Friday, 30 January 2015

1866: Horror at Sea - the loss of the London

Globalisation” is a term often applied to our own time but the process was in full swing a century and a half ago. The 19th Century saw a vast increase in seaborne trade and passenger-transportation, as new export markets were opened and as economies expanded at an unprecedented rate, not only in Europe and North America, but in newly-emerging nations such as Australia and New Zealand.  Whether by sail, steam or a combination of the two, merchant shipping was a key factor in triggering and sustaining growth as hitherto inaccessible resources and markets were opened for the first time, and mass-migration to new opportunities overseas was facilitated.

Ever more-efficient and powerful steam engines and the introduction of iron, and later steel, construction were major drivers. Though the end was in sight for the commercial sailing vessel, there was to be a long twilight – lasting up to and beyond World War 1 – during which such vessels reached a hitherto undreamed level of efficiency and capacity.

The wreck of the Corsaire by Gustave Dore, 1860
Such disasters were not uncommon in this era
The more one reads about this period, the more that one is struck by the very large numbers of shipping disasters, and the consequent loss of life. Sea travel was hazardous, very hazardous. Marine technology may have advanced very significantly in some areas but the absence of radio – which would not emerge in a practical form until the early 20th Century – meant that once a ship had sailed over the horizon its ability to signal for help in an emergency was restricted to visual range only. Once alone on vast expanses of ocean the chances of securing aid from another vessel were close to zero. A further weakness lay in the absence of loading and operational standards – the “Plimsoll Line” marking on a ship’s side, specifying the maximum draughts to which ships could be laden, was not to become compulsory for British-registered ships until 1876. Foreign ships visiting British ports were not required to comply until 1906. Similar problems related to provision of life boats, and it was only after the Titanic catastrophe in 1912 that this concern was finally addressed comprehensively.

Samuel Plimsoll
Samuel Plimsoll (1824-1898) is one of the forgotten heroes of the 19th Century and for many years he campaigned inside and outside Parliament for compulsory standards of marine safety. One of the cases which drew attention to this need was provided by the loss of the London in 1866, a disaster which received wide publicity in its time, and which also casts an interesting spotlight on Victorian values and behaviour in extremis.

Launched in 1845, the 1652-ton, 280-ft long London was then a state of the art vessel. Built specifically for the Britain-Australia route, she was equipped to carry 317 passengers. Though her 200-hp steam engine could propel her at 9 knots, she was also ship-rigged for sail, which made for fuel-efficiency and reliability on long ocean stretches. Her engine was a “compound” – with steam being expanded in two stages – and as such represented cutting-edge  technology. After commissioning she made two successful voyages to and from Australia and by the time of her next sailing from London, at the end of December 1865, there had been competition to secure berths on this highly-regarded vessel.  As she left she was carrying 239 passengers and crew as well as 345 tons of railway iron. It was later alleged that a seaman who sighted her as she passed down the Thames said at the time “It'll be her last voyage…she is too low down in the water, she'll never rise to a stiff sea."

SS London - highly regarded in the mid-1860s

Tragedy struck even before the London left British waters. Putting in to Plymouth to pick up further passengers the local pilot and his assistant were drowned when their boat was swamped during transfer. Having taken on further coal supplies – some 50 tons of which were stored on deck – the London departed late on January 5th 1866. In the next two days she encountered heavy seas and squalls and rolled badly – the presence of the deck cargo may not have helped. The rolling was so severe that on January 7th, a Sunday, divine service was cancelled – in itself an indication, considering priorities in this age of high religiosity, of the violence of the storm. For the next two days, and now in the Bay of Biscay, the London ploughed on into a south-westerly gale under steam only. Her speed was estimated as two knots.  January 9th found the ship taking seas over her bows and at daybreak a life-boat was washed away. Two hours later the bows drove under so heavily that the sea, and the convulsions that followed, took down the jib-boom, the fore-topmast and foretop-gallant, fore-royal and main royal masts, and with them their spars, sails and rigging. The masts fell inboard, held there by the tangled rigging, but the jib-boom remained under the bows, held there by wire stays. All efforts to clear this failed and the London wallowed all day, and the following night, as the storm continued unabated.

Gustavus Brooke, actor
One of the passengers
Encumbered as the London was, her master, a Captain Martin, decided the next day, January 10th, to head back to Plymouth. Under full steam, and with fore and mizzen stay-sails set, and running before the storm, the London was now managing five or six knots. The wrecked masts were secured and the jib-boom was finally cleared away. Towards evening however, and now only 200 miles from Land’s End, another violent squall hit, stripping away the stay-sails and another boat. By 2100 hrs the wind was estimated to be at hurricane strength. The engine was stopped and the ship placed under main-topsail only. This was soon blown to shreds and the engine had to be restarted.

Up to this time relatively little water had been shipped but at 2230 hrs a sea arched over the weather, or port, gangway and fell almost vertically on the engine-room hatch. It smashed through, flooding the compartment, extinguishing the fires and stopping the engine. The London was now wallowing helplessly and rolling so badly that the gunwales were going under. The captain realised that getting the engine going again was the only hope now but all efforts to close off the engine-room hatch with sails, mattresses and spars failed. The water level in the compartment was still rising and the captain finally told his men “Boys, you may say your prayers!”

Mr.Draper's last prayers in the saloon - a very unrealistic contemporary depiction
The terror of the passengers during these days of ordeal must have been appalling but the worst was yet to come. At 0400hrs the following morning – the 11th – when it was still dark, four stern ports of the upper cabin were stove in. Water rushed in, causing further flooding, and the ship began to settle. There was now no hope. At 1000 hrs. orders were given to ready the boats for lowering but one was immediately upset and lost.

In the saloon Captain Martin found a Wesleyan minister, a Mr. Draper praying with women and children gathered around him. The captain told them “Ladies, there is no hope for us, I am afraid. Nothing short of a miracle can save us!” Mr. Draper added “The captain tells us there is no hope – that we all must perish – but I tell you there is hope for all!” Hs wife was apparently not convinced because when a seaman tried to get her into a boat she handed him a rug. He asked what she would do without it and she replied “It will only be for a few moments longer”

Gustavus Brooke on stage
His last role was his most heroic
One passenger who was to give a heroic example was a famous actor of his time, Gustavus Brooke (1818 – 1866) who had been successful in Britain, Ireland and the United States. Of great strength, he laboured unceasingly at the pumps. According to one source Brooke, “dressed only in a red Crimean shirt and trousers, bareheaded and bare footed, worked until work was useless. When last seen, about four hours before the ship went down, he was leaning calmly on one of the half-doors of the companion(way), his chin resting upon both hands … while he watched the scene with grave composure.”  Men have had worse epitaphs.

By early afternoon the London was sinking rapidly. Life boats were swamped and lost no sooner than they were launched. Captain Martin ordered the ship’s engineer, Greenhill, into one of the last boats with the words “Your duty is done. Mine is to remain here.” When the boat was lowered the captain was again asked to enter it but he replied “No! I will go down with the passengers but I wish you God-speed and safe to land”. He threw in a compass to the boat and shouted “North North-East to Brest” as their course.

Greenhill's boat pulling away
Greenhill’s boat was scarcely eighty yards from the London when she took her final plunge. The stern went under, the bows rose briefly, the crowd on deck was overwhelmed and the remaining boat, full of people, was dragged down in the vortex. Greenhill now had the task of bringing himself and eighteen others to shore, three of them second-class passengers. No first-class or steerage passengers had been saved. After a storm-tossed day in the open boat, and not-sighted by a vessel that passed close, they were finally picked up by an Italian vessel, the Marianopole, and taken to Falmouth.

The death-toll was 220.The customary Board of Trade enquiry followed. It identified that a major contributory factor to the London’s loss was that she  was overloaded with the 345 tons of railway iron and that the coal stored on deck had blocked the scupper holes, which preventing water taken on to be drained off quickly.

The protracted horror of the London disaster made no less an impact on public opinion than the high death-toll. Funds were set up to help the bereaved, and, as was inevitable after all such events of the era, the Scottish poet William McGonagall wrote epic verse about it. Samuel Plimsoll had one more instance to quote in his crusade to achieve better safety at sea.

 But it was to take another ten years before his efforts bore fruit. All who put to sea today are in his debt.

Britannia's Shark

Since publication in December the third Dawlish Chronicles novel, Britannia's Shark, has been getting consistently high reviews - scoring an average of 4.8 out of 5 Stars on Amazon.

Readers of this blog will, I hope, excuse my vanity when I quote from one of these reviews:

Not since the days of C.S. Forester, or Alexander Kent, have I read such wonderful naval fiction set in the years before the First World War... Mr. Vanner is a master story teller, one who has thoroughly researched his subjects. His character development is superb, as are his plot lines. Reading his work transports you back in time, to lands and peoples no longer seen. Whether it be the Empire of Queen Victoria, or the many little wars that the Empire had to deal with, you will be entertained for hours on end...

All three of The Dawlish Chronicles are outstanding. Each work demands succeeding volumes to be read, devoured, and savored. Antoine Vanner is at the top of any great writer's game. He could have many mottos, but for his readers, it would be - "Always leave them panting for more..."

God Bless You and Yours, Mr. Antoine Vanner. It's kind of you to bring a bit of joy in your works, Sir. Please continue crafting them, for us, the humble, desirous readers you've addicted to your work...

I unreservedly give Mr. Antoine Vanner's The Dawlish Chronicles Five out of Five Stars... If it's the highest quality sea stories and adventure you want, these are "the real deal..."


(Click here to learn more about Britannia's Shark)

Friday, 23 January 2015

“Ahoy Napoleon!” - Guest Blog by Lally Brown

  Napoleon on HMS Bellerophon – the classic image of the voyage to exile
         Engraving from painting by Sir William Quiller Orchardson
The modern travel industry has brought tourists to just about every part of the world, however seemingly inaccessible. I suspect however that, though the island of St.Helena in the South Atlantic is widely known as the place of detention of the ex-Emperor Napoleon, very few tourists ever get there. I’m all the more lucky therefore that my guest blogger, Lally Brown, has not only spent significant time on the island, but has also put it to very good account in writing very authoritatively about Napoleon’s exile there. I’ll let Lally introduce with her own fascinating story and her account of the ships that visited St. Helena during Napoleon’s exile follows.

Lally Brown in her own Words

Born in Yorkshire and nicknamed ‘Lally’ by my family, I migrated south for my education and formative years. Embracing the ‘Swinging Sixties’ with naïve enthusiasm I left College at 19 and trekked overland to Israel, working on a Kibbutz for several months, and hitch-hiking around the country. This amazing (and occasionally dangerous) experience was the spark that ignited my lifelong love of adventure and travel.

A small village in West Sussex became our ‘base camp’ for thirty years as my Engineer husband took us around the globe on British Government contracts. Now, in my twilight years, we are dry-docked on the Isle of Wight surrounded by a loving family and four lively grandsons and I have the time (and inclination) to launch a series of eBooks about my exciting life. They prove that truth can indeed be far stranger than fiction. Erupting volcanoes, hurricanes, earthquakes, evacuations, abduction, drug smugglers, people smugglers, armed robbery, hangings, stowaways, bribery, corruption, political intrigues, riots, and much more.

The first in the Series is a little different. On one of our British Government contracts I found myself living on the remote island of St. Helena in the South Atlantic, in the house built in 1816 for Countess Françoise-Elisabeth (Fanny) Bertrand and her family. I became fascinated with the history and felt compelled to tell Fanny’s story, researching entirely from primary-source documents.

The result is "The Countess, Napoleon and St. Helena", a non-fiction account of Napoleon’s exile and death on the Island, as seen through the eyes of Countess Bertrand. Interspersed with Fanny’s account of life on St. Helena I have included some autobiographical chapters of my own experiences, showing how much (and sometimes how little!) life has changed over 200 years.

My second eBook "The Volcano, Montserrat and Me" will be launching soon, ready to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the initial eruption on 18th July 1995 of the Soufriѐre Hills Volcano.

"Ahoy Napoleon!"
Ships that visited St. Helena during Napoleon’s Exile

 Languishing in the British Library ‘Western Manuscripts Collection’ is a fascinating folio in the ‘Sir Hudson Lowe Papers’. This rarely accessed manuscript (Add.MS 20161) lists all ships and vessels that visited St. Helena during Napoleon’s exile on that remote island in the South Atlantic Ocean.

When Napoleon was defeated in the ‘Great Battle’ of Waterloo in 1815 he surrendered to Captain Maitland of the British ship HMS Bellerophon, hoping he might be allowed to live as a gentleman on an estate in the south of England. Instead he was exiled as a Prisoner of War to St. Helena, an island that had been in the possession of the East India Company since 1658.

Sir Hudson Lowe 1769-1844
by Abraham Wivell
Napoleon’s captivity was supervised from London by Lord Bathurst, Secretary of State for War and Colonies, who had complete control. It was decided that St. Helena would remain with the East India Company but that a Colonial Governor be appointed to the Island to administer Lord Bathurst’s orders concerning Napoleon.

Sir Hudson Lowe, an army officer held in high esteem by both Lord Wellington and the Prussian General Blucher, was the unfortunate individual selected for this unenviable position. Sir Hudson did not arrive on St. Helena until six months after Napoleon.

The person given immediate charge of Napoleon was Rear Admiral Sir George Cockburn of HMS Northumberland who had been on the point of sailing to assume Command at the Cape of Good Hope and St. Helena. It was his duty to convey Napoleon and his entourage to the island and to supervise the initial security.

Admiral Cockburn’s instructions from Lord Bathurst were explicit:

'The Admiral will take the most effectual steps to watch the Arrival and Departure
 of every Ship, so as to prevent any intercourse with the shore'.  
(Bathurst, War Department 30th July 1815)

HMS Northumberland and HMS Myrmidon entering James Bay, St. Helena Oct. 1815
By Thomas Shepherd 1827
On arrival at St. Helena Admiral Cockburn immediately dispatched Captain White of HMS Peruvian to take possession of Ascension Island:

'to prevent America, or any other Nation, from planting themselves there as upon
 a hitherto unoccupied and unowned Island (taking advantage of the peace to
 supply themselves by shipping with Provision and Water) for the purpose of
favouring sooner or later the Escape from Hence of General Bonaparte'
(Admiral Cockburn, Commander in Chief, Northumberland, St. Helena Roads,
22nd October 1815 to My Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty)

The Ships’ List (Add.MS 20161) is full of detailed information divided into columns headed ‘Date of Arrival’, ‘Name of Ship and Commander’, ‘Where From’, ‘What Nation’, ‘Date of Sailing’, ‘Where Bound’ and a final very informative column for ‘Remarks’ which often included a long list of passenger names.

The first entry is the arrival on 14th April 1816 of the Frigate HMS Phaeton from England, with Francis Stenfell in Command. The ship brought Sir Hudson Lowe ‘and Suite’ to St. Helena. It left on 30th April bound for the Cape of Good Hope.

The following month, May 1816, saw forty-one ships anchoring off Jamestown. These included frigates, transports, East India Company ships, brigs, traders, whalers, schooners and sloops. They arrived from all over the world and they departed to as many destinations. England, Gibraltar, Madras, Resolution, China, America, Benguela, Rio de Janeiro, Bengal, Cape, Batavia, Isle de France, Mauritius, Ascension,  Amsterdam, Rotterdam and even a Whaler from Timor. Some brought troops, provisions and mail to the island, others were passing through and in need of water and fresh provisions. Many ‘homebound’ ships gathered at St. Helena to leave in convoy for England.

Ships at anchor in James Bay, artist unknown
Worried that Napoleon might escape, Sir Hudson Lowe kept tight control over all shipping. He stated ‘It is a matter of small difficulty to procure a passage on board one of the Merchant Ships trading at the Island.’  And he had good cause to be concerned. Letters were intercepted outlining escape plans and on several occasions ‘strange ships’ were sighted and although chased were never caught.

In July 1816 instructions were given that any private trading vessel arriving from India in need of water must anchor at Lemon Valley and not Jamestown. They were forbidden from holding any communication with the island and ordered to depart as soon as they got their water.

Napoleon was always very interested in the ships arriving at St. Helena. He had his ‘Chinese Pavilion’ built on a mound in the garden of Longwood House so that he could watch distant ships approaching the island.

Longwood House by Lally Brown
With Napoleon’s agreement a few passengers were granted a Pass to visit him at Longwood House. For instance when the Aslett arrived from Bengal bound for London on 26th March 1819, the cousin of Lord Liverpool, British Prime Minister, was on board. Napoleon took the opportunity of inviting him to Longwood to complain bitterly about his situation on St. Helena.

‘My detention has already cost your Government a million of money and the expenses are not likely to diminish’ he said. ‘Lord Liverpool cannot have an idea of how I am teased and persecuted by Sir Hudson.’ He continued ‘my wish is to reside somewhere in Europe and not to be kept in a tropical climate lingering with the liver complaint.’

There were many who visited St. Helena pleased to be of assistance to Napoleon. Indeed, Napoleon disposed of his Silver Plate through these means, not to possess the money (he received the equivalent of £10,000 in Spanish Dollars) ‘but with the aim of corrupting the fidelity of those whom it might be advisable to seduce’.

The ‘Remarks’ column of the Ships’ List contains some interesting comments. For example on 15th October 1817 the transport ship Friendship arrived at St. Helena, Commanded by Andrew Armet. It was bound for New South Wales, Australia, and on board were John Huss (a Settler for New South Wales), John Giles, Mrs Giles and their two children (of the Missionary Society) and ‘101 women and 4 grown children Convicts, and 30 women and 48 children wives and children of Convicts’.

When Napoleon died on 5th May 1821 there was no further need for the Governor, Sir Hudson Lowe, to keep detailed information on the visiting ships. The last entry is dated 4th June 1821, the arrival from Calcutta of the East India Company ship James Sibbald under the Command of J.R. Forbes. It was bound for London with Colonel Dunbar and a Detachment of the 66th Regiment on board.

I hope you have enjoyed this ‘soupçon’ from the Ships List, and I would like to say a huge ‘thank you’ to Antoine for graciously inviting me to Guest on his prestigious and popular Dawlish Chronicles BlogLally Brown, January 2015

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Click here for details of Lally’s book “The Countess, Napoleon and St. Helena: In Exile with the Emperor1815 to 1821”. It represents an original and valuable addition for the bookshelf of any enthusiast of the Napoleonic Era and is all the more valuable for the author’s personal knowledge of St.Helena.

Lally's second book, "The Volcano, Montserrat and Me" promises to be equally informative and enjoyable.

Tuesday, 20 January 2015

The Painting Cannot Lie? The Sinking of the Linda Blanche

January 30th 2015 will mark the hundredth anniversary of the sinking of the merchant ship Linda Blanch in the Irish Sea. Among the hundreds of merchant ships sunk by U-boat in the course of World War 1, there would seem to be nothing remarkable about this humble coastal trader. There were no casualties and the whole affair was conducted in as gentlemanly and civilised manner as such affairs ever can be. A German submarine, U21, surfaced, forced the Linda Blanche to heave to and gave the captain and crew time to get away in lifeboats, after which the Germans sank the vessel with explosive charges placed inside her hull, thereby sparing a torpedo. As the sinking occurred 18 miles from Liverpool, and in busy waters – a fact that made the U-Boat’s captain’s decision to surface all the more daring – the crew had a good chance of reaching safety, which they did.
 So what’s remarkable about this sinking?
The Linda Blanche - small, humble and useful, nothing grandiose 
The Linda Blanche was a tiny vessel, 170 feet long and of 530 tons and her photograph shows her as an unassuming craft, similar to dozens like her. At the time of sinking she was on a routing voyage from Manchester (via the Manchester Ship Canal) to Belfast and her destruction can have had only a miniscule impact on the war effort. Why is she remembered today, and indeed how did I myself come to know about her?
Willy Stöwer's famous - and inaccurate - depiction of the Titanic's last moments 
 The explanation is that I myself came across the Linda Blanche’s story when I stumbled on a painting of her sinking on Wikipedia. It was by the famous German marine artist Willy Stöwer (1864 – 1931) whose huge output, covering both merchant and naval subjects, included magazine articles as well as paintings. One of his most famous works is a depiction of the sinking of the Titanic, produced for a German magazine, which has become perhaps the most familiar image of the event (and incorrect, ignoring the fact that the Titanic’s back broke). He was to be especially busy during World War 1 and he produced some very impressive paintings. 
Willy Stöwer's depiction of the sinking of the Linda Blanche 
One of the most notable of these paintings by Stöwer is of the Linda Blanche sinking. The victim is no longer a nondescript coaster but a huge cargo liner and everything about the action is on a heroic scale. Technically and artistically brilliant, the painting is still a lie.
 And why?
Otto Hersing
The answer is probably that the U21 was commanded by Otto Hersing (1885-1960), perhaps the most successful U-boat ace of the Imperial German Navy. On September 5th 1914 she had torpedoed the British cruiser HMS Pathfinder was sunk in the North Sea, off the Scottish coast, the first Royal Navy ship to be sunk in this way. His victory over the Linda Blanche was minor by comparison but his greatest achievements still lay ahead. Following the Allied landings at Gallipoli in April 1915 he was sent with U21 to the Mediterranean and there launched masterly submerged attacks on British pre-dreadnought battleships providing shore bombardment in support of ground forces. On May 25th he sank the 12,000 ton HMS Triumph and two days later was to be equally successful in sinking the 16,000 ton HMS Majestic. These successes were major contributory factors in the British decision to withdraw capital ships from the bombardment role. On July 4th he sank the Carthage, a French 5,601 ton auxiliary cruiser close to Gallipoli. For these actions Hersing was deservedly awarded Germany’s highest military honour, the Pour le Mérite, the “Blue Max”.
HMS Triumph
French cruiser Amiral Charner
Respected among his colleagues as "Zerstörer der Schlachtschiffe”, the Destroyer of Battleships, Hersing was back in the Mediterranean in 1916, where on February 8th he sank the old French 4,750 tons cruiser Amiral Charner of off the Syrian coast. And why the portrayal of the humble Linda Blanche as the mighty vessel she was in Stöwer’s painting? I suspect that Hersing’s exploits against of merchant shipping had to be depicted on the same heroic scale as his attacks on more dangerous naval targets.

 And so, through images, through exaggeration, through false depiction, are legends born. Hersing, a superb commander and a genuine hero, deserved better.

Britannia’s Reach

I was somewhat flattered when the second Dawlish Chronicles novel, Britannia’s Reach, was awarded the accolade of “Indie Book of the Day” on December 27th.  It’s currently scoring scores 4.5 Stars out of 5 in 34 Amazon Reviews. Click here for more details.

Here’s one of the reviews:


“What a great book. The author does a great job of taking you back to the time of the setting of the story and making you feel like you are a part of the action; that you can see the land and the topography as well as feel the shots of the guns and the roll of the ship under your feet. Having been a sailor myself, and having participated in a great deal of naval bombardment, I can attest to the realism that this author portrays. I can't wait for the next book in the series.”

Tuesday, 13 January 2015

The Loss of HMS Viknor 13th January 1915

One hundred years ago, in January 1915, the First World War at sea was ramping up as the German submarine and mine technology began to take an ever increasing toll on British naval and merchant shipping. The vast majority of the losses sustained are wholly forgotten today, except by the families of those who lost forebears and kinsfolk through this vicious form of warfare. Unknown as such cases may now be, the number of causalities in single sinkings still have the power to shock.

The liner Atrato, later the Viking and lastly HMS Viknor
The hundredth anniversary of just such a tragedy falls today, January 13th 2015, and relates to the loss with all hands of the armed merchant cruiser HMS Viknor.  She had been built as long before as 1888 as a passenger liner, the Atrato, for use on routes between Britain and the West Indies. Capable of carrying 279 passengers, and 421 ft long and 5,347 tons, she was distinctly yacht-like in appearance due to her clipper bow and smartly raked masts and funnels. Sadly underpowered at 1000 hp, her single screw driving her at no more than 14 knots, she must still have looked a splendid sight on the blue waters of the Caribbean. In 1912 she was renamed as the Viking by new owners and was used for cruising, an activity for which speed was not an essential.

Thoroughly obsolete in 1914, not to mention slow, it is therefore surprising that she should have been requisitioned by the British Admiralty service on the outbreak of war in 1914. Now named HMS Viknor, she was armed as a “merchant cruiser” and allocated to the Royal Navy’s 10th Cruiser Squadron which was tasked with patrolling between Iceland and Northern Scotland. Minimally armed, these merchant cruisers were not expected to meet enemy warships and their main purpose was to intercept neutral shipping for inspection to detect war contraband destined for Germany. Considering that during the winter months the ships on this station were likely to encounter some of the worst sea conditions in the world, it is surprising that an old underpowered vessel like the Viknor was ever chosen for such duty.

During the first weeks of 1915 the Viknor was on patrol off the North West coast of Ireland. She appears to have been in radio contact but she was to disappear in heavy weather on January 13th, close to Tory Island, off the coast of Donegal, without sending a distress signal. She took with her the entire 291-man crew, as well as a German national who had been taken off a ship the neutral Norwegian vessel Bergensfjord, under suspicion of being a secret agent, as well as six other men who have been cryptically referred to as “stowaways”. Some wreckage and many corpses were subsequently washed up on the Irish and Scottish coasts.

The Berlin, interred near Bergen after her only war-cruise - though a successful one
Though the exact cause of the Viknor’s loss cannot be established with certainty, it is possible that she struck a German mine. This could possibly have been one of the 200 laid in the same general area by the German auxiliary cruiser Berlin, one of which had sunk the British battleship HMS Audacious on October 27th 1914. The Viknor’s wreck was found by the Irish survey vessel Celtic Explorer in 2006 but the reason for her loss could still not be identified with absolute certainty.

The Berlin, seen in her later career as the British SS Arabic
The Berlin was herself a converted passenger vessel, but modern, dating from 1908 and used until 1914 on the Genoa to New York route.  Requisitioned by the German Navy on the outbreak of war, she was to have only a short career, though obviously successful, as a mine-laying  auxiliary cruiser. Returning to Germany she ran into heavy weather and was forced to put in to Trondheim, Norway for repairs. Unable to complete them in the time allowed by the neutrality laws, she was to be interned in Norway for the remainder of the war. She was to have a successful afterlife, for she was awarded to Britain as war reparations and was to serve the White Star Line as SS Arabic until 1931. One suspects that many who sailed on her in this peaceful guise were never aware of the fact that she had achieved more devastation, and caused more misery, than most warships ever do.

For details of another, earlier, Royal Navy loss off Tory Island, that of HMS Wasp in 1884, click on http://dawlishchronicles.com/the-wreck-of-hms-wasp-1884/


Friday, 9 January 2015

Naval Artists of the 18th Century – Part 2

In the first part of this occasional series, which appeared on my blog last month, I discussed the remarkable career of Philippe-Jacques de Loutherbourg. He was a painter of considerable renown who produced remarkable pictures of naval actions but it is likely that the vast majority of people in that period never had the opportunity to see them, or others like them. In that age of great naval engagements, and in which the seaman came to be seen as a heroic – though poorly remunerated – figure, it is likely that the popular image was created by engravings and prints. Often, but not invariably, based on larger paintings, these could be cheaply produced and sold at prices affordable by all but the poorest homes. For residents of inland towns and rural areas, some of whom may have gone through life without seeing the sea or a seaman, these prints provided the image of “Rule Britannia” incarnate. Frequently framed, they were to prove of great longevity – and indeed a country public-house near my home has got a large number which have possibly hung there since they were purchased two centuries or more ago.

Cheap as such prints were they were often based on work by artists of the first order. They are frequently humorous, often sentimental, and though the tone is often unheroic, even anti-heroic, one gets a strong impression of the pride, brash confidence and carelessness for danger that characterised the seamen of the time. One can well imagine them squandering their meagre pay on drink and women, throwing away in an evening the prize-money they had dreamed of for years and grumbling and swearing  incessantly – but one can also imagine them accepting cold, injury and brutal punishment stoically and fighting like tigers when the occasion demanded. From these prints a picture emerges of the men who beat the French in war after war through the 18th Century and who, at Trafalgar, were to secure British naval dominance for the next century.

According to a Late-Victorian source (The British Fleet by C.N.Robinson, 1894), the earliest known depiction of a British blue-jacket was “The British Hercules”, dated 1737. He holds a scroll that says “I wait for orders” and this may refer to the two-years of fruitless negotiations with Spain which were then in progress – leading eventually to the splendidly-named War of Jenkin’s Ear. The most memorable exploit of the Royal Navy in this conflict was Anson’s voyage around the world in HMS Centurion.

An engraving by Boitard entitled “The Sailor’s Return” shows an officer who has come back with Anson and in the background the treasure captured in the Spanish “Manilla Galleon” is being conveyed to London under the armed escort of sailors and marines. Louis Philippe Boitard was of French extraction, but settled in London. Robinson notes rather primly that “Some of Boitard’s pictures are too coarse for reproduction, notably that of “The Strand in an Uproar” – some sailors retaliating for the ill-treatment of one of their messmates in a house of ill-fame by throwing the furniture into the street”. I regret that I have been able to find a copy to include with this article!

The great painter and engraver William Hogarth (1697-1764)) also referred to the Centurion’s returning crew. In “The Stage Coach in a Country Inn Yard” he puts a soldier and a seaman on top of the carriage. The soldier looks woebegone (perhaps he had been at Dettingen or Fontenoy?) whereas the sailor is well pleased with himself, probably because the bundle he has with him is marked Centurion and has prize-money to enjoy. He, or a sailor very similar, also appeared in Hogarth’s engraving of “The Times – Plate 1”, in which he carries buckets to help to put out a fire.
Hogarth - "The Stage Coach in a Country Inn Yard"
Hogarth - "The Times, Plate 1". Note the seaman at the centre.
 The riotous behaviour of seaman ashore, half-condemned, half admired, was a common and entertaining subject. John Collet (1725-80) was an artist in the satirical Hogarth tradition. In “A Rescue, or the Tars Triumphant” he shows an actual incident in 1768 when a press-gang rescued their officer’s “young lady friend” from the hands of the law. There may be little doubt regarding the young lady’s profession!
One is struck how in a large number of prints seamen are seen enjoying themselves with obviously “loose women” in a way which no doubt continue into the Victorian period, but which could never then have been treated with such sympathy and amusement. Eminent members of the Royal Academy such as Thomas Stothard (1755-1834) and Henry Singleton (1766-1839) did not hesitate to show such scenes, as below. (The Wheatley-attributed engraving is based on a Singleton painting).



Pay which was accumulated on long voyages – or prize money – tended to be spent in very short order once crews finally came ashore. The respected painter Robert Dighton (1752-1814) and the cartoonist Isaac Cruikshank (1764-1811) depicted just how fast and furious the spree could be.
Cruikshank - "Paid off at Chatham"
The image of the irreverent devil-may-care seaman carried on beyond the Napoleonic War s, as shown in the insolence of “Jack’s Wedding Day” below.

A sadder commentary on the war’s aftermath, when many men were discharged and officers put on half-pay, shows a midshipman sitting on his sea-chest and reduced to working in the street as a shoe-shine.


It is however better to close with some of the more benign – and often touching – images of seamen restored to loved ones or returning to long-term absence at sea, with a significant chance of injury or death. Some at least must have survived the bacchanalia's of their returns with some money still in their pockets and to the joy and satisfaction of their families. In these images too we find something of what made this age one of greatness for Britain, and of what the price for it could be for humble people.




Friday, 2 January 2015

WW1, a German View – the Last Years of Cavalry

Austro-Hungarian Cavalry 1914
I’ve always been fascinated by how much the “feel” of the world of 1914 differed so dramatically from that of 1918. As one sees newsreels of 1914 – and in particular the computer-colourised versions one has seen recently, which gives an immediacy that black and white does not – one is struck by the absurd posturing of often-ludicrous figures in comic-opera uniforms. It is hard to believe that preposterous individuals such as Kaiser Wilhelm II, Emperor Franz-Josef or Czar Nicholas II – or indeed the pompous but short-sighted leaders of France and Great Britain – could ever have been in positions of power that allowed them to plunge the world into nightmare. 1918, a mere four years later, seems not only a time  of brutal, disillusioned realism which had swept away the last vestiges of the 19th Century, but also one in which an explosion of  technology had achieved changes which might otherwise might have taken decades. The World of 1914 “feels” different to ours of today, while that of 1918 was one which has myriad familiarities with our own.

Magazine cover - note German and Austro-Hungarian
 troops advancing shoulder-to-shoulders
I was spurred to these reflections when I recently came across 1914/15 copies of a German illustrated magazine, detailing the progress of the war. Published in regular parts by a Bavarian publisher, Josef Habbel of Regensburg, Bavaria, the magazine was a German counterpart of several similar British month-by-month histories of the war, bound copies of which can sometimes be found in British second-hand bookshops. This “Illustrated History of the European War 1914/15” was   edited by one Karl Aspern, about whom I have been unable so far to find out more than that he appears to have written histories of Turkey and Bulgaria in the same period. This magazine is particularly interesting in that it shows a German view of the early stages of the war when stalemate may have been developing on the Western Front, but when largely mobile warfare was the norm on the Eastern Front.  The overall tone of the publication is crudely propagandist, and one suspects that the artists who provided the illustrations (there are fewer photographs than one would have expected) had never actually visited the front and were providing a idealised rather than realistic pictures. This said, it nevertheless offers interesting insights as to how Germans on the Home Front viewed – or were allowed to view – the war.
 
1914 - not 1814 - artist's impression of German attack on Russian troops
A notable aspect is the prominence given to cavalry operations. On the Western Front these were limited to the first weeks of the war, and were largely restricted to a reconnaissance role, but cavalry  was to remain significant factor throughout on the Eastern Front – and on into the Russian Civil War and the Soviet-Polish War of 1920. Here they played a more traditional cavalry role, taking advantage of their superior mobility to exploit breakthroughs, acting as mounted infantry (as was the original role of Dragoons) and on some occasions acting in a shock role, such as harrying  retreating troops.
 
Austro-Hungarian cavalry driving off Cossacks in the Carpathians
It could be a scene from "War and Peace" but Blitzkrieg is only a quarter-century away
It is striking that in the illustrations shown below the focus is on offensive roles, and given the antiquated uniforms still in use many could easily be taken as referring to the Napoleonic or 1870 period. There is no hint of recognition here of the potential of mechanisation, yet by the end of the war – four years later – massed attacks by tanks, a new weapon, would be crucial in breaking the German lines on the Western Front.  It’s hard to believe that only a quarter-century separated this last gasp of gorgeously uniformed horse cavalry from the Blitkrieg era.  Even more remarkable is the thought that many young men who served in the units depicted in the illustrations below were themselves to lead German and Russian tank forces in Spain, in Mongolia and on the Eastern Front.  


Looking at the illustrations below – all from late 1914 and early 1915 – one gets the impression of looking at the death of “The Long 19th Century”. I hope you’ll find them of interest


Russian field-artillery in flight towards the fortress of Przemnsl

Turkish troops facing Russian Cossacks in the Caucuses

Serbian prisoners of the Austro-Hungarians - their dress is almost medieval
Innocent victims


And the last drawing is the most poignant. The caption reads "Ich hatte eine Kameraden" ("I had a Comrade") and refers to the very moving song still sung by German troops at the funerals of the fallen, including most recently men lost in Afghanistan, where modern Germans stood shoulder-to-shoulder with one-time enemies.