Recalling another lost White Star liner

The Titanic gets all the notoriety these days, but the White Star Line actually produced two other massive ocean liners in the years just before World War I.

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.”

Once Bartlett realized he was hastening the Britannic’s demise, he ordered the ship’s engines stopped.

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.) 

7 thoughts on “Recalling another lost White Star liner

  1. I read once that the death toll could have been worse had the Britannic been carrying the wounded soldiers she was to pick up.

    • Yes, it would have been almost impossible to move hundreds or even more than thousand injured men on stretchers up from below deck, then load them onto lifeboats.

      A disaster of that magnitude, and the circumstances, would have etched the Britannic’s name in the history books alongside the Titanic’s.

  2. A skilled Captain’s lesson still rings forward from the sinking. ‘Always consider the unintended’. One may incline to the idea that this discipline is at the core of all responsible action.

    While life often prevents such contemplation, how tragic that when time and knowledge would easily predict uncertainty, some will charge wily nily into the breach bellowing their claim of a ‘War President’ or ‘Eminent Disaster’ without reckless action.

    How tragic, in the light of the disaster of WWI, how full some still are of certainty that war is the answer to all injustice. These prophetic reminders the Cotton Boll supplies are valuable lessons in our cool light of dawn or dusky shadows of defeat. And I thought it was all about the bar-b-que.

    • I don’t know that anyone has ever described my ham-fisted scribblings as “prophetic reminders,” but I appreciate the thought, Catspaw. I would add, though, that, unfortunately, there are times when war is unavoidable and, indeed, should not be avoided. I don’t think anyone would argue, for example, that Poland was wrong to fight back when Hitler’s armies invaded in September 1939.

      Sometimes, self defense requires that you stand up for yourself; the question becomes, are you standing up for yourself by going to war with another country, or merely using that as a pretext to obtain a preordained goal?

      And, as a side note, I have indeed had barbecue that is worth fighting for.

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