave them on through? “Don’t mind us, we’re having a war.” They had even warned potential passengers that they considered the liners targets [See Illustration]. The Cunard shipping line just took a gamble, and it didn’t pay off. Not even a little.
It seems likely that the second explosion was merely the ship’s high-pressure steam turbine system rupturing. In all probability the US would have joined the war eventually. Even if they hadn’t the French and British should have won anyway, having access through their vast maritime empires to far greater resources than Germany and Austria-Hungary. So the sinking of the Lusitania is probably the greatest non-mystery in the history of disaster at sea. And it may soon be solved!