Friday 27 May 2016

An epic stand against French oared-galleys in British Waters – 1707

When one thinks of battles involving oared galleys one thinks automatically of actions in the Mediterranean. The lot of a galley-slave chained to an oar must have been dreadful enough in the warm and usually calm waters of that sea, but it must have been infinitely worse in the cold, rough waters off the French coast and in the North Sea. The galley’s day as a fighting vessel – a long one, stretching back two thousand years – ended in the early eighteenth century and as such they do not figure in most accounts of sea warfare of that era, as “Fighting Sail” reached its apogee of efficiency. I was therefore all the more surprised to come on an account in a Victorian publication of a battle with galleys in the Thames estuary in 1707. This was during the War of Spanish Succession, the last of Louis XIV’s wars, that which began the long decline of French power through much of the remaining century.
A réale galley belonging to the Mediterranean fleet of Louis XIV
Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license
Louis XIV (a man much given to his own comfort and luxury, as his creation of the palace at Versailles testifies) appears to have been favourable to use of galleys and ordered that courts should sentence convicted criminals to serve as oarsmen in them as far as possible, even in peacetime. Though the idea was never implemented, he appears to have considered substitution of galley-service for the death penalty. Considering that execution in France this period was by the barbaric method of breaking on the wheel, being chained to an oar would probably have represented a marginally preferable fate.

In August 1707 a French force of six galleys, commanded by a Commodore Langeron, was off the Thames estuary, en route for an attack on the British port of Harwich. It was being guided by a Captain Thomas Smith, an English Jacobite who had taken service in the French navy after fleeing to France following the deposition of the King James II from the British throne. Like many supporters of the exiled king, Smith had a bitter score to settle. The galleys appear to have been some 150-feet long and 22-feet in the beam, carrying sail on three masts and also propelled by oars pulled by some 200 chained slaves. They carried around 12 guns. Though such vessels were obviously very manoeuvrable in Mediterranean conditions, one wonders just how well their high length to beam ratio would have made them workable in rougher Northern seas.
The Battle of Grengam (a.k.a as Ledsund) in 1720 by Ferdinand Perrot (1808–41).
It shows a Russian galley engaging Swedish frigates at close range 
Captain Seth Jermy
This French squadron ran into a British convoy of thirty-six merchantmen coming from the Netherlands under the escort of a single frigate, the 20-gun HMS Nightingale, commanded by a Captain Seth Jermy (1653–1724). On sighting the French Jermy ordered the convoy to crowd on sail and head up the Thames while he turned with his own single ship to meet the oncoming six vessels He must have known the odds to be hopeless – one is reminded of the epic last stands of the Rawalpindi and the Jervis Bay in WW2 – but his intention was to impose a sufficient delay to allow his charges to escape. Commodore Langeron, on the French side, decided to take on the Nightingale with his own galley, the La Palme, and pressed on so fast that he left his next ship so far astern as to make it impossible to render direct assistance. As she closed with the Nightingale the French galley opened fire but the British frigate withheld hers, making no attempt to escape. Anticipating little resistance, and encountering only irregular fire from the frigate when the range had decreased to pistol-shot, Commodore Langeron decided on carrying her by boarding.

The preferred method of attack by galley appears to have been to use her superior manoeuvrability under oars to come bows-on to the enemy’s stern, rake her with cannon fire, then ram, locking both vessels together and pouring boarders across from elevated platforms on the foreship. As the La Palme drove on Captain Jermy handled the Nightingale so skilfully that at the last moment she avoided her attacker’s viciously-pointed ram and he laid his own vessel alongside her. In the process Nightingale smashed into the galley’s oars – the effect on the wretches chained to them must have been horrific. Only now did Jermy open with a full broadside, sweeping the enemy’s deck, the effect magnified by seamen in the fighting tops dropping grenades. Jermy now launched his own boarding party and a murderous hand-to-hand conflict began on La Palme’s deck.  Commodore Langeron’s next galley in line finally arrived to join the fray and the Nightingale’s boarders, outnumbered, were forced back to their own ship, where most were subdued or killed.
"English warships heeling in the breeze onshore" by Willem v/d Velde the Younger (1633-1707)
Judging from their size, HMS Nightinale would have looked very similar
Captain Seth Jermy had retreated to his own cabin, which gave access to the gunpowder store. He repulsed French attempts to enter – shooting dead a sergeant of marines – and was contemplating blowing up the ship rather than surrender. Only when he saw that his merchant charges had gained safety was he prepared to listen to terms of surrender and to accept them. A French account recorded that when Jermy was brought before the French commander his appearance was unprepossessing –  Commodore Langeron “could not help testifying his surprise at the inconsiderable figure which had made such a mighty uproar – he was humpbacked, pale-faced, and as much deformed in person as beautiful in mind.” Langeron’s reaction could not have been more gracious. He returned Jermy’s sword to him with the words: ”Take, sir, a weapon no man better deserves to wear; forget you are my prisoner, but remember I respect you for a friend.”

Captain Thomas Smith, the Jacobite in French service, seems to have borne himself well in the action and was rewarded with command of the captured Nightingale. He was to enjoy it only for a year, as he was captured by the British and hanged for his part in the attempt on Harwich. Jermy was exchanged with a French prisoner fourteen months after the battle and was immediately – and deservedly – appointed to another command. He retired from the navy in 1712.

And what of the men chained to the French oars? The record seems to say nothing of them. The mind recoils from considering their ultimate fates.

 Britannia’s Wolf is available as an audio book

                                              – listen to a sample

The first book in the Dawlish Chronicles series is now available as an audio book read by the distinguished American actor David Doersch. If you haven't previously ordered an audio-book from you can download it without cost as part of a 30-Day Free Trial. You can listen on your Smart Phone, Tablet or MP3 Player.

To listen to as sample go to the links below and click on the small arrow beneath the cover image there:

Tuesday 24 May 2016

The ramming of the Forfait by the Jeanne d’Arc, 1875

A number of postings on this blog have dealt with naval ramming accidents in the late 19th Century (see references at end of article). Ram bows had been seen as desirable feature of warships of any size after the successes scored by the Austro-Hungarians at the Battle of Lissa in 1866 and few vessels entered service in any navy between then and 1914 without them. In practice the ram proved a serious danger to vessels’ peacetime sisters, in what would be now termed “blue on blue” accidents, and use of the weapon in anger was to prove difficult in the extreme. An example of the latter is that the Peruvian (later Chilean) turret ram Huascar made some ten ramming attacks in the course of her career, only one of which resulted in sinking of an enemy ship.

Model of Jeanne d'Arc Personal photograph taken by Remi Kaupp
 in the Musée de la Marine, Paris (
Multi-license with GFDL and Creative Commons CC-BY-SA)
A now largely-forgotten ramming accident occurred in 1875 when the French armoured corvette Jeanne d’Arc sank the third class cruiser Forfait off the east coast of Corsica. By that time both ships were obsolescent, their hulls constructed of wood and, in the Jeanne d’Arc’s case, protected with armoured plate. This latter was a substantial vessel, one of a class of seven launched in 1867/68 when warship design was in a state of flux. Of 3600 tons and with a length of 382 feet, these vessels carried four 7.6-inch guns in open-topped circular armoured barbettes, plus smaller weapons on the broadside. A wrought-iron belt some 8-feet wide and six-inches thick protected the entire waterline and the armour of the barbettes was some four-inches thick. One cannot but wonder how effectively this heavy plating was fastened to the wooden hull, and whether the backing structures could have stood up to heavy gunfire in actions that luckily never came. These vessels had 1600 to 1900-Horsepower single shaft steam-engines which gave them a maximum speed of over eleven knots. As was common at the time they also carried sailing rigs and crews of around 316.

Forfait in service
The Forfait was a smaller and older vessel, in service since 1860 and unarmoured. Of 1126 tons and 222 feet long, she was capable, under steam, of almost 12 knots. By the early 1870s her armament had been increased from an initial four, to a later six six-inch guns. She was classed as a “wing scout”, intended for reconnaissance duties with larger fleet units, and she could be regarded as what later came to be classed as a “Third Class Cruiser”. She was no less suited to independent roles and saw active service in the early 1860s supporting the French intervention in Mexico, transporting troops and equipment to Vera Cruz and in 1864 landing a shore party to assist capture of the Mexican city of Tuxpan. The later 1860s were spent in South-East Asia and the Pacific, including survey work off the northwest coast of Borneo. By 1872 she was back in French home waters and assigned to the Mediterranean fleet based at Toulon.

A contemporary illustration of the squadron - Jeanne d'Arc on extreme right
On 21 July 1875 a French squadron consisting of six ironclads, as well as smaller units, was involved in exercises off the east coast of Corsica. The ironclads steamed in two parallel lines, one headed by the Magenta, with the Jeanne d’Arc and Reine Blanche following astern while the other line was led by the Amide, followed by the Thetis and Alma. The squadron was a homogeneous one, all vessels sisters except for the flagship, the 6700-ton broadside ironclad Magenta
The black-hulled ironclad Magenta, seen here at Brest in the 1860s
The three-decker Napoleon in  background, still in service then,
would have been suited to service at Trafalgar
The Forfait, unsuited by her lack of armour for service in the battle-lines, was positioned to one side, ready to undertake scouting or other duties as directed. The weather was fine and the sea calm – a splendid Mediterranean day – as the two lines forged ahead majestically at 8 knots. At noon a signal from the admiral directed Forfait to pass astern of the Magenta to receive orders.  At this remove the requested manoeuvre seems to have been a dangerous one since it involved inserting the Forfait into the gap between Magenta and Jeanne d’Arc.

A contemporary artist's-impression of Forfait sinking
In the event the manoeuvre proved fatal. The Forfait’s commander misjudged his turn across the Jeanne d’Arc’s bows and the ironclad’s pointed ram smashed into the smaller vessel’s side. A large rent was torn, through which water rushed in’ but the shock of collision was almost unnoticeable on the Jeanne d’Arc. Nobody was killed or injured on either ship, but the Forfait was now doomed. She remained afloat for fourteen minutes, allowing her 160-man crew to get away safely in her boats. Her captain remained on the bridge as his ship sank under him, then floated free, caught hold of floating wreckage, and was saved.

The ram had claimed another friendly victim and only good weather prevented a more tragic outcome. Two years later, in July 1877, two of the sister ironclads present, the Reine Blanche and the Thetis, were also involved in a ramming incident, though both survived.  But the ram was to remain a fixture – and a dangerous one – for another four decades.

Here are links to earlier blogs about ramming incidents:

The Loss of HMS Vanguard, 1875:

The ramming of SMS Grosser Kurfürst, 1878:

SS Utopia and HMS Anson, 1891:

Collision of HMS Hannibal and HMS Prince George, 1903:

Friday 20 May 2016

Guest Blog by Tom Williams: Indian Mutiny

Here’s a fascinating and erudite article by my friend, the novelist, Tom Williams who writes about the Napoleonic and Victorian eras. His most recent novel Back Home is set in Britain in 1859 and its hero also figures in an earlier novel, Cawnpore. The latter is set in the Indian Mutiny of 1857-58 and it is on this historical event that he focuses here. Tom draws some very interesting parallels with our own time.You can find more about him at the end of the piece – I trust you’ll enjoy it! 

Does the Indian Mutiny have any lessons for today?

It's probably helpful to start by asking what the Indian Mutiny of 1857-58 was. For starters, it wasn't a mutiny.

British India 1856 - it included
modern Pakistan and Bangladesh
Yes, everything kicked off at Meerut when Indian soldiers – known as Sepoys – refused musket drill using the new cartridges which, it had been claimed, were greased with both pig and beef fat. So they were mutineers. But, contrary to the way that we think about it now, the East India Company's army mutinied all the time. The refusals to obey orders were usually treated as localised difficulties and life moved on with no perceptible impact on the machinery of colonial government. This mutiny was different and to understand why, we need to look at the political background.

When the British first started to gain ascendancy in India they were regarded as just one of many political powers in the land. Many local rulers made alliances with them. Relations between the two communities were generally friendly. Intermarriage between British soldiers and Indian women was common and tacitly encouraged by the East India Company. European officers would join in Hindu ceremonies, piling their swords alongside the sepoys’ muskets to be blessed by the holy man. British soldiers and administrators were fascinated by the country they had come to rule and adopted many local customs – as reflected in our 21st century English vocabulary and our most popular choice of Friday night eating.

The British relied on Indian soldiers for their security. These men came from warrior castes and were happy to serve any masters who respected their martial prowess and led them to victory. This the British, at least initially, did.
6th Madras Light Cavalry Sowar (cavalry equivalent of Sepoy)
 By the middle of the 19th century things were changing. A significant factor in this was the role of the missionaries. Christian organisations in England had decided that the British Empire could be a force for good if it Christianised its colonies. Missionaries duly arrived in India and started to tell the locals that their Muslim God and their Hindu deities were abominations unto the Lord and that they should adopt Christianity. To make things worse, some senior British officers joined in this proselytization. Their troops began to feel under pressure to convert. There were even remarkable rumours, including one that British women were being shipped en masse to India where Indian men would be forced to convert to Christianity and marry them. 
"A Sale of English-beauties, in the East Indies" by James Gillray
Published by William Holland, hand-coloured etching and aquatiint, 16th May 1786
(with acknowledgement to the National Portrait Gallery, London)
Given the famous “fishing fleets”, in which young women came out every year to net themselves a husband in the colonial administration, perhaps the idea did not appear as obviously unrealistic to the locals as it seems to us now. In any case, what mattered was not what was true, but what was believed to be true. This is particularly the case with the famous cartridges.

Most people with even the slightest knowledge of the Indian Mutiny will know that it was triggered when troops were ordered to use cartridges which, it was claimed, had been greased with pig and beef fat. The standard way of using a cartridge was to bite the end off the waxed paper that surrounded the ball and the powder. The use of these animal fats meant that "biting the bullet" was forbidden to both Hindus and Muslims. The insistence that they do so led to a refusal to obey orders at the large British base at Meerut and everything went rather downhill from there. Historians nowadays can find no evidence that pig or beef fat was used in the cartridges – which is not to say that it was not, but simply that people chose to believe this in the absence of any clear facts one way or the other. 
David Ochterloney, a famously well-assimilated Englishman and his Indian household
(a scene increasingly uncommon as the 19th Century progressed)
The move to Christianise India went alongside a general decline in respect for Indian customs. Indian soldiers believed that they would lose caste if they served overseas, and this had always been recognised, but now there were rumours that the British might order Indian regiments abroad. (Remember that we were fighting in Crimea at the time.) Indian soldiers began to feel that their traditions were not respected. European officers were now discouraged from taking Indian wives. The easy relations between the two cultures were breaking down.

At the same time, put simply, the British were getting greedy. As they had taken over more and more of India, the British came to believe that they simply had a right to all of it. Lands were seized on flimsier and flimsier pretexts. This came to a head with the Doctrine of Lapse. The British argued that where they had an arrangement with a local ruler to maintain control of his own lands, this would lapse when his line died out. This, in itself, was an uncertain moral or legal position to take, but it was made massively worse because the British insisted that they would recognise only natural heirs. Traditionally, in the absence of a male heir Indian rulers had adopted children. It was well understood in India that such an adopted child had clear rights to inherit. The British simply refused to accept this. This obviously led to considerable unhappiness amongst the Indians. Although the British had seized control of states where there was no male heir as early as 1824, the doctrine was introduced as official policy in 1848. Significantly, the important state of Oudh was seized under this doctrine in 1856. The Mutiny, of course, was in 1857.

By early 1857, there were clear signs of unrest in India. Europeans were bewildered but frightened by incidents like those of the chapattis (circular unleavened flatbread). Chapattis would be carried from village to village, the recipient being required to bake more and pass them on in the same way. Some sort of message, presumably, was being spread with these apparently innocuous offerings, but nobody to this day knows exactly what the message was. Lotus flowers were sometimes passed amongst military units in the same way. Unlike the chapattis the message here seems clearer: the lotus flower was a symbol of war. Incidents like this were accompanied with rumours that 1857 was to be "a red year" with the implication that it would be a year of bloodletting. 1857 was, in any case, potentially dangerous simply because of a real or imagined Indian obsession with celebrating anniversaries. 1857 marked the hundredth anniversary of the Battle of Plassey where Clive of India began the process of imposing British rule. Many people believed that a hundred years after Plassey, the British would be driven out as dramatically as they had arrived.

Against this background came the rumours of the grease on the cartridges. As I've mentioned, there is no clear evidence that beef or pig fat ever was used and once the rumours started specific orders were sent to the arsenal at Dum Dum, where the cartridges were made up, insisting that no objectionable animal products be included. So the refusal of troops to ‘bite the bullet’ was not a random act of disobedience, but the response to long-term political agitation. Nor was this all one-sided. The man who gave the order, the splendidly named Col George Monro Carmichael-Smyth was making his own political point, insisting on parading his men and drilling him with the new cartridges at a time when wiser heads in the Company’s army were advocating that the issue be allowed to die away.
"The Sepoy Revolt at Meerut", as depicted by the Illustrated London News
So the action at Meerut was a political event. At first, technically, it was a mutiny, but the failure to see it in its wider context led quickly to disaster. The troops did not vanish away into the countryside: they marched in ordered ranks to put themselves at the service of the Mogul Emperor in Delhi. At this point, the Mutiny was already taking on the appearance of an uprising. Local rulers, like Nana Sahib, the villain (for want of a better word) of my novel, Cawnpore, saw the opportunity to re-establish their power while the British, deprived of the support of their native troops, were weakened. 
The first massacre at Cawnpore - after surrender, British families were allowed to leave
by river, but many were murdered as their boats departed
One of the first acts of the rebels in many places (including Cawnpore) was to open the jails. So beside the mutinying troops and the various forces of the native rulers, many of those who joined in the fighting were local convicts who simply saw an opportunity to profit from the general unrest. Thus natives who were associated with the British (such as Christians or other Eurasians) were often attacked and murdered, less to achieve military or political goal than because their attackers could then loot their property. With an almost complete breakdown of law and order and mass conflict spreading across huge areas of the country, there was an opportunity for many old scores to be settled.
Contemporary impression of second massacre at Cawnpore -woman and children the victims
Within a remarkably short time, much of north-west India was in revolt, in a conflict which is called, in India, the Indian War of Independence. What we don’t notice at this distance (and with the benefit of hindsight) is how close this came to defeating the British.

So: are there any lessons?

The key point to be aware of is that, although British troops (and Indian troops who remain loyal) performed logistical wonders and acts of great bravery, they were salvaging a situation which would not have arisen if there had been a more intelligent political understanding of the country in the first place. Unrest had grown because of the breakdown in the easy communication between Indians and Europeans. By 1857 the European political and military leaders had little idea of the mood of India. If they had, it is likely that, for example, the Doctrine of Lapse would not have been applied so ruthlessly.

From the point of view of the army, it is easy to consider that the mistakes were primarily made by politicians, but the military had to accept responsibility too – and at all ranks. Senior officers (like Col Carmichael-Smyth) misjudged the situation and junior officers – many of them having arrived in India with nothing but contempt for the “niggers” (yes, the obnoxious term was used of Indians – although older and wiser heads considered this offensive) could easily make bad situations worse. At Cawnpore (I use its 1857 Anglicised name – nowadays it's Kanpur), where the garrison was under the command of General Hugh Wheeler, the situation was already tense when a drunken 21-year-old European who recently left the Army under a cloud shot at a native patrol which had legitimately challenged him. At his trial the next day, it was accepted that his weapon had gone off accidentally, a decision that did not impress the men who had been shot at. Two days later the troops at Cawnpore mutinied. Probably they would have mutinied anyway, but it's far from certain.

Major General John Nicholson -

worshipped as Nikal Seyn
One of the things that becomes very clear to anyone who reads the history of the Mutiny is the importance of the relationship between officers and men. While many regiments in the north west of the country mutinied, some stayed loyal, often because of the affection that they felt for their commanders. The Indian Mutiny was, to a quite remarkable degree, a story of the successes and failures of officers to inspire loyalty in their own men and the wider population. For example, a crucial reason for the failure of the rebellion was that the rebels were not supported by the Afghan tribes, which could easily have used the situation to cross the frontier and challenge the British within the borders of India. This was largely due to the respect that the Afghanis had for John Nicholson, who may have been mad and with a sadistic streak, but who some of the locals worshipped as a god. (If the Internet is to be believed, he was still being worshipped in some of the more remote parts of Pakistan into the 1980s.)

Have we learned from this in the intervening 150 years? Quite possibly not. In 2009, the Financial Times carried a story claiming that: “The Foreign and Commonwealth Office has no Pashto speakers and only a third of the Dari speakers it deems necessary to operate in Afghanistan.” Apparently it was okay not to have any Pashto speakers as: “According to the FCO’s own assessment, it requires no Pashto speakers to work effectively in Afghanistan, even though it is the main language of Helmand province.” So our senior politicians and diplomats don’t see any necessity to learn the language of countries where we have military operations. At the other end of the line of command, a search for the word “raghead” on the Army rumour service produced 192 hits. So the combination of ignorance and obvious contempt that contributed to the disaster of the Indian Mutiny still seems alive and well.

A lack of awareness of local sensitivities can lead to incidents such as the shooting at the gates of the Afghan National Army Officer Academy in Kabul, where a misjudgement by private soldiers led to the death of an Afghan soldier with potentially serious political implications.

The modern army is probably more aware than in the past that winning hearts and minds can be as important as winning the actual physical conflict, but these incidents and the attitudes behind them suggest that the strategic awareness of this necessity does not necessarily translate to the situation on the ground any better now than in 1857.

What about the actual fighting? I am not a soldier so as far as military strategy goes, I will limit myself to two remarks. The first is the importance of communications. The telegraph had only recently been introduced into India, but its use proved critical. The telegraph clerk in Delhi gave his life to get out the warning that the insurrection had started there and this resulted in the British being able to respond much more quickly than would have been the case otherwise. The mutineers were probably aware of the importance of telegraph and cut the wires in the areas they controlled, but the message had already got out and the machinery of a military response was already in motion. The Indian Mutiny is therefore notable as the first major conflict in which electronic communication proved a decisive factor. The ability to communicate effectively remains crucial today.
A mixed body of mutineers and what appear to be civilian supporters on the march
The second point is that the British response to the Mutiny was handicapped by the fact that India was regarded as pacified and safe and we therefore had a totally inadequate level of military preparedness. We relied excessively on native infantry, essentially because this was an awful lot cheaper than using Europeans. We also promoted entirely on seniority with the result that some key positions were filled by generals intellectually or physically clearly incapable of the task. One young officer claims that he served under a brigadier so blind that when he reviewed his troops he could not tell which direction they were facing.

When the Mutiny broke out, there just weren't enough troops and many of those that there were available were badly commanded. My own feeling is that history has judged General Wheeler’s actions rather cruelly, but some of his decisions do not seem to have been particularly wise and, at the age of 68, he certainly lacked the stamina for the situation he found himself in. After the death of his son, who served as his aide de camp, he had some sort of breakdown and was effectively incapable of command.

Critically, we were able to divert troop ships that were on their way to fight a colonial war in China. We also still had troops in Crimea, left over from the war there that had finished the previous year. Although reinforcements were sent out from England, they would have been too late to decisively affect the critical initial stages of the war. The implication, I think, now as then, is that you cannot have an army that plans for peace. While everybody in India had hoped for peace – and expected peace – it was the duty of the Army to have prepared for war. The lessons for today are, I think, self-evident.


The Indian Mutiny Julian Spilsbury: Weidenfeld & Nicolson (2007)
Our Bones Are Scattered Andrew Ward: John Murray (1996)
Afghan mission lacks language skills Alex Barker  

About Tom Williams

Tom Williams lives in the 21st century and isn't sure he belongs there. When he's not writing about the 19th century, he likes to dance tango and street skate. You might think that roller-blading is a very 21st century activity, but the first in-line skates were patented in 1760. Tom is the sort of person who knows stuff like that.

Tuesday 17 May 2016

A Flawed Concept – The Imperial Chinese Navy's doomed "Rendel Cruisers"

In my novel Britannia’s Spartan, set in 1882, an important role is played by a cruiser of the Imperial Chinese Navy, the Fu Ching. She is the fictional sister of two warships the Yang Wei and the Chao Yung, that did indeed serve in that navy. For a short period in the 1880s these vessels carried what was probably the heaviest armament for any ships of their sizes afloat. Built in British yards, their design had been evolved by Sir George Rendel, building on the success of his earlier concept, the “Flatiron Gunboat” which was armed with a single large-calibre weapon. While the latter were intended for use in estuaries and sheltered waters, the new design envisaged a small, cheap cruiser-type vessel suited for service in the open sea and carrying two of the most powerful guns then available. These were Armstrong 10” breech-loaders.  With reasonable speed for the time, and with high mobility, these vessels would be suited, in theory at least, to engage larger and more heavily armoured, but less nimble ships. Despite the superficial attractiveness the concept was turned down by the Royal Navy, due to concerns about seaworthiness in the English Channel and the North Sea. These areas might well become battlegrounds in any future war since France was perceived as Britain’s most likely potential enemy in this period.
Contemporary drawing - the sailing rig was unlikely to have been used except
during the initial delivery voyage from Britain to China
Overseas customers were now sought and the first ship of the type was laid down for Chile in 1879 as this nation’s war with Peru and Bolivia was commencing. In the event that war ended before the vessel was completed and she was taken over by the Imperial Japanese Navy as the Tsukushi.  She was to serve without distinction in the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95 and the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05.Her construction and completion was however overtaken by two generally similar vessels for another Far Eastern customer when an order was placed by China. In the early 1880s the corrupt and floundering Chinese Empire was wakening up to the threats posed by growing Russian and Japanese power on its northern and eastern borders, as well as the pressure from France  the south, from what is now Viet-Nam, and which was to erupt into the Sino-French War of 1885 which ended in a humiliating Chinese defeat. The need for a strong navy to protect China’s long coastline was obvious but corruption and inefficiency was to make progress in this spasmodic and inconsistent. A few ships of limited capacity could be built at the Foochow Dockyard and equipped with imported guns, but the majority were contracted from European sources, German as well as British, resulting in a wide variety of calibres of guns and munitions.
Japanese view of the Battle of the Yalu, 1897
One of the superb woodblock prints made in Japan at the time
The two Chinese “Rendel cruisers”, named Yang Wei and Chao Yung were of a mere 1350 tons, length 220 feet and beam of 32 feet. Two compound engines, each of 1300 HP, ensured a maximum speed of 16 knots, a respectable speed at a time when the Royal Navy’s HMS Iris, then entering service, was regarded as a marvel for achieving just under 18 knots. Like the Iris, the Chinese cruisers were of all-steel construction, which was also an innovation, but their most remarkable feature was their armament. Each ship carried two 10-inch Armstrong breech-loaders, one forward, one aft. There were mounted so as to pivot inside fixed steel drums, armoured shutters being raised to allow bearing on limited arcs ahead and astern (45 °) and on either side (70 °). In addition each ship carried four 4.7 - inch breech-loaders, two on each broadside, as well as what would have been a fearsome collection of Gatling and Nordenveldt guns’ for protection against torpedo boats. The hulls had only low freeboard fore and aft and had to be built up for the delivery voyage from Britain to China. A simple fore and aft rig was carried to supplement the engines and was probably of most use during delivery. Like Royal Navy ships of the period – notably HMS Inflexible – electricity generation on shipboard represented a major innovation, allowing incandescent light fixtures, including arc searchlights. Hydraulic steering was another innovation – and perhaps a needless complication. 

Chinese ensign, initially triangular, later a rectangle
The Yang Wei and Chao Yung entered service in 1881. Though spasmodic efforts were made to fashion the Chinese Navy into an effective force, the state of unrest, corruption and reluctance to challenge traditional thinking meant that the process was never effective. This was by comparison with the fast-modernising Empire of Japan, which already had ambitions to dominate the Far East and set out to build a powerful navy on the model of the Royal Navy. Japanese naval development was based on coherent planning, with the emphasis not only on the necessary “hardware” – the ships and weapons – but also on “software aspects” – structured organisation, training plans and an ethos of professionalism and pride. By contrast the Chinese navy acquired ships on a random and piecemeal basis, without reference to any single coherent plan. Corruption was rife and the navy was divided into as many as four different “fleets” which at any time might, or might not, cooperate with each other.
The Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95 announced Japan’s arrival as a major power on the world stage and resulted in humiliating defeats of Chinese forces by both land and sea.  By the time of the war’s outbreak the Yang Wei and Chao Yung were in a very poor state of maintenance, little more than half their original top speed being achievable and probably several of their weapons being unserviceable. Extensive use of wooden partitioning, overlain with layers of varnish, made them particularly vulnerable to onboard-fire. The concept of the large but slow-loading gun-armament on a small vessel with limited armoured protection was by now overtaken by the development of smaller-calibre quick-loading weapons. In addition, lack of professionalism and corruption so serious that there were rumours of munitions being sold off by officers had made the Chinese Navy a hopeless adversary against the super-efficient Japanese. 
Japanese cruisers in action at the Battle of the Yalu - note Chinese ships burning
 In the key Battle of the Yalu on 17th September 1894 both the Yang Wei and the Chao Yung were placed in the Chinese line of battle. They were subjected to a hail of explosive 6-inch and 4.7-inch shells from the Japanese cruisers involved and both vessels were soon engulfed in flames as the wooden fittings took light. With her steering damaged the Yang Wei collided with the German-built Chinese cruiser Jiyuan and sank in shallow water, as did the Chao Yung, which may have been trying to save herself by beaching. It was a sad end for two vessels which in their time were mistakenly regarded as being at the cutting edge of naval development.
The Yang Wei's and Chao Yung's Nemesis - Japanese 6-inch quick-firers in action

Britannia’s Spartan

Six-inch breech loading guns represented the cutting edge of naval technology in the early 1880s. In my novel Britannia’s Spartan they are seen in use on both British and Japanese ships. The splendid woodcut below shows Japanese crews managing just such a weapon in the war of 1895 against China. Click here for further details – for UK and for US & Rest of World

Friday 13 May 2016

Privateer Action off Peru 1801

Accounts of the Age of Fighting Sail, whether factual or fictional, are noticeably sparse as regards the activities of privateers, yet they played a vital role in the wars of the period. Essentially commercial ventures, individual or syndicate-owners were granted authorisation by their governments, by means of a “Letter of Marque” to arm vessels and wage war upon the enemy. There were obvious economic advantages for the governments – the financial risks were carried by the owners, who were remunerated from the value of the prizes they captured. With profit as the driving motive, privateers aimed at capture, ideally in an undamaged state, of unarmed or lightly armed enemy commercial vessels and they generally avoided combat with regular naval forces. The typical privateer was a small, lightly-armed vessel, powerful enough to overwhelm its typical targets, but fast enough to escape from any naval craft larger than themselves. The practice emerged in the late 16th Century, when the Dutch “Sea Beggars” were a critical factor in the war of liberation against the Spanish. It was to be widely employed, often on a vast scale, by all maritime nations in the conflicts of the next two and a half centuries. The border between privateering and piracy was often a very blurred one and the practice was all but finally banned by international agreement in the Declaration of Paris in 1856. 
The sort of vessel often used for privateering service
Danish Brig by Antoine Roux (1765-1835)
One outstanding example of a privateer in action in the Napoleonic period occurred in 1801, off Callao, the main port of what was then the Spanish colony of Peru, when Spain was still in alliance with France against Britain. This case was especially notable in that the privateer was prepared not just to dart in and out to capture a prize, but to engage in battle with a much more powerful ship. 
The Chance, commanded by a Captain White and with a crew of 94, was heavily armed for a privateer as she carried 16 guns, most of which appear to have been 12 and 6-pounder carronades. The fact that she was operating off the west coast of South America, far from any British-controlled port, was in itself confirmation of White’s Intrepid spirit. In the Chance’s favour however was that this very fact could lead to complacency by Spanish vessels that an enemy raider was not a likely threat. 
Towards nightfall on 29th August 1801 the Chance approached Callao and encountered a large Spanish trader. Captain White ordered Spanish colours to be run up – a ruse-de-guerre internationally approved as legal until fire would be opened, when British colours must replace them – and he manoeuvred so as to keep the Chance between the trader and Callao itself. By ten o’clock the vessels were within pistol shot and White hailed the Spaniard. Still unsuspecting, and perhaps also with suspicion dulled by the Chance being so much smaller, the Spanish vessel replied that she was the Amiable Maria but apparently did not indicate that she was anything but a trading vessel. White responded by running up British colours and opening fire – a manoeuvre that was calculated to intimidate any innocent trader into immediate surrender. A boat was simultaneously dropped to carry the Chance’s second lieutenant and a boarding party to take possession. 
An action perhaps similar as regards sizes to the Chance and Maria Amiable contest
The Will of Liverpool under attach by a French privateer 1804 - by Robert Salmon (1775-1851)
White had miscalculated – the Amiable Maria was a naval vessel, armed with 18 and 24-pounder weapons – and after the initial shock the Spanish commander brought them into action. White’s stark alternatives were now to fight or to fly, and flight might have been considered the more logical choice. In a straight fire-fight the Chance’s puny armament would be no match for the enemy’s heavier battery and it was likely that she would be pounded to a wreck in short order. The only hope lay in boarding. White accordingly closed with the Amiable Maria in an attempt to run the Chance’s bowsprit over the enemy’s stern to provide a means of crossing. The wind was so light however that the Chance fell away, exposing her stern to an enemy broadside that dismounted several of her guns and killed one of the officers.  Undismayed, White closed again and this time managed to run the bowsprit over the Amiable Maria’s quarter. Men swarmed across and bound the bowsprit to the enemy’s mizzen mast, so locking both ships together. 
At this remove in time it is difficult to imagine just how savage a boarding action could be. In a novel it may occupy a few pages, in a movie some minutes, but the reality of hacking, stabbing and shooting in a small area sometimes lasted for hours. The Chance and the Maria Amiable might be locked together but the Spaniards rallied and drove the boarders back on to the bowsprit. Captain White seems to have been in the thick of the action at this point and he managed, sword in hand, to beat back the defenders and get his own men across to the Spanish poop. They attempted to press forward and every inch was contested by the Maria Amiable’s crew in a struggle that lasted forty-five minutes. The Spanish captain and his men were at last forced back to the forecastle, where they began to drag the bow guns around, loaded with grape and canister, to blast sternwards. Had this succeeded then the Maria Amiable might have been saved but at this critical moment the Spanish captain was disabled. He was carried below and his men rushed after. What must have been the worst part of the action now followed, a murderous close-quarter battle on the lower deck and in the cabins that finally resulted in only 86 of the 220-man Spanish crew surviving when they finally surrendered.  The decks were littered with corpses and wounded and an added horror was the screaming of a Spanish lady who had been a passenger on board, and whose baby had been cut in half by a roundshot, although she herself was uninjured. 
Another battle between unequally-matched ships: East Indiaman Kent under attack by French Confiance 1800
Painting by Ambroise Louis Garneray (1783-1857)
The two ships, still locked together had drifted to within four miles of the port. The Maria Amiable’s shrouds and braces had been badly damaged but the masts were apparently still standing and it was possible, as a breeze sprung up, to take her out to sea. The disparity in casualties seems extreme, if a 19th Century account of the action is to be believed, with the Chance allegedly losing only one officer killed and three officers and two seamen badly wounded.  Surprise and the apparent unpreparedness of the Spanish crew, may have been significant factors in this.  
The action had occurred in sight of the shore and the Spanish Viceroy of Lima was outraged. A small warship, the Limeňo, mounting 18 long 9-pounders and 12 4-pounders, was sent after the Chance with a bounty offered for every man taken, dead or alive. Though the Chance’s crew was reduced to 50 through casualties and provision of a prize-crew for the Maria Amiable, White decided to accept combat. He again closed to pistol shot – at which his carronades were likely to be more effective than the enemy’s long nines and the two ships, more equally matched than in Chance’s earlier action, commenced a running firefight yard-arm to yard-arm. It lasted two and three-quarter hours before the Limeňo surrendered. She had suffered fourteen killed and seven wounded to the Chance’s two killed and one wounded.
We leave Captain White with his battered Chance and two Spanish prizes off the South American coast. What happened afterwards? The 19th Century account I have read makes no further mention of the man or of his ships. One hungers to know more about a man who, had he been a Royal Navy officer, would most certainly have had a stellar career thereafter.

Friday 6 May 2016

The Convergence of the Twain: English Channel, June 1916

I have always admired – and been somewhat disturbed by – Thomas Hardy’s poem “The Convergence of the Twain” in which he meditated on how the Titanic and the iceberg that was to sink her were brought separately into existence and how they were to meet for one decisive moment only:

                                 And as the smart ship grew
                                 In stature, grace, and hue,
                                In shadowy silent distance grew the Iceberg too. 

                                Alien they seemed to be;
                                No mortal eye could see
                                The intimate welding of their later history, 

                                Or sign that they were bent
                                By paths coincident
                               On being anon twin halves of one august event. 

I was reminded of this poem, and of the terrible image of inexorable, unforgiving destiny which it evokes, when I read recently of the collision of two vessels four years after the Titanic disaster. Collisions at sea occur even in our own day, and did so much more frequently in the days before radar, so at first glance there was nothing unusual about this event. What did strike me however was that the two vessels involved were so dissimilar – one the epitome of luxury, the other’s accommodation so Spartan that its crew was entitled to compensation for their discomfort.

The SS France in her full glory
In the early years of the twentieth century giant ocean liners were as much symbols of national pride as they were means of mass transportation. Ever larger and more luxurious British and German liners competed on the North Atlantic but it was not until 1912 – “Titanic Year” – that France was to provide a worthy competitor. She was named, with obvious pride, the SS France, a 712-foot long vessel capable of carrying 2020 passengers. Driven by four Parsons steam turbines of total 45,000-hp – the first such units installed in a French passenger ship – she was capable of a top speed of 23.5 knots. Like the foreign liners she would compete with, she carried the ultimate status symbol of the era – a dummy fourth funnel. 
Even before the SS France, French liners had an established reputation for comfort and luxury.
The illustrations above refer to an earlier vessel, the SS La Provence of 1905
At 24,666-tons the France was smaller her British and German competitors –  her Cunard contemporary, the Lusitania was of 44,060-tons – but what she lacked in size was more than made up for by the unprecedented luxuriousness of her accommodation. Her first-class interiors, decorated in style Louis Quatorze were perhaps the most opulent on any liner, resulting in the nickname of The Versailles of the Atlantic.
First Class music room on the SS France
Salon on the SS France. Note fireplace and portrait of the "Sun King"
The ship with which the France’s destiny would “converge”, in Hardy’s phrase, could not have been more different. HMS Eden was one of thirty-four destroyers of the “River Class” commissioned into the Royal Navy between 1903 and 1905 (the sheer numbers of vessels in the navy of this period is remarkable by modern standards). One of only three of these ships to be driven by turbines, the Eden’s installed 7000-hp drove her at a maximum of 25.5 knots. On her 550-tons and her 226-foot length she carried four 12-pounder guns and a half-dozen smaller, these being primarily intended for use against other destroyers and torpedo craft. Her two 18-inch torpedo tubes would make her a threat to larger enemy vessels in any fleet action.  Accommodation of her 70 strong crew was by necessity basic – her beam was a mere 24 feet – and like all destroyer crews of the period they were entitled to “Hard Lying Money” as a compensation.
HMS Eden
The Eden’s career was to be spent in home-waters. Even before outbreak of war she was to prove and unlucky ship for in 1910 she broke loose from her moorings in Dover harbour in story weather and sank. She was refloated and returned to service thereafter.
HMS Eden sunken at Dover 1910 
 The France’s career on the North Atlantic was cut short after two years by the commencement of World War 1. She was taken into naval service – initially, and unsuitably due to her high coal consumption, as an armed merchant cruiser and thereafter as a troop carrier.  The Eden meanwhile had been assigned to “The Dover Patrol”, the British naval force tasked with ensuring the safe passage of men and materials between Britain and France across the English Channel. The success of the Dover Patrol in keeping losses to a minimum, despite the presence of German U-boats operating out of bases on the nearby Belgian coast, was one of the Royal Navy’s most remarkable achievements in World War 1.

It was in the early hours of 18th June 1916 that the convergence of this twain was to occur in the English Channel, off the French port of Fécamp on the Normandy coast.  Wartime conditions inevitably meant manoeuvring with limited lighting of ships and collision was a constant danger. The       consequences for the Eden were fatal, her 550 tons no match for the France’s more than 40-times times greater tonnage. The Eden’s commander, Lieutenant A.C.N. Farquhar, and 42 officers and men went down with her and 33 survivors were picked up by the France. Within the larger scale of World War 1, and occurring only three weeks after the Battle of Jutland, the Eden’s tragedy was quickly forgotten by all but the families of those who had perished.
The France in service as a hospital ship in the Mediterranean
Essentially undamaged, the France went on with busy war service. The sinking in late 1915 of Titanic’s sister, the Britannic, which had been converted to a hospital ship, demanded provision of another ship of high capacity. This need was to be met by the France and she was to serve in this role in the Mediterranean until entry of the United States into the war increased the demand for troop transportation. The France once again changed role and as a trooper proved capable of carrying up to 5000 men at a time across the Atlantic, shipping them to Europe in 1918 and back home in 1919. One suspects that the comfort level for these troops was substantially lower than for the 2020 passengers she would carry in peacetime.
Troops of the American 15th Infantry Division being transported by the France
 The France’s civilian career resumed in 1920. Her luxurious accommodation was once again an attraction to the wealthy and in 1924 she was converted to almost total first-class accommodation only, with only 150 third-class berths. She was to continue in service until the early 1930s. By then a dinosaur, the Depression made demand for the comfort she offered less affordable and continued operation was uneconomic. She was scrapped in 1935.

The French presence in the North Atlantic passenger trade was not at an end however and in the year that the France was scrapped the Normandie, arguably the most beautiful liner ever built, entered service. 

But that’s another story.

Britannia’s Reach by Antoine Vanner

"Britannia’s reach is not just political or military alone. What higher interest can there be than consolidation of Britain’s commercial interests?” So says one of the key figures in this novel , which centres on the efforts of a British owned company  to reassert control of its cattle-raising investment in Paraguay, following a revolt by its workers. The story of desperate riverine combat brings historic naval fiction into the age of Fighting Steam. Click on the image below for more details.