Friday 30 October 2015

Crimean War 1854 - Action at the Danube Mouth

The war fought by Britain, France, Turkey and Piedmont in 1854-56 is normally referred to as the “Crimean War” since it was in the Crimea, on the northern shores of the Black Sea, where most of the combat took place. The Allied forces concentrated on besieging the great Russian naval base at Sevastopol and on destroying the fleet bottled up there and the siege, imagined initially as likely to be of short duration only, was to drag on for a year and a half, causing vast suffering to both sides. The first British action in the Black Sea involved  bombardment and blockade of  Odessa. Attacks were also made  in peripheral and far-flung theatres far from the main theatre of war (See links at the end of this article to earlier blogs about these campaigns). 

Thereafter, the Royal Navy’s main contribution to war in the Black Sea was support of the siege of Sevastopol by large scale but mainly ineffective bombardment as well as by escorting shipping bringing supplies northwards from Constantinople/Istanbul.

A major role for the Royal Navy - securing supply lines by sea
Here is British shipping in Balaclava Harbour, near Sevastopol
Some limited harrying of the extensive Russian coastline was also undertaken since, with the Allies having control of the Black Sea, the possibility always existed of them landing troops at some other point. We know in retrospect that the Allies were too stretched to do this but this has the benefit of hindsight. The danger could not be discounted at the time and each pinprick attack on the Russian coast demanded diversion of Russian forces that might otherwise been valuable in helping raise the Sevastopol siege.

Sevastopol under bombardment from the sea as well as from land
An early instance of such action was at Sulina, at the mouth of the Danube, and it took place in June 1854, even before Allied troops were landed near Sevastopol. The town of Sulina was of importance in peacetime as it was the export point for the vast grain production in the provinces of Wallachia and Moldavia. The channel had not yet been dredged – as it later was – to allow large ships to move upriver. Grain accordingly came downriver to Sulina in small boats and was transhipped there into sea-going vessels.

Sulina - seen here pre-war
Two Royal Navy paddle sloops, HMS Firebrand, commanded by Captain Hyde Parker, and HMS Vesuvius, commanded by a Captain Powell, were tasked with closure of the Danube. (Readers of this blog may remember Firebrand being in action against  Argentinian forces in 1845 – see link at end).  The initial action was on 22nd June when boats from both ships, supported by a Turkish gunboat, carried landing parties to attack a guard-house and signal-station some twenty miles north of Sulina. As they approached, signals rippled along the coast from station to station, to summon aid. Close to the landing point a body of Cossack cavalry was posted but it pulled back as it came under fire from the vessels close inshore. Sheltered by this fire, the seamen and marines landed from their boats, formed up on the beach and advanced in skirmishing order towards the Cossacks, who retreated on horseback.  The station was immediately burnt, the signal-staff destroyed, and the landing parties returned to their ships in good order and – one must assume – high good spirits.

Russian Military Post on the Danube
In the following days several other stations were destroyed in the same way  and on the night of the 27th June, Captain Parker raided the garrison of Sulina itself, though his force withdrew afterward and the town was not held. Among the prisoners taken was the Russian commander. The operations so far had been exemplary – minimal force for maximum effect – and they were upkeeping the tradition of aggressive small boats raids and cuttings-out of which the Royal Navy had made such deadly use of in the Napoleonic period.

Firebrand and Vesuvius now maintained a strict blockade of the Danube and landing parties continued to operate with impunity.  Parker did however come to suspect that Russian forces had reoccupied a “Gabion” battery  (essentially an earthwork) on the quarantine ground close to Sulina –
the location where crews suffering from  infectious diseases would normally be confined. On  6th July therefore boats from both ships carried parties to investigate and, if required, to storm the position. Parker himself took command.  

There was no sign of Russian presence until Parker’s own boat was close to the position. A single rifle-shot then flashed in the darkness and a volley followed, rounds thudding into the boat, one grazing Parker’s elbow, and another severely wounding one of the men. Parker immediately  ordered the boat to pull round, and, as she retreated, he shot his own rifle back towards the enemy, which by now were pouring in a galling and heavy fire on all the boats. One of these, a pinnace grounded within fifty yards of the battery, putting its occupants at high risk.

Night attack on the Russian gabion battery - note high trajectory use of Congreve rocket
Parker now decided – probably unwisely, since surprise was lost – that landing was now his best option. The boats headed shorewards and he seems to have been the first to leap from his craft, shouting in the best tradition “We must storm — follow me, my men!”  He and his followers rushed towards a line of high canes growing parallel with the river, and about fifteen yards from it. He advanced along this, firing, and knocking down a Cossack who confronted him. He paused to reload and in doing so was killed by a burst of Russian fire, one round of which took him in the heart. He fell into the arms of his coxswain and command devolved to his deputy, a Commander Powell. This officer seems to have been less precipitate and more cautious, since before advancing further he directed the boats to open fire on the battery with the light cannon mounted in their bows and with the Congreve rockets that some carried. The rockets, though difficult to aim and range with accuracy, were especially valuable since, like mortar shells, they could drop on targets not vulnerable to direct gunfire. This barrage gave sufficient support  for  the marines and seamen to storm the position and drive the Russians back into a marsh beyond where, wisely, they were not followed.

The final onshore action was a week later. On 13th July a paddle gunboat, HMS Spitfire – of shallower draught than either Firebrand or Vesuvius – towed the latter’s boats across the bar at the Danube mouth. She opened fire on Sulina directly, driving off the Russians who had reoccupied it after the previous raid. This time there was no holding back. The marines and bluejackets who landed burned the town to the ground.

Parker’s death aside, these operations can only be regarded as text-book examples of economic use of  resources, but which by their very aggressiveness secured a moral superiority that forced the enemy to divert resources that could be better employed elsewhere. In their way they were forerunners of successful commando ”hit and run” raids in WW2.

Links to other articles related to the above:

                              The First Victoria Cross Winner 


Britannia’s Shark

1881 and the British Empire’s power seems unchallengeable.

But now a group of revolutionaries threaten that power’s economic basis. 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 and naval power cannot touch them…

 A daring act of piracy drags the ambitious British naval officer, Nicholas Dawlish, into this deadly maelstrom.  Drawn in too is his wife Florence, for whom a glimpse of a half-forgotten face evokes memories of earlier tragedy. For both a nightmare lies ahead, amid the wealth and squalor of America’s Gilded Age, and on a fever-ridden island ruled by savage tyranny …

Tuesday 27 October 2015

Two Wasps - glory and tragedy in the War of 1812

The name Wasp is one of the oldest and most illustrious names given to ships in the United States Navy. The earliest,  a schooner purchased by the Continental Navy in late 1775, was one of the first ships in American government service and since then ten more vessels have carried the name. The latest of these is the current Wasp, a 40500-ton amphibious assault ship launched in 1989 and currently in service. Two Wasps were aircraft carriers which saw extensive service in World War 2, the first of these being lost during the Guadalcanal Campaign and her successor, launched in 1943, remaining active until the early 1970s.

The Wasp  of 1807 (r) lying across the bows of HMS Frolic - painting by Thomas Birch
In the 1807-1814 period, four Wasps were commissioned and two of these were to come to eerily similar ends. The earliest of these was a sloop-of-war which entered service in 1807. She was a compact and powerful vessel, carrying no less than  sixteen 32-pounder carronades – murderously efficient weapons at close quarters – as well as two 12-pounder long guns on her 450-tons and 105-ft length. Her 140-man crew was small but this was most likely an advantage for welding it together as a well-trained and cohesive force. She remained in home waters until war broke out with Britain in June 1812 and she continued thereafter to operate off the American coast. In 14th October she sighted a British convoy off the Delaware River. On investigation this proved to consist of six-merchant ships, escorted by a 22-gun sloop-of-war, HMS Frolic. The Wasp drew close during the night and at mid-morning on 15th October the two sloops opened fire on each other in strong wind and unfavourable sea conditions. 

As Frolic, like Wasp, had carronades as her main armament, the range was necessarily close. Unusually for the Royal Navy (though it was apparently common practice for the French) Frolic concentrated her fire on Wasp’s rigging, while the latter directed her own cannonade on the Frolic’s hull. Wasp suffered badly – the upper parts of her mast were shot away and many of her braces severed. Now unmanageable, she drifted slightly ahead and the Frolic collided with her. The initiative of the American commander, Jacob Jones, could not be praised too highly for he took immediate advantage of this situation. He delivered a single raking broadside – devastating at this range when carronades were involved – and then launched boarders. Frolic struck her colours. The action had taken twenty-two minutes and every British officer and half her crew – some 90 men in all – were either dead or wounded.
Contemporary illustration - a real morale-booster for the United States
Had the affair ended there it would have been a resounding triumph. Unfortunately however, the Frolic’s masts collapsed soon after the surrender and Wasp herself also needed extensive repairs. Neither ship was in a fit state to escape when a British “74”, the ship-of-the-line HMS Poictiers, arrived, en route to join the fleet blockading the American coast. Outgunned, and with two crippled ships on his hands, Captain Jacob Jones had no option but to surrender both Wasp and Frolic. They were taken to Bermuda for repair, after which the Wasp became was taken into service in as HMS Loup Cervier the Royal Navy, her name being again changed to HMS Peacock two years later. Under these names she saw significant service and captured several mercantile prizes. The changes of name brought her no luck and she disappeared without trace, with all hands, somewhere off the Virginia Capes, in July 1814.

The next Wasp was a schooner which went to sea under a privateer’s warrant in July 1812 – this meant that two Wasps were briefly in simultaneous service. She cruised in the West Indies later that year, captured at least one prize, and was lucky to survive a hurricane that cost her both her masts. She made one further, but unsuccessful, cruise as a privateer, her service ending in 1814. Yet another Wasp was by now in service, this one a chartered sloop that operated on  Lake Champlain during the late 1813 and into 1814. Her charter ended without her having been in action.

Contemporary illustration
The fourth Wasp of the period was the replacement for the sloop captured by the British in 1812 and she was specifically constructed as a warship. Though tonnage and armament was comparable she was ship-rigged – i.e. had three masts, making her look like a miniature frigate. Commissioned in early 1814 she set sail in May to carry the war into the Eastern Atlantic and the approaches to Britain itself. She immediately captured four small merchant ships as well as a Royal Navy brig. Except for one vessel retained for prisoners, all were either burned or scuttled – one assumes that with Wasp’s small crew, some 170 men, and the manning demanded by her twenty 32-pounder carronades and two long 12-pounders, provision of prize crews would have diminished her fighting ability. The decision proved a wise one for on 28th June she encountered the almost identically-armed Cruizer-class sloop Reindeer some 200 miles west of Cornwall
Marines on Wasp (r) repelling boarding attempts from HMS Reindeer
The resulting battle was brief – nineteen minutes – but it once again involved a ferocious exchange of carronade-fire at close range. The Reindeer made several attempts to get a boarding party on to Wasp but they were beaten back each time. It was now Wasp’s turn and her attempt at boarding proved successful. Reindeer struck her colours – her captain was among the 25 dead and there were in addition 42 wounded, a casualty rate of approximately 40%. She was too badly damaged to be taken as a prize and she was accordingly burned. Thereafter Wasp headed for the French port of L’Orient to land her prisoners and to refit, taking two small prizes on the way.

Now repaired, Wasp was back at sea in late August and immediately captured two brigs. On 1st September she encountered a ten-ship British convoy and, even though it was escorted by a “74”, Wasp darted in, captured a brig, took off her crew, burned her and escaped without loss. Later that evening she sighted a solitary sail. It proved to be an 18-gun brig, HMS Avon. Wasp closed with her and in late evening – it would have been dark – opened fire.  Following a merciless battering Avon struck her colours. Three further British warships now arrived on the scene and Wasp, outnumbered, made off, though not without sustaining some damage in a brief exchange of fire.

Johnston Blakely
Wasp’s successes continued through September and on the 21st captured an 8-gun brig, HMS Atalanta. A valuable acquisition, a prize crew was put aboard her under command of a midshipman to sail her to the United States. She arrived in Savannah in early November.
And that was all but the last contact with Wasp. She was spotted by a Swedish merchantman in October, apparently heading for the Carribbean. She was never seen again.

Like her almost-twin and her namesake – later HMS PeacockWasp disappeared without trace, taking all hands with her. In her half-year of active service she had accumulated a list of successes seldom equalled in so short a time and it is ironic that she should ultimately have succumbed to Nature rather than to enemy action. Her commander, Johnston Blakely (1781 - 1814) was promoted posthumously to the rank of Captain. Three American ships have been named in his honour.

The War of 1812 left a proud tradition for later Wasps to live up to – and they did.


Britannia's Wolf - the first book in the Dawlish Chronicles Series 

1877: Russian forces drive deep into the corrupt Ottoman-Turkish Empire.  In the depths of a savage winter, as the Turks face defeat on all fronts, a British officer is enmeshed and finds himself confronting enemy ironclads, Cossack lances and merciless Kurdish irregulars. And in the midst of this chaos, while he himself is a pawn in the rivalry of the Sultan’s half-brothers for control of the collapsing empire, he is unwillingly and unexpectedly drawn to a woman whom he believes he should not love.

Friday 23 October 2015

A picture that could inspire half-a-dozen novels

Like everybody who writes novels I’m frequently asked “Where do you get the ideas from?”

There’s no easy answer and I suspect that the process varies considerably between writers. One is usually drawing on a very wide knowledge and interest in a wide range of topics, and frequently the inspiration comes from what may be an all but subconscious asking of “What if…” Given a reasonable familiarity with the events, personalities, beliefs and politics of a given time it’s not too difficult to visualise the scenery within which a story can be set. What brings the story to life however is identification of the main characters and the challenge they must face. What are their strengths, their weaknesses, their drivers, their loyalties, their priorities, their moral compasses? When we meet them at the beginning of a novel they’re already living, breathing personalities, each with his or her own back-story that makes them what they are at this moment. That back-story may be hinted at – and in some cases main events in it may be briefly sketched – but as often as not it does not require extensive detailing in the current story. The reader does not to know all the details, but the writer must. Unless he or she knows what had brought a character to the point of their appearance on Page 1 or Page 25 or Page 100 then they can never be credible.

This train of though was initiated when I recently stumbled across an 1882 drawing from the Illustrated London News from  entitled “Recruits”. It shows a recruiting sergeant with a small group who have just enlisted by “taking the Queen’s shilling”. They’re on their way to the regimental depot – since it’s in London it may be one of the Household Regiments – and they’re leaving their civilian life behind. And so too perhaps memories, histories, responsibilities and failures they might like to put behind them, but which may prove hard to forget.

For me this drawing crystallises so much about some aspects of the Late-Victorian period and it’s easy to imagine a back-story for each of the characters. It could represent “Act 1, Scene1”, the point of departure for a half-dozen linked stories. So let’s look in more detail.

First the setting. It’s London, spring or early summer judging by the clothing. The Houses of Parliament in the background hint at the confidence and power of Empire. A newsvendor has some news about The Queen – we can’t see what it is, but it might or might not be significant for the story that follows. We glimpse the driver of a Hansom cab in the background, and a fashionably dressed man, but the central group have turned away from this normality and are heading for another.

It’s on the group at the centre upon which attention focusses and from the reaction of the lady with the little boy, and of the dog in the foreground, there’s a hint that they’re already men apart who are heading off into the unknowable.  So what could be the backstory of each of them?

The recruiting sergeant is a trusted and proven man – otherwise he would not be in this job. A decade before he might have been like any one of these men, but his whole demeanour tells of an identity that he has adopted fully and that he is proud of. It’s 1882, so there’s a good chance he may have served in the Ashanti and Zulu Wars, and perhaps has seen action on India’s North-West Frontier with Afghanistan. Whatever his story was when he enlisted he’s now at ease with his military identity and he has the confidence to draw others with him into the same path.

There are five recruits behind him.

On the extreme left is a “gentleman”, certainly from a “good family” and well educated. But he’s a waster – his financial and moral credit has run out through drink or women or gambling, or perhaps all three. He’s deep in debt and close to penniless. His parents are dead and his brothers and brothers-in-law, all solid and respected professionals, have finally given up on him. He has the choice between a leap off a bridge over the Thames and enlistment in the Army. He’ll give the Army a try - at least he won't starve. As a “gentleman ranker” he’s going to find it hard, not just the discipline but the company of the barrack room. In a year or two’s time he may put a muzzle in his mouth and push a trigger with his toe. But there’s another chance, a slim one, but not impossible. He may make the best of it, may distinguish himself in action – and there’s always plenty of it around in this period - and he may be given the choice between a medal and an officer’s commission. There’s hope, but he doesn’t see to at this moment. It’s interesting that his eyes are cast down, perhaps in shame. But it’s perhaps also to avoid the gaze of the lady who is hurrying past and pulling a little boy with her. She may have recognised him as her brother or her husband.

An agricultural labourer in a smock and gaiters also follows the sergeant, somebody straight from the pages of Thomas Hardy. He looks pensive and realises the full enormity of what he’s doing, but he’s accepting it manfully. But what is he escaping? It seems more likely to be poverty rather than family responsibilities, but how did he find himself in Central London rather than enlisting at some Wessex market town? There’s a mystery there. He’s likely to be good soldier. The life he’s heading to may well be less harsh than what he has left behind and he’s at least assured of three meals a day and a dry bed in barracks when he’s not on campaign. He’ll accept discipline easily, will prove reliable in all circumstances, may well be an NCO himself in the next decade. He’ll serve in the Sudan, the Boer War, in several minor Indian and African campaigns. He’ll be retired from the Army and working as a trusted warehouse supervisor in 1914 and he’ll return to the colours to help train Kitchener’s “First Hundred Thousand.”   His son – also a regular – will be killed at Mons and his grandson will be a Second Lieutenant at El Alamein and a successful accountant thereafter.

The young man on the right, with cane and pipe, is probably a clerk, somebody from one of H.G.Wells’ turgid novels such as Kipps or Mr. Polly. He’s flashily dressed – more so than he can afford on his thirty-shillings per week. He may have joined up because he’s been embezzling and he knows that his employers are all but on to him. He has almost certainly enlisted under a false name and though he’s putting on an air of swagger he’s deeply worried about what’s to come. The Army will make or break him very quickly. He’ll probably resent the discipline and, at least initially, will be somewhat of a “barrack-room lawyer” until he realises that it will get him nowhere. He may quite soon be involved in misappropriations of some type and he may be cunning enough to carry it off for a long time. And yet there’s a small chance that he’ll take to the life, that he’ll do well in action, that he too could be a recruiting sergeant ten years from now – he’ll be glib enough with the patter that will entice others like him. Given a good NCO to take him in hand, he has possibilities.

The individual behind him in the “scotch bonnet” and half-mast trousers, is possibly a much nastier piece of work. It’s because of him that a policeman is bringing up the rear because if a close eye isn’t kept on him he’ll disappear He’s had numerous runs-in with law before now – nothing big or violent, but sly and underhand – but it’s never been possible to hang anything on him. The magistrates have had enough – they’ve finally got him for something and to save the rate-payer the expense of his incarceration he’s been given to option of joining the Army. He’ll keep his head done initially but he’ll be running a racket of some type as soon as he knows the system. He’ll cheat on cards if he can and he’ll be a regular on the VD list. But he’ll be a survivor, in the short term at least, and when better men are holding their ground to the last he’ll have weaselled some way of avoiding any action at all. He’ll come to an unpleasant end however, not in the line of fire, but from a knife in the ribs from some pimp he has fallen out with.

A good man to have on your side.
It's two years on. Which of the five is it?
And finally, the young man at the back on the left. He’s naïve, has probably read stirring accounts of military life in the popular press. He’s got some basic education – he’s risen from office boy to very junior clerk, but he’s got a romantic streak and he thinks his soul isn’t fettered to an office stool. Girls don’t take him seriously and he’s had more than one disappointment in that line. He’s probably cannon-fodder. In a badly-conceived story he’ll be a type that’s a cliché in movies – the simple but decent young man who’ll be taken under the wing of the country bumpkin and may well die in his arms, probably clutching a picture of his mother. But he too, if given a good NCO to guide him, may well turn out well.  He may end up doing excellent work in transport and supply rather than front-line combat, and he’ll be trustworthy and honest too. But in the meanwhile, while  he’s chatting to the well-meaning policeman, who’s probably sorry for him, he’s giving the shifty type an opportunity to scarper.

So there we have it – one picture worth a lot more than a thousand words and possibly worth a series of novels.  It’s 1882. Britain has very colourful and dramatic decades ahead and the Army will be in the thick of it. The possibilities are endless. Five men – six including the recruiting sergeant – are heading into the future.

Would anybody like to take up the challenge?


Britannia’s Reach

In 1880, on a broad river deep in the heart of South America, a flotilla of paddle steamers thrashes slowly upstream. It is laden with troops, horses and artillery, intent on conquest and revenge.  Ahead lies a commercial empire that was wrested from a British consortium in a bloody revolution. Now the investors are determined to recoup their losses and are funding a vicious war to do so.

But as brutal land and river battles mark its progress upriver, and as both sides inflict and endure ever greater suffering, stalemate threatens.

And Nicholas Dawlish, the ambitious British naval officer, first introduced in Britannia’s Wolf, finds himself forced to make a terrible ethical choice if he is to return to Britain with some shreds of integrity remaining…

Tuesday 20 October 2015

The Crimean War’s White Sea Theatre - 1854

The Crimean War (1854 – 56) is most remembered for images of the charge of Britain’s Light Brigade at Balaclava, the privations suffered by the ill-equipped besiegers of Sevastopol through a deadly winter and the achievements of Florence Nightingale, all episodes that took place in the Crimea itself. Earlier blogs have however pointed out that lesser-known operations took place in the Baltic and on the Kamchatka peninsula on Russia’s Northern Pacific coast. (Links to earlier blogs on this and other topics addressed in this article can be found at its end). The least-known operations of all took place however on the shores of the Arctic Ocean, in the White Sea and in the Kola Inlet. Both these locations were to play roles in both World Wars as landing points for aid sent by the Western Allies to Russia, most notably via the epic Arctic Convoys of WW2. They were also to provide bases for ineffectual British support of White Russian forces against the Bolsheviks in the Russian Civil War.

 British and Dutch shipping had been accessing Russia for trade by this area since the late sixteenth century – indeed the Dutch navigator Willem Barents (1550 – 1597) had given his name to the sea north of which forms part of the Arctic Ocean.  Arkhangelsk, a major city at the southern end of the White Sea had remained a major trading port ever since.  Murmansk, at the head of the Kola inlet further to the west, also had port facilities, though minor.

When Britain and France entered the war in early 1854 to support the Turks, who had already been fighting the Russians for several months, the decision was taken to send a small Royal Navy squadron to harry Russian presence in these northern waters by attacking shipping and forts. The Russian Navy had no significant presence in the area and weather conditions in winter made it advisable to confine operations to the summer months.

Esasmus Ommanney 
The British squadron that was sent was under the overall command of Captain Erasmus Ommanney (1814 – 1904). He had been present at the Battle of Navarino when he was thirteen years old – naval careers began early in those days! He had previous experience in high latitudes as he had been second-in-command of the expedition sent in 1850 to search for Sir John Franklin and his ships Erebues and Terror which had disappeared during an effort to find the North-West Passage. It was Ommanney who discovered "fragments of stores and ragged clothing and the remains of an encampment Beechey Island " though no further trace could be found. Ommanney awarded the Arctic Medal for this and he was to spend of his later years in Arctic-related scientific work, for which he was knighted. He rose to the rank of vice-admiral.

HMS Miranda (on right) later in service in New Zealand waters
Ommanney’s squadron consisted of the 26-gun frigate HMS Eurydice and two near-identical steam sloops, HMS Miranda and HMS Brisk, carrying 15 and 16 guns respectively. The 910-ton, 140-foot Eurydice carried sail only and though she entered service in 1843 she was little different to frigates of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic War eras. Her ultimate fate was to be a tragic one, but at the time of the White Sea expedition that still lay some three decades in the future. All her guns were truck-mounted 32-pounder muzzle loaders, no different to those in service at Trafalgar. Though commissioned only a few years later, the Miranda and the Brisk, though also wooden-hulled, represented major technological advance. Improved versions of HMS Rattler, the first screw-driven warship in Royal Navy service, these two 1,523-ton, 196- foot vessels could make just over 10 knots maximum under steam power. This advantage was however offset by the fact that, like Eurydice, they were still armed only with 32-pounders on the broadside.

The White Sea - with thanks to Google Earth
The small force arrived off the north Russian coast in July 1854 and the campaign started by advancing towards the southern end of the White Sea. Here, on a small archipelago called the Solovetsky Islands was something of a curiosity – a Russian fortress that was also a monastery. Much of this massive construction dated from the 16th century and then and in the early 17th century, it had withstood attacks by the Livonian Order (a branch of the Teutonic Knights) and by the Swedes. It is hard at this remove to understand what was to gain by attacking this fortress. (In other blogs I have approvingly quoted Nelson’s dictum that “A ship’s a fool to fight a fort”).

Solovetsky Fortress-Monastery  in 2009 (courtesy of Wikipedia entry)
Even had Ommanney destroyed this fortress-monastery  – in itself an impossibility given the limited forces at his disposal – the strategic value would have been essentially zero. In the event the bombardment lasted two days – 6th and 7th July. It achieved nothing and had the fort been better armed the British ships might have stood a good chance of being destroyed themselves. Two weeks later, on July 23rd, Miranda and Brisk, operating close inshore, bombarded the small town of Novitska.

Illustration from Russian pamphlet showing bombardment of Solovetsky Fortress

Contemporary British view of the bombardment
Kola Inlet today - 30 miles from
Baretns Sea in north to Kola/Murmansk
The only other significant action was further west, in the Kola inlet. Miranda sailed southwards – that is upriver – towards the settlement of Kola, just south Murmansk. Her steam propulsion was a major advantage since the thirty miles distance to be covered was against a strong current and in waters sometimes so narrow that there was scarcely room to swing the ship. Miranda anchored off Kola on August 23rd and under a flag of truce a demand was made that the fort there, its, garrison and all government property be surrendered.  The crew remained at their stations through the night and when no answer was returned in the morning, the flag of truce was hauled down, and the Miranda, getting within 250 yards of the shore battery, opened a fire of grape and canister. This supressed opposition enough to allow a landing party of bluejackets and marines to storm ashore. They succeeded in dislodging the enemy from the batteries and in capturing capture the guns. A hot fire was opened on them from the towers of a nearby monastery but its defenders were also driven out.  Government stores and buildings, was immediately set on fire and completely consumed. Miranda then dropped downriver again.

That was the end of the campaign and the squadron returned to Britain thereafter. Miranda proceeded thereafter to the Black Sea to support the main Allied effort. Captain Edmund Moubray Lyons (1819 -1855), who had manoeuvred her up the Kola Inlet with considerable skill, died of wounds in June 1855. Miranda herself had an active career thereafter, mainly in Australian and New Zealand waters, and was broken up in 1869. Brisk was to have a similarly active career, most notably including service on the West Africa Anti-Slavery Patrol. She survived to  1870. The Eurydice, by then an anachronism, was to come to a tragic end in 1878.

And the final verdict on the White Sea expedition of 1854? It is easy to be critical with the advantage of hindsight, but even so one can only question why lives – both British and Russian – should ever have been squandered in a such a pointless exercise. The same applies to the operation in the Northern Pacific. What, in either case, was the strategic value?

Click on the links below to read earlier blogs about to topics mentioned above 


Britannia’s Shark

1881 and the British Empire’s power seems unchallengeable.

But now a group of revolutionaries threaten that power’s economic basis. 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 and naval power cannot touch them…

A daring act of piracy drags the ambitious British naval officer, Nicholas Dawlish, into this deadly maelstrom.  Drawn in too is his wife Florence, for whom a glimpse of a half-forgotten face evokes memories of earlier tragedy. For both a nightmare lies ahead, amid the wealth and squalor of America’s Gilded Age, and on a fever-ridden island ruled by savage tyranny …

Friday 16 October 2015

Grace Darling, Unexpected Heroine, 1838

Grace Darling by Thomas Musgrave Joy
November 15th this year will be the 200th anniversary of the birth of one of the great Victorian heroines. Grace Darling gained widespread acclaim for her courage, was celebrated in verse, prints and Staffordshire pottery and remained for several generations afterwards an almost legendary figure who was held up, deservedly, as an example to the young.

This lighthouse-keeper’s daughter, seventh of nine children, was raised on Farne Islands, off Northumbria, on England’s north-east coast, living in accommodation attached initially to lighthouses, initially on Brownsman Island, and thereafter to a more modern one, in a more advantageous position for assisting shipping, on the nearby Longstone Island. These islands are situated at the extreme south-west (Brownsman) and extreme north-east (Longstone) of the small archipelago. 

Though the direct distance between these two islands about three and a half miles, the distance by water is considerably more due to other islands lying in between. It is therefore a tribute to the watermanship and physical strength of Grace’s father, William Darling, that he regularly rowed back from Longstone to Brownsman to gather vegetables he still grew in his former garden. The craft used was a 21-foot, four-oared “coble”, a distinctively shaped type open boat, used mainly for fishing. The design had evolved so as to meet conditions on this coast – a flat bottom to allow easy launching and landing on the region’s sandy beaches and high bows to cope with heavy surf.  
William Darling's coble - on display in 1883
Grace Darling’s life was an uneventful – if hard one – in Spartan conditions until she was 23 years old but events on 7th September 1838 were prove that she had bravery of the highest calibre. Two days before this a coasting paddle-steamer, the 400-ton SS Forfarshire, had departed from the port of Hull – further south – to sail north to Dundee on Scotland’s east coast. At this period, when the Railway Age was still in its infancy, travel by sea was an attractive – and cheaper – alternative to travel by road.  The Forfarshire was carrying 63 passengers and crew as well as a substantial quantity of freight. Soon after leaving Hull the boilers began to leak, and on the next morning the weather began to deteriorate. No thought seemed to have been given to turning back and the vessel forged slowly north-north-eastwards, past the lighthouse manned by the Darling family on Longstone Island.

SS Forfrayshire - contemporary watercolour
By evening on September 6th it was found that the boiler leakage had got worse and the storm was now so severe that water was cascading down from the deck was quenching the furnaces. Off St. Abb’s Head – some 25 miles from Longstone Island – the machinery ceased functioning and there was no option but to set the sails and run before the storm. This was to take the Forfarshire directly towards the Farne Islands. The beam of a lighthouse had been spotted and the captain, John Humble, who had his wife with him, decided that it was the Inner Farne Light at the south-west end of the islands. Should he be able to keep it off his port beam he could pass safely between the islands and the mainland – a channel known as the Fair Way. He was mistaken however – the light was that on Longstone and keeping the light to port meant that he was driving directly towards the islands.

The roar of breakers was heard just before daybreak on 7th September. The captain tried to take evasive action but the Forfarshire proved incapable of responding to the helm. She was now wholly at the mercy of the storm. Seas were breaking over her in the darkness and she was soon driven on to a rock known as the Harcar, her bows crashing down on it, and rising with the surge, then smashing down again.  Eight of the crew now rushed to a boat and lowered it lowered successfully. One half- naked and frenzied passenger jumped in after them. The storm carried this boat out into the open sea and, as it proved, to safety, for the occupants were subsequently rescued.

The ship was now in her death throes. She was still being pounded on the reef and the hull was incapable of resisting. The Forfarshire broke in two, the after half – containing the cabins, many of the passengers as well as the captain and his wife – was swept away. Though many on its deck had been washed away, the fore-half remained lodged on the rock.  The tide was however falling and the continuing battering by the waves was making the wreck unstable and liable to roll over. Realising the desperation of the situation, the ship’s carpenter and one of the passengers leaped down on the rock itself and encouraged the survivors – including a mother and two children – to join them.

Grace and her father to the rescue - contemporary print
This drama was played out in darkness and though the lighthouse was only a mile away those in it – only Grace and her parents – were unaware of what was happening. Only at daylight, and through a telescope, could movement be detected on the Harcar Rock. The weather was still so stormy that William Darling doubted the possibility of rendering assistance. Grace was however adamant – they would take the coble, regardless of risk, and she herself would wield one oar. Her father yielded and with the help of his wife the boat was launched out into the surf.

Grace - the iconic image reproduced by the thousands
Intimately acquainted with the geography of the islands, William Grace took a roundabout course to approach the rock from the most favourable direction. The coble was repeatedly almost overwhelmed but her design, proven over centuries, was in her favour. It was however a four-oar boat and Grace and her father were tested to the limits of their strength as they pulled through the boiling foam. They at last came in sight of the rock, spotting nine cold, terrified and exhausted survivors. From initial observation only three or four had been expected but the number was now too much for the small boat to carry. Two trips would be needed.

Grace now took both oars and manoeuvred the coble close enough for her father to spring across. He was now faced with the unenviable task of who to take on the first trip. One of these was to be the mother, a Mrs. Dawson, whose two children had already died of privation. There was no option but to leave their bodies on the rock and to get her back to the lighthouse together with three others, one of them injured and the others able-bodied members of the crew who were able to take an oar each. They gained the lighthouse safely. Grace – who must have been exhausted by now –remained behind with her mother to comfort the bereaved Mrs. Dawson. Her father returned to the Harcar Rock with the two seamen from the Forfarshire and managed to take off the remaining survivors. The entire rescue had taken two hours.

The rescue - as painted by Thomas Musgrave Joy - the number of survivors shown  is too high

Immortalisation in Staffordshire china
Grace Darling’s role in the rescue became a sensation. The story spread from the local press to the national and one article, in the magisterial Times, asked “Is there in the whole field of history, or of fiction even, one instance of female heroism to compare for one moment with this?” A subscription was set up on her behalf – the recently-succeeded Queen Victoria donated £20 – and gifts of all types were sent to her by admirers. Letters arrived by the sackful – some asking her to kiss them and return them (one wonders how effective this could be in the days before lipstick) and visitors arrived at the lighthouse in hired boats in the hope of seeing her. Paintings and drawing were made of her and were reproduced by the thousands and she was even represented in a particularly ghastly but popular art-form of the time, Staffordshire china representations intended for display on the mantelpiece. She was invited to appear on stage, and even in a circus, though she declined to do so. Songs and poems were written in her honour. Particularly memorable are the verses for which the Scottish poet William McGonagall was responsible some decades later, a sample being:

And nine persons were rescued almost dead with the cold
By modest and lovely Grace Darling, that heroine bold;
The survivors were taken to the lighthouse, and remained there two days,
And every one of them was loud in Grace Darling’s praise.

Grace Darling was a comely lass, with long, fair floating hair,
With soft blue eyes, and shy, and modest rare;
And her countenance was full of sense and genuine kindliness,
With a noble heart, and ready to help suffering creatures in distress.

Commercial Exploitation
Grace lived up to the virtue she was named for and was not corrupted by fame. She turned down every offer to exploit her reputation (though one of the survivors did, touring the country and telling his story with the aid of a “Panorama”) and she continued to live with her family. Her days were however numbered. “Consumption” – that catch-all term of the time that usually meant tuberculosis – had already taken hold.

She died in her father’s arms in 1842 just short of her twenty-seventh birthday.


The Dawlish Chronicles in Audio Format

The first of the Dawlish Chronicles novels, Britannia’s Wolf,is currently being recorded in audio-format by the distinguished American actor David Doersch. Watch this space for further information.

David Doersch is a seasoned narrator with dozens of audiobooks under his belt. As an actor and director, he has worked at some of the leading Shakespeare Festivals in the United States most recently playing Nick Bottom in A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Virginia Shakespeare Festival. He is also an accomplished Fight Director, which is work that has taken him to 5 continents. Currently, he works as the Casting Director and Fight Coordinator for the live touring arena stunt spectacular, Marvel Universe LIVE! He literally gets to train superheroes for a living!. His favorite genre of literature is historical fiction, and as such is thrilled to be working on Britannia’s Wolf.

Tuesday 13 October 2015

The Victorian Fascination with Murder

I have always enjoyed George Orwell’s essays, not only for the variety of the topics and the clarity of his arguments but the simple elegance of their English. One of their charms is that he often fastens on a simple incident or social phenomenon and proceeds to build a powerful philosophical or political lesson from it. As such, though they were written over half a century ago, the majority continue to have direct relevance to our own time (Try “Notes on Nationalism”)

One of Orwell’s most interesting essays is “The Decline of the English Murder”, which has an unforgettable beginning – what could have been the opening of a novel no less than of an essay:

It is Sunday afternoon, preferably before the war. The wife is already asleep in the armchair, and the children have been sent out for a nice long walk. You put your feet up on the sofa, settle your spectacles on your nose, and open the News of the World. Roast beef and Yorkshire, or roast pork and apple sauce, followed up by suet pudding and driven home, as it were, by a cup of mahogany-brown tea, have put you in just the right mood. Your pipe is drawing sweetly, the sofa cushions are soft underneath you, the fire is well alight, the air is warm and stagnant. In these blissful circumstances, what is it that you want to read about?
Naturally, about a murder.
I remembered this when I stumbled in this cartoon from a 1849 edition of the humorous magazine Punch, which shows that the tradition was well established a century before Orwell. It shows a pater-familias in a slum lodging reading for his wife and seven children and holding them enthralled:

 Punch  in this period was not exactly given to punchy captions (no pun intended!) and this case was no exception as it reads:

Father of a family (reads): “The wretched Murderer is supposed to have cut the throat of his three eldest children, and then to have killed the baby by beating it repeatedly with a poker .... In person he is of a rather bloated appearance, with a bull neck, small eyes, broad large nose and a coarse vulgar mouth. His dress was a light blue coat, with brass buttons, elegant yellow summer vest, and pepper-and-salt trowsers.  When at the Station House he expressed himself as being rather ‘peckish’ and said he would like a Black Pudding which, with a Cup of Coffee, was immediately procured or him.”
The incidental detail in the drawing is also notable – the Bible has been thrown on the floor and lies unnoticed, a mallet and chisel are there also, conveniently, should of this particular father decide to emulate the murderer and a cut-throat razor is prominently displayed on the mantelpiece.  Above it are portraits – probably torn from a magazine – of what were often referred to as “celebrated murderers” – in this case Greenacre and Courvoisier.

Another Punch cartoon of the period is a commentary on the popularity of such portraits. A ragamuffin is purchasing an illustrated newspaper which is advertised by a poster proclaiming:

Full particulars
Dreadful Murder
Portrait of MURDERER

Another line of business associated with such crimes – especially when executions took place in public up to the mid-1860s – was the sale of alleged “Last Confessions” by hawkers who moved through the enormous crowds that gathered to watch. The illustration below shows on such vendor and his wares - notice copy on his hat!.

 A good example of the genre are verses referring to Francois Bernard Courvoisier, a French valet who murdered his employer, Lord William Russel, in 1840. Courvoisier’s is one of the portraits over the mantelpiece in the cartoon referred to above. The lengthy account of the crime was apparently set to music (to the Tune of “Waggon Train”, and there was a chorus in which everybody could join in – it must have made for a jolly evening at the tavern (or even a Sunday afternoon with the family).

Interest in such crime was not confined – as the Punch cartoon implies – to the “lower orders”.  High-profile trials were followed as avidly as the O.J. Simpson case was to be followed in our own time. Refined intellectuals like Nathaniel Hawthorne, George Eliot and her partner G.H. Lewes were all fascinated by the murder-trial of Madeleine Smith murder case in 1857. The chilly bluestocking Jane Carlyle wrote at length, and breathlessly, to her even frostier husband Thomas about the same case. Both Dickens and Thackeray attended public hangings at least once (Dickens was disgusted by the crowd's behaviour) and even the arch-litterateur Henty James was still writing at length about the Smith case to a friend in 1914.

The tradition survives in the Sunday newspapers but it is in the endless sequences of television documentaries about crime that carry it forward most effectively into the 21st Century. Interviews with victims’ families, with police, with local journalists and, on occasion, with perpetrators, often illustrated not just with gory photographs but with dramatized reconstructions, are in their way no better or no worse than the reading material being enjoyed in the 1849 slum.

Human nature does not change and the thirst for sensation is never slaked.