Book Review: On Board RMS Titanic: Memories of the Maiden Voyage

By George Behe

George Behe, former vice president of the "Titanic Historical Society" has, in this meticulously researched book, amassed an invaluable collection letters, diaries and postcards which were sent by those who visited, toured or sailed on RMS Titanic in 1912. The majority were originally published shortly after the disaster, and have not been available since that time; some have not even been published at all, but saved by family members. Some date from before Titanic sailed, written by those lucky few who had a chance to tour the ship before she left on her maiden voyage; others who posted letters or postcards to friends and family, mostly of the journey between Cherbourg and Queenstown; however, the bulk of the material is from survivors of the disaster who wrote their accounts of what happened to them for family or for official inquiries.

RRP: £30.00
Publisher: The History Press Ltd
Publication Date: (1 Sep 2012)
ISBN: 978-0752483061

Some passengers record how they simply put their affairs in order before embarking; some could not wait to travel on the biggest ship in the world; while some had premonitions of disaster, others saw the trip as routine. I personally enjoyed the very few letters sent during the voyage - put ashore when the ship docked at Cherbourg and Queenstown before heading for New York - as they present an achingly small but wonderful firsthand account of life aboard the Titanic, before she became forever synonymous with tragedy and disaster. Passengers write of being impressed with their palatial rooms, the modern facilities and the sumptuous food. Everything is described as 'elegant' and most report enjoying themselves on board. Passengers write of everyday concerns; worrying about train connections when they arrive in New York, a man asking his wife to buy the football papers for him while he is away and another reassuring his wife that they have been testing the steel doors which sealed off the compartments, "so you see it would be impossible for the ship to be sunk..." Others comment that it's like being on land or in a hotel, while one man writes, "she has everything but taxicabs and theaters."

It becomes shocking to be at one moment be reading such cheerful  correspondence to relatives or friends about a thrilling sea voyage and then suddenly find your subjects, traumatized, on board the Carpathia. "Everything has gone, every single thing but my life," writes one passenger; another writes, "we stood on the deck and saw nothing else but death in front of us." Others write of initial excitement and rushing on deck to see the iceberg: "I have often read about icebergs but I never thought to see one." Many people comment on the lack of information, the terrible cries as the ship went down and the inability of the men to even unfasten the lashings when the lifeboats were dropped.

The letters are provided with very little introduction except the basic cursory information in order to establish context, and there are no analyses or final words by the author after each letter. In this way the author allows the reader to come to his or her own conclusions regarding what is right or what is wrong, what truly happened or what might be elaborations based on the immediacy of the emotive events.

With a plethora of Titanic literature stretching back a hundred years, many of you will be wondering what could possibly be new in this book. I will simply say that "On Board RMS Titanic" presents the letters, laid bare as they are (often containing the original errors as written by their authors). From  these, the researcher can take the collective body of work and compare and contrast in order to try and establish a common truth for themselves. With so many works these days distorting the events and actions taken aboard the Titanic to support an opinion, it is refreshing to find a book that brings together contemporary voices without too much decoration. This book is a must to read and worthy addition to any Titanic library.