I have been fascinated by the sinking of the Titanic since I read Beryl Bainbridge’s Booker nominated novel Every Man for Himself many years ago (before watching the movie, she adds smugly). I remember lying in the bath in my house in Westdene reading the book with my mouth and nose under the water, trying to imagine what it must be like to have to inhale under such circumstances. Of course, it would have been more accurate if I had chucked a few blocks of ice into the bath but alas, I was not that fascinated.
The footage below is from 1912- before and after the sinking (thanks History Today). I know it’s macabre, but I could watch the farewell waves of the passengers over and over. I keep trying to fix on a face and imagine their story. I also love the scenes of drunken relief as the survivors are filmed on board the rescue ship, the Carpathia. Anyhow, watch… Even Captain Smith’s staccato march to and fro is compelling and the awkwardness of the “film stars”, unused to moving pictures, is a treat.
I have no Titanic survivors in my family tree but my husband has a great-grandmother who survived a torpedo strike by the man who sank the Lusitania.
Anna Louisa Botha was born in 1870 in Graaf-Reinet on her father’s farm, Bloemhof. Her father, Rudolph Phillipus Botha, was a politician and a relative of the Boer War General Louis Botha. Anna Louisa was one of six children. Her eldest brother, also Rudolph Phillipus, was murdered by the farm foreman, Basson, some time before 1889. Basson was sentenced to death for the crime. RP Botha senior never recovered from the death of his heir, however, and sold Bloemhof shortly afterwards. He relocated to Belville where he built a house that still stands today and called it The Bloemhof, after his first farm in Graaf Reinet.
Mevrou Anna Louisa Mostert (her married name) sailed to London in 1917 to attend her father’s funeral, so family legend goes. In light of the war on-the-go and the very real threat of sinking by German U-boat, she must have been made of stern stuff to even attempt the journey. I imagine that her husband discouraged her strongly. Undeterred, Anna boarded the Japanese steamer, the Miyazaki Maru (pictured below), in early 1917. The passenger manifest shows her travelling alone. I do like her.
The steamer was struck by a torpedo and sunk in the Atlantic Ocean on 31 May. There were enough lifeboats available, so Anna Louisa made it to Plymouth alive but with a lifelong dislike of the Japanese. The Japanese crew refused to offer their seats on the lifeboat to the frightened women and children. Only after some firm words from the European men, did they finally give up their places. All souls on board survived the torpedo and sinking.
The captain of U-88, which sank the Miyazuki Maru, was Walther Schweiger. Captain Schweiger was the man responsible for the sinking of the Lusitania in May 1915. I have long wondered why the Lusitania receives second billing to the Titanic. It certainly loomed as large in the minds of the public almost 100 years ago. Over 1100 people died in the frigid Irish Sea within sight of land. Perhaps in the context of the Great War those 1100 lives were simply a drop in the ocean.
In her wonderfully well-researched book, Wilful Murder The Sinking of the Lusitania, Diana Preston captures the chaos as the ship sank and it is easily as moving and tragic as any Titanic story.
After the strike and the first period of shock, all passengers and crew burst into frenzied action. Stairwells heaved with men, women and children in life-belts or not, trying to reach the lifeboats. Some screamed; others appeared frozen in disbelief. Dandy card players refused to leave their tables. Martin Mannion of St Louis suggested to the bartender that they ‘die game anyway’. Soren Sorenson played on with a winning hand of kings back to back 10 minutes after it became clear that the ship was sinking. The ship took only 18 minutes to sink, so he really cut it fine. People tried to storm the lifeboats before they were ready. A mother without a life-jacket handed her baby to young Florence Padley, who said of the incident, “one lady asked me to take her baby in arms…I told her I did not have a life-belt, she could look after it better. I felt awful about it.” Mabel Henshaw rushed down to her cabin to pick up her 8 month-old baby, whom she had just put to sleep. She remembered that there was an 18 month-old child in the next cabin. She tried to pick him up and carry him at the same time as holding her own baby. She couldn’t manage and left him in the room. His face haunted her for the rest of her life.
After the ship went down, with a last “long, lingering moan”, the Irish Sea was dotted with corpses. So many children who floated lifeless, faces to the sky. Michael Byrne pushed their little doll corpses aside ‘like lily pads on a pond’ as he swam for his life. People clung to dead bodies to stay afloat themselves; some were face-down having put their life-belts on upside-down.
All of this comes from Diana Preston’s book (buy it!). I’ll stop with my morbid fascination shortly. I must just quote this story of a mother who had kept her young daughter alive in the water for 2 hours after the sinking. My heart breaks…
Just as we got her to the raft…her baby girl closed its tiny eyes in her arms. Almost overcome with exhaustion the mother caught hold of the side of our boat, the lifeless mite still close to her heart, and when we got her into the boat she could hardly speak. For a few moments her eyes were centred on her baby. Then, lifting the little one in her arms, she turned to those in the boat, and, in a tearful voice simply said, “Let me bury my baby.” Within a few seconds the almost naked body of the child floated peacefully on the sea.
Unlike the Titanic, the Lusitania was so close to land that bodies washed ashore for days after the sinking. The world was shocked and the outrage (in part) led to America joining the war on the side of the Allies.
When his time came, Walther Schweiger’s body never found land. He died when U-88 was destroyed, 6 months after torpedoeing Anna Louisa. He is buried in his submarine, at the bottom of the North Sea. Anna Louisa went on to live a long life. She watched her children grow up and met her 3 grandchildren. She died in 1949.
So, on 15 April, I will remember the 1514 people who died in the North Atlantic on board the Titanic, but I’ll also spare a thought for a brave Afrikaaner and a German submarine captain who followed orders to his watery grave.
Most Holy Spirit! Who didst brood
Upon the chaos dark and rude,
And bid its angry tumult cease,
And give, for wild confusion, peace;
Oh, hear us when we cry to Thee,
For those in peril on the sea!
~Eternal Father William Whiting