by Gerard COUCKE
Picture by Jean HEMERY
On Sunday evening(a), an American movie by Jean Negulesco opened on the 1st channel; it was dedicated to the dramatic sinking of the Titanic which, in the night of April 14th/15th, 1912, caused the death of 1695 people. In our region, among the spectators who watched on TV this version of the great sea drama, an old white-haired lady certainly was moved to tears. Although romanced, she relived through the images and sounds of the movie an event that has been haunting her memory for fifty-four years and which she never could forget. The old lady survived the sinking of the Titanic. She was on board the great British liner that fatal night back in 1912 and she was one of the last passengers to leave the ship(b). Today, she is one of the rare people who can give us a genuine account of the terrible tragedy, which is still very popular more than fifty years after it happened.
This rather different spectator is a widow, going by the name of Mme Berthe Bourlard(c). She is today 81 and she lives in Béthune, at the Sully home for elderly people. Although she often (and unwillingly) uses in her conversation English phrases uttered with a tinge of twang accent that only belong to the Americans, Mme Bourlard is and has always been a child from the Black Country [the coalmine region in the north of France].
She was born on August 10th, 1884 in Hersin-Coupigny, in a modest family of miners, the Leroys. As a young woman, she was sent to Paris as a maid employed by a rich businessmans family; there, important French and foreign people evolving in the world of industry and business often gathered and met.
A BRILLIANT LIFE
One day, Mme Bourlard told me in her posh apartment in Béthune, the wife of a very rich American businessman, Mrs Walter Douglas, remarked me and asked me if I would accept leaving for America as her maid. She also wished to improve her French. Her husband was a millionaire who manufactured Quaker Oats, some oats porridge that every American eats for breakfast. I happily accepted. For me, a young girl from a very humble family, it was an unbelievable opportunity to travel the world
And this is how a new life began in 1910 for the young girl from the Artois region, a life full of adventures that allowed her to visit America from coast to coast. Yet, Fate was watching. As Berthe Leroy (she was to marry in 1929 in the United States with a Frenchman, Gaston Bourlard, a friend from childhood who was also born in Hersin), roamed the American continent, the British shipyards put an end to the building of a gigantic liner, unique in its kind, and the biggest in the world: the Titanic. This ship, a giant one for the time (and still today), weighed 52.310 tons and was 848 feet long; her engines developed 50.000 HP(d).
In April 1912, Mme Bourlard goes on, we were in France. Mr. Douglas absolutely wanted to be at home in America for his 53rd birthday*, and we boarded the first liner bound to New York. It was the Titanic. We boarded her in Cherbourg. Life on board was extraordinarily joyful. The great liner was undertaking her maiden voyage and among her 2000 passengers were many people belonging to the European and American Gotha, as well as extremely rich people who all wanted to take part to this first trip; all were aware of its uniqueness. The Titanic was to break a record, reaching New York in less than five days, and win the Blue Ribbon every Atlantic line wishes to detain(e).
After a short stop in Southampton(f), a brilliant and luxurious life began. My employers were invited to many private parties, meals, balls and dinners held to honour very important and fortunate passengers. I shared a beautiful cabin with another young lady. The first days went away in luxury and the sumptuous pieces of furniture of the ship only enhanced this feeling. The Titanic really was a floating palace! The sea was smooth. Of course, icebergs had been noted on her way but nobody on board really cared about them. All her engineers had proclaimed that the ship was unsinkable. The passengers were so confident in her that when the accident took place, many, at the beginning, refused to believe the ship was about to sink
EVERYBODY ON DECK!
And yet! The ship, which was the biggest, the most beautiful, the most comfortable, the quickest and the safest in the world, the liner which made its company, the White Star Line, and the British mercantile marine proud, now lies at the bottom of the ocean, south of Newfoundland. During the night of April 14th/15th, 1912, at 11:40 p.m., as her ballrooms were ablaze with lights, her bars swarming with people(g), the Titanic hit a gigantic iceberg that made a gash in her hull which ran over 320 feet!
Accounts of what happened next are rather different from each other. According to some, the jar had been a slight one and many people who had not felt it were amazed by the sudden silence of the engines. The first act of the drama was already over by then. Inside the great still ship, most of the stokers had drowned.
As for Mme Bourlard, she states she heard a thump. I first thought it was a storm(h). By then I was in my cabin. I was reading, my roommate was sleeping. At that time, we did not feel any alarm. Suddenly, the light went out(i). A sailor hurried into our cabin and shouted, as he threw a lifejacket at us: everybody on deck, we are sinking! I put a jacket over my night gown, and because there was no light, I found only one slipper. We went out. There were few people in the corridors. People were worried, but nobody thought the ship could sink. In the cabin next to ours, the passengers would not leave, so certain were they that it was a false alert
Berthe Leroy also shared the same confidence but she soon had to admit the truth. The ship was slanting forward. Panic slowly spread among the passengers. She wandered for a moment in the dark corridors, reading her way on the glinting plaques on the cabin doors. She did not know where her employers were. She later was told what happened to them. Mrs Douglas had managed to find a seat in a lifeboat. Her husband had been refused one (women and children boarded first), he threw himself overboard and drowned.
I reached the deck at the moment when the ship was about to sink. I believe I was one of the last to leave her. We were almost fifty in the small boat, only women and children but for one man, a sailor who steered the boat. Men desperately clung to our boat which could have sunk at any moment. It was horrible. I remember that at the moment when I embarked, water was quickly engulfing the decks of the Titanic. People were crying for help, children screamed with fear. Later, we were told that the band played Nearer my god to thee to the end. I did not hear it, but I was told so, later, in America.(1)
Berthe Leroy rowed all night long. At 2:20 a.m., the Titanic slowly sank, without a single wave, without a single swirl, two hours and forty minutes after the collision, killing at the same time more than one thousand people. The others died of exposure in the lifeboats or in the water. In the end, 1695 people died, among them the Commander, who faithfully remained at his post, and the wireless man who sent the first(j) S.O.S. (Save Our Souls(k)) in history.
On the water floated titbits of the ship and bodies, and Mme Bourlard is still moved today when she tells about it. In the lifeboats, women were crying Pray god. Others answered No hope! As for me, I thought I would never again see my mother. The night was calm and clear. They could clearly see the iceberg, which looked like some kind of blue cathedral towering over the wreck site(l). The Carpathia arrived with dawn, and they picked us up. Another ship was in the neighbourhood as we were sinking. They had noticed the rockets fired from the Titanic but they had left the spot thinking that we were firing fireworks!
UNTIL I DIE
Today, Mme Bourlard peacefully lives in Béthune. After fifty years in the USA, she came back in France and her dear Artois region which she had never forgotten. The night the Titanic went down is still vivid in her memory. At the end of her bed she put a framed picture showing the big liner in her short splendour(m). Under it, Mme Bourlard wrote, both in French and in English, a few words which are meaningful of the old ladys state of mind, 54 years after the disaster took place: Tragic and unforgettable hours I will remember until I die. It really was by the grace of god that I survived this great disaster, being one of the last to leave the ship
(1) We know now that the heroic musicians did not play that hymn but lighter ragtime music instead, which was rather chic indeed! According to some witnesses, at the very moment when the ship went down the band sang a protestant song, titled Autumn.
Notes. (a)The first French TV channel broadcast Titanic, a very romanced version of the disaster (made in 1953 in Hollywood by Jean Negulesco), on Sunday February 5th, 1969, in a program by Armand Jammot, Les Dossiers de lEcran; there always was a long talk after the film, and that evening the guests were: Miss Eva Hart, survivor; commander Croisile, first commander of the France; Jean Merrien, author of Les Drames de la Mer; admiral Howard Johnston; Philippe Masson, head of the historical department at the French Ministère de la Marine; commander Yves le Coadou; author Robert de la Croix.
(b) Berthe Leroy left the Titanic with her employer, Mahala Douglas, née Dutton, on board lifeboat #2 which was lowered at 1:45; according to the British Enquiry, it was the seventh portside boat to be lowered, taking away 25 passengers on the 40 that could have boarded. The officer in charge was fourth officer Boxhall.
(c) Berthe Leroys act of death is wrongly annotated: Last survivor of the Titanic, sunk by iceberg on April 10, 1912. Her sisters marriage being planned on June 15th, 1912, we can easily imagine that the decision of the Douglases to sail back earlier than first thought to America completely changed Berthes plans. During the spring of 1912, the Douglases and Berthe Leroy were in Europe in order to buy furniture for their house in Lake Minnetonka, a close suburb of Minneapolis.
(d) Note the slight mistakes.
(e) This statement is unfounded. The Titanic could not break any Atlantic record, she was not built for speed.
(g) There was no dancing on British ships on Sundays. The Café Parisien closed early that evening.
(h) There is only one account by a Titanic passenger mentioning bad weather on April 14th: Jakob Johansson, a Finnish emigrant, wrote in his diary (which was later found on his body): April 14th. Sunday. It is raining today and everybody stays inside ( )
As far as I know, no other passenger ever mentioned rain. Maybe was Berthe Leroys feeling of storm and rain due to the bad weather on April 14th, if ever there was rain?
(i) All witnesses agree on one point: light went off on board the Titanic only at the very last moment.
(j) It is often stated that the SOS sent by the Titanic was the first one in history, and it is wrong. On January 23rd, 1909, Jack Binns, wireless man on board the White Star liner Republic, sent the first SOS in history after the liner rammed the Florida. See for instance the paper LIllustration on February 13th, 1909 for a detailed description of this first SOS.
(k) The SOS code means nothing in fact. Marconi, who was awarded the Nobel prize for creating modern wireless telegraphy, stated at the American Senate enquiry that the simplicity of the code would allow any amateur to type a distress call even if he did not know Morse at all. The CQD code, which is said to mean Come Quickly Danger meant in fact: CQ: call to all stations within reach, and D was added to give the call some kind of emergency meaning. Then, CQ meant: To all ships within reach, and CQD : This is an emergency, all ship within reach must listen to me.
(l) It certainly was not the iceberg that sank the Titanic that Berthe Leroy could see from her lifeboat, as the liner went on for a few miles after she struck it. Captain Rostron from the Carpathia admitted that he met many icebergs round the place where the Titanic went down. The Californian, too, had stopped surrounded by ice, a few miles off the Titanic.
(m) Maybe the famous drawing by Willy Stoewer, that illustrated the article. Another picture of the Titanic was framed in Berthes bedroom, as can be seen on one of the many pictures belonging to the Leroy family.