A story that captivated me as a child, the sinking of the RMS Titanic, such an enormous tragedy, caused my young mind to concentrate on a single word, the interrogative adverb, why? To me, as a four or five year old, the loss of so many people at one time seemed incomprehensible. There was no way I could perceive so many people in one place, so I assume it had to do with the huge number. Even today, seventy years on, the same question remains, especially as it relates to the mysterious, skulking SS Californian.
David Dyer in his new book, The Midnight Watch, a novel of the Titanic and the Californian, has researched the background and woven a likely answer around his findings. This is a work based on many years’ research, driven by a mind that could not understand why the master of the nearby Californian failed to respond to Titanic’s desperate cry for help, distress rockets fired from her deck as she sank.
Under existing maritime regulations, Titanic set off on her maiden voyage with the minimum number of lifeboats then mandated, far too few for the number of personnel she carried. As she sank, many would perish, the greatest number dying of hypothermia rather than drowning.
On Sunday night, 14th April 1912, the Californian steamed into an ice field. With every chance, she might incur damage to her plates or her propeller her skipper, Stanley Lord, decided to maintain steam but to stop engines and allow her to drift on the calm sea until daylight. He told the second officer, Herbert Stone when he came on duty his midnight watch would be an easy one.
Shortly earlier, White Star Line’s pride and joy Titanic had hit an iceberg at high speed on her maiden voyage to New York and was taking on water. A modern design and believed unsinkable, she was, in fact, doing just that, sinking. As she settled by the bow, eight white distress rockets were fired, in series, in a desperate plea to all ships, especially one that was perhaps no more than ten miles distant.
The rockets were seen by Stone as officer of the watch on board Californian; another who witnessed the event was Assistant Donkeyman Ernest Gill, on deck smoking at the time. Stone is shown as a weak character who delayed advising his captain lest he disturbs him. Lord is resting below decks on a settee in the chartroom. As captain, he expects more of his second officer, wanting him to be more decisive in his role. When Stone reports the rockets to his senior officer, Lord questions whether they are, in fact, a signal of distress.
This is the nub of David Dyer’s work. Although the story of Titanic’s loss is well understood, I must leave it to those who read the book to decide whether the Californian’s lack of action was a matter of languor, delusion or, in the words of one character, “…(not a case) of hubris after all, but dramatic cowardice?”
Fictitious journalist, John Steadman, writes the story. The Boston American, an actual newspaper of the day employs him as a lead journalist: It was the paper that broke the news of the Californian’s lack of response by reporting, in full, an affidavit sworn by Assistant Donkeyman, Ernest Gill. Gill, from observation, is the one person prepared to confirm to the world that senior officers had seen the rockets and advised the captain.
We are taken through pertinent aspects of the US Senate Inquiry headed by the irascible Senator Smith and the British Wreck Commissioner’s Inquiry under Lord Mersey. Through all of it, Steadman searches for the shuttle that will draw warp and weft together and create a complete fabric. He finally manages this by writing of John and Annie Sage and their nine children, third-class passengers on their way to a new life in America.
The Midnight Watch is beautifully written, essential for historic novels. As Dyer says, it is “… a work of fiction based on true events …the result of careful research and represents my best guess as to what actually happened during the California’s voyage and afterwards.”
The interrogative adverb I mentioned early on remains, although the stridency of its original volume is lessened greatly by Dyer’s thesis. Great reading.
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