Saturday, 25 January 2014

Britannia's Reach nearing launch!

Today I approved the second - and final - proof copy of Britannia's Reach, the second book in the Dawlish Chronicles series. It's now being prepared also for Kindle publication and it will be made available in both forms in the very near future. Watch this space!

Below you see me holding a proof copy on a cold and blustery day on the English south coast. I was flattered to see that the sparrow standing on the lobster pots was taking an active interest!

So what is confronting Nicholas Dawlish in Britannia's Reach?

It's November 1879. On a broad river deep in the heart of South America, a flotilla of paddle steamers thrashes slowly upstream. It's laden with troops, horses and artillery, intent on conquest and revenge.  In the van are two obsolete warships, an ironclad monitor and a gunboat.

Ahead lies a commercial empire that was wrested from a British consortium in a bloody revolution. Now the investors are determined to recoup their losses and are funding a vicious war to do so.
Nicholas Dawlish, an ambitious British naval officer, is playing a leading role in the expedition.  But as brutal land and river battles mark its progress upriver, and as both sides inflict and endure ever greater suffering, stalemate threatens.

And Dawlish finds himself forced to make a terrible ethical choice if he is to return to Britain with some shreds of integrity remaining…

Saturday, 18 January 2014

The Dreyfus Affair - and the rotten political class in the France of the 1890s

In the last week I have been enjoying “The Dreyfus Affair” by Piers Paul Reid – the most readable account of it I have read to date, easier going than “The Affair” by Jean-Denis Bredin. This appalling miscarriage of justice not only victimised an innocent man, and unleashed a sickening wave of Anti-Semitism in France, but also exposed the widespread and unmitigated moral squalor of the political classes of the time.
The affair began in November 1894 with the conviction for treason of Captain Alfred Dreyfus, a talented General Staff officer of Jewish descent, was accused of having betrayed French military secrets to the German Embassy in Paris. The leakage of secrets was real but Dreyfus was innocent in the matter. The initial investigation was perfunctory to say the least, with a strong predilection for assuming guilt, not least because of strong Anti-Semitic prejudice. On the basis of flimsy and poorly evaluated evidence, Dreyfus was sentenced to life imprisonment and sent to the penal colony at Devil's Island off French Guiana. Here he spent almost five years in solitary confinement in appalling conditions of mental stress and physical privation. Prior to deportation from France Dreyfus was subjected to ritual humiliation in front of assembled troops, his badges of rank being torn from his uniform and his sword broken before him.
Captain Alfred Dreyfus's ritual humiliation

Even from the beginning many – including the governor of the prison in Paris where he was initially detained – were convinced that he was innocent, as were his wife Lucie and his brother Mathieu. The latter began a campaign to prove Dreyfus’s innocence, one that took off slowly but gained momentum.
Two years later, in 1896, evidence came to light that identified a French Army major named Ferdinand Esterhazy as the real culprit. It was now that the most scandalous part of the affair commenced. Unwilling to admit that the initial conviction was wrong, senior military figures colluded in forgery of documents that “proved” that Dreyfus had indeed been guilty. With their support, and with suppression of new evidence, Esterhazy was unanimously acquitted by the court martial that he demanded to clear his name.
Divisions in society - and even in families - over Dreyfus's innocence or guilt
Knowledge of the court martial's framing of Dreyfus, and of the associated cover-up, began to spread, chiefly owing to J'accuse, a vehement open letter published in a Paris newspaper in January 1898 by the novelist Émile Zola. Pressure built up to a level that ensured that Dreyfus was brought back to France in 1899 for another trial. 
Zola's open letter - which proved somewhat of a two-edged sword
The intense political and judicial scandal that ensued divided French society between those who supported Dreyfus (now called "Dreyfusards"), such as Anatole France, Henri Poincaré and Georges Clemenceau, and those who condemned him (the anti-Dreyfusards), such as Edouard Drumont, the director and publisher of the anti-semitic newspaper La Libre Parole. The new trial resulted in another conviction and a 10-year sentence but Dreyfus was given a pardon and set free.
Dreyfus's Second Trial
Eventually all the accusations against Alfred Dreyfus were demonstrated to be baseless. In 1906 Dreyfus was exonerated and reinstated as a major in the French Army. He served throughout World War I, ending his service with the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel.

What is particularly impressive about Piers Paul Reid’s account of the Affair is that he does not treat it as a scandal in isolation. He puts it in the context of the intense and bitter rivalries that had riven France from the First Revolution onwards, between Monarchists and Republicans, Right and Left, Catholics and Anti-Clericals, Conservatives and Radicals. The sheer nastiness of these squabbles, the petty – and not so petty – humiliations each group tried to impose on the others when opportunity allowed and the venom with which innumerable vendettas were followed makes for very distasteful reading. These conflicts built to a climax in the years prior to WW1, during which there was somewhat of a period of national union, but once peace was restored the same hatreds and feuds reasserted themselves. The ultimate climax was to be the split between Vichy and Free French supporters after France’s defeat in 1940 and some echoes still reverberate.

In Reid’s account there are very few heroes, other than Lucie and Mathieu Dreyfus and a handful of others. On both sides of the Affair many of the characters – including Zola – were ethically compromised individuals who seemed lacking in scruples, compassion and generosity of spirit. Many used the Affair to further ends other than establishing the guilt or innocence of the victim. The so-called “Belle Epoque” had a rotten foundation.

Board game of 1898 based on the Affair, with illustrations of the main players
One of the ironies of the story is that the lies, forgeries and subterfuges that were undertaken to “prove” Dreyfus’s guilt, when his innocence was known, were allegedly “to protect the honour of the French Army”. One can only wish that senior officers had paid less attention to such concerns and more to addressing the realities of modern warfare. French military doctrine – if it can be glorified by such a name – went no further than “offensive á l'outrance”, consisting of human-wave attacks on defended positions by infantry clad in ludicrous quasi-Napoleonic uniforms of blue coats and red trousers. The price was to be paid in blood. In August 1914, the first month of WW1, the French Army suffered some 210,000 casualties in less than two weeks of actual fighting. This included 4,778 officers, being about 10% of the total French officer strength.
French lambs to the slaughter 1914 - “offensive á l'outrance”in the age of the machine gun
Quite coincidentally, my reading of Reid’s book coincided with accusations about ridiculous, undignified and indeed farcical, behaviour by the current French President. This seems faithful to the grand tradition established, unfortunately rather tragically, by his predecessor at the time of the Dreyfus Affair. This gentleman, M. Félix Faure, had the misfortune to die suddenly from apoplexy in the Élysée Palace on 16 February 1899, “at a critical juncture while engaged in sexual activities in his office” (as delicately phrased in Wikipedia) with a lady not his wife.

One cannot but feel that France deserves better – now as well as then.

Saturday, 11 January 2014

Almirante Lynch – first sinking by torpedo, 1891

The appearance of the successful self-propelled torpedo occurred in the mid-1870s, at the same time as light, efficient steam engines allowed the development of a new type of warship, the torpedo boat. Fast by the standards of the time – typically 18 to 20 knots – and cheap to build, these small vessels carried a weapon that, for the first time, allowed attack below the waterline. To this, even the most heavily armoured ships were vulnerable.

Some nations, such as France, which remained a possible enemy for Britain in any war likely at this time, saw flotillas of such gunboats as an economic and effective way of countering the numerical advantages of a larger navy. In the French navy this concept was central to the strategy advocated by the so called Jeune École, and other nations, including many smaller ones, followed suit. Swarms of torpedo boats were believed capable of swamping the onboard defences of their targets and, as when the airborne attack emerged as a threat in the 1920s, many came to believe that the day of armoured units, particularly battleships, was over. Though early torpedo boats were suited to inshore use only – as for defence of ports and naval bases – size and sea-keeping ability increased through the 1880s, thus allowing more aggressive deployment. Typical of such larger boats was the Falke, built by the British company Yarrow for the Austro-Hungarian Navy in 1885 and carrying two torpedo tubes and two 37mm quick-firing guns. 135 feet long and displacing 100 tons, she was capable of 22 knots at a time when the fastest armoured ships were lucky to make 16.
Falke of the Austro-Hungarian Navy 1885
 Protection of heavy units against torpedo boat attack consisted of what today would be regarded as both “point defence” and “area defence”. In the former case the objective was to destroy any attacker that had come close to an individual ship. Effective weapons were available for this, in the form of Gatling, Nordenvelt and Gardner semiautomatic weapons of up to one inch calibre which were well capable of tearing a lightly constructed torpedo craft apart in a hail of fire. The solution to this was to swamp the target ship by simultaneous attack from different directions. Countering this meant area defence by craft that were capable of detecting and breaking up such swarms of attackers, ideally long before they could reach heavier units.
HMS Niger of the Alarm class - became a minesweeper in 1909
Torpedoed by U-12 off Deal on 11th November 1914
Given that the Royal Navy had the most to protect, it was not surprising that it was the first navy to develop a counter to the threat. This was in the form of the “torpedo gunboat”, essentially a small cruiser armed both with torpedoes and with heavier guns than those of any torpedo boat, and were of a size that guaranteed superior sea-keeping capability. The Royal Navy was to build 33 such units between 1885 and 1894. The Alarm class of the late ‘80s was perhaps typical of the type as a whole. 230 feet long and of 810 tons, she carried five torpedo tubes, which gave a useful offensive capability against larger ships, and a heavy gun armament for dealing with torpedo craft – two 4.7 inch guns, located fore and aft, as well as smaller quick-firers and Gardner semi-automatics. Like others of the type the eleven Alarms were handsome ships, all the more when seen in black, white and buff Victorian livery.

HMS Boomerang of the Sharpshooter class
 Any torpedo boat that came within range of such a unit was to have only short life expectancy. The problem was however to get within range for the typical torpedo-gun boat was slower by two to three knots, and significantly less maneuverable than the craft they were designed to hunt down and kill. By the mid ‘90s this fact had been amply demonstrated in exercises and another solution was needed to counter the torpedo boat threat. The answer was to be a “super torpedo boat”, larger and faster and carrying heavier armament, becoming in the process a “torpedo boat destroyer” and the progenitor of the ever larger destroyers that were to play such key roles in both world wars.
The torpedo gunboats were quickly made obsolete by these new destroyers though, as well-built craft some were to survive in secondary roles, as depots, patrol craft or minesweepers and play useful roles in the Great War, being broken up in the early 1920s. This eclipsing of the torpedo-gunboat by the more spectacular destroyer as resulted in them having received a bad press over the years, and they are usually regarded as a misguided concept and a technical dead end. This evaluation, though harsh, is correct.

Depressing as this record of mediocrity might be, one torpedo gunboat was to prove very successful, and indeed make naval history in an unlikely location – Chile.

Throughout the 19th Century, in the aftermath of gaining independence from Spain and Portugal, Latin American nations engaged in an endless series of wars and civil wars. Some were very large-scale affairs, such as the Tri-Partite War of the 1860s in which Paraguay was devastated in a conflict with Brazil, Argentine and Uruguay, while others such as the War of the Pacific from 1879 to 1883, which lost Bolivia its coastline, still have reverberations today. In many of these conflicts naval forces played important roles since South American nations had an almost insatiable appetite for buying expensive warships overseas, whether they could afford them or not.

The Chilean Civil War of 1891, though forgotten outside Chile today, was in its own right a substantial and murderous conflict. It pitted forces supporting the republic’s Congress against those of the sitting President, José Manuel Balmaceda for reasons that will not be enlarged upon here. At the start of the conflict the Chilean Army aligned itself with the President, and the Chilean Navy with the Congress, but as the conflict developed both sides acquired their own land and sea forces. 
The obsolescent Blanco Encalada   
The most important unit of the rebellious navy was the armored frigate Blanco Encalada, built in Britain in 1875. Of 3500 tons, and mounting six 9-inch guns and many smaller, she had already played an active role on the War of the Pacific, her most notable  achievement  being the capture of the Peruvian monitor Huáscar (which is still preserved in Chile today). Supported by smaller vessels, she was in a position to dominate the Chilean coastline in the 1891 civil war, and indeed did so in the first months of the conflict. Control of coastal waters allowed troops to be transported by sea and landed anywhere required along Chile’s very long coastline.  
Almirante Lynch
The game changer was however to be the arrival from Britain of two newly built torpedo gunboats, the Almirante Lynch and the Almirante Condell, generally similar to the Royal Navy’s Sharpshooter and Alarm classes. They carried five torpedo tubes as well as three 3-inch guns, plus  smaller weapons. Crewed by Chileans, the vessels arrived at Valparaiso on April 18th and their commanders pledged to support President Balmaceda. He now had the two must modern warships in Chilean waters at his disposal, small though they might be compared with obsolescent Blanco Encalada which had been designed before vulnerability to torpedo attack needed to be taken into account. Sometime later news arrived of the Blanco Encalada supporting a landing by rebel troops at Caldera Bay, 450 miles to the north, were there were railroad and mining installations of high economic value. The newly arrived torpedo gunboats now headed north, followed by an armed steamer, apparently impressed from merchant service, called the Imperial.

In the early hours of  April  23rd the torpedo gunboats entered the Caldera anchorage and drove straight for the Blanco Encalada . Surprise seems to have been total – there are obvious similarities of the Japanese attack on Russian ships at Port Arthur in 1904. Both attackers got within 500 yards of the Blanco Encalada before her defensive weapons opened fire on them. The Almirante Condell launched a torpedo from her bow tube at 100 yards but it missed and exploded on the shore beyond. Turning away, the Condell launched from both her starboard tubes, one hitting but failing to explode, the second passing harmlessly straight under the Blanco Encalada.

The Almirante Condell was now the target of all the Blanco Encalada's guns, deflecting attention from the approach of the Almirante Lynch. At 50 yards range she fired her bow torpedo and missed but then, turning away, launched from her forward starboard tube. This torpedo found its mark, blasting a hole later found to be 7 feet by 15 below the Blanco Encalada’s waterline.
Almirante Lynch's successful attack
Within two minutes of the strike the Blanco Encalada had sunk and her escaping crew, and a transport that had come to their aid, were brought under fire from the Almirante Condell and Almirante Lynch’s 3-pounder Hotchkiss quick firers. Only 106 men out of the 288 on board survived. As the victorious torpedo gunboats left the harbor they spotted a transport, the Aconcagua, which they attacked with their 3-inch guns, capturing her after an hour and a half battle, but abandoning her when they sighted a large vessel approaching which they feared might be the rebel cruiser Esmeralda. In the event their caution was unjustified as she proved to be the neutral Royal Navy’s HMS Warspite. A later attack by the two torpedo gunboats on another ironclad, the Almirante Cochrane, was unsuccessful and no torpedoes were launched.

The Almirante Lynch had made history by making the Blanco Encalada the first warship to be sunk by a self-propelled torpedo. What is notable is however how many torpedoes launched from very close range missed their target before success was finally scored. This may well have been due to inadequate adjustment of the depth-keeping mechanism and of the fixed rudders – azimuth stabilisation by gyro being still far in the future. In the larger navies each torpedo was individually test- launched, not once but many times, and fine adjustments were made to ensure straight running. It is unlikely that the Chilean forces would have had the time to do this.
The Battle of La Placilla, 28th August 1891
And as for the Civil War - did any of this at all matter?

Probably not really. The war was ultimately to be won on land, and by the Congressional forces, in the bloody battle of La Placilla, South East of Valparaiso. The President’s army was practically annihilated, 941 being killed, including it commanding general and his deputy and 2,402 wounded. The Congressional army lost over 1,800. President Balmaceda, in despair, shot himself thereafter and the rebels took over government, initiating so-called "pseudo-parliamentary" period in Chile's history, which lasted from 1891 to 1925.

And now, a century and a quarter later, one almost weeps at the futility of it all.

Britannia’s Reach by Antoine Vanner

The Dawlish Chronicle set in South America:

"Britannia’s reach is not just political or military alone. What higher interest can there be than consolidation of Britain’s commercial interests?” So says one of the key figures in this novel, which centres on the efforts of a British-owned company  to reassert control of its cattle-raising investment in Paraguay, following a revolt by its workers.

This story of desperate riverine combat brings historic naval fiction into the Age of Fighting Steam.

Thursday, 2 January 2014

Syria – the tragedy of the end of normal things

A very personal and deeply felt blog this week, and different from the sort of items I usually write about. But it may prove of interest nonetheless.

Each day the media bring ever worse news of horrific events in Syria. I find this profoundly sad, for I have visited this beautiful country twice, including a two-week journey with my daughter around all the major archaeological and historic sites in 2009. These included remains of cities, such as Ugarit, which flourished well over 3000 years ago and was where an alphabet was developed that was the first in human history, and other spectacular monuments such as vast Graeco-Roman amphitheatre at Bosra that is as perfectly preserved as if it was completed yesterday. The vast area of the ruins of Palmyra were still yielding up secrets – a hitherto unknown burial chamber was discovered while I was there – and ruined cities such as Apamea and Resafe, hitherto only names to me,came alive. The sight of ancient cities on the Euphrates, such as Mari and Doura Europas , where archaeological investigations were still in progress, made it possible to imagine daily life in the distant past. Visiting the gigantic Crusader castle of Krak des Chevaliers was realisation of a dream I had since boyhood.
Ugarit - source of the first alphabet

Apamea - a forgotten Graeco-Roman city, great in its time

But most of all what I now remember – and mourn – is the normal daily life, active, vibrant, friendly, which I encountered in cities such as Damascus, Aleppo, Lataki and Deir-es-Zor, which new figure in the news as scenes of horror. I remember being in a restaurant in Damascus where a young girl’s birthday was being celebrated and her family insisted our sharing the birthday cake. And I remember my daughter emerging from the hamam, the Turkish bath, in Aleppo and laughing about the pummelling she had received from the masseuse and saying that she had never before been so clean. Later that day, we were drawn by the voices of a choir to a Maronite Church where beautifully-turned out young people, male and female, were singing their hearts out in perfect harmony. That they did seemed to offer no offence to their Muslim neighbours and passers-by. Afterwards we sat out in a square near that church as darkness fell, and we marvelled at the expertise of the goldsmiths who were so common in that quarter of the city. In Homs we marvelled at the size and complexity of ancient water-wheels sill in use. At Palmyra we greeted the sunrise on camelback as we picked our way through the ruins of this vast city and at Latakia we searched for, and found, restaurants that would hold their own with any, anywhere.  In the huge covered markets at Aleppo, and at Damascus, near the "Street called Straight" where St.Paul lodged, we found endless satisfaction for just being there and we encountered nothing but gaiety and energy and welcome.

Resafa - a vast Byzantine frontier fortress in the desert
Palmyra - extensive beyond words
Bosra - the Amphitheater, its acoustics still superb 
Damascus Souk, full of life
And at Deir-es-Zor, on the Euphrates, our hearts were chilled in sorrow and anger when we visited the Museum of the Armenian Genocide, with its dreadful record of cruelty and suffering, brought to life by so many photographs. Terrible as it was, the fact that this museum had government support made us hopeful that the days of such intolerance and slaughter would never return to Syria.

How wrong we were.

For me the most poignant aspect of the tragedy now playing out is that normal life, in all its unspectacular but happy, modest, fulfilling ways, has been destroyed and that it may not return for decades to come.

The symbol for me of this lost normal life is perhaps a bizarre one – the restoration of old steam locomotives. For at Damascus the terminus of the famed Hejaz railway – to the destruction of which T. E. Lawrence and his Arab allies were so devoted – has been fully restored and much of the line is still in use, or was in 2009. It may have been jerry-built further south, but in Syria the civil engineering involved was of a very high standard. The terminus building houses – or housed – a museum with wonderful historic photographs and there we learned that Syrian enthusiasts, ably complemented by Turkish ones who spent their holidays there, were involved in restoration of some of the original steam locomotives delivered from Germany prior to World War 1. In the photograph here one is shown – and indeed it might have been very lucky to have survived one of Lawrence’s attacks.

Hejaz Railway locomotive - one that escaped Lawrence
Locomotive Manufacturer's Plate - German quality
I can think of few more innocent, constructive and friendly activities than restoration of old steam engines, and societies in which volunteers from differing backgrounds come together to work happily together on such projects have all the makings of happy ones.

And now? Are there any enthusiasts still restoring the Hejaz engines or are they struggling instead to survive at the most basic level?

It breaks my heart at times to be human.