One, the RMS Olympic, enjoyed a long and fruitful career, from 1911 to 1935, before being scrapped.
The other, the RMS Britannic, had a decidedly shorter stint above the waves, sinking on this date in 1916. The Britannic, completed in 1915, never made a single passenger voyage, thanks to the Great War.
Instead, she was pressed into service in late 1915 as a hospital ship, ferrying nurses and other medical staff to the east, and bringing wounded back from the disastrous Gallipoli campaign.
The Britannic was on her sixth voyage into the Mediterranean Sea on Nov. 21, 1916, when, while steaming at full speed off the Greek island of Kea, she either struck a mine or was hit by a German torpedo. To this day, it’s still unclear what prompted the Britannic’s sinking.
The ship’s captain, White Star veteran Charles Bartlett, reacted quickly and coolly, ordering the watertight doors closed and directing that a distress call be sent out immediately. He also ordered the crew to uncover the boats and that the ship’s siren sound the general alarm.
While Bartlett, did many things right, he did make one crucial mistake.
After it became apparent his ship was in serious trouble, he turned the vessel toward the island of Kea, “lying tantalizingly close to his position, and ordered the engines full ahead,” according to a report by PBS. “He desperately hoped to ground the Britannic in its shallows, but only succeeded in accelerating the flooding of the forward compartments, increasing the ship’s list.”
In the end, the 53,000-ton ship sank in less than an hour.
A Presbyterian chaplain on board, Rev. John A. Fleming, got away in the second-to-last lifeboat. He described the Britannic’s death throes with an almost poetic flair:
Gradually the waters licked up and up the decks – the furnaces belching forth volumes of smoke, as if the great engines were in their last death agony; one by one the monster funnels melted away as wax before a flame, and crashed upon the decks, till the waters rushed down; then report after report rang over the sea, telling of the explosions of the boilers. The waters moved over the deck still, the bows of the ship dipping deeper and deeper into the sea, until the rudder stood straight up from the surface of the water, and, poised thus for a few moments, dived perpendicularly into the depths, leaving hardly a ripple behind.
Of the 1,066 people on board, only 30 died. It was a remarkable contrast to what had occurred when the Titanic went down, taking more than 1,500 individuals with her less than five years earlier.
Warmer temperatures, more lifeboats and the fact that rescue ships were much closer all contributed to the greatly reduced number of casualties.
The Britannic was the largest ship lost during the First World War and is believed to be the largest ship on the sea floor to this day.
(Above: The White Star Line’s Britannic seen in an undated photo.)