By Tom Anderson
As discussed in the previous article in this series, the second half of the 19th century saw rapid advancement in naval technology, with ships often becoming obsolete almost as soon as they were laid down. This coincided with a relatively peaceful period in world history, meaning that the few clashes between modern ships (often in the South American wars) were treated with frantic scrutiny by naval theorists.
A division had grown up between battleships, ultimately derived from the ‘ships of the line (of battle)’ (or ‘line-of-battle-ships’) of the Napoleonic era, which were large, slow and heavily armoured, and cruising ships (or ‘cruisers’) which were faster, more lightly armoured, and expected to operate on independent missions. In the 1860s, armour development had outpaced gunnery technology, with the result that incidents like the Battle of Hampton Roads saw ironclads unable to penetrate one another’s armour.
However, this began to change in the 1870s, with the development of the Palliser armour-piercing shot by Irish-British inventor Sir William Palliser. The Palliser shot was made of cast iron hardened by being chilled during casting. Due to the limitations of casting technology at the time, this required a cavity being left in the solid shot; this led to some versions being equipped with an explosive charge, known as the Palliser shell. However, British doctrine at the time believed that new armour developed in the 1880s could only be penetrated by solid shot, so the shell was not used as extensively as one might imagine.
The first demonstration of the Palliser shot came at the Battle of Angamos in 1879, fought between the Chilean and Peruvian navies during the War of the Pacific. The Chilean armoured frigate Almirante Cochrane, named for Admiral Thomas Cochrane (who readers of my other articles may recognise) opened fire on the Peruvian monitor Huáscar. The Palliser shot proved devastating, immediately penetrating the Huáscar’s turret armour on the first shot, and the monitor was captured by the Chileans. (Remarkably, it survived and still exists to this day as a museum ship).
This was all the more dramatic, as Huáscar’s armour had easily withstood concentrated fire from the British ships HMS Shah and HMS Amethyst at the inconclusive Pacocha Incident two years before. The incident had shown how outmatched older designs were, with Shah being an unarmoured iron-hulled ship (which would have been devastating not many years before) and Amethyst being a wooden ship, the only time a British wooden ship tried to take on an iron one. However, the British ships had also attempted to go after Huáscar with brand-new self-propelled torpedo boats, but Huáscar had escaped. It is an illustration of how important the South American wars were for naval development that one Peruvian ship managed to be attacked with two different brand-new naval technologies in the space of two years!
The Palliser shot, and other armour-piercing weapons, meant that the status quo had changed; now gunnery was starting to outpace armour again. Conventional cruisers were proving too vulnerable to armour-piercing fire. The British and French Empires needed a far-ranging fleet of cruisers, but ones which could stand up to modern weapons, increasingly in the hands of a range of countries.
A design was needed that combined the solidity of the true ironclad with the speed and range of the cruiser. The answer was the ‘armoured cruiser’. New kinds of armour were worked upon in this period, such as ‘sandwich armour’ in 1870, to better withstand the guns. The Russian vessel General-Admiral (1873) was arguably the first, designed for raiding enemy commerce. With an iron hull, General-Admiral was more durable than a wooden ship, but only had a narrow belt of armour along the waterline. Her sheer weight meant that her engines were capable of only 12.3 knots and this required burning large quantities of coal. She retained a sailing rig, becoming obsolete in this period, just to try to supplement this (and be capable of operating worldwide, without global coaling stations).
Despite these disadvantages, General-Admiral alarmed the British, who were playing the ‘Great Game’ in India and Central Asia against the Russians, and feared the effect of such a ship roaming the seven seas in the event of a war. The British therefore responded with HMS Shannon, their own armoured cruiser design, in 1875. However, like the Russian ship, Shannon was far too slow to function effectively as a cruiser.
Armoured cruisers developed into a design in which armour protected the flanks of the vessel, as well as the engines and coal bunker via a deck layer. These ships continued to suffer from slow speeds. The breakthrough was with the protected cruiser, a different design (though the definitions have sometimes blurred). In 1884, British shipbuilder Armstrong Whitworth built the cruiser Esmerelda for the Chilean Navy, later sold to Empire of Japan in 1894 as the Izumi. Considered the first protected cruiser, Esmerelda had a fully armoured deck but with less emphasis on the sides of the ships—fitting with the fact that gunnery was now typically coming from above, rather than the old Napoleonic broadsides. Importantly, she also dispensed with sails at last.
Protected cruisers were fast enough to be worthy of that name. They were enthusiastically adopted by many navies, especially France’s, whose Jeune École (“Young School”) of naval doctrine argued for a navy composed primarily of fast commerce raiders, rather than big battleships. Britain was more indecisive, perhaps in part because of the conservatism of the Admiralty and the symbolic value of sails. Several trials were required showing the disadvantages of armoured cruisers before the Royal Navy finally stopped building them in 1887.
Meanwhile, propulsion technology was also growing more advanced, meaning that protected cruisers considered fast at the time of their launch were gradually rendered obsolete. The term died out more because it was associated with an era than because the fundamentals of design changed, eventually becoming obsolete altogether with the Washington Naval Treaty of 1920.
Despite the importance of cruisers for maintaining worldwide empires, the biggest naval powers saw large fleets of battleships as a major sign of prestige. Armour continued to advance. Battleships built in the early 1890s, such as Britain’s HMS Majestic (1895) typically used the Harvey case-hardened steel armour developed by American engineer Hayward Augustus Harvey. Only a few years later, this was superseded by Krupp armour (face-hardened steel containing chromium). New explosives were also coming in—and we should remember how remarkable that was, considering that gunpowder had been in use as the war explosive for five hundred years! Britain developed the smokeless explosive propellant cordite in 1889, while the explosive within shells and torpedoes was often guncotton (nitrocellulose), first practically developed for military uses in France in the 1880s. Other explosives included picric acid (Lyddite) used by the Royal Navy at Jutland, and trinitrophenol (TNT) used by the German High Seas Fleet—with superior results for the latter choice. “Drake’s Drum” by Nick Sumner explores what might have happened if the Royal Navy had become aware of the ineffectiveness of its shells earlier in the First World War.
In the final years of the 19th century, a naval arms race began between Britain and the German Empire, which had formed following the defeat of France in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. German policy in Europe had been guided by Chancellor Otto von Bismarck for years, successfully playing other powers off against one another, but was dismissed in 1890, soon after the accession of Kaiser Wilhelm II. This was memorably captured in one of Punch’s most famous cartoons, “Dropping the Pilot”.
Whereas the German Navy had always been a relatively minor branch of the armed forces, Wilhelm envisaged a great fleet in being that could challenge Britain on the high seas. British policy at this time was to maintain a fleet that was at least as big and powerful as that of the next two largest navies combined, known as the ‘two-power standard’. This makes Wilhelm’s grandiose plans seem rather futile, but nonetheless public opinion in Britain became alarmed.
The United States political establishment had also transformed its view of naval affairs. Back in the 1880s, South American countries had been acquiring new and modern ships from British and European shipbuilders. Brazil had obtained the new battleship Riachuelo from Britain and President Cleveland’s Secretary of the Navy, Hilary A. Herbert, had told the House Naval Affairs Committee that the Riachuelo could beat the outdated US Navy all on its own. The fact that Brazil was the New World’s only remaining slaveholding nation at the time made this particularly stand out in the aftermath of the US Civil War. To that end, Congress ordered a ‘New Navy’ of modern ships, the first of which were known as the ‘ABCD’ ships: USS Atlanta, USS Boston, USS Chicago and USS Dolphin. Later, a specific response to the Riachuelo came with the launch of USS Maine in 1895. Maine blew up in Havana harbour in 1898, kicking off the Spanish-American War (despite the fact that many people then and now thought it had been a spontaneous fire rather than an attack). The modernised US Navy defeated the Spanish, who three centuries before had navally dominated the world, in a number of decisive battles, including Manila Bay. The USA had acquired Cuba, the Philippines, Puerto Rico and Guam (still holding on to the latter two today, along with Guantanamo Bay in Cuba) and a tough new power had entered the world stage.
The Americans had practically demonstrated what their naval theorist and historian Alfred Thayer Mahan had written of a few years earlier: the importance of sea power as the deciding factor that allowed stronger nations to impose their will on weaker nations. Less unambiguously, Mahan also argued that this required a decisive large-scale battle between fleets, unlike the opposing view to focus on commerce raiding. Mahan’s ideas were greatly influential on Wilhelm II and German Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, leading to a focus on large-scale battleship building.
Yet at this time many of these plans were being rapidly obsoleted. Technology was continuing to advance. Improvements in gunnery, led in the US by William Sims and Percy Scott in the United Kingdom, had changed the range at which battles could now be expected to be fought. A far cry from the close-in broadsides of Nelson—not so long ago that there were not living veterans who could not remember them—modern battleships could now engage with their biggest guns at ranges of as much as three and a half miles. This rendered the idea of a mix of larger and smaller guns obsolete, as well as smaller guns confusing attempts at ranging calculations. Said calculations were now a huge part of gunnery, and would eventually lead to the invention of mechanical computers to rapidly calculate firing solutions.
Italian naval designer Vittorio Cuniberti first advocated the radical idea of an all-big-gun battleship, with no smaller guns, in 1903. Japan, Britain and the United States all recognised the same factors and were working on vessels simultaneously: the USA’s South Carolina class, Japan’s Satsuma, and Britain’s HMS Dreadnought. Because Britain finished first by a few months, Dreadnought became regarded as synonymous with the age of British naval dominance. It is interesting to speculate how historiography would be different if the Americans or Japanese had got there first; would the advent of the all-big-gun battleship instead be seen as the beginning of the end for Britain, and heralding the rise of the two great naval powers that would clash in the Pacific in the Second World War? Without anything actually being any different, of course—it is important to recognise in AH that perception can be very much more important than reality.
Dreadnought’s design was masterminded by the Committee on Designs, started by Admiral Sir John ‘Jacky’ Fisher, First Sea Lord, who in 1863 had been Gunnery Lieutenant on HMS Warrior, Britain’s first ironclad! It is remarkable that one man had lived through so much change. The Committee chose a 12-inch gun design to be Dreadnought’s sole calibre, influenced by evidence from Captain William Pakenham. Pakenham had been a British observer with the Imperial Japanese fleet, which had just successfully defeated the Russians—to the shock of the Western world—at the Battle of Tsushima in the Russo-Japanese War. Pakenham’s account indicated that 12-inch guns had been effective on both sides, while 10-inch shells had passed unnoticed. It was also noted that battleship speed had been decisive. Admiral Togo, the Japanese commander, had used this to successfully ‘crossed the T’ of the Russian fleet (a line of battle hitting the enemy with all their side guns while facing only the fore or aft guns of the enemy). Dreadnought was designed with new steam turbine propulsion, making her the fastest battleship in the world when she was launched.
Dreadnought is often said to have obsoleted all existing naval designs. This is not strictly true, as ‘pre-dreadnought’ battleships (as they were retroactively known) continued to serve into the World War I era; they just could not stand up to dreadnoughts one-on-one. Germany increased its arms spending, alarming the British people, and the Liberal Government of the day committed to building yet more dreadnoughts, leading to further escalation. As Germany was trying to maintain both the largest army and the second-largest navy in Europe, this caused serious economic alarm, and from 1909, Chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg pursued détente with Britain out of sheer necessity. Germany from this point returned to a focus on commerce raiding, including the use of submarines.
Things could easily have been different. In Jared Kavanagh’s Decades of Darkness, the first all-big-gun battleship is instead called HMS Vanguard, leading to the terminology of ‘vanguards’ and ‘pre-vanguards’ – arguably a more logical name! In OTL, the name Dreadnought, which was a pre-existing Royal Navy ship name (just meaning a fearless person who ‘dreads nothing’) therefore became associated with groundbreaking ships. It was later applied to Britain’s first nuclear submarine, and will be reused for the new class of ballistic missile submarines which will replace the existing one (ironically, the Vanguard class!) In Look to the West, I instead place the big moment of naval change with the Lionheart, the rough equivalent of OTL’s HMS Majestic, rather than the all-big-gun battleship—which will not appear on the world stage until after a big war at the end of the nineteenth century.
The battleship era is also notorious in alternate history and military history circles for the appeal it has to certain people, which has long outlasted them being obsoleted by aircraft carriers and other countermeasures. Entire scenarios have been designed around coming up with complicated factors to ensure battleships can be used as a war technology again, as in John Ringo’s Posleen series. Names like dreadnought and battlecruiser (a faster successor to the armoured and protected cruisers) can often be found in science fiction, and battles of this era frequently influence those in military science fiction. Lasers replace shells, but the iron behemoths will continue to be romanticised. For a counterpoint illustrating that we see everything through nostalgia goggles, consider the words of Edwardian-era writer R. Austin Freeman in a book published in 1912: “Venerable training ships displayed their chequered hulls by the wooded shore, and whispered of the days of oak and hemp, when the tall three-decker, comely and majestic, with her soaring heights of canvas, like towers of ivory, had not yet given place to the mud-coloured saucepans that fly the white ensign now-a-days and devour the substance of the British taxpayer: when a sailor was a sailor and not a mere seafaring mechanic.”
Dreadnought was certainly an important moment in naval and world history. The symbolic value of the ship was such that she was targeted in 1910 by the hoaxer Horace de Vere Cole, who claimed to be bringing a diplomatic Abyssinian (Ethiopian) royals on board—they were in fact his friends in blackface, including a young Virginia Woolf. Ironically given the ship’s status as a war-winning wonder weapon, she did not see much action in combat, though she did achieve the distinction of being the only battleship to sink a submarine…a technology which we will consider in the next article.
Tom Anderson is the author of SLP books including the Look To The West series (Diverge and Conquer, Uncharted Territory, Equal and Opposite Reactions), The Twilight's Last Gleaming, Not An English Word, The Curse of Maggie, The Unreformed Kingdom, and The Surly Bonds of Earth