Tuesday, 29 March 2016

Honour insulted, Disobedience triumphs – Guadeloupe 1759

The incident at the Battle of Copenhagen in 1801 when Nelson put his telescope to his blind eye and stated “I really do not see the signal!” is the most famous case of a Royal Navy officer disobeying orders and thereby achieving victory. A less well-known case occurred some four decades earlier in the West Indies.

The Seven Years War of 1756 – 1763 should merit the title of “The First World War,” for was the first to be fought on a global scale. It was longer indeed than seven years, for hostilities had opened between Britain and Britain in North America in 1754, triggered by an incident in Pennsylvania involving a 22-year old officer called George Washington. Two years later the conflict took on an even wider European dimension. The British-led alliance included Prussia, Portugal and the smaller German states, including Hanover, and was opposed by a French alliance with the Austrian Empire, Spain, Sweden and Saxony. Russia was initially allied with Austria but changed sides halfway through. Vast in geographical scope, it was a war in which, in Thomas Babington Macaulay’s phrase, European enmities ensured that “black men fought on the coast of Coromandel and red men scalped each other by the great lakes of North America.” 
Battle of Lagos in 1759 off Portugal - painting by Thomas Luny
1759 proved to be the “Year of Victories” that firmly established Britain as a global power with battles won and conquests made by land and sea. Most notable was the capture of Quebec (and of French Canada thereafter), the smashing of a French army at Minden in Central Germany and the two massive naval victories of Lagos and Quiberon Bay. Less well known was the capture of the French island of Guadeloupe, in the West Indies in M1y 1759 after a four-month naval and land campaign. As a sugar-producer the island was of great economic significance and it also acted as a refuge for French privateers.

Sir John Moore
The “disobedience case” referred to earlier occurred at the climax of the campaign when the British commodore, Sir John Moore (1718-1779) in charge of the naval forces proposed a direct bombardment of Guadeloupe’s fortified citadel. Attacks by ships on fixed defences were always dangerous (Nelson once stated that “A ship’s a fool to fight a fort”) and in a council of war the majority of Moore’s officers advised against it. The opposition was led by Captain – later Admiral – Clark Gayton (1712-1785) who commanded the 96-gun line-of-battle-ship HMS St. George. Commodore Moore had apparently taken offence at Gayton’s stance and he accordingly assigned the St. George to lead the attack – which could be construed as an honour – but he followed this up by sending Gayton a written order to proceed.  This could be regarded as a slight – a verbal order should have been sufficient – and as implying reluctance, and at worst want of courage. Gayton was deeply offended.
The attack on Guadeloupe 1759
The upshot was that Gayton not only brought the St. George into close action with the fort, close enough for its fire to envelop her. The bombardment lasted several hours and all the British ships suffered severely from shore-battery fire without any apparent effect on the citadel. Commodore Moore now began to doubt the wisdom of his decision to attack and – probably to his mortification – signalled to the St. George to break off the action. When Gayton was made aware of the signal he determined to ignore it – his honour had been impugned and he had no intention of retreating at this stage. Commodore Moore followed this up by sending a boat with a verbal order to retreat. Instead of obeying it, Gayton told the officer who brought it that he would require a written order from Moore before he would feel justified in leaving his post.

Admiral Clark Gayton
by John Singleton Copeley 1779
While this to-ing and fro-ing was in progress the St.George maintained a constant fire and at last a lucky shell reached the citadel’s magazine. It blew up before Moore’s written order was received by Gayton. His honour was thus redeemed – and indeed in the process secured victory for the Commodore.

The incident did not damage Gayton’s reputation or prospects and he finished his career as an admiral, following a very successful posting as commander of the Jamaica station during the American War of Independence.

An interesting footnote was that Gayton’s ship, the 1230-ton St.George, was one of the oldest major units in the navy at the time of the Guadeloupe action. She had been laid launched in 1668, and originally known as HMS Charles, and renamed St.George in 1691. She was rebuilt in 1701 and six years later was one of the ships to escape the mass-wrecking of Sir Cloudesley Shovell's fleet in the Scilly Isles. She was to be rebuilt twice more – in 1726 and 1740. Having amassed significant battle-honours she was finally broken up in 1774. Few ships of the Royal Navy can have been so long-lived.

Recently published: Britannia’s Spartan

Click below for more details for both paperback and Kindle versions:

Friday, 18 March 2016

A British cruiser 2000 miles up the Amazon: HMS Pelorus 1909

As a prisoner on HMS Bellerophon, prior to his exile on St. Helena, Napoleon told its commander, Captain Maitland, that, "If it had not been for you English, I should have been Emperor of the East; but wherever there is water to float a ship, we are sure to find you in our way." This ability was to manifest itself on numerous occasions up to the middle of the next century. Small Royal Navy units were to operate in China on the Upper Yangtze, on Lake Tanganyika and on the Nile in the Sudan, in the Caspian Sea and on remote Russian rivers during the Russian Civil War and they were to reach Vienna, some 800 miles up the Danube from the Black Sea at the end of World War 1.  More impressive of all these achievements was however that, not of a small gunboat, but of a cruiser of over 2000 tons that reached Peru in 1909. This does not perhaps seem remarkable – Peru has a long coast on the Pacific Ocean – until it is realised that the approach was from the east, up the Amazon River, almost to its headwaters.
HMS Pelorous in late 1890s - resplendent in "Victorian Livery"
of black hull, white upperworks and buff funnels
Launched in 1896, the name ship of a class of eleven, HMS Pelorus was a third-class protected cruiser. “Protected” meant that the vessel’s sides were not armoured but that an arched armoured deck protected the boilers, engines and other vital areas. “Third Class” implied a small vessel, suited to commerce-protection duties, or for scouting for larger units. Pelorus and her ten sisters were 2135-ton, 300-feet long vessels and their 7000-hp gave them a top speed of 20 knots. Crewed by 224 men, their main armament consisted of eight 4-inch breech loading guns for ant-ship use, supplemented by eight 3-pounder quick-firing weapons for defence against attack by torpedo boats. They also carried two 18-inch torpedo tubes.

Rudyard Kipling in the 1890s
Pelorus served almost ten years in the “Channel Fleet” – that tasked with operations in the North Atlantic and the North Sea but in 1906 she was posed to the Cape of Good Hope Station. Although only a small unit in a navy made up of hundreds of ships, she had already achieved fame through a series of articles published in the Morning Post newspaper, and subsequently gathered into a small book entitled “A Fleet in Being”. The author was the writer and poet Rudyard Kipling, who was a friend of a Captain E.H. Bayley, who was then commanding Pelorus.  In 1897, as a guest of Bayly, Kipling was on board Pelorus for two weeks during the Fleet’s summer exercises and he was to repeat the experience the following year.  His writings about his time on Pelorus give fascinating insights into shipboard naval life in the late nineteenth-century. There if however a strong impression of forced enthusiasm, of determination to see everything through rose-tinted glasses, and to give an epic quality to what were, in reality, peacetime manoeuvres. As with much of Kipling’s writings the treatment of individuals is condescending and patronising, and leaves a sour taste with at least one modern reader.
Manaus Opera House - best known symbol of the Amazon rubber boom
(photograph by Pontanegra via Wikipedia)
In 1909 the “Rubber Boom” in Brazil and Peru was in full swing.  The rubber in question grew wild in the forests lining the Amazon and its tributaries as plantation growing of rubber in Malaya had not yet taken off on the large scale it was to become. The arrival of the automobile had pushed the demand for rubber to unprecedented levels and fortunes were made by anybody who could organise its collection from trees growing wild in the forest. This was the era when the city of Manaus was to build its exotic opera house at the confluence of the Amazon and the Rio Negro, the period immortalised in Werner Herzog’s stunning movie “Fitzcaraldo”. British commercial firms were active in the trade and it was only by the investigations in 1910 and 1911 of a British consul, Roger Casement, that the true nature of their activities was revealed. 
Enslaved Peruvian Indians during the rubber boom
In the Putomayo of north-eastern Peru he found that indigenous tribes were begin forced into unpaid labour – essentially slavery – to collect the forest rubber. Abuse of these innocent people included starvation-level feeding, physical abuse, rape of women and girls, branding and casual murder. The chief offender was the Peruvian Amazon Company (PAC), which had been registered in Britain in 1908 and had a British board of directors and numerous stockholders. Casement’s report aroused public outrage in Britain but what in the end brought a complete end to the abuses was the arrival of cheaper, plantation-grown rubber from Malaya that made wild-rubber collection economically unattractive. (Casement’s career was to end in hanging in 1916 as an Irish Republican working closely with Imperial Germany).

Pelorus's 200-mile route up the Amazon
Casement’s uncovering of the realities of the rubber trade were still a year and more in the future when, in February 1909,  HMS Pelorus arrived in the eastern Peruvian town of Iquitos, on the upper reaches of the Amazon. The objective of this good-will visitwas to help promotion of British exports to Peru as the rubber boom had created an enormous demand for goods from the industrialised world. The arrival of a sophisticated warship was ample proof of similarly sized, or smaller, steamships, being well capable of following the same route. The achievement was a spectacular one – Pelorus had navigated some 2000 miles of winding, often forest-lined, river from the river’s estuary on the South Atlantic coast. On arrival at Iquitos the nearer ocean was the Pacific, a mere 600 miles away, but with the Andes mountain range lying between. Despite its isolation, Iquitos, a town of 30,000,  boasted electric lighting, tramways,  a theatre and, apparently, a cinema. The seven day visit followed the usual pattern for such “showing the flag” missions – dinners, speeches, an open-day for the public, a football match, a concert and a “cinematograph show”. (One wonders what was shown at the latter.)

Pelorus needed to replenish her bunkers before embarking on the return trip. Remarkably, she was to do so with Welsh coal which was apparently a normal import to the area from Britain for use on river craft. The costs of its transportation raised the cost to more than four times its British level. With congratulations, well-wishes and handshakes all round Pelorus then commenced her voyage homewards, docking at Manaus and Belem en route to the Atlantic. She spent six-weeks in total on the Amazon and was a matter of pride for both captain and crew that the river passage had been a healthy one, with minimum sickness and, despite the prevalence of mosquitoes and insects, no cases of fever.

The Amazon voyage was Pelorus’s last moment in the limelight. By the time of outbreak of war in 1914 she and the few of her sisters still in service were old, obsolete ships suited only to secondary duties. She was scrapped in 1920.

One wonders if the Indians in the Putomayo area, north of Iquitos, who laboured in slavery for the London-based Peruvian Amazon Company, ever heard of the visit. Even if they did it is unlikely that they would have been able to go on board during Pelorus’s open day.

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 – not unlike the Peruvian Amazon Company (PAC) – 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.

Tuesday, 15 March 2016

Stranger than fiction: Privateer action off Madagascar 1806

Though mention warfare in the Age of Fighting Sail so often conjures up images of major fleet actions such as Camperdown, The Nile, and Trafalgar, single-ship actions between small vessels represented the vast majority of combats at sea. One of the most remarkable of these – stranger than fiction indeed - occurred in the Indian Ocean, off Madagascar in 1806. It did not involve ships of the official British and French navies but rather two privateers – privately owned vessels which had been issued “letters of marque” by their governments and thereby authorised to wage war on their behalf. The profit motive was powerful in such cases and where possible the objective was to capture enemy commerce rather than to risk combat.
A classic image of small-ship action in the Napoleonic era -
A brig chasing a privateer by Thomas Buttersworth (1768-1842)
A John Myers (I have no information on his previous or subsequent career) was serving as first lieutenant on the privateer Tamar in September 1806. Close to Madagascar this vessel captured a small French privateer, the Bon Fortune, which was operating out of the French island stronghold, the Isle de France, now known as Mauritius. The crew was removed to the Tamar and Myers took over the Bon Fortune with a prize crew of fourteen men. The two vessels separated in the night but the following morning Myers saw a strange sail approaching at speed and her general appearance indicated that she was La Brave, a large privateer carrying 16 guns and 130 men, which had been operating in the area with considerable success.

Myers recognised that he had no hope of escaping this enemy vessel or of defeating her in straight combat but he settled on a stratagem that was as audacious as it was dangerous. La Brave had a reputation for capturing her prizes by boarding with almost her entire crew, a manoeuvre that avoided damage and potential loss of valuable cargos. Myers accordingly brought the Bon Fortune’s two portside guns across to supplement the two on the starboard side, on which La Brave was approaching. He had them all loaded and the remaining gunpowder was then dumped overboard. His vessel carried one boat only and this he had lowered from the stern, filled with small-arms and secured close to the cabin’s portside port. He then briefed his crew on what he wanted of them and waited. As La Brave closed to “within pistol shot” Bon Fortune opened fire and received a broadside in return. The French ship then crashed into her, her bowsprit lodging in the Bon Fortune’s rigging. Briefly locked together, La Brave repeated the manoeuvre for which she was known – the greater part of her crew, all but four men, swarming across to take the prize. They met no opposition. Myers and his crew had retreated to the stern cabin and had locked themselves in. The French placed guards on the door to prevent a sally.
No illustrations seem to exist of the Bon Fortune vs. La Brave action but it might have looked like this:
In 1797  HMS Nimble captured the French privateer cutters Bonheur, and L'Impromptu
The ships had by now drifted apart and Myers and his crew piled out of the cabin and into the boat secured alongside. They cut the rope that secured it and rowed frantically away towards La Brave. As they boarded her the four Frenchmen left on board ran to opposed them. Two were killed and the other two secured. Myers’ men now had control of La Brave and he brought her around under the stern of the vessel he had just vacated, bringing all guns to bear on it. Under threat of raking by the ship he had just lost, La Brave’s captain surrendered on promise of his crew’s treatment as prisoners of war.

Now with both La Brave and the Bon Fortune under his command, Myers set out to search for his parent ship, the Tamar. He found her three days later but the appearance of La Brave in the Bon Fortune’s company raised fears that both ships were under French control. The Tamar made every preparation to open fire and Myers lowered his topsails in sign of capitulation and sent his men below decks to minimise the risk of casualties. Disaster was thus avoided.

Myers continued in command of La Brave for several months until she in turn was captured by the French frigate Tamise. He was received honourable treatment as a prisoner at Port Louis, on the Isle de France. It would be interesting to know what became of him subsequently. Would any of this blog’s readers know? 

Britannia’s Reach by Antoine Vanner

 Historic naval fiction moves on into the age of Fighting Steam. Click here for more details ofthis story of desperate riverine combat.

Tuesday, 8 March 2016

An epic last stand – HMS Arrow and Acheron, 1805

This article deals with the most notable naval “last stands” of the Napoleonic era.

In an earlier blog article we encountered the innovative sloop, HMS Dart, when she went into attack on the heavily defended French base at Dunkirk in 1800 (Click here for this article). The Dart and her sister HMS Arrow, were experimental vessels, never indeed to be repeated. They were the brain-child of Sir Samuel Bentham (1757 – 1831) – brother of the philosopher Jeremy Bentham. At this stage in a remarkable career as an engineer and naval architect, in Britain, Russia and China, Sir Samuel held the position of Inspector General of Naval Works. These two vessels were virtually double-ended and featured a large breadth-to-length ratio, structural bulkheads, and sliding keels. Of 150 tons and a mere 80 feet long overall, they packed an enormous punch for their size, all guns being carronades, twenty-four 32-pounders on the upper deck, two 32 pounders on the forecastle and another two on the quarterdeck.

Close up of HMS Arrow - detail from larger painting shown below

The second of the sister-vessels, HMS Arrow, left Malta in January 1805, under the command of Commander Richard Vincent (1770–1831), to escort a British convoy of 34 merchant vessels headed westwards out of the Mediterranean. Accompanying her, as the only other escort, was HMS Acheron, commanded by Commander Arthur Farquhar (1772 – 1843). The latter was somewhat of an unusual choice, as she was a bomb vessel, a 388-ton, 108-foot merchant ship that had been converted to carry a 10-inch mortar and a massive 13-inch weapon for shore bombardment. Though these mortars was unsuited to ship-to-ship action, Acheron did however carry a heavy close-range armament of eight 24-pounder carronades. Once again, as we see in so many accounts of actions in this era, the carronade was to provide notably strong gun-power to a small vessel.

The convoy had passed out into the Atlantic through the Straits of Gibraltar when on the morning of 3rd February two large vessels were seen coming up fast from astern. These were initially thought to be laggards from the convoy but as they closed they were perceived to be most likely warships. Commander Vincent on the Arrow accordingly signalled to Acheron to investigate. The strangers proved to be powerful 40-gun French frigates, later to be identified as the Hortense and the Incorruptible. Neither Arrow nor Acheron could be considered a fair match for either. A stern chase developed and continued through the day but by nightfall it was obvious that there would be no way of escaping. The options were to fight or to surrender. Commander Vincent chose to fight.

French frigate Incorruptible
It appears that Vincent had previously made an agreement with the captains of the larger merchant ships in the convoy that carried guns to form a line of battle in such circumstance. He now called on them to do so but according to one account “these gentlemen were of the opinion that discretion was the better part of valour… they did not even answer the signal.”

Darkness had now fallen, so too the wind, and no contact were made with the enemy during the night. A breeze sprung up with first light the following morning however and one of the French frigates was revealed to be close enough to hail the Arrow. Vincent was invited to submit and come on board the French vessel but he replied with a similar request. The French now opened fire on both Arrow and Acheron and it was returned, falling off however until full daylight would allow more accurate shooting. At seven o’clock the real action began – one can imagine the preparations on all the ships during the three or so hours immediately prior to this, and the sense of supressed fear that must have reigned among the crews.

Opening oaf action: on left Acheron takes on Incorruptible and on right Arrow engages Hortenseby Francis Sartorius Jr. (c) National Maritime Museum; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Both British and French vessels opened fire almost simultaneously. The Hortense concentrated on the Arrow while her sister Incorruptible focussed on the Acheron. The wind was so light that the vessel had difficulty in manoeuvring but the unequal contest continued regardless for an hour and twenty minutes. The Arrow sustained massive injury – her masts and rigging badly damaged, four guns dismounted on her engaged side, her rudder rendered inoperative. Most serous of all was however that she had taken many hits “between wind and water” – that is, on her hull below the water line as it was exposed by rolling. Out of some 132 on board (including several passengers, among them a lady, her baby and her maid) thirteen men had been killed and twenty-seven wounded, a casualty rate of 30%. Commander Vincent realised that further resistance was futile and he struck his colours in surrender. The Arrow was so badly damaged that French boats were sent across to take off the survivors, her own boats having been badly damaged. The transfer was just completed when the Arrow rolled over in her beam ends and disappeared.

The Acheron had been in action against the Incorruptible all this time and had suffered severe damage, but low casualties. She resisted for a quarter hour longer than Arrow but in the end the Acheron’s Commander Farquhar reluctantly ordered his colours to be struck as well. She was so badly disabled that the French set her on fire after her crew had been taken off.

HMS Arrow sinking after surrender, Acheron and Incorruptible still engaging on the right
by Francis Sartorius Jr. (c) National Maritime Museum; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation
 The behaviour of the French officers and men to their captives offers significant insights to the state of discipline and morale in Napoleon’s navy at this time. On board the Hortense the conduct of the officers was “polite and humane” but they had so little control over their crew that they were unable to restrain them from pillaging the British prisoners. The treatment of the prisoners was even worse on the Incorruptible, the officers themselves “taunting them with their misfortunes, using very opprobrious terms.”

The sacrifices of the Arrow and the Acheron brings to mind similarly doomed resistance by the armed merchant cruisers Rawalpindi and Jervis Bay in 1939 and 1940 when they too were faced by overwhelming enemy force while escorting convoys. In all these cases the “last stands” by the escorts allowed a substantial part of the convoy to escape. After the Arrow and Acheron action the French frigates captured only three out of the 34 ships in the convoy. Some of these vessels, now sailing independently, did however later fall prey to Spanish privateers.

The Acheron’s crew were taken to Malaga and, as was common at this period, a prisoner-exchange deal was agreed soon after. Commander Farquhar, his officers, and his crew were court-martialled on board HMS Royal Sovereign off Sardinia for the loss of their ship. The court-martial was a formality – Farquhar was not only acquitted with honour but he was promoted to the coveted rank of Post Captain. The court-martial president returned Farquhar’s sword with the words “I hope you will soon be called upon to meet the Hortense on more equal terms. The result of the contest may prove more lucrative to you, but it cannot be more honourable” (What a way with words!)

The Arrow’s crew were taken to Cartagena and were exchanged some three months later. Their court-martial took place on board HMS Gladiator in Portsmouth and Commander Vincent and his men were acquitted with similarly eulogies to those accorded the Acheron’s crew. Vincent too was promoted to “post”.

A pleasing postscript was the two ships’ defence of the convoy was rewarded by commercial organisations. Swords of Honour were presented to both Vincent and Farquhar by the Lloyds (Insurance) Patriotic Fund and cash payments were made to wounded, bereaved families and survivors who had lost all they had when the vessels were destroyed.

Looking back over two centuries however, the most significant aspect of the action was the post-victory behaviour of the French crews and the inability of their officers to control them. It was hard to imagine such men ever prevailing against the discipline and professionalism of Royal Navy crews. And Trafalgar, only eight months later, proved that they could not.

I'm busy at present preparing for the Weymouth Leviathan festival in the coming weekend.I'm particularly looking forward to the writer's workshop "From Idea to Plot" that I'll be running from 0900 to 1045 on Saturday 12th. Participants will receive and use a workbook for developing a plot from one of eight "ideas" for a historical naval adventure which I'll ask them to choose from. There are a few places left for this session so if you've ever thought "I've got an idea for a novel", but have never got further, and are in the South of England in the coming weekend, you may find it useful to come along. Click here for booking detailsfor this or any one of a myriad number of fascinating events at which well-known names in the factual and fictional nautical writing worlds are appearing.

Friday, 4 March 2016

Creasy’s 15 Decisive Battles of the World – and 10 suggested additions

This item was originally posted in 2013 when I was first starting blogging and few readers saw it at the time. On looking at it again I thought it might be of interest for the wider audience that I now reach. Comments will be welcome.
In 1851 the English historian and jurist Sir Edward Shepherd Creasy published his “Fifteen Decisive Battles of the World. A different outcome of each of these battles would have resulted in a significantly different course of world history, and as such they still influence the world we live in today. As such they represent major “points of departure” for alternative histories. 
Tours (Poitiers) 732: Charles Martel repels the Muslim invaders from Northern Europe
Each chapter of Creasy’s book describes a different battle. The fifteen battles chosen are:
  1. The Battle of Marathon, 490 BC: Persian expansion into Europe halted
  2. Defeat of the Athenians at Syracuse, 413 BC: The end of Athenian power
  3. The Battle of Gaugamela, 331 BC: Opened Asia to Alexander’s armies
  4. The Battle of the Metaurus, 207 BC: Guaranteed Rome’s survival and triumph over Carthage
  5. Victory of Arminius over the Roman Legions under Varus, AD 9: Ended Roman hopes of expansion into Germany
  6. The Battle of Châlons, AD 451: Roman victory over the Huns saved Western Europe’s Future
  7. The Battle of Tours, AD 732: Stopped Moslem expansion into Northern Europe
  8. The Battle of Hastings, AD 1066: Essential First step towards Britain as a World Power
  9. Joan of Arc's Victory over the English at Orléans, AD 1429; The end of English power in France
  10. Defeat of the Spanish Armada, AD 1588: The beginning of the end for Spain as a World Power
  11. The Battle of Blenheim, AD 1704: Britain’s emergence as a Superpower
  12. The Battle of Pultowa, AD 1709: Russia’s first step to Superpower status
  13. The Battle of Saratoga, AD 1777: Secured the survival of the United States
  14. The Battle of Valmy, AD 1792: Ensures survival of French Revolutionary power and thinking
  15. The Battle of Waterloo, AD 1815: France never again achieved Superpower status
Poltawa 1709: Russia's first step to superpower status
It is notable that due to Creasy’s focus on European (and North American) power, and because little was then known in the West about Far Eastern history, no battles were listed which refer to China’s consolidation and survival as an imperial power, the failed Mongol invasions of Japan or to Japan’s failed bid for conquest of Korea in the 15th and 16th centuries and the implications that had for subsequent Japanese history.  The Mameluk victory in 1260, over the Mongols at Ain Jalut, in Galilee, which was critical in stemming Mongol power, was also omitted. Taking these and other Asian battles into account Creasy’s list might rightly have been extended to 20 or even 25 at the time he wrote. There is also good reason that he should have included the 1836 Battleof San Jacinto, which led in due course to United States acquisition of a vast areal percentage, and an economically vital one, of the modern nation.

Mongol horsemen - virtually unstoppable until defeated by the Mameluks
at Ain Jalut, near Nazareth, 1260
 Since that time various writers have added to the list of post-1851 battles. Given the increasing pace and scale of conflicts since then it is not inappropriate to add at least 10. As a starting point for discussion and speculation, and with all due lack of modesty I’m suggesting the 10 post-1851 decisive battles as below:

1)       Gettysburg (and Vicksburg) 1863: though fought in separate theatres, but at almost exactly the same time, these battles made the defeat of the Southern Confederacy inevitable, not least by ending hopes of international recognition. A long attritional grind lay ahead but Union victory was now inevitable.

2)       Sedan1870: Not only did Bismarck’s Germany crush France decisively, and usher in the new German Empire, but it was absolute enough to ensure that the French would ultimately settle for a peace that ceded Alsace and Lorraine, thereby planting the seeds for WW1.

3)       Manila (and Santiago) 1898: Two naval victories half the globe apart that announced the arrival of the United States as a world power and established a position in Asia that would be critical in WW2.

4)       Tsu Shima 1905: Japan’s victory over the huge Russian fleet was perhaps the most absolute in naval history. It marked the arrival of Japan as a major power and encouraged ambitions that would ultimately lead to WW2 in the Far East and the Pacific.

5)       The Marne 1914: Decisive in the sense that Germany could not achieve the quick victory in the west that it had built its strategy on. From this moment on Germany was on the back foot in the West. The Western Allies bought time that would ultimately lead to their defeat of Germany.

6)       Warsaw 1920: Bolshevik victory in the Russian Civil War was almost absolute when the Red Army was launched westwards to carry revolution into Central Europe. The new Polish state worked a miracle in defeating it. It saved Europe but at the cost of stoking Russian resentment that would exact a terrible revenge in later decades.

7)       The Atlantic 1939-45: Though the struggle to secure Britain’s supply lines climaxed in 1943, the fight went on from the first to the last day of WW2. Churchill described the U-Boat menace as the thing that frightened him most – and with good reason. Without victory in the Atlantic, no Allied victory in Western Europe.

8)       Stalingrad 1942-43. The name says it all. No need to say more.

9)       Saipan 1944: I’ve identified the conquest of Saipan rather than the Battle of Midway as being the decisive battle in the Pacific in WW2. My reasoning is that though Midway was critical in weakening the Japanese Navy, the United States would still have prevailed, though over a much longer time scale, if it had lost the battle. Saipan was critical in identifying the type of war that had to be fought to beat Japan, leading in due course to the decision to drop nuclear weapons, At Saipan not only did the Japanese military fight to the death, but huge numbers of civilians, including women who killed their own children, were prepared not only to resist but to commit suicide rather than surrender. This was the first US encounter with a Japanese civilian population and it highlighted just how costly an invasion of the Japanese Home Islands would be. From this point on I believe that use of nuclear weapons was unavoidable.

10)   The Battle That Never Was 1983-90: The US commitment to the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI – “Star Wars”), whether it was ever technically feasible or not at the time, was believed to be feasible by the Soviets. Their military budgets were already an unsustainable percentage of their total economy and the pressure to compete with Star Wars was possibly the greatest single factor in bringing about the ultimate collapse of the Soviet Union. Not a shot was fired and the tyranny hundreds of millions had lived under for seven decades died not with a bang but a whimper.

The list above is obviously subjective and I’d be welcome to hear comments
Warsaw 1920: The Miracle of the Vistula
Poles advance past Marshal Pilsudski to achieve the impossible

The reality of the six-year Battle of the Atlantic
Burning tanker painted by Commander Anton Otto Fischer, USCGR, February 1943

Britannia’s Shark by Antoine Vanner

Tuesday, 1 March 2016

Prehistoric Seafaring along the Atlantic Coasts

A Guest Blog by Richard Abbott

We're honoured today to welcome the novelist Richard Abbott as a guest blogger and he brings us back some millennia earlier than the eras normally covered in this blog.  His focus of interest is on the earliest civilisations and you can out more about him at the end of the article. Over to Richard!

Prehistoric Seafaring along the Atlantic Coasts

When we think of ships and sailing in the ancient world, the first thing which comes to mind for most people is the Mediterranean scene. Here, within the confines of an almost-enclosed sea, vessels of varying sizes plied a coastal trade. Now, Mediterranean weather can get extremely fierce at times, so there is certainly no guarantee of safety. Nevertheless, the situation faced in northern Europe, along the Atlantic seaboard, was considerably more challenging.

Dover Bronze Age boat remains (Wikipedia)
Two separate strategies emerged – one for exploiting the many rivers of north-west Europe, and the other for proper sea traffic. The river option is fascinating in its own right, spawning a number of technological solutions for carrying people and cargo a long way inland, and shaping settlement patterns which are still visible today. But for today I want to focus on the seagoing option.

Today’s United Kingdom is often characterised by a north-south divide. Simplistically, we have a prosperous and densely populated south, and a rural north with thinly scattered population, supplying a lower fraction of our GDP. The industrial midlands towns have not successfully broken up this picture.

But go back to the Bronze Age, and earlier into the Neolithic, and there is no real sign of this north-south divide. Instead, the divisions of material culture are mainly between east and west. The eastern portion faces towards, and maintains, close cultural links with what we now call Belgium, Holland, Germany and Denmark. Indeed, until only around 7,000 years ago, this connection was in the physical form of a land bridge. The last remnants of "Doggerland", a fertile area occupying much of today’s North Sea, were submerged by rising sea levels rather later than 5000BC.

The western half of the country maintained a rather different material culture, sharing common features with Ireland, Brittany and Galicia. For example, closely related passage and entrance tombs are found in Portugal, Brittany, Scilly, Cornwall, Ireland, Wales, and Scotland, but not most of the rest of England, nor in much of France. Clearly the modern concept of an Atlantic coast Celtic identity has some historical truth behind it. Indeed, part of my own DNA preserves the ancestral memory of Galicia and the Iberian peninsula, where some of my remote progenitors waited for the retreat of the ice so they could head north.
Replica of Ferriby boat being sailed (http://www.ferribyboats.co.uk/)
These communities, seemingly separated by the sea but linked by culture – and quite probably language – kept contact with each other by ship. The ocean became a means of connecting settlements, not dividing them. Now, parts of these journeys can be conducted by small coastal hops. Elsewhere, however, you need to set off into deep water, in faith, and using skills and talents cultivated through the generations. Some of these boats were of sewn-plank design, the timbers held together by flexible wooden roots or withies rather than metal fastenings. Others were of animal skin and hide, stretched over a frame of wood or antler, like a curragh. Boats of this basic pattern are still used by the Inuit, albeit with more modern materials. Navigating the approaches to the English Channel, and avoiding the fearsome rocks and reefs of the Scilly Isles, has proved difficult for many ships in the last few hundred years. How challenging was it, I wonder, in an open boat with low freeboard, flexing with every wave?

One of the eight Must Farm Bronze Age boats
We have hardly any examples of seagoing ships of this era, largely because little of the construction would survive intact. We can only infer the journeys they made, and the courage they must have shown, by the shared material record they left along the coastline from Spain to Scotland.

A few later hints help us. When Julius Caesar was conducting his characteristically brutal war against the Gauls, he was forced to confront their very capable navy in Morbihan Bay, in southern Brittany. We get the clear impression that purely as sailing vessels, the Gallic ships were superior – built of thick oak timbers, with iron nails and leather sails, these were ships fully capable of facing Atlantic weather. The Romans won by converting the naval conflict into what they knew best. Instead of ship to ship combat, they turned it into an equivalent land battle by using grapples and the crow – a sort of combined hook and gangplank – to immobilise the enemy and allow boarding parties to prevail.

A recent discovery claims to have identified a Roman sword on the east coast of Canada – a claim that most archaeologists are currently treating with scepticism. It seems unlikely that a Mediterranean ship would knowingly make the transatlantic crossing – though there are persistent hints that the Phoenicians might have done this the better part of a thousand years earlier. But single vessels might easily have been caught up in fierce weather and driven far from their intended course. Or the weapon might have been captured in battle by some enterprising Celt, and then carried on what was potentially a regular voyage.

Small clues indeed, but the big picture is that the prehistoric Atlantic coastline was a lively arena. Here the ocean did not divide people: rather it connected them together. Europe’s multicultural roots, and challenges, go back a great many years.

Replica Bronze Age boat on Loch Tay (archaeology.co.uk)

About Richard Abbott

Richard lives in London, England. He writes historical fiction set in the ancient Middle East - Egypt, Canaan and Israel - and also science fiction about our solar system in the fairly near future.

So far his books have not tackled the Atlantic vessels described in the article. This represents research in progress for the next historical novel, which will explore the Late Bronze Age tin trade between the British Isles and the eastern Mediterranean. It is provisionally called A Storm of Wind, and is at an early stage.

His novel The Flame Before Us covers, in part, another bronze age group for whom the Meditteranean was important – The Sea Peoples, who settled in the coastline along from Gaza after a tumultuous approach disrupting cities from the Hittite realm down to the borders of Egypt.

When not writing words or computer code, he enjoys spending time with family, walking, and wildlife, ideally combining all three pursuits in the English Lake District. He is the author of In a Milk and Honeyed Land, Scenes From a Life, The Flame Before Us - and most recently Far from the Spaceports. He can be found at his website (http://www.kephrath.com/) or blog (http://richardabbott.datascenesdev.com/blog/), or various social media sites.

Click here for more information on The Flame Before Us