Reviewed by Art Braunschweiger
While books about Titanic abound (and will proliferate like weeds in the fertile soil of the centenary) most tell the same story in different words. Books about Olympic are far and few between. Even rarer are books that devote any space to the third of the class, Britannic. Thus it was a welcome addition to literary history when, in 2004, a young historian named Mark Chirnside wrote The Olympic-Class Ships: Olympic, Titanic, Britannic. Mark has since updated this book extensively and it was republished by The History Press in 2011. The first edition was reviewed here by Michael Tennaro; this review will take a look at the new edition and answer the question “if you have the first edition, should buy this one?” (The answer is yes, absolutely).
When Mark Chirnside finished writing the first edition of OCS he was 16 years old. That anyone could be such a master of the subject at such an astonishingly young age is rare enough. That the same person could – and still can – communicate that knowledge in a way that is readily understandable to the layperson is remarkable. Mark has a way of relating the facts clearly and matter-of-factly, and does not embellish them or add his own speculation as if it were fact. Many authors are unable to exercise this self-discipline and introduce numerous inaccuracies into their work as a consequence. Mark weighs in with his own assessments only occasionally, and these are cautiously offered. (A few more of these would be welcome, though; Mark is more than qualified to tender his opinion now and again.)
When OCS was first published, overnight it became the definitive history of the Olympic-class ships as a group and should still be regarded as such. In addition to the histories of the individual ships, OCS relates their history together and treats it well. This is vitally important because nothing in history exists in a vacuum. As Olympic, Titanic and Britannic were built to be running mates to provide weekly departures in each direction for the White Star Line’s express transatlantic service, their history and evolution is intertwined. So, too, is their history directly related to other players in the intensely competitive north Atlantic steamship trade. For this reason the addition of a chapter focusing on the principle competitors adds measurably to the book.
The book is divided into nine main chapters:
1. The Oceanic Steam Navigation Company
2. Harland & Wolff
3. The Competition: Lusitania, Mauretania & Aquitania
4. Birth of the Olympics
5. RMS Olympic
6. RMS Titanic
7. HMHS Britannic
8. The Wreck of Britannic
9. The Wreck of Titanic
There is also a 16-page color section on glossy paper with some very unique images never before reproduced in print.
As noted above, the in-depth history of Olympic makes this book particularly valuable, and covers her history not as an footnote to Titanic’s story but as a full telling of her long and storied career. (The fact that Mark is one of the very few authors to do so is curious, considering that throughout her career Olympic was beloved in her own right by her peacetime and wartime passengers alike.) Similarly, Britannic’s career is told with the attention to detail it deserves. However, for anyone with a serious interest in Olympic or Titanic, it is the appendices which alone make this book a must-have purchase. Many of the subjects are not covered elsewhere and are “pure Chirnside”. There are 16 all told:
• The Olympic-Class
• Nomadic and Traffic
• Lusitania Voyage Notes
• Thomas Andrews’ Maiden Voyage Notes
• Financing the the ‘Olympic’ Class
• Titanic: Description of the Ship
• ‘ . . . Short of Coal?”
• Californian – The Ship That Stood Still?
• Germanic – Titanic’s replacement?
• Britannic and Aquitania Comparison
• Britannic: ‘Summary of First Cost’
• Olympic’s New Running Mates
• North Atlantic Service 1931
• Britannic Remembrance
• UK Hydrographic Office Details of Wreck of HMHS Britannic
• Glossary of Technical Abbreviations
Six of the above are new to the second edition, and collectively their addition is the most significant change between this edition and the original. As noted above, though, all the original text has been revised where appropriate to reflect new and changing information. An example is Chapter 9 (The Wreck of Titanic) which has been heavily updated to reflect the extensive exploration of the wreck and the significant deterioration of the ship that has taken place in the intervening years.
But make no mistake; Mark’s text does not make for a casual read. It’s a college course in Olympic-class history, a serious read for anyone serious about the subject. What makes it so is the innumerable details Mark works into his text. Quotations from crew, passengers and contemporary news accounts, citations from ships’ logs and other period information are liberally used in throughout and keep the reader interested. The amount of research required to draw from such a profusion of sources is impressive, and if there is one identifiable hallmark of this author, it is the amount of solid research that stands behind his work. Whatever information differs from the first to the second edition, the reader can be confident that it’s based on new evidence and newly uncovered documentation.
Books can be likened to songs: some are fun to listen to but will never rise above pop tunes, and will never endure. Others endure because they’re instantly identified as iconic the first time they’re heard. If authors can be likened to singers, then Mark is an Elton John. He is enormously talented and highly respected, and defines the newest generation of Titanic authors. His work is all the more impressive when one considers that he’s a one-man show, being author, editor and critic of his own work. If there’s one thing that would make Mark’s work shine even brighter, though, it’s a really good editor to add that final polish. Finding that someone by no means easy; he or she must possess a critical eye, a working knowledge of the ships, a sense for what language works and what doesn’t, and a near-photographic memory in order to recall whether a particular turn of phrase has already been used elsewhere and might be redundant. Still, if Mark is ever fortunate to find such a person, it will take care of the few small details that could use improvement in an otherwise fine work.
Sources are well identified; Mark liberally identifies those quoted and cited sources with footnotes (there are 133 alone in Chapter 5). Many more sources are outlined in his Acknowledgements and Bibliography. A critical note should be made of the large number of words or phrases that appear with quotation marks around them to indicate that a period source used that exact word or phrase. While these are most welcome in the name of accuracy, there’s no indication of where they came from. Of course, having footnotes attached to every other sentence would obviously bog things down unmercifully, and in reality most readers wouldn’t care exactly what newspaper a particular description came from; still, in many instances a simple literary convention would satisfy the need to point to a source, such as “a period newspaper described it as ---“ .
In a few places here and there, an explanation of something referenced would be helpful. When recounting Olympic’s maiden voyage, Mark notes that she was delayed at Quarantine. A reader not familiar with this name might well be left wondering just what it refers to. On the technical side, although Mark has a solid understanding of the ships’ construction, there is an occasional phrase or description used awkwardly or somewhat improperly. These are not numerous or overt, and it should be noted that only a select fraternity of individuals who possess a truly in-depth knowledge of ship construction – the Scott Andrews and Sam Halperns of the Titanic world – would be likely to pick out these “errors”.
The only genuinely annoying flaw in OCS is the positioning of the images which in some cases appear well past the point in the text they illustrate. (A photograph of the battleship HMS Audacious, whose crew was rescued by Olympic during the war, appears 13 pages and three and a half years after the description of the incident.) This issue can largely be laid at the door of the publisher; if an author does not make a point of specifying exactly where he wants them to appear, a publisher will frequently place them without reference to the text. The publisher has also taken the liberty to print all unit indicators (technical abbreviations) that should appear in upper case, such as RPM, GRT, and PSI, in lower case. While abbreviations for units such as “in” for inches are acceptable in lower case, this is not the accepted standard for groups of letters representing unit indicators. (In fairness, though, this is not likely to be noticed by anyone without a technical or engineering background.)
However, none of the above measurably detracts from what is a very strong text in nearly every way. Mark chooses his words well and draws on an excellent vocabulary. Aside from the added polish that a good editor could add, the grammar, syntax and composition are impeccable and Mark’s writing possesses none of the shortcomings that are prevalent among lesser authors. The physical book itself is extremely high quality in paper, print and binding and will stand up to any amount of handling. In fact, the only sad note is that The ‘Olympic’ Class Ships is available only in softcover, as a hardcover edition would be a desirable addition to anyone’s library.