Encyclopedia Titanica

The Triumvirate - Review

Captain Edward J. Smith, Bruce Ismay, Thomas Andrews and the Sinking of Titanic

Titanic Review

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Without a doubt, George Behe is one of the most prolific Titanic authors. More than that, he is also among the most respected, known for his friendly, generous nature and a keen eye for detail, with a collection of material that is the envy of many a researcher. 

TriumvirateThe scope of both his work and breadth of his sources is likely thanks to his time spent as the vice president of the Titanic Historical Society and no doubt enhanced by knowing more than a dozen Titanic survivors, some of whom were personal friends. The result has been a plethora of Titanic books ranging from psychic forewarnings to professional gamblers, to a three-volume biography of Archibald Butt.  My personal favourite is On Board RMS Titanic (2012), a collection of letters written on Titanic letterhead, or at least connected with the sinking, availing a unique, unfiltered dive into the thoughts of those who were greatly impacted by the disaster. Behe keeps his commentary to a minimum, with only the odd comment where needed; the letters simply speak for themselves. Behe, of Grand Rapids, Michigan, takes a similar approach with his most recent work The Triumvirate: Captain Edward J. Smith, Bruce Ismay, Thomas Andrews and the Sinking of Titanic (History Press, 2024).

It is an interesting choice of title: "Triumvirate" is an obscure term that does not trip off the tongue with ease (or off a keyboard for that matter) and no doubt has resulted in more than a few Google searches. Such would not normally bode well for publishers eager for a catchy title and goes to show how much faith the History Press has in their author. Of course, the "tri" prefix clearly indicates three. Historically the term "triumvirate" is rooted in ancient Roman political alliances, referring to the three men who wield ultimate authority. The Merriam-Webster dictionary points out that the first triumvirate of the Roman Republic consisted of Julius Caesar, Pompey, and Crassus, while the Cambridge dictionary updates this to Churchill, Truman, and Stalin of post-World War Two Europe. In Behe's world, such power sits on the shoulders of Captain Smith, along with White Star chairman J. Bruce Ismay and Harland and Wolff managing director Thomas Andrews. His objective is to trace the actions of these three men during the voyage and subsequent sinking, hunting down as many sources as possible and in so doing examining their character and reputation - hopefully dispelling some myths along the way. 

This is where Behe excels: the sheer range of references is simply astonishing, fleshing out the characters of these men in a way that has not been sufficiently done before. I am particularly in awe, as I have also been recently tracing as many reports of Smith as I could find and am admittedly a touch envious at some of the intriguing accounts Behe has included. 

It must be noted that it is primarily focused on Captain Smith — not surprising as that was his original objective when he first set out on this project. At times the information on Ismay and Andrews seems more of an afterthought, but when he does turn the spotlight on their activities it is most enlightening. The reports of the work Ismay put into helping load lifeboats help balance the negative view of him allegedly interfering. Some of the letters written by and to Ismay post-disaster are touching and humanise a man who has been unfairly villainised.  

The focus on Captain Smith, from my perspective, makes this work all the more enjoyable. It is quite clear from the varied reports that Smith was held in high esteem and the myth that Smith was in some sort of comatose daze during the evacuation is demolished by the myriads of eyewitness accounts that place him actively investigating the damage and assisting with the loading and lowering of lifeboats, while at the same time balancing it with the need to keep passengers both informed and calm. Behe also executes a breathtaking job of sorting through a huge, confusing jigsaw puzzle of accounts and aligning many with the exact time each lifeboat was lowered, creating a wonderfully detailed timeline.

It is also refreshing that in most cases quotations are written verbatim and have end-note references. Nevertheless, Behe does make a few surprising errors, which curiously reveals he must not have had the work peer-reviewed, as many of these facts have been long established. For example, on page 31 he states that Captain Smith's wife Eleanor and daughter "Helen" (she was actually commonly known as Melville or Mel) paid a brief visit to the Titanic on the morning of April 10 -  sailing day. This is not true. Both Eleanor and Mel gave separate accounts of saying their last goodbyes at their home in Winn Road.  Not to mention that White Star Line rules strictly forbade family visiting on sailing day. On page 38 Behe claims Father Browne took the last known photograph of Captain Smith peering down from the starboard wing bridge at Queenstown. Again this is an error on both counts. It has been well established in previous publications (such as Titanic in Photographs, History Press, 2011) that this photograph was actually taken by Dr William McLean, a Sanitary Surveyor of the Board of Trade at Queenstown from a tender as it approached Titanic - not departing. Additionally, the last known photograph of Smith is of him standing with Purser McElroy outside the Officers’ Quarters on the starboard boat deck.

Behe also states on page 194 that Eleanor wrote a letter to the newspapers expressing her grief. Again, this is not accurate. Eleanor's heartfelt note to fellow mourners was in reality sent to the White Star Line officers in Canute Road, Southampton, where it was posted outside the premises along with other news about those lost and saved. It was a message to her fellow sufferers in Southampton who had gathered desperate for news about their loved ones. Newspapers simply reprinted her note.

These errors are unusual as in other instances Behe is quick to expose the fallibility of some accounts, with entire chapters devoted to "hearsay" accounts. But with one very notable exception.

As inferred by the ancient Roman heritage of the title, Behe is also acutely interested in the debatable arena of responsibility and culpability, placing these men on a hypothetical witness stand and examining whether their historical legacy is fair or not. This is where I feel Behe falters, as his unfortunate bias against Smith is apparent. While he clearly holds Andrews in high esteem and is willing to provide a refreshingly balanced revisionist view of Ismay, it is disappointing he does not similarly do the same for Smith, despite laying all the detailed groundwork for such a logical conclusion. Instead, he goes as far as to insinuate that Smith purposely allowed himself to die due to his "awareness of his unenviable future at the hands of officialdom."

Behe's criticism of the commander is primarily based on an account by first class passenger Elizabeth Lines in which she allegedly overheard Captain Smith and Bruce Ismay discussing speed and an attempt to beat the Olympic by arriving on Tuesday. Regrettably, Behe does not balance the account by informing the reader that Lines did not know what Captain Smith looked like - she was not even sure if he had a beard. Or that she recalled the two having liqueur and cigars and finishing the conversation by saying they would visit the squash courts. These details should immediately flag this account as suspicious. And raises the high probability it was not Smith she overheard, but rather a passenger who was maybe also a captain, for example, 70-year-old Captain Edward Crosby, talking with Ismay.

While focusing on a passenger who admittedly did not know Smith, Behe also completely overlooks the more than a dozen transatlantic captains of similar experience to Smith who testified on two occasions that the Titanic captain was adhering to a standard operating procedure that was (and continues to be) universally followed. Behe rightly asks the reader to come to their own conclusions, but it is rather disheartening that he does not fairly outline balanced evidence upon which to do so. Intriguingly, Behe more than once references that Titanic's older sister ship the Olympic was regularly arriving on a Tuesday evening, which puts the whole claim of speed and records in perspective; rather than "reckless" speed, Smith was likely eager that the Royal Mail cargo and immigrant ship should stay on schedule, as was his remit from the White Star Line, along with instructions to sail the southern track which was designed to avoid ice. In clear conditions maintaining speed was the norm.

Despite this slight bias, Behe does a sterling job in building a far more detailed portrait of these three men than has been made previously. These finer brush strokes help define them as human rather than something of myth and legend. His analysis regarding Smith reaching collapsible B and attempts to save a child are excellent in their detail and it is fascinating that despite independent research we have both come to much the same conclusions.  We owe Behe a huge debt of gratitude for the immense amount of research he has conducted. But more than that, it is his generosity in sharing his collection with the world for which we are truly grateful. I highly recommend this book for any serious researcher -  along with a small word of caution when it comes to his unfortunate framing of Smith towards the end.

As such a prolific author it is exciting to see what book Behe comes up with next. While it seems unlikely that Captain Smith was out to set any “records”, undoubtedly Behe will set a record for the sheer number of Titanic books he has written, of which, quite astonishingly, so many are worthy of inclusion in the library of any serious Titanic aficionado. Now that is a record worth celebrating.

‏The Triumvirate: Captain Edward J. Smith, Bruce Ismay, Thomas Andrews and the Sinking of Titanic
The History Press
304 Pages

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Dan E. Parkes


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Encyclopedia Titanica (2024) The Triumvirate - Review (Titanic Review, ref: #799, published 6 June 2024, generated 18th June 2024 11:42:46 PM); URL : https://www.encyclopedia-titanica.org/the-triumvirate-review.html