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Sea StoriesCommodore Barney
No old Triton who has passed his calms under the bows...
Loss Of The Catharine Venus And Piedmont Transports And Three Merchant Ships
The miseries of war are in themselves great and terri...
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North Latitude 23 1/2, Longitude East 113; the ti...
The Landing On The Island
For many days we had been tempest-tossed. Six times h...
The Man And The Cannon
One of the carronades of the battery, a twenty-four p...
A Winter In The Frozen Ocean
One stormy winter's evening, in the year 1579, Gerhar...
Wooden And Iron Walls
The birth of the British Navy may be said to have taken place in the reign of King Alfred. That great and good king, whose wisdom and foresight were only equalled by his valour, had a fleet of upwards of one hundred ships. With these he fought the Danes to the death, not always successfully, not always even holding his own; for the Danes at this early period of their history were a hardy race of sea-warriors, not less skilful than courageous. But to King Alfred, with his beaked, oared war-ships, is undoubtedly due the merit of having laid the foundation of England’s maritime ascendency.
England under the Normans does not seem to have greatly desired to excel in maritime enterprise, but it was otherwise during the Plantagenet period. Henry the Second possessed a most formidable fleet, numbering some five hundred vessels of war. During the reign of his successor a novel artifice in naval warfare was resorted to by the English which merits notice. The English admiral caused a number of barrels of unslaked lime to be placed in his ships. Having brought his fleet to windward of the enemy—the French—he ordered water to be poured on the lime. This of course raised a great and dense smoke, which, being blown by the wind into the very faces of the French, prevented the latter from seeing on what quarter they were being attacked. A panic arose, and spread, among the French vessels, and the victory fell easily to the English.
The navy of Edward the Third numbered eleven hundred ships when he undertook the invasion of France. But the great majority of these were not properly men-of-war—in fact, there were only five fully equipped warships; the rest were for the most part merchant vessels converted into fighting ships and transports for the time being. The navy of King Philip of France, though numerically weaker, far surpassed that of the English king in point of equipment. Of the four hundred ships of which it consisted, no fewer than one hundred had, been built purposely for war, according to the best principles of naval architecture then known. Bows, catapults, javelins, and weapons of a like description were the engines of offence used on both sides, and with these much havoc was wrought at close quarters. The English were victorious, notwithstanding the more scientific equipment of their foes. The French ships were boarded, and the flower of King Philip’s naval force must that day have perished.
Henry the Seventh did much for the improvement of the English navy. It was during his reign that the Great Harry was built, which was really the first large ship built directly for the Royal Navy. Hitherto the vessels employed by England for national defence or offence had been supplied by certain maritime towns; but the Great Harry was the property of the people. She was built in 1488, and had port-holes for cannon in the lower deck, being the first vessel thus constructed. The Great Harry was subsequently far surpassed by another of King Henry’s ships, the Grace de Dieu, which was no less than one thousand tons burden, and carried seven hundred men and one hundred and twenty-two guns, (some writers mention only eighty guns) the largest of which were but eighteen-pounders. The Grace de Dieu was a four-masted vessel, and was built in 1515.
An epoch in England’s maritime history, which was in some respects the most brilliant and momentous, now falls to be mentioned; a period when England’s name became a synonym on the seas for everything that was most intrepid and successful in maritime enterprise; an era of daring adventure and splendid achievement, which at length established England as the first naval power among the nations of Europe.
Not without long and fierce struggle, however, was this supremacy won. The French, Spanish, and Dutch each and all in turn disputed England’s claim to the sovereignty of the seas. It is unnecessary to repeat here the oft-told tale of the defeat of the Spanish Armada, nor yet the almost as familiar story of our frequent naval encounters with the Dutch in the days of Admiral Blake and the great Dutch Admiral Van Tromp. Long and desperate those conflicts were, and nothing but indomitable courage and stubborn perseverance could have secured the victory for the English ships, for in almost every instance our foes were numerically the stronger.
In the thrice famous days of Nelson, it was still our “wooden walls” which carried the flag of England on from triumph to triumph. At the battle of Trafalgar the Victory and the French ship the Redoubtable were brought up close alongside of each other, and in this position poured volley after volley upon each other’s bulwarks, until water had to be thrown over the ships’ sides to prevent them igniting. The Victory was a grand ship in her time, yet she was not more than two thousand tons burden, and her guns were but one hundred and two in number.
But at last the day arrived when it became manifest that the glory of our “wooden walls” had set. In the prime of his intellectual and physical strength, the Emperor Louis Napoleon was a man of active and subtle brain, and it was to his ingenious invention that the first ironclad ship of war owed its birth. Floating batteries protected with iron plates were first employed during the Crimean War. It was becoming manifest that the great strides which were being made in the manufacture of cannon must necessitate an improved system of defensive armour for ships of war. No wooden vessel that could be constructed could be proof against the new guns that were now coming rapidly into use.
The French, as has been just indicated, were the first in the field with the new style of war-ships. La Gloire was built, and was quickly followed by our own Warrior. The frame of La Gloire was constructed of wood, but covered with an iron plating four and a half inches in thickness. The Warrior was built on an iron frame, and her armour-plating is of the same thickness as that of La Gloire; the lining is of solid teak eighteen inches thick, which is again backed by an inner coating of iron. The length of the Warrior is three hundred and eighty feet, but only about two-thirds of this is iron-plated.
At this time—the early days of ironclads—the heaviest shot that could be thrown by any gun was a sixty-eight pounder. Guns of this calibre the Warrior and her class were proof against. But the guns increased rapidly in size and power, and the thickness of the armour with which the ships were protected had to be increased in proportion. The class of war-vessels which succeeded the Warrior were entirely cased with iron plates, whose thickness has from time to time been increased. Since the first ironclad was built, then, a contest—for only such it can be called—has been going on between the cannon-maker and the ship-builder, the one striving to construct a gun which shall pierce the thickest armour which the ship can carry, the other adding inch upon inch to his armour plates, to the end that they may be shot-proof; and this contest may be said to be going on at this hour.
Will there ever be the same romance about the warships of the present day,—what those of the future will be like we do not care to speculate,—and the old “wooden walls” whose prowess on the high seas founded England’s maritime glory? Will a Dibdin ever arise to sing a Devastation or a Glatton? Can a Devastation or a Glatton ever inspire poetic thoughts and images? One would say that the singer must be endowed in no ordinary degree with the sacred fire whom such a theme as a modern ironclad turret-ship should move to lyric utterance. It has been said that all the romance of the road died out with the old coaching days; and certainly a locomotive engine, with its long black train of practical-looking cars, makes hardly so picturesque a feature in the landscape as one of the old stage-coaches with its red-coated driver, horn-blowing guard, and team of mettled greys; but a railway train is an embodiment of poetry compared with a turret-ship. But if it be true that poetry and romance must more and more cease to be associated with our navy, we must just accept the fact, for nothing is more certain than that, whatever the warships of the future may be, we can never again return to the days of the old wooden ships.
Several opposing difficulties have now to be met in the construction of ironclads. Invulnerability as regards the enemy’s guns, protection to the men on board, speed, and the quality of being easily managed at sea,—all these points have to be carefully considered; and the difficulty is that one quality wars against another. A ship might be built which was proof against any guns that could be devised, and then might be found utterly unmanageable and unsafe at sea. A balance of qualities has therefore to be struck, and this perfect equipoise has by no means been as yet attained. Every year—we might say every month—witnesses the birth of some new type of armour-plated war-ship, built in every case at an enormous cost. The new sea-monster looks formidable enough in all conscience; but the question that arises the instant she quits the dock is, Is she sea-worthy? And with the fate of the Captain and the Vanguard in our memories, the question may well arise. The story of modern war-ships has, up to this, been one of mingled success and failure. Does not the epigram on our war-ships—our “sub-marine fleet”—owe its point and sting, in a measure, to its truth?
Of the various types of modern war-vessels, the most formidable yet devised are undoubtedly the steam-rams and turret-ships. The steam-ram is armed with a strong steel beak, with which it charges an enemy in much the same way as the war-galleys of ancient times charged a foe, or as a sword-fish attacks its adversary. The turret-ship carries one or more shot-proof circular turrets, in which one or more guns are worked by the crew, the guns being capable of being turned and pointed in any direction. Both turret-ships and steam-rams are, of course, iron plated.
Vessels of this description were first employed by the Americans in the great civil war. The careers of the Merrimac and Monitor may be said to have become a part of American national history. The Merrimac was the first iron-plated steam-ram. She was originally a wooden frigate; was cut down, coated with iron, and furnished with a ram. In her famous encounter with the Congress and the Cumberland, two wooden frigates of the Federals, she steamed alongside the former, delivered a raking fire, and then, turning upon the Cumberland, attacked that vessel with her ram. Of the Cumberland she made quick work; for having torn a gaping rent in her side, she poured a damaging fire into the gap, hanging on by the sharp iron beak with which steam-rams are furnished.
Then withdrawing to a short distance, she again charged her adversary, and delivered a second terrible fire, until the Cumberland finally sank. The Merrimac then turned her attention to the Congress, whose fate she sealed in about half an hour. The first shot caused fearful destruction, killing every man at one of the guns, blowing away the bulk-heads, strewing the deck with a carnage too horrible to dwell upon, and finally setting the ship on fire. The Congress at last struck her colours, but during the night she blew up.
This formidable vessel had subsequently to haul down her colours before the Monitor—in a figurative sense, that is, for she did not actually surrender, but retreated after a contest of some hours. In this notable struggle the Merrimac sustained much damage, without succeeding in inflicting on her enemy anything like the same amount of injury; in fact, the Monitor came out of the action scathless.
The changes that are taking place in the construction of war-ships are so various and so rapid, that we cannot attempt to do more here than take note of a few of the principal; and even what are mentioned as novelties now, before these pages appear may have ceased to be novelties.
Iron is now employed in almost every part of a war-ship, the masts themselves being in many cases of iron—hollow tubes through which the running rigging may be let down when there is danger of its being damaged by the enemy’s fire. The majority of modern ironclads are built in compartments, with this advantage that, if damage is sustained in one part of the vessel, and the water rush in through the gap made by shot or any other cause, the ship will still float until the water can be let out again.
The American ironclad turret-ship Monitor has given her name to a whole class of vessels built within recent years for the English navy; but in many respects our vessels are superior to their American prototype. All these ships—which are characterised by low free-boards and absence of masts and sails—fight their guns from turrets. They are sometimes known as “coast-defence ships,” from the circumstance that they were constructed mainly for home service.
Of these “English monitors,” four—the Cyclops, Gorgon, Hecate, and Hydra—are built on identically similar principles. In appearance they may be best compared to a raft with a battery on top of it, from which fortress or battery rise various funnels and a flag-staff. The deck is but three feet and a half above the level of the sea. While the ships are in port the deck is roofed in with an awning and railed round; but both awning and railing are removed when the vessels put to sea.
The battery or fortress is in the centre of the ship, and fills up about one-third of her length and three-fourths of her breadth. The surrounding deck is flush, its surface being broken only by the skylights, which are three in number. The skylights allow but a scant and dim light to penetrate to the officers’ and seamen’s quarters below; but even this is wanting in time of action, when a shot-proof shield takes the place of the glass windows.
The deck of the dass of war-ships we are describing is composed of twin-layers of iron plating half an inch each in thickness, supported on iron beams, and of two layers of solid teak lining four inches thick. The sides of the ships are protected by iron plating of eight-inch thickness amidships, which is an inch more of iron than the armour possessed by the majority of our masted sea-going ironclads, many of which are twice or thrice the size of the Cyclops and her sister-ships. It will thus be seen that these turret-ships are practically stronger in defensive equipment than any other class of ironclad cruisers.
The battery of these vessels is surrounded by a breastwork six feet in height, plated with nine-inch armour. Entrance is gained to the turrets themselves from inside this breastwork. In the centre of the turret there are two cylinders, the one fitting over the other in a manner which keeps the whole steady even in rough weather. Small steam-engines placed inside the breastwork serve to turn the turrets, which, however, can also be worked by manual labour should necessity demand it.
The ports present a striking contrast to those in the old wooden ships, by reason of their greatly diminished size. They just admit of the muzzle of the gun peeping through, and no more, being oval in shape, and about three feet in diameter lengthways. There can be little doubt that these small ports are an advantage, since they must afford greater protection to the gunners during action. When it is desired to alter the direction of the guns, the change is not effected by moving them in the ports, but by revolving the turret itself. Should it ever happen in action that the free movement of the turret should become impeded from some cause, then the only means of changing the direction of the guns would be to turn the whole ship.
The turrets are armed with two twenty-five ton guns, carrying four hundred pound shot. The deck being flush, as has been mentioned, the guns can be fired straight ahead and astern, and command all sides. Less than one minute is needed to revolve the whole turret. This class of ships is believed to be able to keep up a constant steady fire whether in chase or in retreat.
Abaft the funnel in these ships there is an upright oval tube rising some seventeen feet above the level of the main deck, plated with iron. The upper plate is pierced with several small horizontal slits, from which the tube has received the name of the “conning-house,” for through these openings the captain can “con” or note whatever is going on outside, without himself being exposed to danger. This circular box just allows the captain to turn himself about in; and here must he stand in time of action, directing and governing the whole conduct of his ship by mechanical telegraphs.
Of the many curious and remarkable features in these ships, one of the most remarkable is the extensive use made of machinery for every purpose. Engines revolve the turrets, raise the ashes from the engine-rooms, turn the capstans, work the rudders;—engines do everything.
Three monitors similar to those just described were built for the defence of several of our colonies. The colony of Victoria, we believe, purchased their ironclad, the Cerberus, from the home Government; at any rate, the people maintain her at their own cost. Before the Cerberus could make the voyage out to Melbourne, her sides had to be built up with thin iron plating for nearly her whole length. In the same way the Cyclops and her companion-ships might be made fit to face any sea or weather.
It may occur to the reader to ask, Why not have sea-going masted vessels at once? To which it may be answered, first, that the masted ships must inevitably draw more water than those of which the Cyclops and Hecate are types. Turret-ships like the Monarch, or broadside-ships like the Hercules and Sultan, draw about twenty-five feet of water; the smaller ships only sixteen, while at the same time they are more heavily armoured. Thus the latter, if close pressed by an enemy’s sea-going ironclads—the only class from which they have much to fear—could take shelter up a river out of their reach. In action near the land these monitors, moreover, could be handled with greater ease.
Secondly, from their much smaller size, the coast-defence ships are built at a much less cost—an important consideration in days when a first-class ironclad costs about as much as a small fleet of bygone days. The vessels we have been describing are of rather more than two thousand tons burden, as compared with the five thousand tons of the larger sea-going ships; and, speaking roughly, the expense of construction is proportionate to the tonnage.
The Glatton turret-ship has several characteristics in which it differs from the above class of monitors. It has but a single turret, and its guns throw six hundred pound shot, carrying three miles and a half. Her water-draught is about six feet more than that of the Cyclops and Hecate, and her armour-plates three inches thicker. Though she carries fewer guns, the Glatton is a much more powerful vessel than the other monitors. (Note: The above description of English monitors is adapted and abridged from an article in Chambers’s Journal.)
We shall now briefly describe the Devastation, one of the largest and most powerful of all our ironclads. The Devastation in her after-part rises but four feet and a half above the water; but to meet bad weather she is furnished with an armour-plated half-raised forecastle, so that forward she is nine feet out of the water. The free-board amidships is still higher, being at this point level with the platform on which the two turrets are placed. In the centre of the ship rises a circular iron erection, on the top of which is the hurricane-deck. Through this structure runs a passage, in which are situated the entrances to the hatchways and to the hurricane-deck overhead.
From the hurricane-deck rise the ship’s two funnels; and here also are the captain’s fighting box, already alluded to in describing the coast-defence ships, the fire-proof shield for protecting the steering gear, and the boats. In a gale the hurricane-deck is the only safe place in ships of this kind—the only place where one would not get speedily washed overboard. As for the below part of the ship, it is there almost impossible to breathe, even when air has been pumped in from above, which is the only means of ventilating this portion of the vessel.
The Devastation carries two guns in each of her turrets, placed side by side, each weighing thirty-five tons. The turrets, directly the guns have been fired, can be wheeled rapidly round, thus turning the exposed parts away from the enemy.
Ships such as the Devastation, the Thunderer, and the Fury do not, at first sight, strike one as particularly well adapted for rough weather, to put it in the mildest phrase. Nevertheless, the Devastation has been fairly well tested in this way, having encountered some pretty rough weather, and, it is affirmed, behaved satisfactorily. The great danger about all ships of this class is that they may not rise to the seas, but that the waves, breaking over them, may press them down and founder them. The Thunderer has been known to have her forecastle, which is somewhat lower than that of the Devastation, completely submerged, and this, too, when no very high sea was running. These ships are designed, not for home service and coast defence merely, but for general action in mid-ocean.
To attempt to describe even a single specimen of each type of modern war-ships would to a certainty weary the reader, for to any but an expert there would inevitably be a sense of repetition in the perusal of such a narrative. But in order to place before our readers something like an approximate idea, at any rate, of the present state of our navy, we shall examine briefly one other first-class ironclad, the Inflexible, which may be regarded as a leading example of ironclad ships, and, at the time of writing, as one of the highest achievements of modern naval architecture.
The Inflexible is the vast size of 11,400 tons burden, her horse-power being 8000. The length is 320 feet, her armour-plating from 16 to 24 inches thick, with an inner lining of wood from 17 to 25 inches in thickness. She is divided into 135 compartments, and her engines are placed at such a distance from each other that should one be disabled from any cause the other would still be in working order.
The chief characteristic of the Inflexible is the position of the turrets. The majority of ships of this description have their turrets in the middle line, from which it results that only one half of their guns can be directed on an enemy, whether ahead or astern. The Inflexible has her turrets on each side—the fore-turret on the port-side, the after-turret on the starboard. She can thus use the whole of her guns against an enemy at the same time, whether it be ahead or astern.
It will be seen that the thickness of the armour-plating with which the Inflexible is protected is enormous; and yet this thickness of iron has been pierced. The question, then, that immediately suggests itself is, Can a vessel be constructed to carry much heavier armour-plating than this? A recent writer in the Times declares not. “So far as the exigencies of the navy are concerned,” he says, “the limit of weight seems to have already been reached, for the simple reason that the buoyancy of our ironclads cannot with safety be further diminished by the burden of heavier armour and armaments.”
The following very graphic description of the interior of a turret-ship was written by an eye-witness of the scene described. It is an extract from a narrative supplied to the author of “The Sea: its Stirring Story of Adventure and Peril,” from which we take it. The vessel described was the Miantonoma, an American ironclad turret-ship.
“You ascend again through a trap-door, and find yourself in a circular room, some twelve feet in diameter, padded from top to bottom like the interior of a carriage. By your side is a huge mass of iron. You are inside the turret. A glimmering lamp sheds its feeble light on the moving forms around you, and from below comes the faint whispering of the men, until the trap is shut and you are again in utter silence.
“‘Prepare!’ The gunner’s mate stands on your toes, and tells you to lean forward and thrust your tongue out of your mouth. You hear the creaking of machinery. It is a moment of intense suspense. Gradually a glimmer of light—an inch—a flood! The shield passes from the opening; the gun runs out. A flash, a roar—a mad reeling of the senses, and crimson clouds flitting before your eyes—a horrible pain in your ears, a sense of oppression on your chest, and the knowledge that you are not on your feet—a whispering of voices blending with the concert in your ears—a darkness before your eyes—and you feel yourself plump up against the padding, whither you have been thrown by the violence of the concussion.
“Before you have recovered sufficiently to note the effects I have endeavoured to describe, the shield is again in its place and the gun ready for reloading. They tell you that the best part of the sound has escaped through the port-hole, otherwise there would be no standing it, and our gunner’s mate whispers in your ears, ‘It’s all werry well, but they bu’sts out bleeding from the chest and ears after the fourth discharge, and has to be taken below.’ You have had enough of it too, and are glad that they don’t ask you to witness another shot fired.”
It must be stated that since the Miantonoma was built a new and improved principle of turret-firing has been introduced. Electricity is now employed in discharging the guns, and there is thus no necessity for anyone being in the turret, which is of course a great advantage.
At the close of the civil war, America possessed a fine fleet of monitors, of which scarcely any now remain. For the time they seemed all but impregnable to shot and shell; but they were built by contract, of unseasoned wood, and in the course of ten or twelve years yielded to natural decay. But the Brooklyn and the Ohio, both fine examples of naval architecture, still survive to maintain, in so far as two ships can, America’s maritime prestige.
A chapter treating of ironclads would, we think, be incomplete without allusion made to the loss of the Captain, whose terrible fate in 1870 has caused a mournful interest to be attached to that vessel.
The Captain was 320 feet in length and 53 feet broad. Her armour-plating reached to five feet below the water-line. Opposite the turrets her plating was eight inches in thickness and seven inches in other parts. The ship was furnished with two screws, placed side by side. The screws were available for steering, and thus the vessel could be governed without the rudder. The Captain was fully rigged, and could carry a large spread of canvas.
The special characteristic of the ship was her revolving turrets. Each turret was 27 feet in diameter on the outside and 22 feet 6 inches on the inside. The walls of the turrets were therefore 2 feet 3 inches thick; and one half of this thickness was composed of iron. The turrets were revolved by separate engines, but they could also be turned, if occasion required, by hand-labour. Two Armstrong twenty-five ton guns, throwing six hundred pound shot, were placed in each turret. The ship was built after designs by Captain Coles—the architect also of the Monarch.
On her first sea-voyage the Captain showed, apparently, such excellent sea-going qualities that her architect and the contractors, the Messrs Laird, were quite satisfied as to her safety in mid-ocean. In the autumn of 1870 she accompanied the fleet on a cruise; and on the 6th of September, shortly after midnight, foundered off Cape Finisterre. The whole crew were lost, with the exception of nineteen men, and among those who perished was Captain Coles himself, Captain Burgoyne, the commander of the ship, and a son of the then First Lord of the Admiralty—Mr Childers. It is unnecessary to recall to the memory of the adult among my readers the deep feeling of pity and gloom spread by this awful disaster throughout Great Britain.
The night on which the Captain foundered was no doubt a somewhat rough one, with squalls and a heavy sea on; but it was not merely the force of the storm which overwhelmed the vessel.
Mr James May, a surviving gunner of the ill-fated ship, gave a sufficiently clear account of the foundering of the vessel. Soon after midnight he was awakened from sleep by a noise and a feeling that the ship was uneasy. Rising, and taking with him a lamp, he proceeded to the after-turret to see if the guns were all right. Everything was secure enough there; but he had hardly finished his examination when he felt the vessel heel steadily over, a heavy sea struck her on the weather-port, the water rushed into the turret, and May presently found himself in the water.
He swam to the pinnace, which he perceived floating bottom upwards, and there he was presently joined by Captain Burgoyne and several others of the crew. Then he beheld the vessel turn over and go down, stern first; the whole catastrophe being over in a few minutes. The launch was drifting a few yards off, and May called out to his comrades, “Jump, men! it is our last chance.” May with three others succeeded in reaching the boat, in which fifteen of the remainder of the crew also found a refuge. It is uncertain whether poor Captain Burgoyne remained in the pinnace or failed to reach the launch.
The nineteen survivors, after a hard row of twelve hours, without food or drink, landed at Cape Finisterre, where they were hospitably received and cared for by the people. A court-martial was held in due course to investigate the cause of the disaster. Into the details of the evidence it is impossible here to enter, but it was sufficiently proved that there were grave faults in the Captain’s construction,—faults which, as is unfortunately too often the case, were not discovered by such calculations as were made before the ship started on what may be said to have been her first, as it was her last, cruise. It had, however, been noticed by some that the vessel was about a foot and a half deeper in the water than she should have been—that her free-board, in a word, instead of being eight feet above the water, as was designed, was only six feet six inches; and it needs but a very slight knowledge of marine matters to understand how this difference would materially prejudice the stability of such a vessel as the Captain.
If it has been the reader’s chance, as it has been ours, to visit anyone of our great naval arsenals—especially Portsmouth or Plymouth—he cannot have failed of being struck with the gallant and splendid appearance presented by many of our ships of war; but he must likewise have been affected with feelings the reverse of admiration by more than one type of modern ironclads. No one who admires a real ship, be it of wood or of iron—a stately frigate in full sail before a favouring wind—can at the same time admire a monitor. Many persons, in truth, will refuse to regard a turret-ship as a ship at all. It overturns our every notion of what a ship should look like. A low, black, mastless, raft-like, cruel-looking machine, without the faintest pretension to form or comeliness, a turret-ship is simply a fighting-engine, a floating battery—an ingenious and formidable instrument of death and destruction, no doubt, but nothing more. Yet these are among the leading war-ships of the present, and, as far as can at present be seen, of the immediate future; and on these we must depend for the protection of our shores should they ever be threatened.
And yet, great as is the annual cost of our navy, and great as is the amount of ingenuity spent in the construction of new and novel ships of war—each designed to be more impregnable and more formidable than its predecessor—our navy is at this moment in somewhat of an unsettled and transitory state. Changes in the construction of ironclads are every year taking place, and considerable difference of opinion exists among our highest naval authorities upon important points in marine architecture. Ships of war have now to contend with such formidable enemies in the shape of guns, torpedoes, and other engines of terribly destructive power, that it is difficult to say at present which will eventually triumph. One of the old wooden ships placed beside a modern ironclad is as a child’s toy battery compared with Gibraltar; and yet it can hardly be said that the nation has the same feeling of confidence and security in our present ships which it reposed in the vessels which Nelson so often led to victory; for it must be long ere the fate of the Captain and the Vanguard is entirely forgotten.
Of this, however, we may, we think, at least rest assured, that, however dubious we may be in regard to some of the novelties and presumed improvements that are being from time to time introduced in naval architecture, England is well abreast of the age in maritime matters; if her ships be not absolutely perfect, and proof against every form of danger, they are at least equal to those of any other nation. We need a strong, a very strong navy; and as a fact our naval resources are nearly equal to the combined naval strength of Europe.
A somewhat different condition of things will need to come about from that which at present exists among the nations of the world ere England can afford to decrease her naval armaments; and until the Great Powers of the world agree to settle their disputes by some other means than by “wager of battle,” and are resolved to “war no more,” probably the best and only way for her is to keep herself as strongly and perfectly armed as possible. It is this that has probably helped, at any rate, to secure so long and uninterrupted peace for our shores; and to try a different and opposite course would, to say the least, be a risk. It is upon her navy, as all the world knows, that England depends for defence and security. To be weak in our navy would be to be weak throughout all our armour. Our navy is at present, we would fain hope, a peace-weapon in our hands—a shield, not a sword; and while it is such, the stronger and more flawless it is, the better for us, and perhaps for the world at large. This may strike the reader as a somewhat vain-glorious, “spread-eagle” way of putting the case; but if he look at the matter fairly and impartially, we think he will admit that there is some truth in our statement.
Before closing this chapter, a word or two must be said descriptive of that fell foe to ships of war, the torpedo, though space demands that our reference should be brief. Almost all modern ships of war are constructed with false bottoms, designed especially to protect them against torpedoes. There are many different forms of torpedoes, employed in a variety of ways. A torpedo may be described as a submarine exploding apparatus. It may contain from thirty to as much as five hundred pounds of gunpowder; and the explosion is effected either by means of electricity, or by a spring and a detonating substance when the engine comes in contact with a ship. Some kinds of torpedoes rest on the bottom of the sea, while others are anchored and float suspended in the water. If a vessel strikes against one of these terrible engines, she is either at once blown to splinters, or a rent is made in her bottom which causes her rapidly to sink.
One type of torpedoes resembles somewhat a fish, and is impelled rapidly through the water by a screw and other machinery. Torpedoes are so constructed as to be able to rise and strike a vessel just at the right moment. When not filled with gunpowder or gun-cotton, dynamite and other explosive substances are used instead for charging these submarine war-engines.
Various methods have been devised to secure ships from torpedoes. Nets are sometimes extended in front of the ship, which catch the torpedoes before they can come in contact with the vessel’s bottom. This safeguard was adopted, in many instances with success, by the Federal war-ships when entering Confederate harbours. But a great deal may be done to secure a ship against these terrible engines of destruction by precaution simply, as was proved in the Crimean War, when the Russian torpedoes did little or no damage to our ships, by reason of the unceasing watchfulness maintained on board.
During the late war between Russia and Turkey one of the most daring exploits of the campaign was an attack by a Russian squadron of torpedo-boats on the Turkish monitor Hifse Rahman. The flotilla comprised four ships, the Czarevich, the Xenia, the Czarevna, and the Djirid. The two first named began the attack, the Czarevna and the Djirid holding themselves in reserve until their assistance should be wanted.
The launches were equipped with strong iron awnings which shielded their crews from the enemy’s fire. Each boat was armed with two torpedoes, fastened to the end of long spars projected over the bulwarks and working on pivots. The torpedoes could be detached from the spars when occasion demanded; while long chains were secured to the missiles, by which they were attached to the enemy’s vessel, as well as to the wire of a galvanic battery fastened round the waist of the commander of the launch. This battery was the means by which the torpedo was exploded.
The flotilla left the Roumanian side of the Danube on the 25th of June 1877 at about midnight, and in something less than an hour the Hifse Rahman loomed in sight, a shadowy mass on the dark waters. The approach of the torpedo-boats was almost noiseless, and the croaking of the frogs was said to have further favoured the Russians by drowning the sound of the engines, so that those on board the monitor were not aware of their enemy’s propinquity until the launches were almost alongside.
The sentry at once challenged, when Lieutenant Doubarsoff, the commander of the Czarevich, answered “Friends.” But his speech betrayed him; the alarm was spread; and the Hifse Rahman opened a sharp fire upon the launches. But Lieutenant Doubarsoff succeeded in attaching his torpedo-chain to a rope hanging at the monitor’s bows, and then rapidly backed his little vessel and fired the torpedo. A tremendous explosion; a column of water shot up into the air, and the launch was nearly swamped! A breach had, however, been made in the Hifse Rahman’s bulwarks.
The other monitors were now thoroughly alive to their danger, and the Russian launches had to sustain a deadly cannonade, upon which Lieutenant Doubarsoff ordered Lieutenant Schestakoff to bring up his launch, the Xenia, and apply a second torpedo, which the latter was able to do, attaching the missile amidships of the Turkish vessel. The fate of the Hifse Rahman was now sealed, and in a few minutes she sank.
The Russian launches succeeded in getting clear of their enemy again without losing a single man, and thus ended the first torpedo expedition ever made against an enemy’s ironclads, but which may, as a writer describing the event says, “end in completely revolutionising our present system of monster iron walls.” The Grand Cross of Saint George was awarded to Lieutenants Doubarsoff and Schestakoff for this intrepid and successful exploit.
Space is not left us to do more than revert for a moment to what is perhaps the deadliest weapon of offensive naval warfare yet devised,—rams. Some experts maintain that nothing can match the power of the ram of a modern ironclad skilfully handled; and a well-known naval authority has declared that the use of the guns in a naval action should be merely preliminary to that of the ram—in other words, that all effort should be concentrated upon making an opportunity of using the ram.
We close this chapter by recalling the reader’s attention to a feature in modern war-ships already alluded to, and which indeed the whole course of our remarks upon this subject points to—the almost universal use of machinery in modern naval tactics. Most assuredly in modern sea-warfare it may be said, in the Laureate’s words—used by him, of course, with a very different sense—that “the individual dwindles,” so that the prediction, which some of our readers may remember was once made by a First Lord of the Admiralty, seems not unlikely one day to become sober fact—that the time will come when we shall no longer require sailors, because all that our warships will need will be stokers and artillerymen. Whether this is a consummation to be desired we are not careful here to pronounce.
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