- - Sunday, March 16, 2014


By Simon Mills
History Press/Trafalgar Square, $34.95, 127 pages, illustrated

It is hard for anyone to write about the Titanic — that “unsinkable” ship that sank with great loss of life on its maiden voyage in 1912 — without recourse to such concepts as hubris or, as one passenger so memorably put it, “flying in the face of God.”

However, that ill-fated ship, one of whose officers told a boarding passenger “God himself couldn’t sink,” existed in a larger context of overweening arrogance and thwarted expectations. Titanic was the middle of a trio of sister ships that White Star Line hoped would beat rival Cunard’s three behemoths, the Mauretania, Lusitania and Aquitania. Lusitania’s spectacular sinking by a German U-boat in 1915 had huge geopolitical consequences, but she had at least given Cunard eight-year trans-Atlantic service and the other two crossed for decades. White Star’s “unsinkable” trans-Atlantic trio was not so lucky: two of the ships never saw New York.

If everyone remembers Titanic, and many who crossed on Olympic have fond memories of her, who gives a thought to Britannic? Well, for one, Simon Mills, the author of this enthralling book, beautifully illustrated with drawings of her interiors as they were intended to be and photographs of her oyster-encrusted remains that lie on the floor of the Aegean Sea.

White Star’s designers intended Britannic to be even more luxurious than her older sisters, as the drawings and a catalog of her unused decorative materials demonstrate. The outbreak of World War I just as she was finished meant that passengers never enjoyed those “costly Carved American Oak, Mahogany, Sycamore and Walnut Paneling in ‘Louis,’ ‘Georgian,’ ‘Jacobean’ and ‘Adam’” styles. “Pilasters, Moldings, Cornicing, Counters, Fireplaces and three-ply Ceiling Panellings &c.”

Britannic’s first-class restaurant, expanded to run the entire width of the ship because of the success of Olympic’s, never served the planned gourmet meals, for Britannic became a fully equipped hospital ship, as shown by photographs of her painted white with a large red cross on her sides to deter U-boat captains from torpedoing her.

Her size made her ideal for treating the huge number of injuries that occurred in the far-off Dardanelles campaign. Not only was she host to many horrific injuries and surgeries aboard, but trips through stormy waters were anything but a pleasure cruise.

As one soldier’s diary reports,”Grub is rotten, starvation, two slices for breakfast, dinner, stew in a basin, thought it was soup first course but nothing else came up. Patients get nearly frozen waiting to get on some stretcher cases get douched with water from ship’s side Cocoa and biscuits for supper.”

This was a far cry from those multicourse feasts envisioned in happier prewar days.

If Britannic’s all-too-brief service was heroic, her end was catastrophic. Heading back to the Aegean from England in November 1915 to collect another lot of wounded soldiers, she struck a landmine early one morning and foundered in less than an hour. The watertight compartments that supposedly rendered her, like Titanic, unsinkable in theory, proved equally ineffective in reality.

Evacuating a vessel of that size so rapidly would always be hard, but obviously, being a hospital ship added complications. Recollections as recorded here are not only gripping, but can show cultural attitudes a century back:

“I know that women can be brave, but I never dreamed they could rise to such heights of cool, unflinching courage as those nurses did when under Miss Dowse, the matron, they lined up on deck like so many soldiers, and unconcernedly and calmly waited their turn to enter the boats. We men are proud of them, and we can only hope England will hear of their courage. They were magnificent.”

As the situation deteriorated, naturally things became more chaotic. Violet Jessop, a Britannic stewardess who had also survived the Titanic’s sinking, “later recalled, ‘A few minutes after the lifeboat first touched the water, every man jack in the group of surrounding boats took a flying leap into the sea . Not a word, not a shout was heard, just hundreds of men fleeing into the sea as if from an enemy in pursuit . I turned around to see the reason for this exodus and, to my horror, saw Britannic’s huge propellers churning and mincing up everything near them — men, boats were just one ghastly whirl.”

Mr. Mills tells us that the scene one man “witnessed would leave emotional scars for years to come, as the propellers shattered human bodies and scattered pieces of debris in every direction. Within seconds, both the surface of the water and the ship’s white flanks were covered in streaks of blood.” Violet survived her plunge despite a nasty crack on the head “to be greeted by the sight of an unfortunate orderly, with his head split open and his brains trickling onto his khaki uniform. All around her she could see nothing but dead bodies, severed limbs and large pieces of debris, while agonized cries of the wounded drowned out the sound of the now receding propellers.”

After reading “Unseen Britannic,” it is clear that the drama of her brief life matched that of her more famous sister. Does anyone sense hit-movie material?

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.



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