Monday 30 June 2014

Dawlish Chronicles: Mid-Year Milestone, an End and a Beginning

Today I laid aside my corrected first draft of my fifth Dawlish Chronicles novel. I started it in July last year and gave myself 12 months to complete. This involved a significant amount of research to start with (Thank You, London Library!) but as the opening section drew on prior knowledge I was able to run much research and writing in parallel. I finished the draft three weeks ago, then did a revision – which involved some reordering of chapters, some cutting (it always feels like a crime to delete a day’s work or more), some detection of continuity errors and – of course – some spelling and grammar errors. I wrapped up by making maps using PowerPoint – up to now I’ve been reliant on sketch maps in my working notebook. These maps have been critical in my plotting – they always are – but they’ve been written over and annotated so much by now that I suspect that anybody but myself would make neither head nor tail of them. The clean versions on the computer screen look at lot more comprehensible.

So why the fifth novel, when only two Dawlish Chronicles novels have been published so far? The reason is that I like to set a first draft aside for a year or more and to leave it on the “back burner” of my mind. It lives in my subconscious and occasionally surfaces, unbidden, with ideas for modification or improvement. It’s worthwhile to jot down such ideas in my notebook but it’s also essential to resist going back to tinker piecemeal. When I return to my No.5 I’ll anticipate a fundamental revision – but how fundamental I don’t yet know. I do however have a warm feeling from the first draft now being set aside, and I’ll be returning to it with pleasure.

So what happens tomorrow? I’ll be opening up No.3, (“Britannia’s X”, with X to be revealed only at publication) and reading it for the first time in over a year. I’ll do a quick start-to-finish read, without notes, and then go back over it in more detail, annotating as I go. Thereafter I’ll do the rewrite. I’m looking forward to meeting some old friends again, and some newcomers as well. They’ve been calling attention to themselves more insistently recently – I guess they want their hour upon the stage – and it’s time to finalise the formal record of their doings. Some of them are going to be in for a very rough time indeed and, as with earlier books, the action is firmly locked into the actual historical calendar. It’s also time to start thinking of the cover design and of the blurb – I’m always spurred on with the idea of seeing them in hard copy on the proof copy for the first time.

I’m aiming to launch “Britannia’s X” before the end of the year and thereafter I’ll be kicking off writing of No.6. I’m already doing some preliminary research on background and coming to the stage when I recognise what I’ll need to know in detail, and what will be just general background. Probably less than 10% will show up in the actual writing but the other 90% will provide the context in which the action will play out.

And No.4? Well that’s on the back burner for now also. I expect that in a few months’ time characters in that are going to start getting insistent!

Tomorrow then will be the first day of the rest of my writer’s life. Wish me luck!

Friday 27 June 2014

The Royal Navy's End of Fighting Sail – Sidon, Beirut and Acre 1840

Though steam propulsion was first applied to warships, on a small scale, in the late 1830s, it was to take another half-century before sail was finally abandoned by the world’s navies. The process was paralleled with the replacement of wood by metal – initially iron and later steel – for construction. 1840 was however to see the last major action by the Royal Navy in which a sailing wooden line-of-battle ship, of a type almost identical to those which fought under Nelson at Trafalgar in 1805, was to play the leading role. It was however supported by small steamers. The scene was to be the coasts of modern Lebanon and Israel, then regarded as part of the Ottoman province of Syria, in 1840.
Bombardment of Sidon, September 27th 1840
Present conflicts in the Middle East are only the latest in a long series of struggles for power which go back to the dawn of history. In the last two centuries however these clashes have arisen from the weakening and eventual demise of the Ottoman Empire – a development which still has massive influence on events today.

In the early nineteenth century the Ottoman Sultan ruled from Istanbul, in theory at least, a vast empire that stretched from Libya in the west to the Arabian Gulf in the east, and from what is now Rumania and Serbia in the north to the Sudan in the south. A weak central government, all too often bedevilled  by corruption and by difficulties in communication over such a vast area, made it easy for local governors to set themselves up as semi-independent rulers.
The massacre of the Mamluks in the citadel of Cairo, March 1811
The most notable of these was the Muhammad Ali (1769 – 1849), an Albanian general in the Ottoman Army who was appointed governor of Egypt in 1805. His first step in consolidating his power was to eliminate the Mamluks, the warrior caste which had ruled Egypt, under the Sultan, for over 600 years. He did so in 1811 by inviting the Mamluk leaders to a celebration at the Cairo Citadel. Once gathered there they were surrounded by Muhammad Ali's troops and slaughtered. He was now de-facto ruler of Egypt and the Sudan by the 1820s was arguably as powerful as the Sultan himself .

Muhammed Ali
Muhammad Ali’s only setback in this period stemmed from Intervention in the Greek War of Liberation, which began in 1821. The Sultan’s army proved incapable of putting down the revolt and Muhammad Ali was offered the island of Crete in exchange for his support. Over 16,000 Egyptian soldiers, supported by the modern fleet that was being built up in Egypt, went to Greece under the command of Muhammad Ali’s son, Ibrahim Pasha.  This led to intervention on behalf of the Greeks by Britain, France and Russia, culminating in the battle of Navarino in 1827 in which the entire Egyptian navy was sunk by an allied fleet, under the command of Admiral Edward Codrington (1770–1851). This was the last major fleet action under sail and, most appropriately, Codrington had been one of Nelson’s “Band of Brothers”. He had joined the Royal Navy in 1783 and had been present at the battles of the Glorious First of June (1796) and Trafalgar (1805), commanding HMS Orion at the latter.
The destruction of the Egyptian fleet at Navarino, October 1827
In compensation for the loss of his fleet Muhammad Ali asked the Sultan for the Syria – a term which then included modern Lebanon and Israel. The Sultan refused and in the early 1830s Muhammad Ali, successfully seized Syria, and much of Arabia, in a campaign notable for Ottoman ineptitude.  

A mixture of medieval despot and enthusiast for modernisation, Muhammad Ali now concentrated on building a powerful and independent European-style state. No opposition was allowed and the process was often brutal. He set out to streamline the economy, train a professional bureaucracy, and build a modern military. He not only encouraged agriculture – the global demand for cotton was insatiable – and he built an industrial base, primarily focused on weapons production. By the end of the 1830s, Egypt’s war industries had constructed nine 100-gun warships and were turning out 1,600 muskets a month.
Muhammed Ali demanding construction of modern warships
In 1839, the Ottoman Empire, now ruled by the young Sultan Abdülmecid, attempted to retake Syria. Ottoman ground forces were once again routed. In June 1840, the entire Ottoman navy defected to Muhammed Ali and the French Government, with aspirations to regain the control of the area which Napoleon had won briefly, then lost, decided to offer full support to Muhammad Ali. This would involve an major strategic reorientation in the Middle East and indeed held the seeds of a general European conflict (WW1 seven decades too soon!). Britain, Austro-Hungary, Prussia and Russia decided that preservation of the Ottoman Empire was paramount and decided to intervene jointly to prevent total collapse.
Western negotiations with Muhammed Ali 1839
By the “Convention of London”, signed in July 1840, these powers offered Muhammad Ali and his heirs permanent control over Egypt, the Sudan and the “Eyalet of Acre” (an area roughly corresponding to modern Israel and Southern Lebanon) as nominal territories of the Ottoman Empire. Muhammad Ali hesitated, believing that he could rely on French support. This was a fatal miscalculation.

British and Austrian naval forces moved into action in September 1840. Faced with the possibility that confrontation with Britain could mean war France, pragmatically but ingloriously, changed sides the following month, aligning itself with the other European nations against Muhammad Ali. By this time the Royal Navy and the Austrian Navy had already been in action. Alexandria, to where the defecting Ottoman fleet had withdrawn, was blockaded and forces were concentrated on Sidon and Beirut on the Lebanese coast.
HMS Gorgon

At Sidon, on the Lebanese coast, the withdrawal of the Ottoman garrison was demanded by the British commander, Commodore Charles Napier. A refusal bought bombardment by Napier’s squadron on September 27th. This force was led by the HMS Thunderer, a two-deck 84-gun second rate ship of the line, launched in 1831 but not significantly different to ships of the Napoleonic era. In support was a relic of this period, the 18-gun brig sloop HMS Wasp, launched in 1812. Significantly however these two sailing vessels were supported by four steam vessels, Cyclops, Gorgon, Stromboli and Hydra. (Readers of this blog will remember meeting HMS Gorgon in a later action, at the Battle of Obligado, in 1845 – see entry of May 30th of 2014). Further support was provided by the Austrian sailing frigate Guerrierea of 48-guns and the Ottoman corvette Gulsefide. The contemporary illustration below – by A Lieutenant J.F.Warre RN (of whom I have no further details) – shows the Thunderer at the centre and the Ottoman and Austrian vessels to the right. The paddle steamers to the left could be any of the four such British vessels present.
Bombardment of Sidon, September 27th 1840
The bombardment seems to have driven the Egyptian defenders from their positions and, in the best Royal Navy tradition, a naval brigade landed under Napier’s personal command, supressed any remaining opposition and captured many prisoners. Beirut was subjected to similar treatment but did not yield until October 9th, after Napier had again landed and had conducted a vigorous and successful land campaign.
Paddle sloop HMS Phoenix in action at Acre
Acre (just north of Haifa) was the remaining Egyptian stronghold on the Eastern Mediterranean coast. British and Austrian forces, attacked again led by HMS Thunderer. Following a bombardment on November 3rd 1840 a small landing party of Austrian, British and Ottoman troops, led personally by the Austrian fleet commander, Archduke Friedrich, took the citadel after the Egyptian garrison had fled.

Muhammad Ali now accepted the inevitable and assented to the terms of the Convention of London on November 27th.  He renounced his claims over Crete and Western Arabia and agreed to hand back the Ottoman fleet and to downsize his remaining naval forces and standing army.  In return he and his descendants would enjoy hereditary rule over Egypt and Sudan. The dynasty he established was to rule Egypt – not always gloriously or successfully – until its final representative, King Farouk, was ousted in the 1952 Revolution.

HMS Thunderer was to serve on towards the dawn of a new age of naval technology and 1863 was fitted with iron plate in 1863 for trials of new armour-piercing guns. She survived as a storage hulk until 1901, initially renamed Comet, and subsequently Nettle, one of the last links with the age of fighting sail.

And as for Admiral Charles Napier? He was one of the most colourful characters of the period – so much so that there isn’t space here to do him justice. He’ll be the subject of a separate blog in the future.
Admiral Sir Charles Napier (1786-1860)

Britannia’s Spartan - and the Taku Forts, 1859

The Anglo-French assault at the Taku Forts in Northern China - and the highly irregular but welcome intervention of the neutral United States Navy - was one of the most dramatic incidents of the mid-nineteenth century. It also led to the only defeat of the Royal Navy between the end of the Napoleonic Wars and the outbreak of World War 1.

A remark of the American commander at the height of the battle - "Blood is thicker than water" - has entered the English language.

The Taku Forts attack event is described in detail in the opening of Britannia's Spartan.  Click on the cover image to read it.

Monday 23 June 2014

Touching History – literally – at Fort Nelson

An extract from Britannia’s Wolf, the reality of an army in defeat:

“They've been retreating for ten days, in action all the time,” he said. “Yesterday the Russians hit them badly. Only their guns saved them."

He gestured towards the Krupp field guns, steel six-pounders, that teams of scrawny horses were being flogged into getting moving. The Ottoman weapons, Dawlish thought bitterly, were the best money squeezed from an oppressed populace could buy and the men might well be the toughest soldiers on earth. Only senior leadership was missing. And for lack of it, this misery, this chaos. 

The Krupp field guns referred to would have been 75 mm weapons, throwing a 9-pound shell for up to three miles. The Krupp company had mastered the art of making safe (i.e. they didn’t burst) and reliable steel weapons in the 1850s. It added to this by development of an efficient breech-closure mechanism that depended on a sliding steel wedge and which allowed fast reloading. By the 1870s the Krupp 75 had been adopted by the German, Russian, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman armies, as well as a host of minor military powers in Latin America and elsewhere.  It proved a major export success and direct derivatives were used well into the World War 1 period. 

There is such a weapon on display at the Royal Armouries Museum, at Fort Nelson, near Portsmouth and I’m shown with it in the accompanying photograph. I suspect that the wooden wheels are rebuilds or restorations but the steel carriage, and the gun, itself is in perfect condition. A delight - one that doesn't encounter at many museums – is that one can touch it, and in the process touch history. I’d like to know the story of this weapon – who bought it (certainly not Britain), where and when did it serve, when was it captured? What a tale it must have to tell!
The Breech - see sliding block on right side. It's in closed position

Friday 20 June 2014

The Imperial German Navy 1902 - sketches of life on board ship

My blog this week is based on my recent discovery of a German 1902 publication entitled "Germany's Honour on the World's Oceans" (Deutschlands Ehr im Weltenmeer) by a Vice-Admiral von Werner. The sub-title is "The development of the German Navy and sketches of life on board." It is on the latter aspect I'll concentrate in this blog.

The timing of the book is significant - the German Navy was just starting the expansion which in just over a decade was to bring it from second-class status to the second most powerful one in th world. Enthusiasm for the Navy and naval affairs was high and was fostered by the government, Kaiser Wilhelm II seeing naval strength as essential for his personal prestige no less than for the nation. This is reflected in the book's frontispiece - see above - in which the ridiculously mustachioed kaiser is seen inspecting naval personnel. Prior to this time the German Empire, building on traditions of the Prussian military, and its crushing defeat of France in 1870, had been primarily a land power with only a limited naval tradition. This was to change and the book seems to be part of the shift in cultural mindset. It is notable that it is printed in German Gothic font which is quite difficult to read at first (I hadn't read in it for almost 50 years!), but which one gets quickly used to.
Painting entitled "Squadron at Sea"
Leading ship is a reconstructed central-battery ironclad of the 1874 "Kaiser" class
Much of book's focus is on presenting life in the navy as attractive for young men either as officers or seamen. The text is illustrated not just by photographs of ships, but with drawings - many not just idealised, but indeed sentimentalised - of life on board. There are some very attractive stylised capital letters at the start of each chapter, all incorporating a sketch. I have scanned many of the illustrations and have included them below. They tell as much about aspiration as about reality and as such give what is to me a unique insight to the thinking of the time.
A first step towards a naval career - a worried cadet, aged about 13, prepares to
leave home. Interesting that it is a maid, rather than a family member, who helps him pack
Fun in the gunroom - cadets enjoying themselves on board a training vessel
Boy recruits for the lower deck scrubbing - not too clear what! Clothing or stools?
A nap on deck for an exhausted recruit- hard to imagine this lasting for long!
Note blackened soles of feet!
Instruction by an older seaman
Sunday religious service conducted by a Lutheran chaplain
Young sailors dancing hornpipes - not sure if doing so voluntarily or under orders!
Christmas overseas - note tree in background
The training ship SMS Nixe of 1883 was described in "Conway's All the World's Fighting Ships 1860-1905" as "a hopeless anachronism, with her full rig and wood and copper-sheathed bottom, but useful as a school ship, though she was a bad seaboat and awkward under sail" She served in this capacity to 1901.
Training ship SMS Gneisenau (of Bismarck class of iron flush-decked corvettes),
commissioned 1880 but wrecked in Malaga harbour, Spain, during a storm
in 1900.  The captain and forty others died.

Britannia’s Shark by Antoine Vanner 

1881 and the power of the British Empire seems unchallengeable.

But now a group of revolutionaries threaten the economic basis of that power. Their weapon is the invention of a naïve genius, their sense of grievance is implacable and their leader is already proven in the crucible of war. Protected by powerful political and business interests, conventional British military or naval power cannot touch them. A daring act of piracy draws the ambitious British naval officer, Nicholas Dawlish, and his wife into this deadly maelstrom. Amid the wealth and squalor of America’s Gilded Age, and on a fever-ridden island ruled by savage tyranny success – and survival –will demand making some very strange alliances...
Britannia’s Shark brings historic naval fiction into the dawn of the Submarine Age. 

Monday 16 June 2014

Did Victorians react differently to violence than we do? How to handle this in fiction?

A few months ago one of the first readers of Britannia’s Wolf sent me the question below:

“Today’s readers do not have the same sensibility as Victorians. Is there a compromise in Britannia’s Wolf between the way Dawlish and his contemporaries saw, and to some extent accepted, violence, and the way we respond to it today?”

It’s worth repeating the answer I gave then on my website and which I’ve updated with reference to my second novel, Britannia’s Reach:

The issue of making characters true to their period – in my case the Victorians, is critical. We shouldn’t graft 21st Century sensibilities on to 19th Century people, even sensitive and decent ones. The Victorians had a much more robust attitude to life and death than we do in the West today. Most families would have lost children and death in childbirth was still as common as it is today in Africa. Anesthetics were only in their infancy and people died regularly of complaints that are managed almost routinely today. There was somewhat of a cult of mourning and remembrance in that era (led by Queen Victoria herself - the "Widow of Windsor") whereas today many in the West have never seen a corpse until a parent dies. With us death is hidden – and is perhaps the last undiscussible.
The cult of ostentatious mourning supported a small industry - 1888 advertisement
Public executions continued in Britain until 1868 and were well attended. When they ventured overseas, as Victorians increasingly did as the Empire expanded, they encountered cruelty on a scale and intensity that shocked even them, as happened in China and India and Zululand and elsewhere  – they responded very robustly indeed. There’s a taste of this in Britannia’s Wolf, when Dawlish is confronted with a massacre of innocents and takes a rather tough reprisal against the perpetrators. There was a lot of similarly unofficial rough-justice against concentration-camp guards and other SS thugs in the immediate aftermath of WW2. Britannia’s Wolf is set in the brutal Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78, which was provoked by widespread massacres of Christian villagers in Bulgaria by their Ottoman Turkish overlords and the course of which was marked by horrific atrocities and reprisals in both sides. The situations Dawlish encounters in the novel are, unfortunately, closely modelled on real events.
Bulgarian massacre victims 1877 - eyewitness sketch
And yes – people do get marked, indeed hardened, by such experiences. My own exposure to cruelty and callousness by the powerful in Africa and South America has left me with an abiding contempt for the self-styled elites in such countries and makes me understand, even if I cannot condone, violent retribution when the tables are finally turned. History has taught us that overthrow of one corrupt and tyrannical regime is usually followed by one equally bad, no matter how noble the ideals proclaimed initially might have been.  I addressed this theme in the second Dawlish Chronicles novel, Britannia’s Reach. For a decent person to be caught in such a maelstrom, and to be forced to confront moral ambiguities on every side at a time when “doing nothing” is not an option, is a terrible one. A Mephistophelean bargain of the type portrayed in Britannia’s Reach (which I wrote a blog about on March 18th) is one which we should pray we are never tempted to make.
Western observers view heaps of burned Bulgarian villagers - eyewitness sketch
In writing about violence and atrocity I've tried not to shy away from the horrors inflicted on civilian populations - but one has to be careful. On the one hand there’s writing that blandly draws a veil over such pain and on the other there’s a danger of indulging in an orgy of violence. Finding the mean between these extremes is critical and I hope I do that.
Retribution: Turkish refugees flee before the Russians Winter 1877/78

Thursday 5 June 2014

Book Launch: Alison Morton’s SUCCESSIO

I had a splendidly enjoyable evening yesterday when I attended the launch in London of Alison Morton’s SUCCESSIO, the third novel in her very entertaining Roma Nova series. Having read and admired Alison’s two earlier books, INCEPTIO and PERFIDITAS, I had been looking forwards the new book and now, having acquired a signed copy, I’m looking forward to getting stuck in.
Alison's oeuvre, set out with justifiable pride
Roma Nova is a fascinating concept - a 21st. Century nation, located in the area between modern Italy and Modern Switzerland. It represents a survival of the Roman Empire and which has, with some very significant deviations, remained true to austere Senatorian ideals and principles. The rest of the world is very like ours - but not quite - and all the modern technologies we are familiar with are in place. This is not an alternate world of the "Steampunk" variety, but one that is wholly credible and which could have come about had history worked out just a little differently.

Alison - on the right - in action, portrait of her lead character, Carina, on the left
During the launch session Alison was interviewed by the well-known BBC presenter Sue Cook. “Interview” was however wholly the word since Alison is such a lively and witty speaker that she her answers amounted to a one-woman show on topics relating to her own novels, her life experiences, her writing techniques and much more besides. Beneath the humour however once sensed the utter dedication, organisation and professionalism that Alison brings to her research (including how much to leave out) and to her writing. She gave what was in many respects an abbreviated master-class in “how to become a novelist”. (Given the fact that Roma Nova is run on matriarchal principles I should perhaps rephrase that as "mistress class"!)

Interviewer Sue Cook (left) with Alison after the interview
Other members of the British historical-novelist community were also present, making it a convivial and memorable occasion. For all of us it was a privilege to hear Alison speak and I can only hope that she’ll be bringing us back for many more visits to Roma Nova. If you haven’t had a trip there already this is the time to start.

(There’s already a link to Alison’s very enjoyable blog to be found in this blog for some time – you’ll find it in the bar to the right and by clicking on it you’ll find out more about the fascinating and internally-consistent alternate world that she has created.)