Authors: Archibald Gracie
is a unique record of one of the most traumatic
events in maritime history. Not only did Colonel Archibald Gracie detail his own experiences on that fateful night but subsequently through diligent research he tracked down as many survivors as possible for their stories
He also attended the numerous court hearings in the United States to obtain the official record. In the words of Walter Lord, author of
A Night to Remember
, he was ‘an indefatigable detective’. Throughout the summer of 1912, Gracie felt unwell but struggled to complete his account of the sinking of the
Largely due to the effects of his ordeal and exposure in the icy waters of the Atlantic he finally succumed on 4 December 1912, at his ancestral home in New York. Many survivors of the disaster, including some he had saved, were at the graveside, together with members of his regiment, the Seventh. His manuscript was completed, though he had intended to polish it and offer lessons for the future. It was delivered to his publisher, where it was immediately recognised as having great value.
The book was published in 1913 to universal acclaim and remains one of the most vivid and truthful first-hand records of disaster at sea.
‘There is that Leviathan.’ – Ps. 104:26.
s the sole survivor of all the men passengers of the
stationed during the loading of six or more lifeboats with women and children on the port side of the ship, forward on the glass-sheltered Deck A, and later on the Boat Deck above it, it is my duty to bear testimony to the heroism on the part of all concerned. First, to my men companions who calmly stood by until the lifeboats had departed loaded with women and the available complement of crew, and who, fifteen to twenty minutes later, sank with the ship, conscious of giving up their lives to save the weak and the helpless.
Second, to Second Officer Lightoller and his ship’s crew, who did their duty as if similar occurrences were matters of daily routine; and thirdly, to the women, who showed no sign of fear or panic whatsoever under conditions more appalling than were ever recorded before in the history of disasters at sea.
I think those of my readers who are accustomed to tales of thrilling adventure will be glad to learn first-hand of the heroism displayed on the
by those to whom it is my privilege and sad duty to pay this tribute. I will confine the details of my narrative for the most part to what I personally saw, and did, and heard during that never-to-be-forgotten maiden trip of the
, which ended with shipwreck and her foundering about 2.22 a.m., Monday, April 15, 1912, after striking an iceberg ‘in or near latitude 41 degrees, 46 minutes N., longitude 50 degrees, 14 minutes W., North Atlantic Ocean,’ whereby the loss of 1490 lives ensued.
On Sunday morning, April 14th, this marvellous ship, the perfection of all vessels hitherto conceived by the brain of man, had, for three and one-half days, proceeded on her way from Southampton to New York over a sea of glass, so level it appeared, without encountering a ripple brought on the surface of the water by a storm.
The Captain had each day improved upon the previous day’s speed, and prophesied that, with continued fair weather, we should make an early arrival record for this maiden trip. But his reckoning never took into consideration that Protean monster of the Northern seas which, even before this, had been so fatal to the navigator’s calculations and so formidable a weapon of destruction.
Our explorers have pierced to the furthest north and south of the icebergs’ retreat, but the knowledge of their habitat, insuring our great ocean liners in their successful efforts to elude them, has not reached the detail of time and place where they become detached and obstruct their path.
In the twenty-four hours’ run ending the 14th, according to the posted reckoning, the ship had covered 546 miles, and we were told that the next twenty-four hours would see even a better record made.
Towards evening the report, which I heard, was spread that wireless messages from passing steamers had been received advising the officers of our ship to the presence of icebergs and ice-floes. The increasing cold and the necessity of being more warmly clad when appearing on deck were outward and visible signs in corroboration of these warnings. But despite them all no diminution of speed was indicated and the engines kept up their steady running.
Not for fifty years, the old sailors tell us, had so great a mass of ice and icebergs at this time of the year been seen so far south.
The pleasure and comfort which all of us enjoyed upon this floating palace, with its extraordinary provisions for such purposes, seemed an ominous feature to many of us, including myself, who felt it almost too good to last without some terrible retribution inflicted by the hand of an angry omnipotence. Our sentiment in this respect was voiced by one of the most able and distinguished of our fellow passengers, Mr. Charles M. Hays, President of the Canadian Grand Trunk Railroad. Engaged as he then was in studying and providing the hotel equipment along the line of new extensions to his own great railroad system, the consideration of the subject and of the magnificence of the
’s accommodations was thus brought home to him. This was the prophetic utterance with which, alas, he sealed his fate a few hours thereafter: ‘The White Star, the Cunard and the Hamburg-American lines,’ said he, ‘are now devoting their attention to a struggle for supremacy in obtaining the most luxurious appointments for their ships, but the time will soon come when the greatest and most appalling of all disasters at sea will be the result.’
In the various trips which I have made across the Atlantic, it has been my custom aboard ship, whenever the weather permitted, to take as much exercise every day as might be needful to put myself in prime physical condition, but on board the
, during the first days of the voyage, from Wednesday to Saturday, I had departed from this, my usual self-imposed regimen, for during this interval I had devoted my time to social enjoyment and to the reading of books taken from the ship’s well-supplied library. I enjoyed myself as if I were in a summer palace on the seashore, surrounded with every comfort – there was nothing to indicate or suggest that we were on the stormy Atlantic Ocean. The motion of the ship and the noise of its machinery were scarcely discernible on deck or in the saloons, either day or night. But when Sunday morning came, I considered it high time to begin my customary exercises, and determined for the rest of the voyage to patronize the squash racquet court, the gymnasium, the swimming pool, etc. I was up early before breakfast and met the professional racquet player in a half hour’s warming up, preparatory for a swim in the six-foot deep tank of salt water, heated to a refreshing temperature. In no swiming bath had I ever enjoyed such pleasure before. How curtailed that enjoyment would have been had the presentiment come to me telling how near it was to being my last plunge, and that before dawn of another day I would be swimming for my life in mid-ocean, under water and on the surface, in a temperature of 28 degrees Fahrenheit!
Impressed on my memory as if it were but yesterday, my mind pictures the personal appearance and recalls the conversation which I had with each of these employees of the ship. The racquet professional, F. Wright, was a clean-cut, typical young Englishman, similar to hundreds I have seen and with whom I have played, in bygone years, my favourite game of cricket, which has done more than any other sport for my physical development. I have not seen his name mentioned in any account of the disaster, and therefore take this opportunity of speaking of him, for I am perhaps the only survivor able to relate anything about his last days on earth.
Hundreds of letters have been written to us survivors, many containing photographs for identification of some lost loved one, whom perchance we may have seen or talked to before he met his fate. To these numerous inquiries I have been able to reply satisfactorily only in rare instances. The next and last time I saw Wright was on the stairway of Deck C within three-quarters of an hour after the collision. I was going to my cabin when I met him on the stairs going up. ‘Hadn’t we better cancel that appointment for tomorrow morning?’ I said rather jocosely to him. ‘Yes,’ he replied, but did not stop to tell me what he then must have known of the conditions in the racquet court on G Deck, which, according to other witnesses, had at that time become flooded. His voice was calm, without enthusiasm, and perhaps his face was a little whiter than usual.
To the swimming pool attendant I also made promise to be on hand earlier the next morning, but I never saw him again.
One of the characters of the ship, best known to us all, was the gymnasium instructor, T.W. McCawley. He, also, expected me to make my first appearance for real good exercise on the morrow, but alas, he, too, was swallowed up by the sea. How well we survivors all remember this sturdy little man in white flannels and with his broad English accent! With what tireless enthusiasm he showed us the many mechanical devices under his charge and urged us to take advantage of the opportunity of using them, going through the motions of bicycle racing, rowing, boxing, camel and horseback riding, etc.
Such was my morning’s preparation for the unforeseen physical exertions I was compelled to put forth for dear life at midnight, a few hours later. Could any better training for the terrible ordeal have been planned?
The exercise and the swim gave me an appetite for a hearty breakfast. Then followed the church service in the dining saloon, and I remember how much I was impressed with the ‘Prayer for those at Sea,’ also the words of the hymn, which we sang, No. 418 of the Hymnal. About a fortnight later, when I next heard it sung, I was in the little church at Smithtown, Long Island, attending the memorial service in honour of my old friend and fellow member of the Union Club, James Clinch Smith. To his sister, who sat next to me in the pew, I called attention to the fact that it was the last hymn we sang on this Sunday morning on board the
. She was much affected, and gave the reason for its selection for the memorial service to her brother because it was known as Jim’s favorite hymn, being the first piece set to music ever played by him as a child and for which he was rewarded with a promised prize, donated by his father.
What a remarkable coincidence that at the first and last ship’s service on board the
, the hymn we sang began with these impressive lines:
O God our help in ages past,
Our hope for years to come,
Our shelter from the stormy blast
And our eternal home.
One day was so like another that it is difficult to differentiate in our description all the details of this last day’s incidents aboard ship.
The book that I finished and returned to the ship’s library was Mary Johnston’s ‘Old Dominion.’ While peacefully reading the tales of adventure and accounts of extraordinary escapes therein, how little I thought that in the next few hours I should be a witness and a party to a scene to which this book could furnish no counterpart, and that my own preservation from a watery grave would afford a remarkable illustration of how ofttimes ‘truth is stranger than fiction.’