By Tom Anderson
Although the details had changed, much of the basic principles of naval warfare had remained quite static for centuries before the mid-nineteenth century:
Oceangoing ships were made of wood, and their propulsion took the form of canvas sails, occasionally supplemented by oars (or being towed by rowed boats).
Ships might operate as part of a fleet, whose members were known as ‘ships of the line of battle’ due to forming up as a line of battle to engage the enemy.
Or they might operate independently on different missions, in which they were usually called ‘frigates’ or, more generally, ‘cruising ships’.
Ships were ranked as first-rate, second-rate and so on (which is where we get the terms from, still surviving in the language) based primarily on how many guns they carried.
And in order to engage an enemy vessel, a ship would usually close to almost point-blank range and fire its many cannon from gundecks on the port or starboard, creating a ‘broadside’. A combination of inaccuracy, and the fact that they could only fire solid cannonballs, meant that this was the only means by which conventional cannon could inflict guaranteed damage.
Besides this, captains often sought not to sink the enemy but to board them and capture their ship, with engagement using cannon sometimes only a prelude to this.
This general form of warfare had been refined over the years, but would have been almost as recognisable to Francis Drake as it was to Horatio Nelson. Yet by the end of the nineteenth century, ships—and tactics—would have changed beyond all recognition. Three inventions of the century would doom the old ways of the Wooden World: the steam engine; superior cannon; and armour plating.
The modern history of the steam engine dates from Thomas Newcomen’s successful invention of 1712 (albeit based on earlier work by others). Newcomen’s engine was a simple ‘atmospheric’ type, using expanding steam to raise a piston that could then do work, such as pumping water from flooded mines. A superior engine was created by James Watt and Matthew Boulton in 1774, using a far more efficient design. High-pressure engines (by the definition of high pressure then used) allowed more compact and portable uses.
In 1804 Richard Trevithick demonstrated the first steam locomotive engine on rails (used for mining purposes again) which would be perfected for cross-country used by George Stephenson a quarter-century later. Non-rail vehicles were also tested by both Trevithick and, some years earlier in France, Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot’s fardier à vapeur, which he hoped to use as a steam tractor for towing artillery pieces. These projects were not successful in the short term, though see my book series Look to the West for a look at what might have happened if Cugnot had had the funding and support to continue his experiments!
Naturally, if steam engines could be used to move vehicles on land, it was not the hardest logical leap to look to other realms (indeed, there were even—very premature—efforts to build steam-powered aircraft in the 1840s).
The earliest steamboat efforts date back to Newcomen himself, as well as his French contemporary Denis Papin. However, the engines of the time, as mentioned above, were very inefficient and suffered from being large and heavy.
There were some early tests of steamboats powered by Newcomen-type engines, such as the French Pyroscaphe, but these were not very practical. Robert Fulton is often credited as the inventor of the first commercially successful steamboat, although he had taken inspiration from work by Scotsmen Patrick Miller and William Symington. Fulton’s steamboat designs used a Watt-Boulton type engine; after some tests in Paris working for Napoleon (for whom he also designed a submarine) Fulton founded a successful steamboat company running passengers on the Hudson River from New York City to Albany and back.
Steam on the high seas took a little longer, and again there is some argument about the ‘firsts’, given that all steamships at this point carried auxiliary sailing rig, and some may have mostly used this rather than their steam engines for the crossing. Early steamships typically used paddlewheels as a means to transfer the motive force of the engine to the water. This was an obvious enough idea, as it was a simple reversal of the ancient invention of the waterwheel mill.
Paddlewheel ships driven by human muscle power had already been used in mediaeval Europe and China. However, romantic as a Mississippi paddle steamer might be to us in retrospect, paddlewheels were far less efficient than the more experimental screw propellers. In a famous incident, inventor Francis Pettit Smith tried out a wooden propeller design on the Paddington Canal in 1837, only for the propeller to be damaged—and actually worked better in its damaged form, doubling the top speed of the steamboat. Notably propellers did put ships’ hulls under more strain than paddlewheels, so this dovetailed well with the use of more metal than wood in ship construction—civilian as well as military. Screw propellers would gradually replace paddlewheels after many demonstrations of their superiority, despite typically conservative scepticism from the Admiralty. It took a long time before sails disappeared altogether from warships; HMS Inflexible, launched in 1876 but commissioned in 1881, was the last British warship to have masts.
Wooden warships were built right up until the 1850s, with Britain’s last conventional wooden ship of the line being HMS Victoria (1859), whose only real difference from a ship of Nelson’s time being that she carried screw steam propulsion as well. Events of that decade showed that the days of wooden ships were numbered.
At the Battle of Sinop in 1853, Russian warships devastated an Ottoman fleet using new gun designs. What had changed? In 1823, French general Henri-Joseph Paixhans developed a new naval gun capable of safely firing explosive shells on a near-flat trajectory, unlike the ballistic howitzers of the past. The Paixhans gun was demonstrated against the wooden ship Pacificateur in 1824, demonstrating the devastating force inflicted when a shell was lodged in a wooden hull and then detonated an automatic fuze. The Paixhans design was improved by others and slowly adopted by the navies of France, the USA, Russia, Britain and others. The Russian example at Sinop showed that wooden ships were now obsolete before Paixhans weapons, as well as the more accurate and long-ranged rifled cannon being introduced as well. However, as noted in the previous article in this series, French ironclad batteries had stood up to Russian shell fire at the Battle of Kinburn in 1857. Centuries of tradition came to an end: it was time for the age of the ironclad warship.
Remarkably given the aforementioned conservatism of the British Admiralty, construction of wooden warships was halted almost immediately in favour of ironclads. The first ironclad warships were France’s La Gloire (1859) and Britain’s HMS Warrior and her sister ship Black Prince (1860 and 1861). Despite their groundbreaking armoured hulls, these ships still possessed auxiliary sails and a single gundeck of conventional broadside guns. Jacky Fisher, later First Sea Lord, served as the Warrior’s gunnery lieutenant and noted that most people did not realise what a significant change had occurred: “It certainly was not appreciated that this, our first armourclad ship of war, would cause a fundamental change in what had been in vogue for something like a thousand years.”
Ironclad rivergoing ships were also used extensively in the American Civil War, most famously the USS Monitor on the Union side and the CSS Virginia on the Confederate side, the latter being built from the scrapped remnants of the scuttled steam frigate USS Merrimack.
The Monitor was built with a revolving turret gun designed by inventor Theodore Timby, which heralded the direction naval artillery would head in. Both ships proved capable of destroying the other side’s wooden craft with impunity, before they finally met in the Battle of Hampton Roads in 1862. This was the first ever clash between two ironclads and was watched with great interest around the world. The Monitor and the Virginia hammered away at each other for two days straight and proved unable to penetrate one another’s armour, both ships returning to their home bases afterwards. The Monitor lent its name to an entire type of rivergoing ironclad warship.
One remarkable thing about the evolution of naval (and land) warfare in the second half of the nineteenth century is that, for the most part, it was an era of peace, especially between Great Powers. There were plenty of exceptions to this, of course, such as the Franco-Prussian War, but it meant that often tactics and weapons were developed in response to technological advances without any way of testing them under battle conditions. Entire generations of naval warship heritage came and went in a period in which only a bare handful of actual combat operations occurred, and these were pored over desperately by theoreticians around the world. Most notable of these was the Battle of Lissa (1866), fought between the navies of Italy and Austria-Hungary as part of the Third Italian War of Independence. Despite possessing superiority of numbers and firepower, the Italians were unable to sink any of their Austrian opposite numbers due in part to the same problem that the Americans had had four years earlier—armour development had outpaced that of guns. The Austrians, meanwhile, did manage to sink two Italian ironclads using ramming tactics.
This relative success led to fifty years’ worth of fixation on ramming as a tactic by naval theoreticians, even after the circumstances had long been obsoleted. Again, there were very few examples of real combat clashes to draw upon. Another was the Battle of Iquique between Chile and Peru (as part of the War of the Pacific) in 1879, where ramming was again used as a tactic.
A focus on ramming was also the final death knell for broadside guns, as it could be expected that ships would need to fire bow-on at their foes. Gun turrets became the norm as heralded by the Monitor, with designers such as John Ericsson and Cowper Phipps Coles effectively tearing up decades of gunnery norms. Turrets could be top-heavy, though, as illustrated when Coles himself died when the turret-equipped HMS Captain capsized in a storm.
In the 1870s there was instead a move towards barbettes, a design featuring a ring of armour around a rotating gun mount rather than a full turret.
This did, however, reduce the protection of the gun crew. The debate continued until the 1880s, where HMS Majestic (1895) was designed with improved turrets which included the advantages of the barbette design, being smaller and lighter than those of the 1860s. This is an illustration of how rapid the pace of technological change was in an era of relative peace, with the only examples of barbette ships operating in combat being the Battle of Fuzhou (France vs China) in 1884 and the Battle of the Yalu River (Japan vs China) in 1894. The Majestic-type ships with improved turrets became the norm, and are the prototype for what was retrospectively called the ‘pre-dreadnought’ warships, i.e. those built before the ground-breaking HMS Dreadnought in 1905.
Top-heavy turrets lasted about a decade, barbettes lasted about a decade, and then pre-dreadnoughts lasted about a decade as the acme of naval warfare. One can imagine the vast sums that major naval powers were putting into building new warships, almost all of which would never see action before they were rendered obsolete. It was a scenario that would not become familiar again until the Cold War, where once again the only times the superpowers’ weapons were tested was when they were sold to allies in proxy conflicts.
It is interesting to speculate about a true major war between naval great powers in this period of rapid development between 1859 and 1905. At the start of the era we have the old alternate history saw of the possibility of British intervention in the American Civil War, and Monitor versus Warrior. Towards the end, we have the era of the Majestic and its imitators, and in between we have the awkward adolescence of barbettes, oblong hulls and dying masts.
In addition to ramming, theorists also turned to torpedoes, after they were developed by Robert Whitehead in 1866. (Notably for alternate terminology, ‘torpedo’ formerly meant any sort of bomb, and only took on its modern meaning at this time; in Look to the West I have ‘ironshark’ submarines firing ‘steelteeth’, and ‘torpedo’ is still used to mean explosive mine). The idea of small torpedo boats (and later submarines) being able to sink large expensive battleships was a comforting thought for small nations, and an alarming one for big ones
In HG Wells’ The War of the Worlds (1897), one of the few successes against the technologically superior Martians is by the torpedo ram HMS Thunder Child. Wells was writing of what was then the latest superweapon proclaimed by the news, yet now would be almost forgotten if not for his book.
Modern vessel classification terminology also solidified in this time. Ships could no longer be classed by how many gun decks they had or how much weight of broadside. The biggest, slowest and toughest ‘line of battle ships’ became simply ‘battleships’. Ships not in the line of battle had been collectively called ‘cruising ships’ or just ‘cruisers’, and now this became a more specific term for the largest non-battleships, which were typically faster but less well armoured. ‘Protected cruisers’ and ‘armoured cruisers’ were designed with different internal armoured decks to protect their propulsion from shells exploding above. The term frigate, though surviving for a while in the form ‘steam frigate’, fell out of favour for a while. This is also where destroyers first appeared.
Destroyers are a remarkable case of an almost happenstance event having a huge cultural impact. Look at any military science fiction (or steampunk fantasy) series and you will find mentions of destroyers. Star Wars, famously, has Imperial Star Destroyers. It is often used almost as a generic term for warship, especially if operated by the bad guys as in the latter case, because it sounds nasty. But in fact the term has a very specific origin: Fernando Villaamill of the Spanish Naval Ministry designed a fast ship with the sole mission objective of destroying the feared torpedo boats before they could take out a cruiser or battleship. Destructor (Spanish for ‘destroyer’) was commissioned in 1887 and heralded a wave of improved imitators elsewhere. Early Torpedo Boat Destroyers (TBDs) were intended to be fast, relatively lightly armoured, and equipped with small but quick-firing guns of a new design. Torpedo boats have long since been obsoleted as a major threat to capital ships, yet the term ‘destroyer’ has stuck around in both fact and fiction. In Look to the West, I instead have the peculiar term ‘dentist’ used for these ships, as torpedoes are called steelteeth and boats that fire them are called toothboats.
But one might well argue that it would be more realistic for the average timeline simply not to have destroyers at all; they exist thanks to one person’s specific idea in response to a specific threat, which was only regarded as such a big threat because of a long era of peace and the lack of contextual examples to judge it by. A story with wars in the late nineteenth century—like Ed Thomas’ Fight and Be Right—is very likely to never see the destroyer appear at all.
As noted above, I am fascinated by the idea of more stories using this relatively forgotten era of naval history. Ships of this age rarely survive, and many will only have seen them by background set paintings of a barbette warship in a production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s HMS Pinafore. In my story The Twilight’s Last Gleaming, I took the opportunity to explore what such a conflict might really have looked like. Many short-lived experimental secret weapons (again, see the Cold War comparison) and powerful nations selling some of their best equipment to South American or Asian countries (to the point where Brazil at one point easily outgunned the US Navy)—it is an age that deserves more attention.
But in 1905, two things would bring this era to an end: the launch of HMS Dreadnought, and the shock defeat of Russia in the Russo-Japanese War…
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