by Senan Molony
“The architect, the owner, and the Captain were partners in an infamous conspiracy to repair their desperate fortunes by sinking the ship and sharing the insurance money.”
Raymond Asquith to The Times, February 1914.
It is not what you think.
But it is everything to do with what some would like the public to think.
Asquith as a lawyer at the British Titanic Inquiry
Daily Sketch May 2, 1912.
RAYMOND Asquith was a junior counsel for the Board of Trade
at its Inquiry into the sinking of the RMS Titanic.
He was there for ninety days, into the summer of 1912, and he questioned Boxhall, Hemming, Beauchamp, Mackay, Dillon, and a clutch of others.
The son of the sitting Prime Minister, Raymond Asquith knew as much as anyone of the proofs and the evidence as to what happened that night. The Crown paid him £864 for his troubles.
What did he know?
He knew enough to thoroughly despise monstrous inventions and “fantastic impossibilities.”
A letter from Asquith to The Times in February 1914 mocked the dire predictions of The Times itself, among other notables, that civil war would surely follow if Ireland were to be granted Home Rule.
The letter was subtitled ‘A Titanic Analogy,’ and it is remarkable in that it unwittingly debunks in advance the claims of modern conspiracy theorists that the White Star Line would sink a vessel in order to reclaim the insurance.
In that respect, it might be said to be a prognostication in itself.
It is The Shtick of Robin Gardiner Foretold!
Raymond Asquith’s highly colourful views were penned in a Philippic to Britain’s oldest daily newspaper, itself known affectionately as ‘The Thunderer,’ in response to a leading article the paper had carried.
The leader on page nine of The Times on Monday, February 23, 1914, noted that the House of Commons was to begin the business of a momentous session that would finally clear the way for Home Rule for Ireland.
The newspaper, a bastion of the Establishment, hated the idea - and had championed the cause of the naysayers for decades. Now it pronounced in its columns that the Opposition - the Conservative party in the main - was charged with a duty of the "utmost seriousness."
It warned: “Unionists are convinced that the country is drifting into a danger that is so great that many people are unable to believe that it is real.” The Home Rule Bill was "bad in itself and without popular backing."
The Times opined: “The certainty of civil war as a result of it raises the natural function of an Opposition to an imperative duty."
It continued by maintaining that if the public were still apathetic to Home Rule, it was only because they did not believe in the possibility of civil war.
“People would not believe in the Balkan War until it happened.
They did not believe in the Spanish-American War, nor in the Russo-Japanese
War. If anyone had foretold the foundering of the Titanic on her maiden
voyage, it would have been laughed aside as an impossibility. Two years ago
people would not believe that the Coal Strike would ever take place, even when
it had become plainly inevitable to those who could see what was going on.
The present danger of civil war is very similar.
If the Government continues on the present course, as some of their followers are urging, then civil war is absolutely inevitable."
Raymond Asquith, son of the Liberal Prime Minister Herbert Henry Asquith, reached for his pen, and dipped the nib in sarcasm. His response appeared two days later:
In your leading article this morning you admit, deplore, and seek to explain the prevailing apathy of the public in the face of the appalling and imminent prospect of civil war.
The admission and the regret I can understand, but not the explanation. This apathy is ascribed by the ingenious writer to an alleged Constitutional inability of our countrymen to conceive the possibility of disaster until it is actually upon them, and is illustrated by a reference, inter alia, to the loss of the Titanic.
No-one, he says, before the melancholy event, would have considered it possible that the Titanic should founder on her maiden voyage. He may be quite right.
I have often been warned not to expect too much of analogies, but may I, without undue pedantry, suggest some circumstances which prevent this one from being entirely persuasive?
Suppose that for a period of two years, from the day on which the keel of the Titanic was laid down in the shipyards of Belfast to the day of her completion, the largest single party in the House of Commons, backed by more than half the population of the British Isles, had not merely continuously insisted but irrefutably demonstrated that there was not a plate nor a rivet in her hull which was not utterly rotten, that her boilers were full of holes, that her engines were full of flaws, that her screws were incapable of propelling her and her rudder incapable of guiding her, that the watertight compartments, so far from being safeguards, were specious shams devised with devilish cunning to lull the unwary passenger into an illusive security, and that the architect, the owner, and the Captain were partners in an infamous conspiracy to repair their desperate fortunes by sinking the ship and sharing the insurance money;
Suppose also that while the vessel was still under construction, 100,000 men in Bowler Hats had assembled in Belfast, and there, with the blessing of the Church and the approval of the Conservative leaders, had sworn a Solemn Oath and Covenant that if the Titanic were ever launched they would die in the last ditch sooner than allow her to complete a single voyage;
Suppose that these resolute men, through the mouth of their resolute leader, a Privy Councillor, and an ex-Law Officer of the Crown, had announced precisely how they intended to make good their oath, videlicet [namely] by causing an exceptionally large iceberg to be placed across the bows of the ship on an exceptionally dark night, and in order to guarantee the result had for many months practised every detail of the contemplated manoeuvre by manipulating dummy icebergs on the waters of Lough Neagh with the assistance of Mr F. E. Smith, K.C., M.P.;
Suppose that the democracy of Ireland had subscribed a million pounds or so to finance this project, that the project itself was warmly applauded by the greater part of the British press, and that such sober and respected organs of opinion as The Spectator and The Times itself had repeatedly insisted that if the ship should ever be launched colossal bergs might be expected automatically to detach themselves from the surrounding mass and instinctively to block her way, and that, but for the restraining influence of Sir Edward Carson, the premature and spontaneous disruption of the Polar ice would already have filled the harbour of Belfast with invading fragments from the Loyal North;
Suppose, further, that Lord Roberts had publicly declared that it was unthinkable that the crew should be called upon to assist in manning the lifeboats or saving the passengers, and that if they were so called upon, it would mean the ruin of the Mercantile Marine:
And, finally, suppose that Mr Joynson-Hicks M.P., had stated with a full sense of his responsibility that the stars in their courses were fighting for those who desired the Titanic to sink, and that the God of Battles entirely shared their views.
Upon these presuppositions, all of which appear necessary to make the suggested analogy legitimate, I cannot but think that public opinion would have been adverse rather than indifferent to the projected voyage and would have missed no opportunity of manifesting its opposition.
If the writer of your article holds that, despite these premonitory circumstances, the public would still have regarded the wreck of the Titanic as a "fantastic impossibility," I concede that he overrates what he calls the "placidity of modern life."
The proved indifference of the electorate to the prospect of civil war is not, in my humble judgment, sufficiently explained by our national phlegm.
It is not improbable that some members of our race have too little imagination, but is it impossible that others have too much?
(The Times, February 25, 1914, p. 9)
Home Rule went through at last for Ireland in that spring of 1914. There was no immediate civil war.
But there was no Home Rule either. The British Government promptly prorogued the measure owing to a worsening international situation. When war broke out in August, Home Rule was once more placed back on the shelf.
Ireland was fated never to get Home Rule, although soon she would set about taking her Independence.
Raymond Asquith, meanwhile, was once more following the patriotic cause as he saw it in what the newspapers would soon be calling “the titanic struggle.”
He applied at once for an officer’s commission and obtained one in the Queen's Westminsters, from whence he was transferred to the Grenadier Guards. He embarked with the Guards for Flanders.
They put him on the general staff, for Asquith was an educated man.
Born in 1878 and educated at Winchester, he carried all before him at school, won an open scholarship at Balliol in 1896, and came up to Oxford with a reputation practically made - and assuredly justified - as the most brilliant man of his year.
He easily won first class honours, as well as the Ireland, Craven, and Derby scholarships, became President of the Union Society, and in 1902 was elected a Fellow of All Souls.
“But the mere record of his academic distinctions give us no picture of his university life. His cleverness was so astonishing that his triumphs seemed lightly won: and indeed they probably cost him as little effort as similar successes have ever cost anyone. It was not that he was a less hard worker than others, but that his brain was amazingly quicker than theirs. His scholarship was unfailing brilliant, his intellectual interests catholic and perpetually alert, but his studies never kept him from the fullest enjoyment of the life of the university and the society of his friends.”
"I am in the trenches and have been for three or four days now," Asquith wrote in one letter home. "So far they are more uncomfortable and less dangerous than I had been led to expect. Waders are essential as the mud and water are well above the knee and the cold is intense. An unpleasant feature is the vast number of rats which gnaw the dead bodies and then run about on one's face, making obscene noises and gestures."
He was tall and handsome, and was gifted with a piercing wit,
which made his talk a tonic, his letters and still more his occasional verse
(never published but privately circulated) a source of pure joy.
Though his wit was sometimes sardonic and he chose occasionally to wear the mask of youthful cynicism, his heart was warm and his devotion to his friends very warm. In their affections he was securely enthroned throughout his life.
He was called to the bar in 1904, and had laid the foundations of a fine practice. To mention only two of his important cases, he was engaged as junior counsel in the North Atlantic Fisheries Arbitration at The Hague and in the Inquiry into the loss of the steamship Titanic.
As a rising lawyer and as a future politician - he had been adopted as a prospective Liberal candidate for Derby - he was following in his father's footsteps when the war broke out.
He had been seconded for staff duties, but was always anxious for the work of the trenches. He pressed to be allowed to return to his battalion, and obtained his wish before the beginning of the present Great Offensive (The Somme).
He was married in 1907 to Katherine, younger daughter of Sir J. and Lady Horner, and leaves a son and two daughters.
(The Times, Tuesday September 19, 1916, p.10)
King and Queen telegraphed their condolences to Mr Asquith at his Berkshire residence and sympathetic messages were also received from the President and Prime Minister of the French Republic. Downing Street received "telegrams in great number."
The Prime Minister had no intention of repatriating his son's body. "Mr Asquith prefers that his son, who met a soldier's death, should have a soldier's burial."
The body was recovered and the interral carried out by one of the army chaplains at Guillemont cemetery on the Somme.
Herbert Asquith, a brother of Raymond and the third son of the Prime Minister, was similarly inclined to verse.
It is tempting to think that something in Asquith’s poem The Volunteer reflects a sentiment of his sibling:
Here lies a clerk who half his life has spent
Toiling in ledgers in a city grey,
Thinking that so his days would drift away
With no lance broken in life’s tournament…
And now those waiting dreams are satisfied;
From twilight to the halls of dawn he went;
His lance is broken; but he lies content
With that high hour, in which he lived and died.
Another brother was Arthur Asquith, a close friend and comrade-in-arms of the famed soldier-poet Rupert Brooke, who was on Lemnos when the latter died. It was Brooke who had penned the lines:
If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
Whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England’s, breathing English air
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.
The grave of Raymond Asquith at Guillemont
A plain stone, among many, was in time erected over the Asquith grave at Guillemont by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.
It affirms the only plot that Raymond Asquith - coruscating wit and foe of all false prophets - had ever believed in.
© Senan Molony 2004.
All images courtesy of the author.