Friday 29 August 2014

A Marooning Scandal in the Royal Navy, 1807

One tends to think of “marooning” – abandoning a seaman alone on an uninhabited island – as being a punishment associated with buccaneers and pirates in the late 17th and early 18th Centuries. It is therefore somewhat of a shock that what was probably the last instance of such retribution occurred in the Royal Navy as late as 1807. The story is a fascinating one and it underlines just how omnipotent and capricious a captain could be in the days before radio once his ship had disappeared over the horizon.
The Cruizer class brig HMS Alacrity engaging the French Abeille in 1811
HMS Recruit would have looked very similar
Shipboard Carronade 1808
HMS Recruit was a 100-ft long brig-sloop of the Cruizer class, of which 110 examples were built for the Royal Navy between 1797 and 1815. Small as they were, they carried a very heavy armament – two 6-pounder bow chasers and no less than sixteen 32-pounder carronades. At short ranges the carronades gave the Cruizers a nominal broadside weight greater than that of a 36-gun 18-pounder frigate. The advantage of the design was that the two-masted rig and the use of carronades, with their small gun crews, allowed this to be achieved with a crew one third the size of a frigate's. These vessels were to see very active service.

The Cruizer design was already a proven one when the newly commissioned Recruit headed for the West Indies in July 1807. Her captain was the 24-year old Commander  Warwick Lake, later to be 3rd Viscount Lake (1783–1848). In view of what was to follow one wonders if he was not influenced by the example of his grandfather, General Gerard Lake, 1st Viscount Lake (1744 – 1808) whose suppression of rebellion in Ireland in 1798 was to be marked by extreme brutality. This reached a climax in the defeat of the rebel army at Vinegar Hill, County Wexford, and brought him into conflict with the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, Lord Cornwallis (of Yorktown fame) who instituted an amnesty to encourage rebels to lay down their arms.

On taking the Recruit to sea Lake encountered a problem common to most captains of his time – shortage of men. He solved the problem by putting in at the Cornish harbour of Falmouth and boarding the privateer Lord Nelson, despite her being under protection of latters of marque.  Several men and boys of the privateer’s crew were pressed, among them a blacksmith called Robert Jeffrey, whose trade made him especially valuable at sea.

Lake, according to one account “profligate and reckless”, now headed for the West Indies and by November was cruising in the Caribbean. Water was in short supply, and according to Lake’s later account Jeffrey stole some rum in a bottle from the gunner’s cabin. It’s not obvious that this offence was followed up but Jeffrey was to admit that on December 10th he drew off two quarts of beer from a cask intended for the captain’s personal  use. A shipmate informed on him and Jeffrey was placed on a “black list”.

"Do you see that rock?" Victorian depiction of Lake emerging drunk on deck
The uniforms look too pristine for realism!
Three days later the Recruit was passing the island of uninhabited island of Sombrero, the northernmost island of the Lesser Antilles. It is tiny - little over a mile long and a quarter wide and only 94 acres in area – and is devoid of water. Commander Lake came on deck after dinner – apparently under the influence of drink – and decided that he now had an opportunity to punish Jeffrey. He is reported to have said “Lieutenant Mould! Do you see that rock? Lower the boat instantly. I’ll have no thieves on board my ship! Man a boat and set the rascal on shore!”
The waterless Sombrero Island - also known as "Hat Island",
little over a mile long
Jeffrey was now taken to the island in the clothes he stood up in, but without shoes, food or water. Seeing that his feet were being cut by the rock Lieutenant Mould gave him a  pair of shoes ,together with a knife and a handkerchief donated by a midshipman. Mould seems to have delayed, in the hope that Lake would change his mind but in the end had to return to the ship, leaving Jeffrey stranded.

Jeffrey, immaculately uniformed, marooned - another Victorian illustration
The Recruit now headed for Barbados to join the squadron there under Admiral Sir Thomas Cochrane. The story of the marooning began to leak out, causing general outrage,  and Lake was ordered to explain himself. Cochrane, enraged, reprimanded Lake for brutality and ordered him back to Sombrero with the Recruit to find Jeffrey. On landing, no sign of him was found other than a pair of trousers – apparently not Jeffrey’s – and a tomahawk (a common boarding weapon). When the Recruit returned empty-handed the Admiral assumed that Jeffrey had been picked up by a passing ship.

Anger was widespread when the story reached Britain and Lake was court-martialled on board HMS Gladiator in Portsmouth in February 1810. Despite an attempt to pass some of the blame to his lieutenants the court found him guilty and dismissed him from the navy.

Jeffrey’s whereabouts were now the subject of impassioned interest, questions being asked in the House of Commons and the Government kept under pressure on the case. It finally emerged that he was in the Beverley and Marblehead area in Massachusetts and a ship was sent to bring him back, arriving in Portsmouth shortly after Lake’s court martial. Jeffrey had survived nine days on the rock, in extreme privation, before a passing ship, the American Adams, had spotted him. He had been unable to kill any of the abundant sea birds (the rock was later mined for guano) and he had been saved from death by thirst by a rain shower, having sucked up water from crevices through a quill.

Jeffrey – who had been unlawfully pressed in the first place, was discharged from the navy, was given his arrears of pay and was taken to his home at Polperro by a naval officer. The entire community turned out to welcome him and an eyewitness reported that “the meeting between the mother and her son was extremely affecting and impassioned.” He accepted a payment of from Lake of £600 – a fortune in those days, when a domestic servant might earn £10 per year – on condition that he would not press legal action against him.  He told his story in London theatres and thereafter bought a coasting schooner. He  did not however prosper and he died young of consumption, leaving a wife and daughter in poverty.
HMS Recruit's moment of glory - crippling the Hautpoult 17th April 1809
The Recruit was subsequently to have a very active career.  Her new captain was Charles Napier (of later fame ) who engaged  the French corvette Diligent in 1808, driving her off only after a lucky shot ignited an ammunition store but suffering some 25% casualties in the process. The following year, 1809, saw the Recruit, after repairs, involved in the capture of Martinique, Napier himself landing with a small party, capturing a French fort, turning the guns on their previous owners and playing a key role in the final victory.

A French squadron of three 74-gun ships and two frigates had been end route to relieve Martinique but now turned back, chased by a British force that included a captured ex-French 74 HMS Pompée as well as Recruit.  For three nights and two days the Recruit managed to hang on the tail of the French squadron. On 17 April 1809 she managed to bring the Téméraire class 74-gun Hautpoult under fire – and it was now that the carronades were used to deadly effect. The Hautpoult's mizzen mast was brought down, slowing her so that HMS Pompée could engage. The Hautpoult was captured after  sustaining very heavy casualties in a 75 minute action. Taken as a prize, she was renamed Abercrombie, and was briefly given to Charles Napier of the Recruit. More valuable still to Napier was that he achieved the dream of every sea officer of his time – being made “post”, so that his rank of captain was made permanent.

The Recruit’s subsequent service was in North American waters in the War of 1812 – including being trapped in ice off Cape Breton in 1813, with more than half her crew suffering from scurvy as supplies of fresh produce ran out. Thereafter she was to be active on the American East Coast, capturing several privateers and merchantmen.

HMS Recruit was paid off when peace returned in 1815 and she was sold in 1822. For a small vessel her record of active service was dramatic in the extreme, showing, once again, that the reality of warfare in the Age of Sail was every bit as spectacular as it is depicted in historical naval fiction.
The Recruit's unlucky Cruizer-class sister HMS Frolic being captured by USS Wasp 18 October 1812

Tuesday 26 August 2014

Imperial German Colonial Aspirations, 1902

The worldwide German colonial presence in 1914 was to be wiped out – and essentially forgotten – in the years following the Great War. Large and wide-spread territories were involved, not just in Africa (What are now Namibia and Tanzania, but also Togo and Cameroon). More bizarrely “German New Guinea” included  “Kaiser Wilhelmland” (Northern New Guinea), New Pomerania (now New Britain), the Bismarck Archipelago, and the Solomon, Caroline, Marshall and Mariana island groups of the Western Pacific. German y also tried unsuccessfully, to buy the Philippines from Spain in 1898, before the US could establish a presence there. Germany also had a naval base, Tsingtao, on the Chinese coast. Settlement in these colonies by Germans was sparse – there may have been more Germans living in France in 1914 than in all the colonies put together.

I posted a blog- item on life on Imperial German Navy shipboard life on June 20th, following my discovery of a German 1902 book entitled "Germany's Honour on the World's Oceans" (Deutschlands Ehr im Weltenmeer) by a Vice-Admiral von Werner. It contained fascinating illustrations (some reproduced in my blog) as well as text that reflected official support for a shift in cultural mind-set in the German public in favour of a strong navy and a greater colonial presence. 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 and no overseas colonies. My earlier blog focussed on the naval side but the illustrations below – including advertisements at the back of the book for other publications – give some flavour of the importance being attached to increased German colonial development. 
Formal occupation of Angra Pequena, August 1884
Later renamed Luederitzbuchte, this settlement - and later port - was the toe-hold from which German West Africa (today Namibia) grew.

Statement of possession at Luederitzbucht, topped by Imperial German flag

A German naval brigade in action against African tribesmen
A rather satisfied-looking German officer in tropical campaigning uniform

Advertisement for children's publication "The Book of Our Colonies"

Illustration from the above book - derring-do in thc Pacific Islands
Another children's book: sub-titled "The Treasure of New Guinea"
And one in the eye for the Brits! Heroic Boers resisting British Imperialism in South Africa

Friday 22 August 2014

The Varyag at Chemulpo 1904: A last stand and a strange afterlife

In my blog last week I described the heroic last stand of the Austro-Hungarian cruiser Zenta in 1914. My present subject is an equally heroic “last stand” but with the difference that the ship involved was to survive into a quite amazing afterlife.

Soviet commemorative stamp for the Varyag, 1972
The Varyag was a protected cruiser built by the Cramp yard at Philadelphia for the Imperial Russian Navy, entering service in 1901. 425-ft long and of 6500 tons, she carried twelve 6-in guns as well as smaller weapons and her 20,000 hp gave her a top speed of 23 knots. It is notable that the 6-in weapons had no protective shields for their crews, perhaps reflecting the idea that cruisers of this type were more likely to be employed as commerce raiders than to engage in combat with other warships. The Varyag was assigned to the Russian Far East Fleet, with its bases at Vladivostok (iced-bound in winter) and Port Arthur (ice-free all year round).

The Varyag, as completed
In early 1904 tensions between Russia and Japan were at breaking point over territorial ambitions in Korea and Manchuria. The main Russian naval force was concentrated at Port Arthur and hostilities commenced on February 8th when Japanese torpedo boats attacked the Russians at anchor there – without a declaration of war, a foretaste of what was to happen at Pearl Harbour thirty-seven years later.  The Varyag was not present however – she was at the Korean port of Chemulpo, today known as Inchon – together with a small gunboat, the Korietz (1334 tons, two 8-in, one 6-in and smaller weapons). The Japanese cruiser Chiyoda was also based at Chemulpo where she and the Varyag eyed each other suspiciously for several months.

The Korietz - heavily armed for her size
Chemulpo, on the Korean west coast and some 30 miles from the capital, Seoul, was vital to the Japanese since was it was through this port that army forces and supplies were to be landed to support the invasion of Manchuria. A very large Japanese force was accordingly sent under Rear Admiral Uryu Sotokichi to take Chemulpo  – this included six cruisers, some eight smaller vessels, three transports and 2,500 ground troops. The most powerful Japanese vessel was the 9700 ton armoured cruiser Asama, built by Armstrong Whitworth in Great Britain, and with four 8-in and fourteen 6-in guns. The Asama , when commissioned in 1899, was considered the fastest, most heavily armed and most heavily armoured cruiser in any navy. The other Japanese cruisers were of the “protected” rather than “armoured” type, but were all well armed.

The Asama - feared and respected in her time
 The first indication that the Japanese might be about to mount a surprise attack came when a Russian transport, the Sungari, arrived at Chemulpo on February 7th 1904, reporting sighting of a large Japanese force. This was Uryu’s squadron. On the following day, February 8th, the Russian gunboat Korietz was ordered from Chemulpo to Port Arthur to report the sighting and to request instructions. The Korietz spotted the Chiyoda outside the roadstead, and mistaking it for a fellow Russian ship, loaded its guns for a salute. On closing in, the crew of Korietz realized their mistake and in the ensuing confusion the guns were discharged. Chiyoda responded by launching a torpedo. The Korietz retreated back to Chemulpo harbour. And the Chiyoda rendezvoused with Admiral Uryu’s force. The Russians do not appear to have regarded the incident as anything but a mistake and were not alarmed enough to go on a war footing.

The French cruiser Pascal - a neutral at Chemulpo
The Varyag and Korietz were not alone in Chemulpo. Also present were the British cruiser Talbot, the French Pascal, the Italian Elba and the American Vicksburg, all neutrals. Not only were the Varyag nor Korietz protected by international law while they were in Chemulpo, a neutral port, but any attack on them was likely to inflict damage on the four neutral warships as well, with incalculable diplomatic consequences.

At 1800 hrs on February 8th the Japanese troopships, covered by several cruisers, moved into the port, tied up close to the Varyag, and landed their troops. The disembarkation was completed by 0300 the following morning.  During these hours the Japanese had separately unleashed their sneak attack on the Port Arthur base. Throughout the Japanese landing activities at Chemulpo the Russians took no action and indeed continued normal activities with no sense of urgency.

Admiral Uryu now had a letter delivered to the captains of all warships anchored at Chemulpo. It was in perfect English, reflecting the fact that the Japanese Navy was modelled on the Royal Navy, and that many of its officers had trained in Britain. The message read as follow:

     I have the honour to notify you that as hostilities exist between the Empire of Japan and the Empire of Russia at present I shall attack the men-of-war of the Government of Russia, stationed at present in the port of Chemulpo, with the force under my command, in case of the refusal of the Russian senior naval officer present at Chemulpo to my demand to leave the port of Chemulpo before the noon of the 9th of February, 1904, and I respectfully request you to keep away from the scene of action in the port so that no danger from the action would come to the ship under your command. The above-mentioned attack will not take place before 4 o'clock p. m. of the 9th of February, 1904, to give time to put into practice the above-mentioned request.
    If there are any transports or merchant vessels of your nationality in the port of Chemulpo at present, I request you to communicate to them the above notification.
    I have the honour to be, sir, your most obedient servant,
                                                              S. URYU
A separate message was sent to the Varyag, as reproduced below.

In response to this the Varyag’s captain, Vsevolod Fyodorovich Rudnev, called a conference with the neutral warship captains (only the Americans declined to attend). These decided to reject Uryu’s request that they leave Chemulpo and, against the advice of the neutrals, Captain Rudnev stated his intention of fighting his way out to the open sea.
The Varyag (L) and Korietz (R) steam out to meet the Japanese,
as seen from the neutral warships
At 1120 hrs the Varyag steamed out from Chemulpo, the Korietz following closely. As they passed the British, French and Italian ships they were cheered loudly – indeed the Elba’s band played the Russian national anthem.
The Russian ships steaming out, cheered by the crews of the neutral ships
The battle that followed lasted less than two hours and the outcome was inevitable. Without room for manoeuvre and wholly outgunned, the Russian vessels were subjected to a merciless pounding at ranges as short as 6000 yards.. Rudnev himself was wounded and of Varyag’s 570-man crew 82 were killed and 190 injured. The Japanese appear to have suffered no casualties.
A contemporary magazine illustration of the battle
The ranges shown are too short to be realistic
The Varyag fought magnificently, and claimed hits on the Asama, but was incapable of overcoming the massive Japanese superiority of numbers. All  twelve of her 6-in guns were put out of action – the absence of gun-shields making their crews particularly vulnerable to fragments, even if not hit directly, and so too were most of her smaller weapons. She took five serious hits at or below the waterline, her superstructure and ventilators were wrecked and at least five fires had to be extinguished. Small as she was, the Korietz fought no less valiantly .
Contemporary postcard showing the damaged Varyag and Korietz
Badly damaged, unable to make their escape but unwilling to surrender, both Russian vessels limped back into Chemulpo. The Varyag was scuttled there at 1600 and the Korietz was blown up by her own crew. The Russian survivors were taken on board the neutral warships and in due course were returned to Russia on neutral shipping.
The Koreitz blowing up - a transport lies between viewer and explosion
The Varyag and her crew were rightly honoured in Russia, then and later, for their heroic defiance – indeed in 1972, in the Soviet era, a commemorative postage-stamp was issued in her honour. Captain Rudnev was decorated by the Czar and was also honoured in the Soviet era – a monument was erected to him in Tula in 1956. The most valuable honour of all came from the Japanese themselves, the Emperor awarding him the Order of the Rising Sun in 1907.

The Varyag reincarnated as the Japanese Soya
The Varyag’s career was not however at an end. She was salvaged after the war and taken into the Japanese Navy as the Soya. She served until 1916, by which stage Japan and Russia were allies in the war against Germany. Like several other Russian prizes captured in 1904-05 the Soya was handed back to the Russians at Vladivostok. She was named Varyag once more. Intended for service with the Russian White Sea squadron she was sent to Britain, to Liverpool, for a refit. Following the Bolshevik  Revolution the Russian crew on board hoisted a red flag and refused to sail. The ship was seized by the British and assigned to the Royal Navy in February 1918 but saw no service other than as a hulk.

The Varyag was sold for scrap in 1920 but while under tow grounded on rocks near Lendalfoot  on Scotland’s Firth of Clyde. Here she was scrapped in situ and she is now commemorated by a spectacular monument which was unveiled in July 2006 in a ceremony attended by senior Russian politicians and navy personnel, veterans and local dignitaries.

The Varyag’s last resting place, half a world away from the scene of her hopeless but heroic stand, was to be one that Captain Rudnev and his crew could never have imagined.

Thursday 21 August 2014

August 1813: HMS Pelican vs. USS Argus

Frigate vs. Frigate - USS United States vs. HMS Macedonian Oct 25th 1812

The War of 1812 at sea is often thought of in terms of epic single-ship actions between frigates, but one of the most bloody encounters took place not just between two much smaller craft, but in British home waters. In August 1813 an American brig was operating in the general are between Britain and Ireland and had already taken some twenty prizes. It is an example of just how shortsighted – even blind – navies were prior to the arrival of aircraft and radar, since the waters involved on this occasion were very close to land. 

Commissioned in 1803, the USS Argus had already had a very active career, having served in the First Barbary War. Two eminent US naval heroes, Stephen Decatur and Isaac Hull, were to command her in succession in tis period and she participated in the blockade of Tripoli and the capture of Derna in 1805. The climax of the latter action was the Marine Corps assault on the gun batteries on shore and which is still remembered in the Marine Hymn (" the shores of Tripoli"). 

On August 12th a Royal Navy brig-of-war, HMS Pelican, Captain John Fordyce Maples, armed with eighteen 24-pounders and two long 12-pounders, was sent out from Cork to cruise in St. George’s Channel, the narrow passage between Wales and Southern Ireland. Two days later the Pelican encountered the American brig, the USS Argus, off St. David’s Head on the coast of Pembrokeshire. The Argus was in the act of setting fire to a captured merchantman which she had already pillaged. She clewed her courses to shorten sail but being unable to get the weather-gage gave Captain Maples the opportunity of running alongside. The American captain, W.H.Allen, was however confident of “gaining the victory in ten minutes”, this confidence perhaps arising from having served as first lieutenant on the frigate USS United States when she had captured the British frigate HMS Macedonian the previous year.

Broadsides were exchanged for some twenty minutes, Captain Allen being wounded and taken below, and the Pelican, on the Argus’s weather quarter edged off to cross her stern to deliver a raking fire. Only swift action by the Argus’s sail-trimmers by taking the maintopsail aback and luffing the vessel frustrated this manoeuvre and enabled Argus to deliver another broadside. The Pelican again attempted the manoeuvre and the Argus was subjected to further severe punishment before Maples laid the Pelican alongside. Maples himself, sword in hand, led the boarding party. It met only a single volley of musketry, which killed Pelican’s master’s mate, a Mr. Young, and within minutes the American had struck her colours. 
Captain Maples leading the Pelican's boarding party
Both vessels were badly damaged and Pelican’s losses amounted to six killed and twenty-one wounded out of a total complement of 104. Total American losses were 40. The entire action lasted some 45 minutes and Maples was rewarded by immediate promotion to Post Captain and the Order of the Bath. The less fortunate American commander, Captain Allen, died during amputation of his leg and was buried with full honours in a churchyard in Plymouth. The illustration above, from a 19th Century publication, shows a perhaps idealised (was Maple's uniform this smart?) at the moment of boarding.

Friday 15 August 2014

The Battle of Antivari 1914: a heroic last-stand

Contemporary postcard:
Ausro-Hungarian cruiser Zenta under fire from French Dreadnought Courbet
On 16 August 1914, at the opening of World War 1, the French Navy advanced up the Adriatic in force, hoping to provoke a pitched battle with the Austro-Hungarian Navy. The idea of the single great and decisive encounter between full fleets had dominated much naval thinking since the British victory at Trafalgar in 1805, from which French (and Spanish) naval power never recovered during the remaining decade of the Napoleonic Wars.

Prior to 1914 it was widely assumed that fleets of battleships, supported by scouting cruisers, and by flotillas of destroyers and torpedo boats, would clash in climatic battles that might well decide the outcome of an entire war. This had indeed happened three times since Trafalgar – Japanese victories over China at the Yalu in 1895, and, massively, over the Russians in Tsu-Shima in 1905, and the American triumphs over Spanish forces at Manila Bay and Santiago in 1898, had been the decisive factors in bringing the vanquished to the negotiating table.

Russian annihilation at Tsu Shima 1905
The "Super Trafalgar" of the Age of Steam
In the years immediately prior to the opening of World War 1 in 1914, enormous investments had been made by all the “Great Powers” in expansion of naval capability. This was characterised by urgency in building of heavily armed and armoured “dreadnoughts,” seen as essential since Britain’s launching of revolutionary HMS Dreadnought in 1905 had rendered all existing battleships – including Britain’s – obsolescent.

What had not been sufficiently appreciated however was the fact that the very magnitude of this fighting capability, and the massive investment, it represented, made risking its loss potentially fatal. Churchill summed up the situation with his description of Admiral Jellicoe, commander of the Royal Navy’s Grand Fleet as “The only man who could lose the entire war in a single afternoon.”  World War 1’s only full-fleet confrontation, that between the British and German navies at the Battle of Jutland in 1916,  was to be characterised by caution on both sides, though it can be argued that the Germans “blinked first”. Pre-war thinking had emphasised the role of gunnery and had taken insufficient note of the extent to which minefields, and increasingly submarines, would change the nature of sea warfare. In practice the presence of a “Fleet in Being”, kept in protected anchorages but representing a threat which could be unleashed at any time, was to prove critical in obliging an enemy to deploy its forces so as to be ready to deal with it. The initiative rested with the possessor of the fleet in being.

The informal Anglo-French accords reached in the decade before the war were based on an assumption of confrontation with the Triple Entente of Germany, Austro-Hungary and Italy. It was agreed that British naval power was to be primarily concentrated in the North Sea to confront Germany, while French forces were to face the Italian and Austro-Hungarian navies in the Mediterranean. In the event Italy was to stay out of the war initially, and when she finally entered, in 1915, was to do so, for the most cynical of reasons, on the side of Britain and France.  

In August 1914 the main French concern was protection of troop convoys between French possessions in North Africa and Metropolitan France (and indeed throughout the war France was to depend heavily on colonial troops). With Turkey not yet formally involved in the war the main threat to such convoys would come from the Austro-Hungarian fleet, a powerful force with four modern dreadnoughts, ten pre-dreadnoughts and three old coast-defence ships, with significant cruiser, destroyer, torpedo boats and submarine forces to support them. It was a well-balanced fleet but its weakness was that it was based in the Adriatic, a long-narrow sea that could only be exited or entered by the 48-mile wide Strait of Otranto. The main Austro-Hungarian naval base was at Pola, at the Adriatic’s northern end.

For the larger French navy there were two options – to enter the Adriatic in force and hope that the Austro-Hungarian fleet would accept the challenge and face annihilation or to close off the Adriatic by blockading the Otranto Straits. In the first month of the war the first option looked like an attractive one, possibly the more so since France had no naval victory to its name since its humiliation at Trafalgar.
The pride of the Austro-Hungarian Navy:
Viribus Unitis, lead ship of a class of four
Hostilities had been in progress between Austro-Hungarian and Serbian forces since late July – the conflict that triggered the larger European War. Serbia’s small neighbour stood by her and it was only through this country that military supplies could reach the Serbians from her French and British allies. The harbour of Antivari (today know as Bar) was the main point of import and the Austro-Hungarians immediately took steps to blockade it with the small protected cruisers  Szigetvár and Zenta, supported by three Hussar-class destroyers and four torpedo boats. The old coast-defence ship Monarch was available for support.
Zenta (1897), small, obsolete and lightly armed
Destroyer Streiter of the Hussar Class,similar to the Ulan
The French now reasoned that breaking the blockade of Antivari would trigger a large-scale response from the Austro-Hungarians – almost certainly not by their entire fleet, but quite possibly by a powerful force which could be defeated by a much larger French one. By August 16th an enormous French squadron, with limited British support, had entered the Adriatic and was bearing down on Antivari. The composition was as follows:


Dreadnought Battleships:
Courbet, Jean Bart

Pre-dreadnought battleships (Last of this type, 6- 8 years in service):
Voltaire, Vergniaud, Diderot, Danton, Condorcet,
Vérité, Justice, Démocratie, Patrie, République

Armoured cruisers:
 Victor Hugo, Jules Ferry

Protected cruiser:
Jurien de la Gravière

5 destroyer squadrons


Armoured Cruisers:
                        Warrior, Defence

3 Destroyer divisions
Courbet - France's first dreadnought
Captain Pachner
Had this Anglo-French fleet force encountered an Austro-Hungarian squadron of similar size the result could well have been a battle of Tsu-Shima dimensions. On sighting the oncoming enemy force the tiny blockading force at Antivari retreated and, refusing to be drawn, the Austro-Hungarians made no effort to send heavier forces to support it. The Allied fleet cut off only the cruiser Zenta and the Ulan, the former, an obsolete unit dating from 1897 hampered by worn-out engines. The Zenta was signalled to surrender but her commander, a Captain Pachner, decided to fight it out despite the overwhelming odds.
The Zenta's last stand, as depicted on a contemporary postcard
The contest was unequal in the extreme. The Zenta, with her main armament of eight 4.7-in guns was taken under fire the Courbet, the French lead-ship, which carried twelve 12-in.   The outcome was inevitable, the Zenta being finished in ten minutes though in the process buying sufficient time for the Ulan to make its escape. Given the large numbers of destroyers in the Allied force it is hard to understand why any of the Austro-Hungarian ships were allowed to get away. Of the Zenta’s 308 man crew only 129 survived.
The Danton - an appointment with a German U-boat
off Sardinia in 1917 lies in her future
The Allied force withdrew after the battle and elements of it began the long-blockade of the Strait of Otranto which was to endure for the remainder of the war. Three of the larger Allied ships involved were themselves fated not to survive the war. The Danton was torpedoed by a submarine in 1917 while the Warrior and Defence were to be lost at Jutland in 1916. The strangest end of all was reserved for the Courbet – inconceivable as it was in 1914, she was to be sunk as part of the Mulberry Harbour off the Normandy beaches in 1944.

Forgotten today, the hopeless stand by the Zenta deserves to be remembered in the same way as those of the Rawalpindi and the Jervis Bay in World War 2. In all these cases flight was an option – and it was always refused. The Zenta’s crew died in the service of a moribund empire and a senile emperor, better men that those they died for so heroically.

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.

Tuesday 12 August 2014

1914: Dogs of War

The famous Punch cartoon of 1914
sums it up perfectly
In recent days, with the 100th anniversary of the opening of World War 1 so fresh in one’s mind, I have been very conscious of what was happening in Belgium during the opening rounds. Germany’s savage onslaught in Western Europe fell first on this geographically small nation when the Belgian Government refused to allow free passage of German armies to attack France.  Belgium’s refusal, and its determination to resist invasion by a vastly more powerful foes, was heroic in the extreme and the nation was to pay a very high price in the years that followed. Belgium’s desperate resistance in 1914 was however to knock the meticulously-calculated German advance schedule off track. It gave French and British troops time to deploy to meet the onslaught after Belgian forces were forced to retreat. Almost all of the country was to be occupied by the Germans, with only a tiny corner in the south-west being held by Belgian forces for the remainder of the war. The German occupation was to be brutal, marked not just by atrocities against civilians, but by massive deportation of forced labour and by removal of industrial plant. Looting of food supplies brought the population to the edge of starvation and, up to 1917, was saved only by American relief supplies organised by future-president Herbert Hoover. The Belgian economy, which in 1914 had been the sixth largest in the world, would never recover its position in decades to come.
Dogs pulling a milk cart in more peaceful times
Mark Antony’s call of Cry "Havoc!" and let slip the dogs of war!” in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar evokes images of ravening hounds straining at the least with bared fangs and bloodshot eyes. In 1914 however the “dogs of war” were to play much humbler but no less heroic roles. This was in Belgium, a country where, like parts of the Netherlands, dogs were in normal everyday use for pulling small carts. 
Two faithful servants
In the days before motor transport, and in a generally level country with few inclines, a dog was a cheap and effective way of transporting small items. A particular advantage was that, unlike horses or oxen, they could be kept easily in towns and, as omnivores, were low-maintenance as regards food. Dogs appear to have been widely used to draw small milk-carts and were popular subjects for postcards sold to tourists in the pre-1914 era.
Postcard showing Belgian infantry on the march
The Belgian Army was also to make use of dogs for transporting light loads, being widely employed by machine-gun teams either for pulling the gun itself, or for moving ammunition and other necessities. Surviving photographs from 1914 show that these dogs went to war and one wonders how many were to survive. A particularly poignant aspect of these photographs is that one gets such a strong sense of trust and loyalty – even pride. These humble canine soldiers look proud of what they could do.
A Vickers medium machine gun drawn by two K9 privates
Belgian troops marching to the front, supported by dog transport

Exhausted dogs have a well-earned rest
One wonders what finally became of them
Some of the saddest photographs from Belgium in 1914 show refugees who have taken to the roads with a few possessions to escape the German advance. A month before these people were leading inoffensive, humble, useful lives, but as war engulfed them they were to leave what they had flee with little more than the clothes on their backs. Many of these people were dependent on their dog carts – often laden with the old and the infirm.
Refugee family - and the dogs are doing their best
Dogs drawing a very heavy load - misery for humans and for beasts
Canine transport in happier times
Man's Best Friend
In all these photographs one is amazed at just how small many of these dogs were. One also has the strong the impression of the dogs’ endless loyalty and patience, “Man’s Best Friend” proving himself in extremity.

And today – a hundred years on from this misery – we are confronted with images of even greater suffering as Christian and Yazidi refugees flee before an unthinkably more savage for than the Germans were in 1914. The best way we can commemorate World War 1 and its sacrifices is to stand by these people in Iraq in their hour of need.

I am indebted to the splendid Sweet Juniper Inspiration website ( for some of the illustrations used above