Our proud maritime past - so much to remember so little remembered

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A recent e-mail reminded me of one of the countless lesser-told tales from Belfast’s unique maritime past.

While RMS Titanic left an epic, tragic, proud and heroic legacy, there are hugely powerful narratives about many other Belfast-built ships which should be similarly enduring.

But of the thousands of home-grown vessels down the centuries, few remain in the local psyche like Titanic, with Canberra, HMS Belfast and Sea Quest lagging far behind.

The Remembrance NI website, with its motto ‘Every day is a Remembrance Day’, commemorates local folk from both world wars and in doing so, naval vessels are often referenced, many of them built in Belfast.

On the morning of 21 November 1916, Titanic’s sister ship Britannic, requisitioned for hospital duties, sank after hitting a mine in the Aegean Sea, with the loss of 28 lives.

It was the largest vessel lost in the First World War.

Remembrance NI marked the anniversary and e-mailed Roamer about Violet Jessop, an Irish-Argentine nurse who served on Britannic.

On the morning the ship sank Violet attended the on-board Mass for the Feast of Our Lady.

Minutes later she was struggling helplessly in the churning sea just feet away from the ships three, massive, rotating propellers.

Bodies were being torn in pieces around her. Violet later recounted her horrendous ordeal in the turbulent water beneath the stern of the listing Britannic. For a third time “something very heavy” slammed into her skull.

“My brain shook like a solid body in a bottle of liquid,” she recalled, “some twist of fancy made me see even then, under water, the humour of my situation, and I chuckled.”

Whether due to her extraordinary reaction to unimaginable peril, or to a final, desperate, craving for air, she inhaled two lungfuls of water which was “nearly my undoing for I swallowed what seemed like gallons of water and everything that was in it.”

The first of the triplets, RMS Olympic was to be acknowledged as probably the most significant allied troop carrier during the Great War.

Britannic was to become a heroic hospital ship, serving half a dozen voyages, carrying many thousands of wounded soldiers before being sunk by a German mine off the Greek island of Kea in November 1916.

The White Star Line partially redesigned Britannic to correct the defects that had played a major role in the sinking of the Titanic but few people, unless maritime specialists, would have noticed the difference.

She had a double hull along the engine and boiler rooms; some of her watertight bulkheads were raised; her expansion joints were improved and she was fitted with big crane-like davits for her enlarged specification of lifeboats.

“It was like going into a new world to board that stately hospital ship,” 29-year-old junior nurse Jessop later describing her first steps onto the deck of HMHS Britannic.

Born of Irish parents in Argentina, Violet was one of the 126,000 women members of the Voluntary Aid Detachment.

“For all the world,” she said of her new ship “she looked like a great white swan.”

Historians have wondered that she ever agreed to her posting on Britannic.

Violet had previously served as a stewardess on the doomed Titanic and carried a little baby passenger with her to the rescue ship Carpathia.

She also served on the Olympic during several traumatic accidents at sea.

On the Feast of Our Lady on 21 November 1916, just after Britannic’s padre had completed Mass “suddenly there was a dull, deafening roar,” Jessop recalled. “Britannic gave a shiver, a long drawn out shudder from stem to stern…we all knew she had been struck.”

Shortly after 8 am Captain Charles Bartlett hastened urgently from his cabin and, standing in his pyjamas on the bridge, he gave the order to abandon ship.

Britannic had been steaming past Kea when it fatally rammed a German mine. Bartlett also ordered full steam ahead in an attempt to beach the vessel and hopefully save lives.

Locals from Kea sped out in fishing boats to rescue the badly listing ship’s 1,036 doctors, nurses and crew.

Some years ago the island’s vice-mayor, Giorgos Euyenikos, recounted “My father was a boy when it happened and he remembers his father recalling the howls of people crying out in sheer agony as they met their deaths.”

Unknown to Captain Bartlett, two lifeboats had been lowered. They were sucked into the ship’s fast-churning propellers and were instantly chopped apart like matchsticks. Most in the lifeboats died.

Nurse Jessop was in one of them but “I was no longer conscious of fear,” she later wrote in her diary ,“I just jumped overboard…going down and down into what seemed bottomless depths.”

When she surfaced with “a fractured skull and a leg pierced to the bone…all around were heart-breaking scenes of agony, poor limbs wrenched out as if some giant had torn them in his rage.”

Fortunately, Britannic was carrying no wounded soldiers and ‘only’ 28 lives were lost.

But that’s no reason why Britannic, and Olympic, and many other Belfast-built ships and the heroes who served on them, should fade into relative insignificance compared with Titanic’s multitudinous memorials.

“Perhaps the modest loss of life (on Britannic) contributes to this neglect,” historian John Maxtone-Graham surmised.

Remembrance NI is on Facebook and at remembranceni.org