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One of the many advantages of the First World War centenary is the number of historical projects that have secured funding and a higher profile than they might otherwise have enjoyed. A fine example of this is the Maritime Archaeology Trust’s Forgotten Wrecks of the First World War programme. I found out a great deal about this through a fascinating talk by Stephen Fisher at Southampton’s Westgate Hall on Thursday 26 January.
The excellent work of Innes McCartny and others to chart the Jutland battleground, the High Seas Fleet at Scapa Flow and the scuttled submarines of Operation Deadlight are relatively well known, but the Maritime Archaeology Trust’s project to chart all the WW1 wrecks off the South Coast of England is no less important.
The talk began with a general background of the First World War at sea, which was welcome not just for setting context but for dealing with various myths and preconceptions that might be harboured. Most striking among these was the revelation that more ships were sunk by submarine in WW1 than WW2 by some 6,800 to 4,000, to take average estimates, despite the later war being thought of as the U-boat war. The sheer weight of statistics was thought-provoking – 12,000 merchant seamen lost with no known grave, 25,000 Royal Navy sailors lost with no known grave. On the Southampton memorial alone, some 2,000 names are recorded.
Not least of these weighty figures was the fact that there are some 1,100 shipwrecks dating from the 1914-18 conflict lying off England’s southern shore from Land’s End to the South Foreland – 1,118 at the last count. Indeed, the map showing the known locations gives the appearance of being absolutely peppered with wrecks. One of the projects aims is to chart each and every one of these sites and visit as many as possible. The project is apolitical and not concerned with national identity. The wrecks are treated the same regardless of nationality. The notion of the war at sea being on Britain’s doorstep in this way does not get a great deal of coverage.
The talk was brought to life by the stories accompanying the wreck sites. These were by turns exciting, saddening and even, on occasion, amusing. One of those that was most poignant was the SS War Knight, a merchant ship that was part of a convoy sailing from New York to the UK in March 1918. This was in the early days of the convoy system when control and discipline had yet to be perfected. The risk of U-boats led to the convoy sailing without lights, and a signal to change course from an escorting destroyer was missed by some of the ships. As a result, War Knight collided with a tanker, the OB Jennings, carrying flammable naptha, which flowed onto the War Knight and ignited, sadly leading to the deaths of all but the engine room crew – there were 11 survivors from a crew of 75. The burning vessel was taken in tow but had to be scuttled in Freshwater Bay off the Isle of Wight, where its remains rest to this day. The fact that the crew of the War Knight who lost their lives are not named on any war memorial – they were deemed to have perished as a result of ‘hazards of the sea’ rather than the conflict itself – makes the project of especial worth in remembering those lost.
Other shipwrecks on the Trust’s database are perhaps not what might first be thought of by the term. For example, the bow of HMS Nubian, blown off by a torpedo, and the stern of HMS Zulu, which suffered a similar courtesy of a mine, lie somewhere on the bottom of the English Channel – the surviving sections of those destroyers were, though, recovered, and combined into a single vessel at Chatham dockyard, to form HMS Zubian. Nubian was even wrecked twice – while under tow it broke free and washed ashore beneath the cliffs of Dover.
Most surprising were some of the wrecks that had been forgotten about despite being in plain sight – the two German destroyers V82 and V44 which remain in the mud off Whale Island, Portsmouth Harbour, within view of the Headquarters of the Royal Navy. These vessels had been interned at the end of the First World War but instead of being scuttled with the High Seas Fleet they were brought to Portsmouth to serve as targets for gunnery experiments. After the conclusion of these, they were beached in the mud and forgotten about until the Maritime Archaeology Trust identified them through study of records at the National Archives. As a result, through matching up damage recorded in the documents, the Trust was able to identify which destroyer was which.
Associated history helps to put everything in context – for example, the incredible Dover Barrage, which placed a barrier of mines and support craft across the Channel, and led to the destruction of UB-81, one of the wrecks recorded by the Trust.
The Trust has done a huge amount to bring these wrecks back to life, through recording the stories associated with them through the archives, and by some spectacular visual means. The project has commissioned painter Mike Greaves to create artworks depicting the vessels as they were in WW1, and the incidents that led to their loss. Even more striking, through advanced software and detailed photography of the sites, the Trust has created astonishing 3D models that can be manipulated and studied from all angles. This is no mean feat given the difficult conditions often to be found in the Channel. The same goes for the detailed site plans the project’s dive teams have created.
The talk concluded with a discussion of the legislation that protects (or in some cases fails to protect) wrecks such as those in the Trust’s database. This is particularly important given the recent news about the desecration of wartime wreck sites in the North Sea and Java Sea. The Protection of Military Remains Act (POMRA) covers a mere five of the 1,118 wrecks recorded by the Trust. The UNESCO convention on protecting underwater heritage promises to provide better cover, but has not yet been ratified by a number of countries, including the UK (though the UK has apparently agreed to abide by its terms and promises a further update later this year). Readers are recommended to write to their Member of Parliament and ask them to recommend that the government ratify the convention.
A visit to the Trust’s project website is highly recommended
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