Grass always covers the graves

Tryon was held entirely responsible for the greatest peacetime disaster in the history of the Royal Navy

Robert Fisk

20 March 2005

We journalists are students of human folly. Palestine, Iraq, the Gulf, Persia; for more than a hundred years, our Western meddling in the Middle East falls under that label "folly". A "foolish ... and expensive undertaking that ends in disaster" is how one dictionary defines this. I suspect it also contains an unhealthy mix of vanity and hubris.

A few days ago, standing on the wave-thrashed rocks above the old Lebanese Crusader port of Enfeh -- yes, Richard the Lionheart (he who spoke French, not English) spent a night here to escape the storms -- I was able to contemplate that the most sublime as well as the most ridiculous folly always seems to occur at sea. For just as Captain Smith insisted on steering the Titanic at full speed into the North Atlantic ice in 1912 because he wanted to impress the Americans with her speed, so -- 19 years earlier -- Vice Admiral Sir George Tryon of HMS Victoria, not far from where I was standing, decided to put the Royal Navy's Mediterranean fleet through the fastest and most dangerous naval manoeuvres known to man in order to impress the Ottoman Turks.

Off Enfeh today, the wind cracks off the sea -- I've noticed how the treacherous tides here always make the sea heave in small mountains down the coast -- but Christian Francis, a Lebanese-Austrian diver, still sets off daily from a semi-derelict hotel to look at the wreck he has discovered 480 feet beneath the surface. His enthusiasm -- for history as much as for diving -- is infectious and he happily printed off for me the one thing I more and more come to love in journalism: archives, papers, the official records that the "centres of power" produce to justify their folly -- or to pass the buck. In this case, the whole sorry story was contained in the Royal Navy's court-martial proceedings of 1893 "to enquire into the loss of Her Majesty's Ship Victoria". Tryon, it appears, was a Smith in the making.

A stern disciplinarian -- "taciturn" and "difficult" were among the lesser characteristics that his subordinates identified in him -- he also had, like Smith, a reputation as a fine seafarer; he was, in fact, every schoolboy's nightmare, an impressive man who wanted obedience rather than initiative. So when on 22 June 1893 -- with the Ottomans watching from the ancient city of Tripoli to the east -- Tryon ordered his two fleets of 11 ships to turn 16 points and sail at speed towards each other, none of his subordinates said a word. At the last moment, the ships were supposed to turn again and sail alongside each other in the opposite direction. Tryon's men were too fearful to question this insanity.

One who hesitated was his deputy, Rear-Admiral Albert Markham, aboard HMS Camperdown; he received a testy flag message from his commander: "What are you waiting for?" With Aeschylian inevitability, the 14 000 horsepower, 11 000-ton Victoria -- one of the first British ironclads and the first naval vessel to be built with a steam turbine -- collided with Camperdown, which tore into Tryon's ship 12 feet below the waterline, opening a 28ft gash in her hull.

Last words are a journalist's favourite weapon against the dead, and the Admiralty provides us with a couple of classics to run alongside Smith's remark to the Titanic's owner after colliding with the iceberg: "Well, you'll get your headlines now, Mr Ismay."

In Tryon's case, surrounded by his appalled but silent junior officers as the Camperdown bore down upon him, the Vice-Admiral shouted: "Go astern, go astern." And then, as his great ship shuddered with the impact and began to turn over, his boilermen, doomed as they vainly tried to keep the Victoria heading back to the coast, and his deck crew drowning as the vessel rolled over on top of them, Tryon announced -- and you can imagine the Blair-like relief of the Admiralty -- "It's all my fault." He thus doomed himself forever as the man who took his flagship to the bottom.

Watching from the shore, the Ottomans were indeed impressed. In all, 358 British seamen were killed, including Tryon, who was held entirely responsible for the greatest peacetime disaster in the history of the Royal Navy.

Disgrace in a land battle or in the air is somehow mitigated by time. Grass, as the American poet Carl Sandberg observed, always covers the graves. Aircraft fragments disintegrate in the air. But beneath the seas, like the Titanic, our folly remains sacrosanct and eternal. For young Christian Francis, provoked by old fishermen's stories and the Admiralty documents he read in the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich, has found Tryon's flagship 480ft down, remarkably intact and -- even more extraordinary -- standing vertical, its bows buried deep in the Mediterranean seabed, its huge twin propellers pointing upwards and illuminated by the faint Mediterranean sunlight. Francis works with two British divers and three Poles, and they all produced their amateur videos for me. Shoals of fish sweep past the propellers. I could read the Victoria's name on the stern.

There is Tryon's cabin, the iron landing from which he saw the Camperdown bearing down upon him, the Victoria's 10-inch rear gun still in place, her 12 side-cannons still mounted to repel the Germans she would never fight in the First World War. For Victoria -- how we love the "might-have-beens" of history -- would surely have fought in the Royal Navy's greatest battle of the conflict. Incredibly, Tryon's deputy was none other than John Jellicoe. His escape that day off Lebanon probably did for the German High Seas fleet, when Jellicoe met them off Jutland in 1916.

Francis treats the wreck as a British maritime grave and merely looks through the cabin windows -- there is a silver salver visible through one of them -- but presumes there are still bones, Tryon's included, in the buried part of the Victoria. Poor Tryon. His flagship stands up like a tombstone and it is the only vertical wreck in the world -- nose in the mud, rear in the air forever. But do we learn from it?

Oh do we indeed? I had been talking to the Poles who were diving on the Victoria for an hour before I realised that they were the men who had prowled through the Baltic wrecks of the world's greatest sea tragedies: the Goya, the Wilhelm Gustloff and the General von Steuben.

As many as 18 000 Germans, most of them civilians, went down on these ships -- compare this to the 1500 on the Titanic -- in the frozen winter of 1945 as the Nazis tried to evacuate their people from Danzig before the Soviet advance into Germany. The Russians sank all of them.

One of the Poles punched at his lap-top, and there in front of me were real skulls and bones, a German helmet, a belt, the remains of a shirt. "The Polish authorities wanted to examine a skull and we brought one back to shore," the Pole told me. "It was identified as that of a woman in her thirties."

Hubris again. The helmet was proof that the Wehrmacht was also aboard those vessels. But the majority were civilians and the Russians still idolise the submariners who killed so many civilians at sea between 30 January and 16 April 1945. It puts Admiral Tryon in the shade. A "foolish... and expensive undertaking which ends in disaster" might as well define the human practice of war. The sea can no longer hide its secrets. Our folly is enshrined there -- if we want to examine what it means.

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