The Life and Mystery of First Officer William Murdoch

21. Smith, Wilde and Guns

In all this time, Captain Smith seems not to have ventured onto the starboard boatdeck, and is not known to have gone aft on either deck; he seems to have remained near where tradition would expect him to be found, on his bridge. There are few mentions of Smith in these last hours to be found in the Senate Transcript. Smith knew how many were aboard; when passengers did not materialize to board the boats, or refused to do so, he did nothing.

Smith seems to have spent most of the evening near Lightoller, yet Lightoller had no idea the danger was immediate or that the ship was going to founder until the bow was well under. Why did Smith not tell him, or at least instruct him to fill the boats to capacity? The Captain seems to have communicated nothing at all to those of his officers not actually on the bridge when Andrews said it was hopeless. (The conference of officers, standard in Titanic movies, never happened.) Fifth Officer Harold Lowe, who became one of the heroes of the night, finally awoke when he heard voices on the boatdeck, looked out, snatched a Browning automatic, and eventually left in command of No. 14; Smith, who was near the Officers' Quarters, seems never to have noticed his absence. It is nearly irresistible to conclude that, for reasons forever unknowable but which suggest a sort of creeping emotional paralysis, Smith had abdicated command, and simply waited with the dignified resignation he had commended. What control remained apparently was exercised by Murdoch. Able Seaman Buley:

Senator Fletcher: When did you last see the captain that night?
Mr. Buley: I never saw him at all, sir.
Senator Fletcher: What officers were in sight when you left the ship?
Mr. Buley: Chief Officer Murdock was the last one I saw.
. . . . .
Senator Fletcher:. . . . I believe you said you helped to lower all the boats?
Mr. Buley: I helped to lower all of them. Chief Officer Murdock ordered me into the boat, finally, and he said, 'Is [sic] there any more seamen?' I said, 'No, sir.'" (Page 612)

Able seaman Harry Thompson, awakened from sleep and told that "First Officer Murdoch ordered us to report to our positions at the lifeboats", later informed journalist Philip Gibbs: "Murdoch seemed to be everywhere along the boat deck." Finally ordered to man No. 9 by the First Officer, Thompson made no mention to Gibbs of either the Captain or the other officers.

Where was Chief Officer Wilde? His appearances after the collision are fitful and strange. Lightoller mentions him briefly, generally in the role of messenger: arriving to inquire where the revolvers had been stored, and later, around 2:00 am, perhaps sent by Smith or Murdoch or perhaps on his own, instructing Lightoller to go in command of the lifeboat the Second Officer was then lowering. The reply to this last was "Not bloody likely". Lightoller stepped back onto the deck, and went down with the ship. It was, he would write, an instinctive reaction and did not betray any wish for an heroic end. The unspecified instinct was hate. Charles Lightoller would rather drown than cooperate with Henry Wilde. He may, therefore, have filtered out any clear memory of just what Wilde was doing in those last hours.

Guns handed out to officers in Murdoch's cabin as
portrayed in the film "A Night to Remember" (1958)

It is an interesting note that Wilde himself went to ask where the revolvers had been stored, rather than sending any handy crew member on such an errand. As Chief Officer, Wilde should have been busy with the lifeboats, or mustering passengers to board them, yet there is about him an air of superfluity. Sidney H.V. Abbott, in that letter of June, 1955, expressed surprise that "nothing is known" about Wilde's activities that April night. (Nothing would be too strong a description, but "next to nothing" would not be.) Abbott remembered Wilde as giving the "impression" of "a most efficient officer". Abbott's choice of words may be prophetic. Perhaps whatever reason had caused Wilde to dread joining the Titanic had overwhelmed him, or perhaps, in the subtle play of competing personalities, he was simply shoved aside by William Murdoch.

The revolvers make their appearance probably between 1:00 am and 1:30 am. Lightoller considered obtaining them a waste of time, but nevertheless, he, the Captain, Wilde, and Murdoch armed themselves. Lowe had provided his own weaponry, and there is no indication that the other junior officers received a gun (Pitman, in any event, was already off the ship). The revolvers went into coat pockets.

On his way back to the boatdeck, Lightoller overheard Wilde commenting that he intended to don a lifebelt; Lightoller snatched his own from his cabin on the way out. Captain Smith never troubled to wear one (neither did Thomas Andrews); whether Murdoch did or did not is unclear. Pitman told the Senate that he personally was not wearing a lifebelt when he left in charge of No. 5, but saw no one on the boatdeck who was not doing so; later he amended this to exclude the "stray crew member" who also did without. (Pages 281). The Senate would conclude that Murdoch was among those who chose to use a lifebelt, but there is no actual proof either way. The Titanic's lifebelts were clever cork filled canvas sandwiches impossible to put on incorrectly and guaranteed to float with one exception the manufacturer was unlikely to have foreseen. Lightoller discovered to his peril that they would not keep a man's head above water if he had a revolver in his coat pocket.