Archie, Aces and Airspeed: Aerial Combat during the First World War.


In 1903, two brothers who ran a bicycle-repair shop, created the world’s first successful, heavier-than-air…gasp!…FLYING machine! People marvelled at a new contraption called the ‘airplane’ which could take off, fly where-ever the pilot wanted it to, and then land safely again. They thought that this was a magical new invention that could do marvellous things for mankind and spur it onwards to a new age of technology, science and transportation.

Well, Orville and Wilbur Wright thought so, anyway.

In fact they thought so, so much, that once their newfangled ‘flying machines’ were perfected and reliable, they took their courage by the balls and went off to all the national militaries of the early 1900s. They approached the American, British and even French armies, toting their new toy as a practical weapon and machine of war. With airplanes, you could spot troop-movements, direct men and see the entire battlefield! Armies were so excited about these amazing possibilities, that they jumped on the new invention!

Or…they would have, in a perfect world.

The truth was that most of the commanding officers and generals, all thought the Wright Brothers’ invention was something of a joke, and saw no practical application for this contraption in their arsenals and warehouses.

Just over ten years later, however, they were singing a different tune.

The first Airplanes.

The very first airplanes were used purely to demonstrate that powered, controlled flight was possible. But that was all they were used for. People just didn’t see how such flimsy, wood and cloth machines could be practical in any way other than to provide cheap, five-minute thrill to excited little boys and girls at funfairs! However, this perspective quickly changed with the onset of the First World War.

In the hell of the Somme, Flanders, Passchendeale, Ypres and the Marne, generals began to realise that having ‘eyes in the sky’ that could tell you where things were, would be a huge advantage. Suddenly, the allies didn’t think the Wright Brothers were stupid after all, and a few months after the war had started, airplanes were being used in warfare.

The first planes used in warfare just flew around taking photographs. Fun, huh? They were reconnaissance aircraft, gathering valuable military information. Airplanes were able to fly over enemy trench-systems, photograph them and then fly home, relatively unscathed from enemy fire. Knowing the layout of enemy trenches allowed generals the opportunity of finding weak-spots in enemy defences.


Originally, German, English and French pilots just flew around each others trench-systems taking snapshots, but soon it was realised that such activity should not be tolerated! The airspace above your trenches was YOUR airspace, and to hell with anyone trying to break into it! To this end, pilots started becoming more aggressive with each other. Pilots began taking to the air with revolvers, grenades, rocks and lengths of rope, to shoot, bomb, damage or entangle their enemies. New weapons called anti-aircraft guns were placed around entrenchments to shoot down hostile aircraft. They fired explosive or incendiary rounds, known during WWII as ‘flak’, known during the Great War, by the name ‘Archie’. A new era of warfare had begun.

On the 1st of April, 1915, April Fools’ Day, a French pilot named Roland Garros made history. His plane, the first of its kind in the world, flew into the skies and shot down a German pilot and his plane. While this was not the first air-to-air kill (people had been shooting, bombing and throwing stuff at each other, 1,000 feet up before Garros came along), this was significant because of the type of plane that Garros was flying. It was the first plane specifically designed for aerial-combat, having machine-guns and triggers which the pilot could aim and fire during flight! The Fighter Plane and the Fighter-Pilot had been born!

Aerial-combat, in which planes fought against planes, pilots against pilots, was the latest form of warfare in a war which was rapidly changing everything it touched. Unfortunately for the allies, Garros was shot down and his plane crashed in German territory. Garros survived and was taken prisoner, but his valuable flying-machine was not completely demolished on impact. Before he could set the plane on fire, the Germans had captured it and were soon turning out fighter-planes of their own!

The affect on Allied morale was devastating. Until that point, the British and French had ruled the skies, but now, the Germans had planes that could match theirs! The French and British started making newer, faster, more powerful planes and the era of Aces had begun.

Aerial Aces.

An ‘Ace’ is a pilot who is exceptionally skilled, and who can successfully shoot down enemy aircraft. Now that aerial combat was well-and-truly established, it was time for men with courage and balls to really show what they could do.

To understand just what this was like, you need to understand just how the men were fighting. If you’re picturing sleek, modern airplanes with enclosed cockpits and armour-plating and all that stuff…forget it! WWI fighter-planes were little more than box-kites with engines on them! The majority of the plane was made of wood and canvas! The fuselage was wood, canvas, two pairs of wings, an engine, cockpit and propeller and a wooden rudder and tail-fins at the back. These planes were very light, but also very delicate. If you put your foot in the wrong place, it ripped through the canvas and out you went!

Pilots in planes such as these could expect to be incredibly uncomfortable. Enclosed cockpits did not exist, and the only protection they would have had against the stinging, freezing wind, would have been their leather jackets, flying caps, goggles and maybe some gloves to stop their hands freezing from the windchill! Oh, and scarves. Pilots wore nice, long white scarves. Not to look cutesy for the ladies, but to prevent…skin-irritation, of all things. Without radar, the only way to spot enemy planes was to literally turn your head left and right to search the skies for them. All this twisting and turning rubbed your neck against the collar of your jacket and this could make you very uncomfortable. In a situation where the last thing you want to be, is uncomfortable, the scarves provided much-needed padding to prevent skin-chafing, as well as an extra layer of badly-needed warmth!

Back then…and even today…an instance of aerial combat between two opposing pilots is called a ‘dogfight’. They were called dogfights, probably, because pilots literally flew at each other like mad dogs. Planes could come within inches of smashing into each other and they fired their guns willy-nilly, trying to hit each other. Dogfights were fierce, fast, lethal battles of skill, courage, balls and determination. If you got shot down, you could expect a plunge of several thousand feet to the earth below. Your plane could explode in mid air, it could catch fire, or you could fall out of your cockpit. Few pilots carried parachutes back then.

When planes flew out in ‘sorties’ (a ‘sortie’ is a mission), they would fly out in groups set in strict formations. Pilots organised their planes so that they could attack the enemy as effectively as possible. Planes and their pilots were organised into groups called ‘squadrons’. Each squadron, or squad, had a ‘sqaudron leader’, usually the best pilot with the most experience. His job was to lead his men into battle and to direct the other pilots through the air so that they would know where to go and how to act. In the days before aerial radio-communications, hand-gestures were used to direct your fellow pilots through the air. Squadron leaders usually had their planes painted or marked in some way, so that they would be easily-recognised by Allied pilots during combat. The universal sign of ‘rocking wings’ (moving your wings up and down), was the signal to return to home-base. Better to crash on home soil than in enemy territory.

Taking down an enemy aircraft was difficult at best. Machine-guns were still fairly new weapons back then, and they were prone to jamming during dogfights. Apart from that, you had to find your target before you could shoot at it. And when your target is a plane zooming all over the skies, this is difficult at the best of times. There’s no heat-seeking missiles, there’s no target lock-on, there’s no laser sights, it’s just you, your plane, your guns and your eyes. Everything was done by hand and everything was done manually, using your own judgement, timing and skill.

The most famous Ace of all, was a German pilot. His name was Manfred von Richtofen, more famously known as ‘der Rote Baron’;…The Red Baron. The Baron was credited with somewhere in the neighbourhood of 80 confirmed kills. While 80 doesn’t seem very impressive today, it was damn impressive back in 1917, when aerial-combat was how I described it above. Unfortunately for Richtofen, he was shot down and killed on the 21st of April, 1918. The man credited with shooting down the Red Baron and killing him, with a bullet to the chest, was an Australian soldier named…Cedric Popkin! Popkin was a soldier in the First AIF (the First Australian Imperial Force). At the time of Richtofen’s death, Popkin and his men were manning Vickers anti-aircraft machine-guns and it was Popkin’s firing which shot the Baron and brought down his airplane, his famous Fokker Dr. 1, painted bright red.

Bombing Raids.

Apart from reconnaissance, protecting airspace and spying, airplanes in WWI had another major role to play – air-raids.

Various aircraft, such as the famous Sopwith Camel, were combination fighter-and-bomber aircraft, meaning that they could drop bombs as well as fire machine-guns. In later stages of the war, generals began to see even more possibilities for these newfangled machines, specifically in their ability to bring death to the enemy in ways previously unimaginable.

The Sopwith Camel, a typical, WWI-era fighter biplane.

By 1917, when aerial-combat and warfare was firmly established, Allied airforces and Allied armies began to collaborate with each other in an effort to pool their resources, skills and manpower to win battles. Some later battles went like this…

First there would be an intense artillery barrage, bombing and shelling the enemy trenches. At an appropriate time, rows and rows of tanks rumbled across No Man’s Land, shooting at the enemy soldiers who had survived the artillery barrage. While the tanks moved forward, infantry marched behind, taking advantage of the covering fire provided by the tanks, to engage enemy infantry. Upstairs, Allied bomber and fighter-planes flew overhead, strafing (raking) the ground with lethal swathes of machinegun-fire, killing soldiers in the enemy trenches, followed by intense, aerial bombardment, while below them, their Allied army buddies pressed on to take their target trenches. The airplane had proved its worth as a practical and useful machine of war.

“Over the Top!” – Life in the Trenches during WWI (Pt. I)


From early 1914 until November 1918, the world was at war. The ‘Great War’, as it was then called, inflicted upwards of six million casualties from over six different countries and mankind saw a new kind of mechanical warfare so devastating that many prayed that it would never happen again.

Known today as the First World War, this conflict pitched the countries of Canada, France, Italy, Australia, the USA, Great Britain and Russia against Turkey, Germany and Austria-Hungary in battles where men died in their thousands for just a few yards of earth. WWI was a disaster of epic proportions, throwing 19th century tactics against 20th century technology, the resultant explosion reverberating across the following decades to the present day.

One of the most enduring images of the Great War was trench warfare. Trench warfare was brutal, sloppy, slimy, smelly and sickening. Vomit-inducing, sleep-depriving, smelling of piss, shit, rotting flesh, stagnant water…and that was when you weren’t being shot at, gassed, shelled to Kingdom Come or having to shoot back at enemy soldiers charging towards you!

From mid 1914 right up to the day the war ended in 1918, trench-warfare remained a staple of life during the ‘Great War’. It remained like it did for so long because nobody could figure out how to successfully attack trenches without having the living shit blasted out of them or being mown down by machinegun-fire. Commanding officers pitched men against men using 19th century tactics and strategies and 20th century technology, which is about as useful as trying to storm a building filled with heavily-armed terrorists with a peashooter. Given that trench-warfare lasted so long…what was it actually like living in a hole in the ground for so long?

Digging the Trenches.

Before you could live in a trench, you had to dig it out. Digging took ages, even with the thousands of men with shovels. Trenches were roughly seven to eight feet deep, about six feet wide, with a drainage channel at the bottom, which was covered over by a type of planking (which would create a semi-sturdy walkway), called duckboards. Trenches literally stretched for miles and miles and miles and MILES. From southern France, they headed north, all the way to the North Sea. And it wasn’t just the ONE trench. There were dozens of them. First you had the ‘Front Line’ trench, and then behind that, you had communications trenches, and behind that, more trenches, and then to protect everything, you had machine-gun nests, barbed wire, landmines and sandbags. It’s little wonder that these things were so damn hard to capture! Trench-systems could be small cities in themselves!

Apart from the trenches, there were also ‘dugouts’. A dugout is a tunnel or underground chamber where officers could live and work, relatively protected from the rain outside. Dugouts were reinforced with wood and sheet metal and they provided a tiny bit of comfort for the men. The trenches themselves, once they had been dug out, were reinforced with wood, metal and reeds, woven to form a sort of basket-type mesh. All these things prevented the walls from caving in.

Living in the Trenches.

You’ve dug the trenches, you’ve fortified them, laid down duckboards, put in reinforcements and planking and dugouts and electric lighting…you can pack up and go home!…Right?


You actually had to live IN the trenches. Not for very long, perhaps a few days, a couple of weeks at any one time. That was provided you actually survived the two weeks. If you did, you could head back behind the lines and chill out on leave. Otherwise…it was in the trenches. And life in the trenches was crap at the very best of times.

One thing the commanders hadn’t counted on when they ordered their men to ‘dig in’, was the lay of the land. Unknown to the French and British COs, the land in which they were going to dig their trenches, had the water-table just a few feet below the ground! In some places it wasn’t so bad and you could go down the whole six, seven or eight feet into the earth. But in other places, the water table was barely four or five feet below the ground! If you dug any further, you’d be standing in a canal! In cases like this, soldiers stopped digging at four feet, and just stacked up sandbags to make up the additional three feet, but with trenches so close to the waterline…you can imagine what happened next.

Flooding. And a lot of it.

Not just a few inches or milimeters of water to grumble over that got into your socks…I mean SERIOUS flooding. Water could reach two or three feet deep and men would be sloshing through trenches turned into rivers, in muck up to their waists! Given that even in the nicest of weather in Europe, it can still pour down and be freezing cold, you can bet this was one of the worst things that soldiers had to put up with.

Well…you’d be wrong. Because there’s worse. Much worse.

If you just said ‘Aww rats!’…you’d be right.

As the war continued, there were thousands of dead bodies all over the battlefields and nobody had the time (or indeed, the PLACE!) to bury all the corpses. These corpses brought rats. Hundreds of them. They feasted on dead bodies, eating at them until only skeletons remained. They grew fat and even hungrier and it wasn’t uncommon for soldiers to go around shooting all day long…not at the enemy, but at rats! They tried to do everything to get rid of the rats…drown them, gas them, club them…Some would even spike cheese onto their bayonets. When the rat started eating the cheese, the soldier pulled the trigger on his rifle. BAM! Rat gone! But for every rat they killed, there were hundreds to take their place.

Food in the trenches was pretty basic, too. The support-trenches, further back from the front line, were supposed to be able to supply soldiers with hot, freshly-cooked food, but since the trenches were being shelled, gassed or bombed every other day of the week, you can bet they didn’t get much of that home-cooked goodness. You try preparing a meal for 10,000 starving soldiers when artillery-shells and mortars are crashing all around! It’s not easy!

Most men survived on canned or otherwise preserved food. They ate biscuits, salted meat, whatever vegetables and fruit they could find, together with…chocolate. Yes, chocolate. When you’ve got almost nothing else to look forward to, a nice bit of Cadbury’s or Whitman’s goes a long way. In fact in both world wars, the Whitman chocolate company (famous for its yellow ‘Whitman’s Samplers’ boxes), sent boxes of candy overseas to Europe to feed Allied soldiers!

What goes in has to come out…right? Where did you go to the toilet?

Well…you see that empty patch of land there which nobody’s using? Take your trowel, some old newspapers..and commune with nature. There were no toilets, and if you had to go, you had to make your own toilet, digging a hole in the ground. Some trench-sysems actually had specifically-dug sewerage-channels where soldiers could go and relieve themselves. But after three days of heavy rain…you can imagine where all the stuff in the sewerage-channel ended up…Yep…right back in the trenches!

Health in the Trenches.

Given the appalling living-conditions, it’s no surprise that disease was a BIG problem on the Western Front. Common trench ailments included headlice and ‘trenchfoot’. Headlice were such a problem that most men gave up trying to keep the lice out of their hair! Instead, they just got a pair of scissors and a razor and shaved themselves bald! The other common trench disease was something called ‘trench-foot’.

Trenchfoot is a bit like ‘athlete’s foot’…only a hell of a lot worse. It comes as a result of spending hours every single day, standing in stagnant, freezing, disgusting water and never giving one’s feet enough time to fully dry out. When you consider that the trenches were flooded half the time, you can imagine how bad trenchfoot could get. A soldier was useless if his feet were so infected that he could barely walk! Commanding officers had to make it a rule that ALL MEN were to change their socks on a regular basis to keep their feet dry and clean to prevent trenchfoot. As the war progressed, trenchfoot did eventually go down, but it never completely went away and isolated cases continued to pop up throughout the duration of the war.

Another medical condition which came to prominence during the war in the trenches was a mental incapacitation called ‘shell-shock’, what people today like to euphamistically call ‘post-traumatic-stress disorder’. Shell-shock had been known of before the Great War, but it had never been seriously examined until so many cases of shellshock started popping up during the mid 1910s! And shellshock is a lot more than just irritability or not being able to sleep…it could turn men into shivering, jibbering, glubbering wrecks, barely able to function in civilian society.

Shell-shock got its name because it was caused by artillery-shells. Before a big offensive move, the enemy (or you, depending on who was moving where), would shell the other fellow’s lines with artillery and mortar-fire. INTENSE fire. I don’t mean just a few minutes of ‘boom-boom-boom, let’s go boys!’, I mean REALLY INTENSE FIRE. A proper artillery-barrage could go on for hours…even days! Shell-shock was caused by the mental anguish inflicted by these barrages. Imagine that you’re a soldier in a trench…and you hear artillery-fire in the distance. Sooner or later, you’ll hear the high-pitched shriek of the shells sailing downwards towards you. In most cases, you won’t see them until it’s too late. You’ll have about a split-second to run before the shell slams into the ground and destroys everything around it! That’s just one shell. Imagine a hundred, two hundred, three hundred shells…all being fired at once, for hours and hours on end, day and night. The noise, the panic, the fear and the severe sleep deprivation was enough to send a man literally raving mad. Some cases of shell-shock were so bad that the men literally became shivering, nervous wrecks.

“Over the Top!” – Life in the Trenches during WWI (Pt. II)


Continued from Part 1, above.

Attacking another Trench.

Given all these horrible, horrible, horrible things…it’s no wonder that trench-warfare was so hard. You needed balls to survive out there, no doubt about that. If you couldn’t hack it, you’d be snuffed out in a second.

But once you were there, you had to fight. Defending a trench-system was actually fairly easy. You lined up your men, stuck your rifles over the top, manned the machine-guns and then fired at the enemy coming towards you. What was REALLY hard was trying to ATTACK a trench, because they were so damn well-protected!

Basic battle-tactics had not changed much over the past few decades. In the 1700s, you lined up your men and marched in close-formation across the battlfield with muskets. Muskets were inaccurate, so amassing your men together was the only way to ensure a decent amount of firepower.

By the Civil War period in America, of the 1860s, firearms technology had advanced to such a stage that rifles were now more accurate, amassing your troops like you would have back in Napoleonic times would get them slaughtered, because they presented a nice, easy target to men with nice, accurate weapons. To handle this, men marched across the battlefield more spaced out, to present smaller targets which were harder to hit.

By the 1910s, when the heavy machine-gun was deemed a powerful and useful weapon, even these tactics were outdated. Machine-guns could mow down hundreds of men, no matter how they moved across the battlefield. Constant shelling meant that they weren’t even marching across a FIELD anymore, either, but a quagmire of water, craters, mud, blood, dead bodies and hell knows what else. Commanding officers who were old-fashioned and unaware of the power of machine-guns, worked out battles as they would have 25 and 50 years ago, when machine-guns were less common and less effective. This led to thousands of men being killed every day, since enemy soldiers set up their machine-gun nests to create wide fields of interlocking crossfire which soldiers couldn’t escape from. Commanders set their men impossible objectives, given the manner in which battles were fought, and this contributed to the stalemate on the Western Front.

Changing Tactics.

It took a while, but eventually commanders recognised that if they were ever going to win this war, they had to change the way in which they fought. They needed a way for men to be mobile, protected and efficient on the battlefield. They needed better weapons which could do more than just go ‘boom!’.

After his disastrous attempt to ‘Force the Narrows’ during the Gallipoli campaign of 1915, a then, relatively unknown man called Winston Leonard Spencer-Churchill, headed to the trenches. He spent a considerable amount of time there, hiding from the shame of his disasterous naval campaign. While in the trenches, Churchill learnt a thing or two about how battles were fought and how he might improve the Allies’ chances of winning.

Instead of trying to run before they could walk, Churchill went in the other direction to most battlefield strategists, and suggested that intead of running or indeed, walking…they should instead…crawl.

Using a method which he called the ‘Bite and Hold’, he reasoned that in the long-run, soldiers would be able to win battles more effectively. The ‘Bite and Hold’ tactic worked like this:

Instead of trying to take everything all in one day, soldiers would instead take only half of their objective. Having secured this, they would hold their position, restock, resupply, rest…and then jump forward and grab the rest another day, when they felt up to fighting again. This allowed men to take ground, but it didn’t wear them out or put them in any significant danger. The idea worked and bit by bit, the Allies began to advance.

Changing Technology.

Necessity is the mother of invention, they say. Well in 1916, it was necessary for the British to mother an idea about how to win this goddamned war. The biggest problems were the issues of mobility and firepower. Soldiers could move quickly across the battlefield, but they lacked any serious firepower apart from their rifles, which were useless against the high-power heavy machine-guns. Machine-guns provided the intense firepower that soldiers needed to protect themselves with, but these guns were so big and heavy, they required upwards of three or four men just to operate them! Hardly effective when you’re out in the middle of No Man’s Land beng shot and shelled at all the time! A typical machine-gun of the period, like the belt-fed Vickers Gun, required a gunner and something resembling a race-car pitstop team just to keep the gun working! You need a gunner, you needed riflemen to protect him. You needed someone to feed the ammunition belt, someone to carry the ammuntion, someone to carry the tripod, someone to refill the empty ammo belts…you see where this is going, don’t you? It just wasn’t practical! Machine-guns were great in defensive-positions when they didn’t have to be moved around, but the moment you told a gun-crew “go from A to B”…you had problems. They were simply no good on the move.

Apart from that, machine-guns were prone to overheating and jamming, hardly ideal when you’re trying to kill the enemy. Vickers machine-guns were water-cooled and this could be a problem when you didn’t have any water (not that this happened much in the waterlogged trenches!). But when you really didn’t have any water…you couldn’t shoot! One way to overcome this problem was to actually fill the gun’s water-jacket with piss! Soldiers who had to take a leak, would urinate into cans and this delightful, apple-juice-coloured liquid, would then be poured into the Vickers gun’s water-jacket to keep the gun cool and ready to fire!

The Lewis Gun, another popular machine-gun of WWI, was considerably easier to use than the Vickers. The Lewis was air-cooled and it was magazine-fed. This meant that it was lighter, easier to carry, quicker to load and required fewer men to look after it. Despite this, the Lewis was still big and bulky, but at least it was (sorta) portable.

To deal with the problem of firepower and mobility, the British invented a new machine, originally called ‘landships’…now called…’tanks’.

The tank was a revolutionary machine in 1916. While it had almost no armour, even though it was slow (9mph was break-neck speed for a tank!) and even though it was prone to engine-failure, it answered peoples’ prayers about wanting armour, mobility and firepower. Commanders soon learnt how to use tanks effectively, and they sent them out in waves like mechanised cavalry, with infantry behind the tanks. The tanks provided the heavy firepower and protection while the infantry provided the mobility. A winning combination had been found!

There are of course, other types of technology which both sides used to try and win the war. One of the most famous…is…gas!

That’s right! Even before grandpa was dancing the Charleston, mankind had invented chemical warfare.

The gas used was either chlorine gas or mustard gas. Both of which were absolutely 100% nasty. If it got into your lungs…you were screwed.

Gas was fired into enemy trenches in metal gas-canisters. When the cans exploded, the gas spilt into the trenches like smoke from hell and went into all the crevices and low-places and little hidey-holes. While soldiers did have some primative gas-masks to protect themselves, the best way to escape gas was to do the opposite to what the gas did. Since gas went down…soldiers went up! They got out of their trenches and worked on their sun-tans until the gas in the trenches had disappated. Of course, this also left the exposed soldiers vulnerable to enemy attacks.

There are of course, other aspects of the Great War, all of which are equally fascinating, but which are too numerous to be mentioned here. And at any rate, they’re not strictly confined to the trenches. These will be covered in other postings, at a later date.

Medieval Execution


This has been on my list of possible topics for a while now, and at least three readers have asked me to write a posting about it…so here goes…

In the Medieval period, from 1066-1500s, most countries were ruled by monarchies. Kings, queens and princes. Medieval times were dangerous times to be alive and with religious persecution happening on almost a daily basis, with different kings wanting their religion to be the one which everyone followed, it’s not surprising to know that kings were willing to go to great lengths to see their decrees, commands and orders, carried out. Social discipline in the Medieval period was strict, and any disruption to social order was severely punished, as were any crimes committed against the people or even worse…against the monarchy! What were some of the more infamous forms of punishment, torture and execution that were used throughout the Medieval Period? This article will cover ‘execution’. Subsequent articles will cover torture and punishment.


Burning at the Stake.

Popularly associated with the crime of witchcraft, burning at the stake involved strapping the victim (a woman), to a wooden post in a public place (such as a town square), and surrounding that post with logs and faggots. Before you get antsy, a ‘faggot’ is a unit of measure meaning a bunch of sticks. The faggots and logs were then lit and the victim was sent to her fate. How was it done and how did the person die?

Upon being found guilty of witchcraft, the woman would be walked up the pile of wood and would be tied to the stake at the top in such a way that they would not be able to move. The executioner then used a burning torch to light the faggots at the bottom of the pile of wood and then stepped back to watch his handiwork. Despite what you might believe, most victims of burning did not actually die of burning. Most would have died of smoke inhalation long before they actually ever caught fire. However, on some occasions, when smoke inhalation didn’t kill the victim, she would be tied to the stake until her clothes, and later, her flesh, started to burn, literally killing her by burning her alive, at the stake.


Beheading, or death by decapitation, was how most noble people were executed if they were found to have committed a crime. Beheading was quick, relatively clean and a great spectator…ehm…event. The job of beheading the victim came to the executioner, in this case, commonly called the ‘headsman’, for obvious reasons. A noble who was accused of treason (crimes against the king or country) was usually executed through beheading. It was done like this:

The condemned man (or woman) was allowed to say a few words before death. He or she would then get on their knees and rest their head on the chopping-block, face down. A priest might say a short prayer, and then the headsman would do the deed. Despite what you may think, it actually takes a considerable amount of strength to decapitate someone. If the headsman was particularly strong or if the axe was very sharp or heavy, he might be able to lob off the head in one, clean blow. However, this wasn’t always the case. Sometimes it could take two, three or even four blows of the axe to decapitate someone and kill them. Even then, if the head didn’t fall right off, you’d have to take out a knife (called a ‘slitting knife’) to cut away the leftover skin and muscle so that the head came away completely. While this was going on, blood would be pumping out of the neck and saturating the execution-platform in blood, making the entire place wet and slippery.

Having decapitated the victim, the executioner then held up the head, and would call out to the crowd: “Behold the head of a traitor!”, as a warning to anyone else who dared to incur the king’s wrath.

Once the head was lobbed off and held up to the crowd, it would then have to be boiled with herbs and spices…not to eat it…but to preserve it! This was because once the head was off, it was shoved onto a spike and propped up on a wall or bridge or some other prominent place, for public display. The headsman certainly didn’t have an easy life. Usually, headsmen were big, beefy fellows with black masks or hoods over their faces. This was to protect their identity from people who might resent having the condemned lose their heads. Once the ordeal was over, however, the headsman did get to keep any clothes that the deceased had. And before the deed was done, he might even get a fat tip from the condemned nobleman, who wanted a quick, clean (so to speak), job.


Although still in common practice today in some countries, hanging was the standard execution for most capital crimes such as murder or rape (then called something pretty and euphamistic like ‘unlawful carnal knowledge’). Hanging involved a scaffold (called a ‘gallows’) and a length of rope, done up in a distinctive ‘noose’ knot. Everyone thinks hanging is simple – you tie a rope around the guy’s neck and let him dangle, but there was actually a fair bit of skill to making someone cark it through hanging. Factors influencing how the hanging was to be done included the weight of the victim, the type of neck he or she had, the type and length of rope and the length of the drop. The ‘drop’ is the distance between the victim and the ground. But casting aside all the technical tiddlybits, this is how it was done:

The noose was put over the victim’s neck and done up nice and tight, with the knot draped over one of his or her shoulders. The victim was allowed to say a few last words, and then a lever was pulled. The lever opened a trapdoor under the victim’s feet. their own body-weight sent them down, the noose tightened…and the job was done. Despite what you might see in movies, the point of hanging was not actually to strangle the victim. If a condemned prisoner was strangled from the hanging, it was considered a botched job. The point of a successful hanging was to actually break the neck. Since it’s harder to break someone’s neck than it is to strangle them, you can now kinda see why it was such a technical job, involving weights, distances, neck-thicknesses, lengths of rope and all that other stuff.

The Brazen Bull

One of the lesser-known methods of execution. And probably just as well. The Brazen Bull was invented in ancient times, and it worked by throwing the victim into a hollow statue of a bull made of brass (hence the name). Once the victim was inside, the door at the top of the bull was locked and a fire was lit under the bull’s belly. The metal absorbed the heat and the inside of the bull soon became absolutely roasting hot. As the victim screamed, his voice would come out of the bull’s mouth, making it sound like a bull’s bellowing. Eventually the heat got so extreme that the victim was literally cooked to death.


Impalement is best known today due to the actions of a certain, 15th century nobleman known today by the various names of…Vlad Tepeche…Vlad the Impaler…or…Vlad Dracula. Vlad Tepeche or Vlad Dracula (‘Dracul’ = Dragon. ‘Dracula’ = Son of the Dragon) was a Wallachian nobleman who was infamous for killing anyone and everyone who stood in his way, by his favoured method of execution – impalement, from which he recieved his epithet – Vlad the Impaler.

Impalement was barbaric at the very least, but Vlad didn’t care. He impaled thousands of his own people – Men, women and children, for the pettiest of crimes. Usually, the sharpened, wooden stake was driven through the victim’s abdomen and he or she was then hoisted up and put up in the air, being left to slowly bleed to death. Even worse was that sometimes, the stake was inserted up the anus, to come out the mouth. Either way, it was a very slow way to die. The stakes were cut so that the victim didn’t die immediately from shock. Instead, they’d die from a combination of starvation, blood-loss and exposure in an execution that could take hours…days…even weeks. It’s probably not surprising to know that Vlad Tepeche was universally hated. In the end, he was captured by frustrated Wallachians who had had enough of him, and he was dispatched from our world as he had done with so many others – by impalement.

Hanging, Drawing and Quartering.

The ultimate medieval execution. And for good reason, too, when you find out just what it involves. Hanging, drawing and quartering was the punishment used for those people who had committed the crime of High Treason, meaning a crime against the country, or even worse…against the reigning monarch. Elizabeth I of England wrote down once, specifically what hanging, drawing and quartering meant…those with weak stomachs, or who have just finished a significant meal…click to another web-page now.

The victim was first hung, much like how everyone else was hung (see above), only in this instance, the goal of the hanging was not to break the victim’s neck, but rather to bring on unconsciousness through lack of oxygen. Once this was achieved, the victim was cut down and then came the next stage.

To be drawn. According to historical records, to be ‘drawn’ meant to have your abdomen literally drawn open, like a zip-fastener. The executioner took out a knife and opened you up from the ribcage down to the bellybutton. Your intestines were heaved out and burned on a brazier. Your genitals were removed and also burned. Your heart (still beating), was cut out of your body and held up, and the executioner would say: “Behold the heart of a traitor!”

By this time, you’re probably dead (remember, you’re awake during all this). Once you were dead, your body was quartered.

Quartering meant decapitation, followed by chopping off your limbs (arms and legs), so that you made up four ‘quarters’. These would then be posted around the community so that everyone could see you (or…part of you), and know what you had done.

Despite how horrific hanging, drawing and quartering was, it was an accepted part of life in the United Kingdom for centuries, and at least from the 1500s to the 1700s. Samuel Pepys, the famous 17th century London diarist, wrote of such an execution in his personal diary:

    “I went out to Charing Cross, to see Major-general Harrison hanged, drawn, and quartered; which was done there, he looking as cheerful as any man could do in that condition. He was presently cut down, and his head and heart shown to the people, at which there was great shouts of joy.”

Samuel Pepys.
Diary, Saturday, Oct. 13th, 1660.

Signed, Sealed and Delivered: Sealing Wax and other Fancy Stuff


I’ll wager most of you have heard of the phrase: ‘Signed, sealed and delivered’, yes? Meaning that something is finished, over and done with and out of your hair? Completed and a load off your chest? The ‘signed’ and ‘delivered’ parts are obvious. A signed document which was delivered safely to its intended location. But what of ‘sealed’?

I wasn’t able to track down the history of this phrase, but I’d guess that it goes back centuries, back to when seals and sealing-wax and sealing-stamps were still mandatory desktop accessories, much like the inkwell, blotting paper or ponce-pot. Seals were common fixtures to documents or parcels from their creation, centuries ago, right up into the 19th century, when they slowly died out.

What is a Seal and why were they used?

A seal is either a mark of authority or, more commonly, a mark of identification and an anti-tampering device. Usually, a seal is your coat of arms or, if you did not have a coat of arms, then your seal was your monogram (initials). The reason seals were created was to protect important documents or packages from being tampered with and to provide evidence to the recipient of said document, if it had. To understand why seals existed, you have to understand that until fairly recently, the modern postal system as we know it, simply did not exist. Back in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, if you had to send a letter or an important document to a friend who lived several miles away, the only way to do it was to entrust your important letter or document to a messenger, who would be paid to deliver the message on horseback.

If the document was very important or private in nature, there might be people out there who would not want the document to reach its intended recipient, or, they might want to find out the contents of the document before the recipient had a chance to open it himself. Another possibility is that the messenger himself might want to know the contents of your document and might ride off with it or deliver it to an anauthorised third party.

Given all these security risks, letter-writers who needed or wanted to keep the contents of their letters and documents secret, and between themselves and their correpondents, would put wax seals on their documents before sending them off to be delivered. The seals were always placed on the document in such a manner that it would be impossible to read the document, without first breaking the seal. Usually, the seal was done on a fold in the paper, on the flap of an envelope or over a bow or ribbon tied around a package. Traditional sealing-wax is very dry and brittle. Once the seal is made and set hard, it cannot be removed without breaking it to pieces. Recieving a letter or other document with the seal broken would mean that someone had read the contents before you had.

Simply gluing or licking an envelope-flap shut was not considered security enough back in the 16 and 1700s. Envelope-flaps can be eased open with a bit of hot steam from a boiling kettle and the document can be opened and then just as easily, reglued shut again, and the recipient would be none the wiser. And you can steam an envelope open – I’ve done it myself – and when you see how easy it is to do, you’ll understand why people used seals instead.

How a Seal is Made

Seals are pretty things, aren’t they? Well…they are, if you know how to make one properly. It can be a bit tricky, as it involves molten wax, an open flame and a sealing-device. The last thing you want is your precious will, house-deed or letter containing your secret plans, to go up in flames! So, how is it done?

Well first, with great care.

1. Having finished writing and signing your document, you folded it up in such a way that once folded, a central flap was created in the middle of the folded piece of paper, for example, by folding the bottom of the letter up 1/3 of the way and folding the top of the letter down 1/3 of the way, so that they met neatly in the middle of the sheet.

2. Once the paper is folded and you’re satisfied it’s not going to move, you got out a stick of sealing-wax, of a colour of your choice. Stereotypically, sealing-wax is always red, but any number of colours can be used. You hold the stick of wax over the centre of your document, where the two edges of the paper meet and then you start to melt the wax.

3. Melting the wax is a tricky process that requires some practice. Using either a candle, a cigarette lighter or matches (at least six), you apply an open flame to the tip of the wax-stick so that the wax heats up until it’s in a liquid state. The wax will now drip onto the paper. Since sealing-wax is rather dry, this can take a while to happen…be patient. Some sticks of wax come with a wick inside them, like a candle. If that’s the case, you can just light the stick like an ordinary candle and tip it upside down to let the wax drip onto the paper.

Sticks of sealing-wax with a pair of stamps and seals.

4. Once a suitable amount of wax has dripped onto the paper, roll the stick of wax around in your fingers (to prevent any stray drippings of wax from falling onto the paper), blow out, or put away your flame and pick up your sealing-device. Do not apply the device directly to the wax after melting it! In its current state, it’s still far too liquid in consistency, and all you’ll get is a big, fat nasty waxy smudge.

5. When the wax starts solidifying, press your sealing-device firmly and evenly into the middle of your pool of wax. Then, slowly lift it up, off the wax. If you’ve done it correctly, you should now have a nice, neat, wax seal.

6. If you’re doing more than one seal, be sure to clean the base of your sealing-device before using it again. This can be done by wiping it down with water to clear away any wax or oil that might have stuck to the underside of your sealing-device.

What can you use to make a seal?

These days, people use coins or other, highly-decorative items to be pressed into sealig-wax to create seals. Coins are popular because they have the heads of monarchs, or national coats of arms or emblems on them. But what did people use traditionally?

Back in the days when you had to have a seal on your letter for security reasons, you most likely had your own sealing-stamp. A sealing-stamp is a stamp with your coat of arms or your monogram engraved in reverse, on the bottom of the stamp so that when it was pressed into the wax, it left a clear impression of your coat of arms or your initials.

A sealing-stamp with the letter ‘A’ engraved in its base.

The other common sealing-device was your signet-ring. ‘Signet’ comes from the Latin word meaning ‘sign’, from which we also get the word ‘signature’. So it was literally your ‘signature-ring’, the device you used to sign all your important documents. Not many people wear signet-rings anymore, but they used to be very common. A signet-ring is basically a portable sealing-stamp. Such rings were large, and had your coat of arms or your monogram engraved on the top. To use your ring, you removed it from your finger and pressed it into the wax, much like the sealing-stamp. Some rings were specially made so that you could press the ring into the wax without having to remove it from your hand, and without fear of getting hot wax on your fingers.

A gold signet-ring with the family crest and motto engraved in it in reverse, so that it comes out, right-way-around when pressed into a pool of wax.

Once the seal was made and imprinted, it dried hard and brittle and it would keep the letter or document closed and would provide clear evidence to the recipient if the document had been opened prior to reaching him, due to the fact that once a seal is broken, it is impossible to put it back together. A new one has to be made, with the same sealing-device. Since the unintended recipient probably didn’t have this device with him, tampering of a document was immediately obvious.

“Avoiding it like the Plague: The Horrors of the Black Death”


Swine Flu, Bird Flu, Flu-Flu, Spanish Flu, Yellow Fever, Typhoid, Typhus, Consumption and Polio. All famous diseases, and all, in their respective eras, the unseen terrors of mankind. In the 21st Century, it’s swine flu and bird flu. In 1918, it was the dreaded ‘Spanish Flu’. In 1793, it was Yellow Fever and in the 1930s, it was Polio. But these, now largely treatable and preventable diseases, pale in comparison to the Granddaddy of all sicknesses, the very name of which, brave people dared not to speak. They called it ‘the pestilence’, ‘the sickenesse’ (original, 17th century spelling), ‘the plague’ and ‘The Black Death’.

Known to modern, medical science by the name ‘Yersinia Pestis’, Bubonic Plague, often shortened to ‘the plague’ or ‘the Black Death’, was one of the most feared diseases for hundreds and hundreds of years. From as far back as the 14th century, people lived in horror of another, unannounced and unstoppable outbreak of a disease so lethal, it could kill within hours. Such was the Plague’s ferocity and fear-factor that even today, a phrase which has its origins from over 700 years ago, still lingers in the English language today: “To avoid it like the Plague”.

The History of the Black Death.

The Black Death has been known to mankind for centuries. The most famous outbreak of the Black Death started in the 1340s, not ending until 1350. Over the course of three years, the dreaded ‘Plague’ killed as much as two thirds of the people of Europe, in some cases, killing every single person in a given community. But where did it come from?

The pandemic of 1347 is widely believed to have started in Asia, possibly China or Hong Kong. The plague bacterium, living in infected fleas which lived on rats, crossed the seven seas on ships which sailed from Asia to Europe, trading goods such as precious metals, cloth and spices. When the ships docked in Italy and Greece, they were ordered to be quarantined, when it was seen, what terrible health the ship’s crews were in, but it was too late. Rats onboard the plague ships scampered onto European shores, along the mooring-ropes of the ships, tied up in the harbour. Once with a toe-hold in Mediterranian Europe, the plague was unstoppable.

Such was the plague’s ferocity, that until fairly recently, it never fully went away. The worst years were from 1347-1350, but the plague came back again in the mid 1400s and almost every successive generation since. In 1665 it returned again, devastating several major cities in England, especially London, killing up to 100,000 Londoners, roughly 1/3 of the city’s population at the time.

It wasn’t until the 19th century, with improved hygeine, that the plague, in urban areas, at least, started to disappear. Eventually, the link with rats was established, and rat-catchers could make big bucks sweeping through houses and catching rats and killing them. But until modern antibiotics, the plague had a mortality rate in the high ninties for every outbreak that occurred.

What is the Plague?

The plague is a bacterial infection. The bacterium known as ‘Yersinia Pestis’ lives in the fleas on rats. When the rat dies, the flea has to find a new host-body. If it was a human, then the flea would bite the human, vomiting infected blood (previously from the rat), into the human’s bloodstream. There were two forms of the plague, the more famous ‘Bubonic Plague’, and the less well-known ‘Pneumonic Plague’, both of which are lethal. After being bitten by the flea, nfection follows very quickly. If I were to describe the symptoms of the plague in one word, it would be: “Horrific”.

And they were.

The Symptoms.

Once bitten by an infected flea, you could expect to be dizzy, faint, feverish, weak, fatigued and queasy. As the infection grew worse, large lumps filled with blood and pus would start to grow around your pelvis, armpits and neck. These were called ‘buboes’. Filled with blood and pus as they were, they turned the skin a dark red which eventually went black, which gives rise to the two names: ‘Bubonic Plague’ and ‘Black Death’. Other symptoms included uncontrollable vomiting and joint-pains.

The swellings were incredibly painful. When they burst, blood and pus went everywhere. The infection soon got even worse, though, and not long after, you’d be suffering from internal bleeding which resulted in dark bruises all over your body. When the infection reached your lungs, you coughed up pus and blood. If this was the pneumonic strain of the disease, your coughing spread the bacteria through the air, infecting anyone stupid enough to stand near to you. While in some places, it is written that you could last up to a week, in most cases, death came in a matter of hours. Usually, twenty-four hours after being bitten, you were dead. If you were really lucky, you lasted two days, but not much more beyond that.

Controlling the Plague.

In the days before hospitals, before PA announcements, the internet, modern medicine and widespread literacy, controlling the spread of the plague and enforcing the laws regarding its containment was very tricky and the methods used were very extreme. People from the 14th to the 17th centuries had almost no idea how disease was spread. Many believed it was due to ‘bad blood’ and that to cure the patient, you had to ‘bleed’ them (a practice that existed right into the dawn of the 19th century!). Bleeding involved making a cut or an incision in the arm of the patient and bleeding out a measured quantity of blood (say, two quarts), and then bandaging the arm up again. It was believed that bleeding the patient removed the ‘bad blood’ and the ‘pestilence’ from the afflicted sufferer and that this would eventually restore the balance of good blood. Unfortunately, all bleeding did was make the patient even weaker and even less able to survive. Treatments such as bleeding and the various quack medicines that people peddled to desperate plague-victims were about as effective as making a frying-pan out of tissue-paper.

What people did understand, however, was that to stop the plague from spreading, they did have to isolate it. If you isolated the sickness, it had nowhere to go, and it would eventually die out with no fresh victims. As a result, officials of all kinds, from priests to city mayors and kings and noblemen, imposed strict quarantines on their communities. Nobody was allowed to enter and nobody was allowed to leave, at least, not without written permission. The houses where plague-victims lived were invariably locked up. The doors were locked and bolted, windows shuttered and the entire house was sealed up. Everyone inside the house (the dying patient as well as his or her family!) was NOT allowed OUT and nobody apart from ‘authorised personnel’ such as plague-buriers, seekers of the dead, plague-nurses or doctors, were allowed in. Houses having the disease were marked with big, red crosses and had to be sealed up for at least two weeks. When the house was declared safe again, a large, white circle was painted around the cross, to indicate that the ‘pestilence’ had left the house. The words ‘Lord have mercy on us’ were usually written on the door as well, as a prayer for the poor souls under house-arrest.

Burying the Dead

Some of you may remember a scene from “Monty Python and the Holy Grail”, with a plague-burier going through a squalid slum in Medieval England, pushing a cart and ringing a bell, calling out the mournful words: “Bring out your dead!”, and then having the corpses of plague-victims dumped onto the cart. This isn’t just fanciful filmmaking. This is what really happened. Plague-buriers and Seekers of the Dead (old women who were paid tuppence for examining dead bodies), went through communities, ringing a bell to signal their approach, and calling out the famous, ever plague-associated catchphrase: ‘Bring out your dead!’.

The dead were usually wrapped in white shrouds (like a body-bag). Once dragged out of the house, they were dumped onto the cart and then wheeled away, often dozens of corpses at a time. Early on in the plague, you could generally get a decent burial, with a priest and a coffin and mourners…but as time went on and the plague got worse and worse, there just wasn’t time for all the pomp and ceremony. Gravediggers who dug massive holes called ‘plague pits’, would help the plague-buriers fling the bodies of the dead into the plague pits. With each layer of bodies, a bucket of crushed lime was thrown over the top, to aid in decomposition, before a layer of soil was thrown over, and then the process was repeated again, with more bodies, until you had this sort of chocolate-and-lime layer-cake of death. There are dozens, hundreds of plague-pits all over Europe and England. The locations of many are lost to history, but occasionally, construction-workers digging the foundations for new buildings or renovating existing buildings, do stumble across the dozens of skeletons of plague-victims, buried on that spot all those centuries ago.

Resistance to the Plague

Despite its incredible mortality rate (which was anywhere from 70-100%), some people actually did survive the plague, despite everyone around them dropping like flies. The most famous case of plague survival is the tiny village of Eyam in Derbyshire, England.

Eyam in Derbyshire, was struck by the Plague in the August of 1665. At the time, the English capital, London, was suffering nearly 1,000 deaths a week from Plague. The Plague came to Eyam in a cart, of all things. A delivery of cloth to the village tailor had plague-infected fleas living in it. When the tailor handled the cloth, he was bitten. Within a week, he was dead. The residents of Eyam, understandably shocked and terrified, at first thought that they should flee. Unsure of what to do, they consulted the village rector, the Reverend William Mompesson. Rev. Mompesson insisted that the best thing to do was to put the entire village on lockdown. A voluntary quarantine to prevent the disease’s spread to nearby communities.

A nearby nobleman, catching wind of the villagers’ determination to contain this most dreaded of diseases at all costs, agreed to send deliveries of food and basic medicines to the village, at great risk to his own life. The supplies were left on the outskirts of the village at nightfall and Eyam residents would go out, under cover of darkness, to retrieve them. The supplies were paid for with coins soaked in vinegar, as it was believed that vinegar (being acidic), would kill off the ‘pestilence’ and sterilise the coins, making them safe to touch by others.

The plague raged through Eyam for months on end, in some cases, killing entire households. Stories told of women such as Elizabeth Hancock, who buried her entire family of six sons and her husband, all within a week, and yet never falling sick herself. Another tale tells of another woman, driven mad by the death of her husband, who ran downstairs one evening and consumed an entire jug (or at least a great quantity) of…bacon fat! Whether or not bacon fat is a cure for the plague, I don’t know, but the story continues that she survived. The village gravedigger, despite handling and burying upwards of 250 plague-corpses, never fell ill himself.

Today, Eyam is still famous as the Plague Village, and descendants of the 1665 plague-survivors, still reside there, over 300 years after their ancestors fought and won a battle against one of the most dangerous diseases ever known to mankind. Genetic research in the village (using DNA samples from residents who can reliably trace their ancestry back to a village resident of 1665), has revealed that these villagers…and their incredibly lucky ancestors…contained a genetic mutation which gave them a natural resistance to the plague, which explains why, despite being literally surrounded by death for well over a year, they never succumbed to the diseaase themselves.

The Plague Today

Believe it or not, but the Black Death still exists today. It never really died out, it just went away, waiting to come back, unannounced, to wreak havoc on mankind yet again. The World Health Organisation still records hundreds of cases of Plague each year, but the legendary outbreaks of 1347 and 1665 are now, thankfully, little more than the texts in our history books, since with modern medicine, plague is now treatable and controllable.

“A Generall Bill for this present year, ending the 19th of December, 1665. Report made to the King’s most Excellent Majesty”.

This is the Bill of Mortality for the middle of December, 1665, in London. Down the bottom you can read the entry:


Males: 48,569.
Females: 48,737.
In All: 97,306.
Of the Plague: 68,596”.

Over two thirds of the burials listed were for the Black Death. The Great Plague of London did not finally end until February of 1666, by which point, 100,000 people had died.

The Sinking of the RMS Titanic (Pt. I)


The sinking of the RMS Titanic is one of the most famous disasters in maritime history, or indeed in world history. What made the Titanic so famous? Why was it not just lost to history like so many other maritime disasters and why does it continue to overshadow more recent or more tragic catastrophes at sea?

Probably because the events of the night of the 14th of April, 1912, were so intricately and minutely documented. Because the Titanic was a symbol of progress which literally vanished overnight. Because of the number of famous people onboard who lost their lives. Mr. and Mrs. Straus, Benjamin Guggenheim, John Jacob Astor, who were the Bill Gates’ and Donald Trumps of the the Belle Epoque.

But what really happened on the night of the 14th of April? Who lived? Who died? And what happened onboard the decks of the Titanic as people fought to survive? This posting will be an in-depth look at the events of that infamous night on the north Atlantic. All care has been made to keep this as factually accurate as possible…

Sunday, April 14th, 1912.


The RMS Titanic ending the fourth day of an expected seven-day crossing to New York City from the port of Southampton, in southern England. Onboard ship, everything is calm. Officers go about their rounds, stokers shovel coal into the boilers and passengers relax in their cabins, or in the ship’s many public rooms, enjoying drinks, jazz and classical music or playing cards, before bedtime. 2nd Officer Charles Herbert Lightoller ends his watch and is replaced on the bridge by 1st Officer William McMaster Murdoch. It is freezing cold and the temperature is dropping fast. It’s already at freezing-point. 32F, or 0C. Up in the crow’s nest, lookouts Fredrick Fleet and Reginald Lee replace the previous two lookouts. They are warned to keep a sharp lookout for icebergs.


In the ‘Marconi’ wireless radio room, head wireless-operator Jack Phillips is busy sending telegrams to the wireless land-station located in the lighthouse at Cape Race, Newfoundland, several hundred miles away. He is interrupted in his transmissions by wireless operator Cyril Evans of the S.S. Californian…

“I say old man. We are stopped and surrounded by ice”.
“Shut up, shut up, I am busy. I am working Cape Race!”

Evans, failing to properly prefix his message with the standard “MSG” (Master Service Gram, which would indicate a telegram to be sent directly to the captain), is brushed off by an overworked and frustrated Phillips. He has a massive backlog of messages to hammer out on the telegraph-key, due to the wireless-set breaking down the day before. Phillips disregards Evans’ message and continues transmitting to Cape Race. Evans shuts off his radio and goes to sleep about 11:30pm.


Up in the crow’s nest, lookouts Fleet and Lee spot something large in the distance. It’s enormous, dark blue, and almost impossible to see in the moonless night. It’s an iceberg, less than half a mile away. The Titanic is steaming right for it, at nearly top speed. At 21kt (about 25mph), the Titanic would take up to 850 yards to come to a complete stop. The iceberg is barely 400 yards away. Fleet strikes the crow’s nest bell three times, to signal an obstruction in front of the ship. He picks up the telephone and contacts the bridge. 6th Officer Moody answers the call.

“What do you see?”
“Iceberg, right ahead!”
“Thank you”.

1st Officer Murdoch has already spotted the iceberg. He bellows the order “Hard a’Starboard!” into the wheelhouse. The helmsman, quartermaster Robert Hitchens, turns the wheel hard over, as far as it will possibly go. Murdoch grabs the handles of the two engine-order telegraphs and wrenches the indcator arms to the position: ‘Astern – FULL’. The bells ring and down in the engine-room, the ship’s engineers rush to engage the reversing gear. This isn’t as easy as you might think. The Titanic’s propellers must first come to a complete stop, before the gear is engaged. Steam-pressure has to be built up again before the propellers will start spinning in reverse. This interruption slows down the ship, but also makes it harder to turn. Murdoch activates the switches which close the watertight doors below deck. The ship slams into the side of the iceberg and scrapes past on the starboard side. Below the waterline, the rivets buckle and pop under the force of the impact with the iceberg. The steel, made brittle by the freezing Atlantic Ocean, opens up and water comes gushing into the Forepeak, the three forward holds and boiler room #6. Five compartments are breeched. Few passengers are awakened by the collision, which is but a barely-noticable shudder.

Murdoch then orders ‘Hard a’Port’, to swing the Titanic’s stern free of the iceberg to prevent further damage. At this point, Captain Smith comes out on deck. Murdoch explains the situation. Smith orders the engines ‘All Stop’. He orders 4th Officer Joseph Boxhall to go down below to assess any damage. Boxhall comes back up saying that nothing is wrong. Smith sends for the ship’s carpenter and for master shipwright Thomas Andrews to sound the ship (check it for damage). The water is rising very fast. Captain Smith orders the ship’s pumps to be turned on. The pumps are insufficient to cope with the amount of water pouring in, but they buy a few precious minutes of time.

Monday, April 15th, 1912.


By now, the water is pouring into the ship. Capt. Smith orders Jack Phillips, the wireless operator, to radio for help immediately. Phillips puts on his headphones and sends out the following message:

      “CQD DE MGY 41.44N / 50.14W”
    “Calling All Ships. Distress. This Is. Titanic. (Position).”


Phillips sends out another radio message. He includes the new distress-code, ‘SOS’, for the first time in his life. The Titanic was NOT the first ship to send out an SOS distress-call, however:

“CQD CQD SOS DE MGY 41.44N/50.14W”
“Calling All Ships. Distress. Calling All Ships. Distress. SOS. This is. Titanic. (Position)”.

SOS was selected as the radio distress-signal because it was easy to remember and distinctive in Morse Code. In case you ever need to use it, it is:

… – – – … (three short, three long, three short).

By now, two ships have responded. The S.S. Frankfurt and the R.M.S. Olympic, the Titanic’s sister-ship. They are 170 and 500 miles away, respectively.


By pure luck, Phillips manages to contact his friend and fellow wireless-operator, Harold Cottam on the R.M.S. Carpathia, eastbound out of New York City, steaming for the Mediterranean. Cottam was very nearly about to go to bed. He had put on his headphones to listen to the radio while undressing when this message came over the airwaves:

“Come at once. We have struck a ‘berg. It’s a CQD old man. Position 44:41N/50.14W”.

Stunned, Cottam radio’d back:

“I say old man. Do you know that there is a batch of messages coming through for you from MCC?”

(MCC was the callsign for the land-station at Cape Cod, Mass.).

“Shall I tell my captain? Do you require assistance?”
“Yes! Come quick!”

Cottam ran out of his cabin to find 1st Officer Dean of the Carpathia. Together, they ran to find Capt. Arthur Henry Rostron. Rostron orders the ship turned around and to head northwest at full speed (17kt). He orders Cottam to send a radio-message back to the Titanic to find out as much as he can and to tell Phillips they’re coming as quickly as possible. At 58 miles away, it will take the Carpathia up to 4 hours to reach the Titanic.

At the same time, the Titanic’s lifeboats are uncovered, swung out and lowered level with the Titanic’s boat-deck. Passengers are ordered out on-deck. Capt. Smith orders “women and children first” into the lifeboats. The order “women and children first” was meant to be that women and children entered the boats first, and any remaining men were to head in afterwards to fill in the gaps. Unfortunately, some officers misinterpreted the order as “women and children ONLY”, which possibly led to the needless deaths of men later on. The Titanic has 20 lifeboats – 16 wooden ones and 4 collapsable ones with canvas sides.


The Carpathia has turned around and is steaming towards the Titanic as fast as possible. Cottam wires back to Phillips:

“Putting about and heading for you”.


The first lifeboat (starboard boat #7) is loaded with people. The 65-seat boat is loaded with only 28 passengers. The order is given to lower away at 12:45, one hour and five minutes after the sinking began. Every other boat is loaded and launched thereafter, at roughly ten-minute intervals. At 12:55, the second boat (starboard #5) is lowered. 5th Officer Harold Godfrey Lowe is interrupted by the White Star Line’s managing director, Joseph Bruce Ismay, who insists that the boats must be loaded and lowered as quickly as possible. Lowe, already on-edge and irritable, loses his temper at Ismay and shouts:

“You want me to lower away quickly!? You’ll have me drown the lot of them!”


On the port (left) side of the Titanic, lifeboat #6 is being lowered away. It contains such notables as Fredrick Fleet, the lookout, Robert Hitchens, the quartermaster and helmsman at the time of the collision and Margret ‘Molly’ Tobin Brown, the ‘Unsinkable’ Molly Brown. Halfway down, it’s noted that there aren’t enough sailors in the boat to row it. Canadian major Arthur Peuchen, an expert yachtsman, offers his services. Lightoller, the loading-officer, looks at Peuchen a bit skeptically.

“Are you a seaman?”

      Lightoller asks.

“I’m a yachtsman”.
“Well if you’re seaman enough to go down those falls, you can go”.

Peuchen grabs hold of the falls (the ropes which lower the boat down the side of the ship) and climbs down safely into boat #6.

In the early stages of the sinking, many boats left the Titanic half-full. Passengers were unwilling to board the boats. For an explanation about why the boats were launched half-full, see “Questions and Statements about the Titanic”.


Lifeboat #1 (starboard) is lowered. Only twelve people occupy a boat meant to hold 40. Sir Cosmo Duff-Gordon, Lady Duff-Gordon, his secretary, seven crewmembers and another two first-class passengers were all that were to be loaded into this boat. For the rest of his life, Sir Cosmo would try unsuccessfully to clear his name from cowardice and accusations of bribing the members of the crew in the boat, from going back to the site of the sinking to rescue survivors in the water.

The Titanic continues to sink faster and faster. More boats are lowered with more passengers now.

1:30, 1:35am.

Lifeboats #13 & 15 (starboard) are lowered. Both of them are fully-loaded. The discharge-pipe which is forcing out water from inside the ship threatens to fill boat 13 with water. Crewmembers push the boat away from the side of the ship with their oars. When they land in the water, the discharge-water from the ship sends the boat sliding underneath boat 15. Quick thinking and a sharp knife to cut the falls prevents a disaster. Lifeboat 13 rows away just in time and boat 15 lands safely in the water alongside it.

It is now obvious that the Titanic is sinking. Passengers begin to panic. 5th Officer Harold Godfrey Lowe lowers lifeboat 14 on the port side. He fires his revolver at least three times to maintain crowd-control as angry and terrified male passengers try to swarm his already fully-loaded lifeboat.

As the night goes on, distress-rockets are fired. Phillips continues to radio desperately for help. The ship’s band, the Wallace Hartley Quintet, plays ragtime and classical music to try and calm the passengers. Mrs. Ida Straus gets into a lifeboat. When her husband tries to get in and is pushed back by the loading-officer, Mrs. Straus gets out of the boat, famously proclaiming to her husband:

“Where you go, I go”.

Mr. and Mrs. Isador Straus, owners of ‘Macy’s’ department-store in New York City, drown on the Titanic.

In the radio-room, Phillips continues to transmit Morse Code over the airwaves. His latest message:

“Women and children in the boats. Cannot last much longer”.


Collapsible C is lowered. White Star Line’s Joseph Bruce Ismay boards this boat, an action that will destroy his reputation for the rest of his life.


Two hours and five minutes after impact. Water covers the Titanic’s nameplate. It pours onto the deck and the bow plunges deeper. Water pours into the foward well-deck. Time is beginning to run out. Phillips transmits the following message to Cottam on the Carpathia:

“Come as quickly as possible, old man! Our engine-room filling up to the boilers!”

    (Captain Smith had recently informed Phillips of this fact, having gone down a few minutes before, to check on the water-level inside the ship).

The Titanic has just over half an hour left afloat. Master shipwright Thomas Andrews urges passengers to put on their lifebelts and to board the lifeboats as quickly as possible.


Lifeboats continue to be lowered at roughly 5-10-minute intervals. The Titanic starts a noticable list to port. The water onboard ship is causing it to lose its center of balance.


Collapsible D is launched from the Titanic. She is the last lifeboat to be successfully lowered. Water is pouring into the promenade area on A Deck. The ship starts sinking even faster. Soon, water makes it to the wheelhouse and the forward boat-deck. Officers begin to panic and try desperately to launch collapsible lifeboats A and B, stored upside down on the roof of the officer’s quarters. Seamen try to slide the boats down on planks propped up against the walls, but the port list makes this difficult at best. Collapsible B falls over upside down. Passengers manage to get Collapsible A upright and partially loaded. The rapidly rising water causes the boat to be flooded and it floats off with about two dozen people onboard.


The ship’s electrical generators are beginning to struggle. The Titanic’s electricians run around trying to stop the generators from short-circuiting from the water. Phillips continues to hammer out Morse Code messages on his now, barely-functioning wireless-set. The current is weak and his messages are garbled and broken up. He sends:

“SOS SOS CQD CQD DE MGY. We are sinking fast. Passengers are being put into boats.”

Outside, passengers climb down the empty lifeboat-falls into the water and swim for nearby lifeboats. Survivors in the boats help swimmers in and watch, horrified as the ship’s stern rises out of the water. The rudder and the three propellers are now clearly visible. Passengers who jump from the ship wearing lifebelts risk broken necks as they hit the water. Their downward momentum sends their bodies down into the water, but the boyant, cork-padded lifebelts pop upwards, hitting them on their chins, whipping their heads back and breaking their necks.

In the First-Class Smoking-Lounge, a steward escaping the rising waters, finds Mr. Thomas Andrews, the Titanic’s shipwright, standing in front of the fireplace, staring at the painting over the mantelpiece, “Approach to Plymouth Harbour”. The steward asks Mr. Andrews if he’s even going to make a try for it. Andrews, who isn’t even wearing a lifebelt, probably suffering from shock and wracked by guilt, doesn’t respond. The steward flees, leaving Andrews to his fate.


Phillips continues to transmit. His last message:


At this point, the wireless-set finally packs up. Try as he might, Philllips cannot get it to turn back on. According to Bride at the inquest, Phillips had intended to send:

“Calling All Ships. Distress. This is. Titanic.

With the wireless set dead, Phillips and Bride turn to flee. They beat up a stoker who sneaks into the wireless-room, trying to steal Phillips’s lifebelt. Both men put on their belts and run out of the room. Bride helps the crew and 2nd Officer Charles Lightoller in launching Collapsible boat B. Phillips heads aft. The forward smokestack collapses into the water. It kills several struggling swimmers and it washes lifeboats A and B clear of the ship. Struggling to hold onto the slippery, overturned Collapsible B are about 30 men, a mixture of passengers and crew.


1st Class Passenger Jack Thayer Jnr (aged 17) and his friend, Milton Long, jump from the Titanic’s upper decks. Thayer never sees Long ever again. Jack swims through the frigid, 28F, -2.2C water until he reaches Collapsible B, which was overturned by the wash from the falling forward smokestack. He is met by wireless operator Harold Bride, who helps him aboard.


The lights flicker once and go out. The Titanic breaks in two, right down to the keel. The stern falls back and the bow plunges down. As the bow sinks, it pulls the stern vertical. It detataches and then sinks like a stone. The stern floats for a few seconds before finally filling with water and plunging down into the sea. The Titanic is gone. Over 1,500 passengers are still thrashing in the freezing water, begging for rescue. Most are dead within 20 minutes.

The Sinking of the RMS Titanic (Pt II)


Continued from Part I, above.


Onboard the overturned Collapsible B, 2nd Officer Charles Herbert Lightoller takes command. Spreading the men out along the overturned boat, he’s able to keep the boat from flipping over and sinking, and helps more passengers onboard. Along with the few who grabbed on when the ship sank, Lightoller is soon joined by wireless operators Phillips and Bride, 1st Class Passenger Jack Thayer Jnr, ship’s cook George Maynard and chief baker Charles Joughin. Joughin is unique amongst the passengers of the Titanic in that he entered the water completely stinking drunk. When the ship was sinking, he consumed his entire private stash of brandy and whiskey before leaving his cabin. He rode the stern of the ship down and described it as being like in an elevator. He stepped off the ship and into the water without, so he claimed, even getting his hair wet. He then swam over to Collapsible B where his colleague and friend, Maynard, held onto his hand while Joughin bobbed in the water for up to an hour before being hauled safely aboard the lifeboat when another passenger died from exposure.

A little further away, 5th Officer Lowe gathers some lifeboats together. He redistributes passengers and rows back to the site of the sinking to search for survivors. Throughout the sinking and throughout the night, roughly a dozen people are pulled out of the water. Nearly half of them later die from exposure and hypothermia. Amongst them is wireless-operator Jack Phillips.

Throughout the night, Lightoller talks to the people onboard his boat, to keep them awake. Their delicate balancing-act on the overturned Collapsible B is the only thing preventing them from all faling into the water and losing the boat for good. He asks Bride how long the Carpathia would take to arrive. Bride estimates another one hour. In lifeboat #6, QM Robert Hitchens comes under heavy criticism by the women passengers, whom he would not allow to row back to the Titanic to pick up survivors. He continues to mope and grumble throughout the night, arguing frequently with Molly Brown. At one point he even swore at her. Considering that Brown was a girl who came from a working-class background and who married into wealth, she barely batted an eyelid. Instead, she coolly replied that she would tip Hitchens out of the boat if he didn’t shut up. Hitchens sat at the back of the boat for the rest of the night, not talking to anyone.


The R.M.S. Carpathia reaches the exact spot given by Phillips. There’s nothing there. No boats. No ship. No bodies. Nothing. Captain Rostron, who has steamed through the night at top speed through an ice-field at great risk to his life and the lives of his passengers and crew, begins to worry. He orders distress-rockets to be fired to signal his ship’s presence and location. In the lifeboats, Titanic’s survivors notice the rockets. They burn pieces of paper and articles of clothing such as hats and scarves, to send out smoke and fire-signals to indicate their presence and position and start rowing towards the Carpathia. 4th Officer Boxhall releases a green smoke-flare to attract further attention.


The first lifeboat pulls up alongside the Carpathia. Carpathia’s officers and crew help survivors out of the boats with rope ladders and slings. They are served hot drinks and food and crewmembers start taking down the names of survivors.


The last of the Titanic’s boats has finally been offloaded. The Carpathia carries 705 survivors. She steams off to New York City. Nearby, the wireless-operator of the S.S. Californian has just woken up and radios to the Carpathia to ask if there’s anything he can do to help. Despite severe frostbite to his feet, surviving wireless-operator Harold Bride helps his colleage, Harold Cottam, in working his wireless-set, transmitting lists of survivors to New York. Joseph Bruce Ismay sends the following telegram:

    “Deeply regret advise you Titanic sank this morning after collision with iceberg, resulting in serious loss of life. Full particulars later.”