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The Pre-Dreadnought Revolution
Developing the Bulwarks of Sea Power
By Warren Berry
The History PressCopyright © 2013 Warren Berry,
All rights reserved.
SAILING SHIPS AND SEA POWER
In 1814, after more than twenty long years, the wars that Great Britain and other European nations had fought, firstly with Revolutionary and then with Napoleonic France, came to an end. Where Britain was concerned its navy had been a major participant in those wars as indeed it had been in the associated war with America that had taken place in 1812, and which had resulted in that country winning its independence. During the French wars the officers and men of Britain's navy had built a reputation for their ability to exert command of the sea when this proved necessary, and to fully protect their island nation from any other naval forces that might be directed against it. This enviable position had for the most part been made possible by the stoutness and sea-keeping ability of the British ships, and by sound seamanship and a tradition of victory based on the navy's disciplined fighting ability using the smooth-bore cast-iron guns that formed the armament of the wooden hulled ships in the nation's sailing battle fleet. The apparently unassailable position that Britain thus found herself in was clearly of advantage militarily but, in addition, the resulting control of many of the world's shipping routes meant that the ability to freely trade with her colonies, as well as other countries, rapidly increased both Britain's wealth and her standing as a world trading power.
At the end of hostilities with France the British battle fleet consisted of some 218 line-of-battle ships and around 560 frigates and smaller vessels. In practice though, some of these ships had either been in continuous commission for a long time or had been hastily built during the war years, and were now in need of major repairs. Irrespective of this Britain's six naval dockyards were unable to provide on-demand refitting and repair facilities to the extent that was required, and big backlogs of such work often occurred. There were numerous reasons for this, including poor accessibility to many of the dockyards from the sea, a lack of suitable dry docks and building slipways, a general shortage of storage and undercover working space, and highly labour intensive work processes that were very traditional and often unresponsive to new ideas and technologies. The effect of this was high costs, and repair work that had to be carried out over an extended period, with the result that only a proportion of the fleet could effectively be kept in service at any one time.
But with the ending of the Napoleonic wars the position rapidly changed, for although warships were still required to control trade routes, counter piracy, hunt down slavers, and protect British interests throughout the world, the need for a large and costly battle fleet in the post-war navy no longer existed. The British economy had been sorely affected by the extended war years, which had resulted in a national debt of around £900 million, and Parliament was soon calling for the adverse affects of this to be countered by savings in public spending. As a consequence the Admiralty agreed to maintain a much-reduced peacetime fleet of 100 ships of the line with 160 smaller vessels being retained for use as cruisers and on other support duties. Such a force it was believed would be adequate in use, and in any case would still be superior to the combined forces of the next two largest naval powers, which at this time were Imperial Russia and post-Napoleonic France, a country which on the ending of hostilities still retained many of the ships of its wartime battle fleet. The unwanted British ships were either scrapped or sold, with a proportion of those retained being mothballed and laid up in 'ordinary' rather than being commissioned on active service. The existence of this reserve meant that for the first thirty years of peace very few new ships were built within the British naval establishment. The effect of these savings on the navy's manpower strength was to drastically reduce it over a period of three years from 145,000 to 19,000, a saving of close on 87 per cent.
The line-of-battle ship of the early nineteenth century and the frigates, brigs, schooners, and other smaller warships that together formed the fleet, had changed little in form, construction, and function from those that configured the British navy of a hundred or more years before, and this was true of the naval forces of every nation in the world irrespective of their size, importance, or economic position. Built of wood with masts and sails for motive power and with their muzzle-loading smooth-bore guns all arranged on the broadside, these ships were of near uniform design across all navies in the western hemisphere. There was, however, some variation in classes, with the larger ships having three gun decks and three square-rigged masts that additionally carried some fore and aft sails, whilst intermediate and smaller sizes were provided with one or two decks of guns and relatively fewer masts depending on the size and type of ship. The very smallest vessels were normally rigged with fore and aft sails only, although some square sails were still carried for use, for example when running before the wind.
Ships were rated according to the number of guns they carried, from the large 100-gun and above first rates like HMS Victory, Admiral Nelson's flagship at Trafalgar, through five more classes to the sixth rates of around 20 guns. The biggest size of guns carried were 42-pounders, that is each gun was capable of firing solid shot which individually weighed 42lb. As a result of their great weight and bulk these massive pieces could only be carried on the lower gun decks of the largest ships, and as they were cumbersome and slow to operate, lighter but longer pieces that fired a 32lb shot at a higher muzzle velocity rapidly superseded them as the main armament of line-of-battle ships. In common with all other large guns in use at the time, 32-pounders were each served by up to twelve men who cleaned, loaded (by ramming powder charges and shot down the muzzle), aimed, fired, and controlled the bulky cast-iron pieces on their wood and iron gun carriages or trucks. Although solid round shot was by far the most common projectile used for penetrating a ship's hull, canvas bags of smaller shot known as grape were also used as anti-personnel weapons to clear decks. Double-headed shot consisting of two balls connected by bars or chains were utilised to smash rigging and break masts and spars.
Serving the guns in action was an extremely hazardous and difficult task, especially in the dark, restricted, and claustrophobic space of the lower gun decks of a heaving and rolling sailing warship under battle conditions, where enemy round shot might at any time burst through the near 2ft thick combination of oak planking and frames of the ship's side, flattening all before it and sending a storm of lethal wooden and metal splinters and debris in all directions.
Sailing battle fleets were fought in line ahead, arranged in such a way that ships in the opposing lines sailed close-hauled on opposite tacks with their guns firing on the side nearest their opponents. In this way around half of all the broadside guns could be brought to bear on the opposing ships. Only the largest and most powerful ships were allowed to 'stand in the line', as smaller vessels were unlikely to survive being pounded by an incessant storm of round shot fired at close quarters. This dictum meant that ships with less than 74 guns were precluded from the line and could only act in a support capacity, or else in actions where single or small groups of evenly matched ships opposed each other. Fleet tactics developed over a long period, and although the British sailing battle fleet only fought six decisive battles including Trafalgar in the twenty years of war with France, by the time peace was declared, rigid line-of-battle arrangements had been laid down in Admiralty fighting instructions, and ships' officers were expected to slavishly follow these without showing much in the way of individual initiative, although Nelson and a handful of other commanders appeared to flout such rules on occasion. Whilst tactical 'by the book' control of this type was invariably commonplace in multi-ship actions where the line of battle was used, the captains of frigates and other small ships that often had roving commissions were allowed more individuality, and this was especially the case when such ships were tasked with attacking enemy merchant shipping and engaging any escorts or enemy cruisers that might appear.
In terms of sizes of warships and their associated armaments, there was little to choose between the fleets of Britain and France, although for most of the French wars the British fleet was superior in numbers of ships. By contrast, however, the basic approaches of British and French navies when in action were very different. France often tended to follow a defensive strategy, which involved trying to disable enemy ships by firing at their masts, rigging, and sails, then breaking off action if they felt they could not board the immobilised ship, or were in danger of being overwhelmed themselves. In this fashion French captains sought to preserve their ships in a fighting condition for commerce raiding or for use in further fleet or individual ship actions. The British Navy, on the other hand, took an offensive approach that was highly aggressive and focused on sinking or totally disabling enemy ships by superior gunnery, including heavier broadsides at close quarters, and a more rapid rate of fire. A contemporary French naval historian defined the effect of this approach by noting that it was: 'to this superiority in gunnery that we must attribute most of our defeats since 1793, it is to this hail of cannonballs that England owes her absolute mastery of the seas ... they strew our decks with corpses.'
Although not occurring in every case, such winning actions were made possible by forthright, if sometimes brutal, leadership based on strict discipline, superior drilling and training of seamen, and the generally higher motivation and competitive spirit of the British gun crews, who would eventually share in the not insubstantial prize money that could accrue if an enemy ship was taken or sunk. In Britain legislation and associated administrative processes allowed enemy ships to be captured and sold as prizes as soon as hostilities commenced. The prize money received by the capturing ship as a result was divided in certain set proportions such that the captain received half, the officers and warrant officers received 25 per cent and the crew and marines received the remaining 25 per cent divided equally amongst them. An amount for any admiral on station, and the costs of prize courts and prize agents was met from the captain's share, sometimes significantly reducing it. This apart, an active frigate captain, for example, who often had great autonomy when cruising areas that enemy merchant ships frequented, could, over an extended period, amass a small fortune in prize money as a result of such actions. This did not of course apply in the case of individual sailors, as they all shared their proportion of the prize money with hundreds of others, but even in their case it was quite possible to increase annual wages by at least 50 per cent.
Merchant vessels with saleable cargoes when taken as prizes usually attracted more prize money than captured warships, especially if they were significantly damaged. However, the additional income that arose was still welcomed, and even if the enemy warship was sunk, a proportion of prize money was in many cases still paid, and this was based on the number of crew members originally carried by that class of ship. In the main though, warships taken as prizes were taken into the victor's fleet, and when crewed and provisioned were used against their former owners. In this way frigates in particular sometimes changed hands on more than one occasion, and British officers and crews often prized captured French ships for their speed and manoeuvrability. In most instances though this was not due to French ships being better designed and built, but purely to the fact that British warships tended to be heavier and more strongly constructed than their French counterparts, with a sturdier build and heavier scantlings in their hulls. This was because British ships were built for global service and had to be able to stand up to the worst weather and sea conditions and still survive, whereas the generally faster but more lightly built French ships tended to have more limited roles, being mainly used in coastal and Mediterranean waters.
With the ending of the long wars with France, the British people began to look forward to a period of peace and stability. As a consequence of her actions during the war years, Britain already held a pre-eminent position in Europe, and in addition to her superior naval forces had also been able to build up a strong mercantile marine. Using this position as a base, the British Government soon decided that national interests could best be served in the wider context by developing policies of free trade with each and every one of the world's main trading nations. In doing this it was reasoned that Britain's naval superiority was such that clashes of interest brought about by trying to achieve a trading monopoly at the expense of other countries, as had happened in the past, were not now necessary and would, in fact, be counterproductive. Great Britain would, for the foreseeable future, be at peace with all nations willing to trade with her.
The achievement of this so-called period of Pax Britannica was not only due to superior naval power wielded with restraint by the self-appointed policeman of the world's sea lanes, but was also the result of Britain's increasing commercial and industrial development. This enabled her to take advantage of the ready markets that existed within a growing British Empire, both for her own goods and services as well as those of her erstwhile rivals. If due to Britain's superior position, naval and maritime power was not currently possible for other nations, the growth of free trade meant that they could at least share the economic benefits that the new arrangements made possible. A further advantage, of course, was that costly and resource-consuming military conflicts could now be more readily avoided, although in practice a number of skirmishes and wars of limited objective did occur in the decades that followed the end of hostilities with France. Some of these involved Britain in both military and diplomatic capacities.
In addition to the occasional military adventure and to their trade related policing role, the ships and men of Britain's sailing navy at this juncture were involved in the suppression of piracy and slave trading on a worldwide basis, as well as occasionally being tasked with charting the oceans and coastlines of the world, and with carrying out expeditions and transporting scientific researchers to polar, and other previously unexplored, regions.
Even though such changes in the navy's role were taking place, the day-to-day life of seamen in the early nineteenth century British Navy was still exceptionally hard, having undergone little improvement over the years, and irrespective of the navy's so-called 'habit of victory'. Harsh discipline, brutal treatment, and poor working and living conditions were still all too common maladies that affected the service and the way it operated. Changing attitudes and expectations within both the officer class and the navy's rank and file, as well as within the Admiralty itself, were taking place, however, and these closely mirrored what was happening within a wider society that the long years of the French wars had significantly altered, and which was ready to take advantage of the opportunities and challenges that a new commercialism, and the fledgling Industrial Revolution, was creating.
Within this environment the need to extend the operational capabilities and range of British warships at sea was increasingly being seen as important by a naval administration that had slowly grown to believe that an ongoing dominance of naval sea power worldwide could best be achieved by ensuring that its seamen, as well as its ships, were better looked after. This policy, it was reasoned, could best be accomplished by making sure that ships' crews were well nourished and healthy, and the Admiralty organisation responsible for the often difficult job of feeding the fleet, initially known as the Victualling Board, was duly tasked with ensuring that this happened. The Victualling Board was in fact generally looked on with derision within the service because of the frequent poor quality of naval provisions, and because of suspected corrupt practices by some of its commissioners and officials. In line with gradually enlightened Admiralty policy, however, the Victualling Board, which in 1832 was merged with the Admiralty Board, did introduce some important innovations and improvements, including the use of canned food. As a consequence, and over an extended period, actions developed in line with such policies together with other improvements, such as better and more hygienic living conditions, curtailing the practice of flogging, and the ending of capital punishment for a whole range of relatively minor offences, improved working and other conditions within the naval service, and became the norm.
Excerpted from The Pre-Dreadnought Revolution by Warren Berry. Copyright © 2013 Warren Berry,. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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Table of Contents
1 Sailing Ships and Sea Power,
2 From Sail to Steam Assist,
3 The Black Battle Fleet,
4 Of Rams and Turrets,
5 Beyond the Fleet of Samples,
6 The Pre-Dreadnought Emerges,
7 The Great Arms Race,
8 Fortresses of Steel,
9 Thunder of the Guns,
10 To Pierce the Armoured Walls,
11 Of Boilers, Engines, and Steam,
12 Tested in Battle,
13 The Coming of the Dreadnought,
Appendix 1 Diagrams Showing Form and Structure of Typical Ram Bows,
Appendix 2 Schematic of the 1898 Jubilee Review at Spithead,
Appendix 3 Profiles and Deck Plans Showing Distribution of Armour and General Layout of Main Armament,
Appendix 4 Drawings of Different Forms of Ordnance Installation,
Appendix 5 Drawings of Typical Engines and Boilers,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Definitely a niche book, but for those interested in this time period this is a good in depth overview of the evolution of the capital ship in the late 19th century. Well written, researched, and documented.