As the Titanic and her passengers sank slowly into the Atlantic Ocean after striking an iceberg late in the evening of April 14, 1912, a nearby ship looked on. Second Officer Herbert Stone, in charge of the midnight watch on the SS Californian sitting idly a few miles north, saw the distress rockets that the Titanic fired. He alerted the captain, Stanley Lord, who was sleeping in the chartroom below, but Lord did not come to the bridge. Eight rockets were fired during the dark hours of the midnight watch, and eight rockets were ignored. The next morning, the Titanic was at the bottom of the sea and more than 1,500 people were dead. When they learned of the extent of the tragedy, Lord and Stone did everything they could to hide their role in the disaster, but pursued by newspapermen, lawyers, and political leaders in America and England, their terrible secret was eventually revealed. The Midnight Watch is a fictional telling of what may have occurred that night on the SS Californian, and the resulting desperation of Officer Stone and Captain Lord in the aftermath of their inaction.
Told not only from the perspective of the SS Californian crew but also through the eyes of a family of third-class passengers who perished in the disaster, the narrative is drawn together by Steadman, a tenacious Boston journalist who does not rest until the truth is found.
From the publishers (Corvus Books) in exchange for a review, this book is split into four parts.
Part one is about the sinking of the Titanic from the Californian’s standpoint, where the Second Officer Stone has taken the Midnight Watch, can see flares go up from a “steamer” nearby, and does not go to find out what’s wrong. By the time the Californian reaches the US, all hell has broken loose, and Steadman is risking his job to get the untold story. There is a wall of silence around Captain Lord, whose word is apparently gospel, but Steadman can see that Stone (plus a couple of other crew members) have something else to say and he doggedly follows them and tries to get the scoop.
Part two finds Steadman in the UK for the UK inquiry. Captain Lord is maintaining that he was never told about the flares (Stone says he was), but even without admitting this, it is clear that the Californian still failed. Lord refuses to take responsibility – never admitting that anything wrong was done – but it is not long till he’s drummed out of the company. Steadman is still trying to find his angle to tell the story from a unique perspective – he’s known for “finding the bodies” and writing about specific people in a unique way, but he has yet to find it on this story.
Part three is Steadman’s telling of the story from the side of a third-class family of nine, who are all lost. It is the hook that he’s lost his job for, and he has been disappointed that the Americans are all focussed on the 1st class guests (Astor etc), whilst ignoring the 3rd class guests entirely. The UK press mentioned 3rd class, but noone’s story was ever told.
The Epilogue is set years later – Stone has died (never making Captain, and never going back to sea, though remaining with the shipping company). Lord has been driven out of the service, and now blind, but spending years in trade. He is bitter that Stone kept his job, seeing him as a weak man, who never stood for much.
The Titanic sank in 1912, so the centenary passed a few years ago. Whilst I know the basics – e.g. the fact that there were in theory, plenty of ships were nearby and that more people could have gone into what lifeboats there were – I’d never really thought about those ships that could have helped. This was a good book to add a new dimension to someone with average historical knowledge, even if most of it isn’t true (apparently the inquest Q&A is true). There is a good added dimension of how things are changing socially and politically – the status quo is being broken and the blind Victorian loyalty to your “betters” is being challenged; women on both sides of the Atlantic are going for the vote, wearing trousers and removing corsets (much akin to “burning of bras” in the 1960s).
About this author
David Dyer spent many years as a lawyer at the London legal practice whose parent firm represented the Titanic’s owners in 1912. He has also worked as a cadet and ship’s officer on a wide range of merchant vessels, having graduated with distinction from the Australian Maritime College. His worldwide research and access to countless documents and artifacts has informed and inspired his work in The Midnight Watch. He currently teaches English in Sydney.