Friday, 30 May 2014

Britain and France confront Argentina - the Battle of Obligado, 1845

British ships (right) and French ships (left) move up
the Parana river towards Argentinian defences, November 20th 1845
Today, when one thinks of naval combat between British and Argentinian forces the Falklands War of 1982 is the case most likely to come to mind. An equally fierce engagement did however occur 137 years earlier and, though it is largely forgotten in Britain today, is commemorated annually in Argentina by a national holiday on each 20th November.

Juan Manuel de Rosas
The Spanish colonies in South America gained their independence in the 1820s through brutal wars of liberation. Much of the rest of the century thereafter was to be occupied by an almost constant warfare between the new nations – and with the Portuguese-speaking Empire of Brazil – to establish national boundaries. Dictators were to abound in this period, many as savage and ruthless as those who were to be seen in Europe and Africa in the 20th Century. Among the most notable – indeed notorious – of these was the tyrant Juan Manuel de Rosas (1793 –1877) ruled Argentina almost uninterruptedly from 1829 to 1852. His government was one of terror, with savage suppression of opposition by a state police called the Mazorca.  Wars with neighbouring states, as well as civil conflict, marked his rule and were barbarous in the extreme – according to one source “prisoners were rarely taken or, if taken, were then killed; fugitives were hunted down, their throats cut, their heads exhibited."  

The political complexities surrounding war between Argentina and Uruguay in the mid-1840s are impossible to sketch in a short article. British and French interest in the situation focussed on protection of commercial interests in Uruguay and on keeping navigation of the Parana River open to commercial traffic. This huge river, navigable by sea-going vessels of the time for much of its length, leads into the very heart of South America.

View of the boom from the Argentinian batteries on the cliff south of the river
In mid-1845 Argentina had closed the river by means of a boom and shore batteries at La Vuelta de Obligado, some 120 mile NNW of Buenos Aires. At this point the river is 700 metres wide and a tight turn (vuelta in Spanish) makes navigation difficult. British merchant shipping was trapped upstream and other ships, 92 in total, carrying manufactured goods, were unable to move upstream. At this period of British commercial dominance the challenge was irresistible, as it also was for the French.

The Argentine boom extended completely across the river and consisted of 24 vessels linked by three strong metal chains. Only three of these vessels were Argentinian naval units and the remainder were requisitioned. Four artillery batteries with 30 cannons in total, a mix of 8, 10, 12 and 20-pounders, were dug in on a cliff that rose from 100 to 600 feet on the southern bank, and supported by some 2,000 entrenched troops. A small brigantine, the Republicano, and two small gunboats, the Restaurador and the Lagos, were also available to protect the boom.

The combined British-French force that moved upriver totalled eleven warships, six of them of the Royal Navy. Eight of the vessels were sailing craft but the most powerful were three steam paddlers: HMS Gorgon, HMS Firebrand and the French Fulton. Steam power in warfare still a novelty and these vessels represented contemporary cutting-edge technology.

HMS Gorgon - by Sir Oswald Walters Brierly
The Gorgon, which had already seen action in the bombardment of Acre in 1840, can be considered representative of the type. Of wooden construction and of 1,610 tons, she was classed as a sloop. Her length was 152 feet along the keel and her 800 hp 2-cylinder direct-acting steam engine drove two enormous 27 foot diameter paddle wheels – and obvious point of vulnerability in battle. Though capable of 9.5 knots under steam considerations of coal supply demanded that she also carry an auxiliary sailing rig. Her armament was impressive for her size – two pivot-mounted 10-inch guns, two 68-pounders and two 42-pounder carronades. In addition the British ships carried Congreave rockets, probably 24-pounders, which, due to their high trajectories, were to prove very useful for attacking the Argentinian positions on the cliffs.

The Argentinian batteries under rocket bombardment
British and French ships approach the boom (on the right)
The battle commenced early on November 20th, with an intense bombardment by the British and French ships of the outgunned Argentinian defences.  The wind was light, making handling of the British and French sailing vessels difficult and they were to suffer under fire of the batteries. The three steamers now came into their own, not only since they were heavily armed, but because  of their manoeuvrability and non-dependence on wind. Heavy casualties — 150 dead, 90 wounded – were inflicted on the Argentinian defenders. The boom remained however intact and heavily defended, and gunfire alone was unlikely to part the chains linking the vessels it consisted of.

Boarding the boom - a heavily romanticised contemporary view
The boom is shown as consisting of ships - in fact there were three only
and the remaining vessels were barges
What followed had much about it of a “cutting out” expedition of the Nelsonian and Napoleonic period. Captain James Hope of HMS Firebrand volunteered to cut the boom. Taking three boats with him, and under heavy fire, he managed to board at the centre of the boom. Armourers accompanied the bluejackets and in some four minutes the chains had been severed, allowing the allied ships to push upriver. They were now in a position to rake the shore batteries with impunity. Disembarked troops overcame the last defenders of the bluff, and 21 cannons were captured. The Argentinian Republicano was blown up by her own commander when he was unable to defend it any longer but the gunboats Restaurador and Lagos disengaged successfully and withdrew up river. The combined British and French force had lost 28 dead and 95 wounded.

Sulivan as admiral
The river was now open to commercial traffic, its safety guaranteed by the allied ships. One of the British vessels, the brig HMS Philomel, advanced to a point 800 miles from the sea, under the command of Commander Bartholomew Sulivan. The voyage was a triumph of skilful seamanship, progress hampered at times by contrary winds, a three or four knot current, and shallow sections with as little as a foot of water beneath the keel. Sulivan, who had served on HMS Beagle during her momentous voyage, was subsequently to emerge as the Royal Navy’s most noted hydrographer and to end his career as an admiral. Captain Hope also achieved flag rank, his promotions culminating in Admiral of the Fleet in 1879.

The Obligado victory did not however end the British and French confrontation with Argentina. A five-year long blockade was to close Buenos Aires to maritime commerce. The stand-off was ended by treaties signed in 1849 by Britain and in 1850 by France and acknowledging the Argentine sovereignty over its rivers.

The Battle of Obligado has achieved iconic status in Argentinian memory as an instance of preservation of national sovereignty and of resistance to foreign intervention. It is commemorated not just by the annual 20th November holiday but by a memorial park at the site of the battle at which the remnants of the boom chains figure prominently

The French took particular pride in their contribution and a Paris Métro station remained named after the battle until 1947.  When Eva Perón came to visit the name was however judged undiplomatic and the station was renamed “Argentine” and has remained so since!

And what became of the dictator, Rosas? He was to rule Argentina for another seven years, finally fleeing into exile after defeat in a war with Brazil. He settled – surprisingly – in England, and appears to have lived quietly thereafter, dying at Southampton in 1877.

Dictators have met worse fates. 

Thursday, 29 May 2014

Comprehensive Review of Britannia's Wolf

I'm always glad to get feedback - whether it's positive or negative - from my readers as it helps me improve future books.  Reviews on Amazon are especially valuable. I was therefore very pleased to see a comprehensive one of Britannia's Wolf by American reader Charles A.Seaver. It not only comments on the book itself but also provides a good summary of the strategic and political context in which it is set. Charles provides an especially valuable piece of advice, which I'll be taking into account in future books (post-Britannia's Reach), and this refers to provision of more maps. Since I use maps from the start when I'm plotting I should perhaps have thought of this before! I quote in full:

"The year is 1877. The world is slowly lurching into the modern age, politically, socially, and technology-wise. Vanner hits all of these themes in the course of the novel, and will doubtless expand upon them in future books. The setting is the Russo-Turkish war of 1877-78. The Ottoman Empire is slowly decaying, and the Russian empire is only a bit behind on the road to history's dustbin. The Turks, however, control the Bosphorus, the narrow strip of water separating the Black Sea from the Mediterranean. In that control they prevent the Russians from access to the open seas and the Suez Canal, Britain's shortest passage to India where they, and the Russians, are engaged in the great game of control of the sub-continent. It is definitely not in Britain's interest that the Russians gain access to open waters, and possibly threaten the canal, in spite of truly wretched behavior on the part of the Turks.

Among other steps the British take is to dispatch Nicholas Dawlish, Commander, RN, to serve in the Turkish navy, put out a bit of stick,stiffen their spines, and raise hell with Russian supply shipping on the Black Sea, and see what else he can do to disrupt Russian efforts. Dawlish has, ahh, "resigned" officially from the RN, in order to maintain the fiction that he is simply looking for better rank (Captain) and more money, in the Ottoman navy. A not unheard of ruse in those days. He takes command of the Turkish (but British built) ironclad Mesrustiyet and it's Turkish crew, and starts working on his assignment. With no small amount of success.

Mesrustiyet is a good example of changing naval technology. The age of sail was over, and the slow transition to the age of iron and steam was underway. Nobody was sure what iron/steam warships should look like, and it took another 20-40 years after the close of this book for the modern battleship to assume final form. Mesrustiyet was heavily armed- 4 12" cannons, and armored, but rather slow, and not what could be called a good sea vessel. She also sported a large iron ram that was something of an anachronism at the time, but Dawlish eventually makes good use of it. This was not a vessel that an age of sail warship could engage with any hope of success. The other major technological advance that figures in the book is the presence of Winchester repeating rifles- used to excellent effect on several occasions.

Trying to explain the political background to the book is simply impossible. There is a reason that the word Byzantine still applies to extremely complex situations. Things do get Byzantine, and Dawlish suffers from it.

There is no small amount of action, both afloat (the above mentioned ramming sequence), and ashore, where the Winchesters get used. Vanner is not at all squeamish about describing the hardships of combat, both on the participants and on the far too many civilians caught in the crossfire of the combatants and their own religious/tribal/political/loyalty conflicts. The final retreat from Ljubimec at the end of the book is particularly harrowing.

Vanner has us in new territory in this series. Patrick O'Brian and others have produced many,many, volumes covering the Napoleonic era of age of sail combat. There has been some fiction dealing with ironclad warfare - most recently James L. Nelson's two volumes on the Confederate Navy during the American Civil War. Vanner has virtually untouched territory to spin his tales involving iron, steam, and the largely small and forgotten wars in the latter third of the 19th century. I think sailing, or steaming, on previously uncharted seas should produce an interesting saga.

My criticisms are mild, and not meant to minimize how much I enjoyed the book. I could really have used some better maps to keep track of where the action was taking place. That could easily just be me, the reader, and not apply to anybody else. One of the two things in the book that struck me as ever so slightly off was the budding romance with Miss Morton. I can't even really put a finger on it, but it was not entirely convincing, at least to me. Maybe I'm too American to really feel the depths of British class prejudice. The other thing that struck me was that Dawlish was very lucky in his Turkish subordinates. To a man they shaped up and did their duty, sometimes from not very auspicious beginnings. Not a rotter or traitor in the crowd?

All in all a wonderful read, and now I have to go buy the other volumes in print. Highly recommended."

Friday, 23 May 2014

World War One Reading List - Part 1

I’ve been fascinated by World War One for most of my life, not least because like many of my generation I knew people who had lived – and fought – through it. I’ve visited the Somme, Ypres, Verdun and Meuse-Argonne battlefields more than once. 

I’m reasonably well read on the period and with the 100th anniversary of the start of the war coming up I thought it might be appropriate to share recommendations of some of the books I have found most enlightening. I’ll extend the list over a number of blog posts and in due course the list will also find a place on the “Antoine Vanner’s Bookshelf” section on my website Below is the first instalment. It deals with the outbreak and early months of the war and I hope you find it useful.

The Assassination of the Archduke: Greg King and Sue Woolmans. Subtitled “Sarajevo 1914 and the Romance That Changed the World”, this is a very recent book (2013) but deserves to be a classic.  Though the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife triggered WW1, the couple themselves have remained shadowy figures in most accounts, and have been frequently portrayed unsympathetically. In this account they emerge as rounded – and indeed admirable – personalities who were prepared to endure humiliation at the Austro-Hungarian court as the price of their marriage. The assassins responsible for their murder are equally well portrayed. The account of the couple’s last day is almost unbearably poignant and their personal tragedy foreshadows those of millions of others. It’s very accessible and a good starting point for reading more about the war.

The World Crisis: Winston S. Churchill. Though a colleague said “Winston has written an enormous book about himself, and called it "The World Crisis"”, this six-volume account of the war is, as might be expected from Churchill, idiosyncratic, vigorous, subjective, eloquent and vastly readable. Either in the cabinet as a minister, or in the trenches as a battalion commander, Churchill himself was closely involved in many of the key event and decisions and these he makes live. I’ve found the first volume – dealing with the run-up to the war, of especial interest. In the UK old versions of this work can still be spotted in second-hand bookshops (those that remain) at reasonable prices. If you see them don’t hesitate – buy them! You’ll be dipping in to them for years to come.

The Guns of August (a.k.a. August 1914): Barbara Tuchman. This superb narrative history deals with the first month of the war – the German Invasion of Belgium and France, the battles on the frontiers, the Allied Retreat, the Russian incursion into East Prussia and the Battle of Tannenberg. It ends on the eve of the Battle of the Marne, the event that brought the German onslaught to a halt and ended all hopes of a short war. This is an exciting and fast paced read, and is particularly effective as “Military and Political History” for the non-specialist reader. No matter how well one knows what the outcome in fact was a sense of suspense is maintained to the end. I doubt if this book has ever been out of print since its publication some fifty years ago and it has, deservedly, been recognised as a modern classic.

The Rape of Belgium, The Untold Story of World War I: Larry Zuckerman. Belgium was the first country to suffer invasion and occupation by German forces in WW1. Most books on the subject deal with the military aspect but this book concentrates on the impact on civilians. Within days of the Germans crossing the frontier Belgian civilians were being used as human shields or being shot by the dozen in reprisals for acts of, often-imaginary, defiance. Ancient buildings and libraries – even an entire town – were burned in cold blood and worse was to follow in terms of deportation of forced labour, confiscation of food supplies and looting of industrial plant. In 1914 Belgium was apparently the 6th largest economy in the world and it never recovered this position following the devastation wreaked on it. This carefully researched book from 2004 leaves the reader with no illusions about the reality of German aggression. If you think that WW1 was “futile” then ask yourself if a tyranny that showed its hand like this could ever be tolerated by civilised men and women. The price of Freedom can be very high.

Liaison 1914, a Narrative of the Great Retreat: Edward Spears. A young and very junior British officer in 1914 (he was to be a General in the WW2), Spears found himself, almost by accident, as catapulted into a key role as liaison officer between the French and British high-commands. His English/French bilingualism proved invaluable in facilitating communication between mutually uncomprehending allies at the very moment when the German advance through Belgium into France threatened to be unstoppable. Spears was thus a “witness to history” at the highest levels and his high-drama account in Liaison 1914, originally published in 1930,  offers unrivalled insights into decision-making under crisis conditions. 

Old Soldiers Never Die: Frank Richards. While Spear’s book deals with the challenges of high command in the opening months of the war, Richards’ book, first published in 1933, tells of the same campaign (and of his subsequent service through the war) from the viewpoint of a private soldier, a rank he never rose above. He had already served over a decade, much of it in India, and had left the army in 1912, though he remained a reservist. He was recalled to duty on the outbreak of war in August 1914 and participated in the opening battles and the “Great Retreat”. His story is unvarnished and unpretentious, the solid record of a professional’s job well done under the worst circumstances imaginable. The comrades he writes of bear little resemblance to what are often portrayed, in more recent books on the war, as passive victims herded to slaughter. The come across as heroic (an adjective they wold never have applied to themselves) and indomitable, cheerful but complaining, ribald and irreverent, but decent and generous – indeed probably not much different from the men and women on the front line in Afghanistan today. Richards’ book is gem. Read it!

1914, The Days of Hope: Lyn MacDonald This is one of a series of excellent narrative histories of individual years or campaigns of the war. The focus is almost entirely on the experience – and near total destruction – of the British Expeditionary force between August and December 1914. It draws heavily on individual accounts, doing so in a way that bring to life not only the major events – the Mons and Le Cateau battles, the Great Retreat, the engagement at Néry , the Marne, Aisne and First Ypres battles – but also the experiences of individual participants. One is awed by sheer bloody-minded indomitability and professionalism of this last purely regular force to fight for Britain in the war. The entire series is to be very highly recommended  and this is the volume to start with.

A Military Atlas of the First World War: Arthur Banks. If you are to buy one book only about World War 1, and one only, I would recommend that this is it. Though I’ve seen many other “military atlases” they’ve essentially been complementary to text accounts, and not a substitute for them. The Banks book, which has been around for over 40 years, is unique in that it tells the whole story of the war as a standalone account, not in text, but in a combination of maps, diagrams and tables. It can be enjoyed sequentially, start to finish, or as an invaluable reference thereafter when one reads more about individual campaigns.

More to follow in future blog postings!

Friday, 16 May 2014

HMS Indefatigable vs. Droits de l’Homme

Besides the few major fleet actions, the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars saw many vicious encounters between small numbers of French and British ships which have since provided the inspiration for much naval fiction. One of the most ferocious of these battles was fought in the darkness of a stormy winter night off the coast of Brittany in early 1797 and it established Sir Edward Pellew, later to be Lord Exmouth, as the foremost frigate captain of the era.    
Action off Brittany 13th January 1797
In December 1796, eager to exploit rebellious sentiment in Ireland against British rule, and urged on by Irish exiles, the French Revolutionary Government sent a huge naval and military expedition to open a new theatre of war in Britain’s own backyard. The choice of December may seem a strange one, due to the poor weather that could be expected, but the French relied on this to allow their ships to slip past the blockading Royal Navy squadrons.

The French force left their base at Brest, in Brittany, on December 16th 1796 – seventeen ships-of the-line, thirteen frigates, six corvettes, seven transports, and a store ship. They carried some 20,000 troops under the command of the renowned General Hoche. Overall commander was Admiral Morard de Galles, who had established his reputation as one of the great Admiral Suffren's most successful captains.

Brest was under observation by the Royal Navy’s inshore squadron, under Captain Sir Edward Pellew. It consisted of four frigates, Pellew himself in the Indefatigable, a 44-gun heavy frigate, as well as the Revolutionnaire (a French prize taken into British service), the Phoebe, and the Amazon. When Pellew saw the French emerge he sent off the Revolutionnaire to alert Admiral Sir John Colpoys, who with fifteen of the line would have normally been closer inshore, but who had been blown off station by the same strong easterly winds that facilitated the French departure.

The Revolution had deprived the French Navy of many of its most experienced officers and indiscipline was rampant. Insufficient attention had been paid to training and the presence of strong British forces offshore limited opportunities for building ship-handling experience. The result was that even in the absence of strong Royal Navy forces de Galles’ fleet, badly handled in strong wind, lost cohesion on its first day at sea.

As darkness came on, Pellew edged down among the mob of French ships. When de Galles signalled with guns, rockets, and blue lights, Pellew did the same, with variations of his own, completely confusing the French captains. Amid the general disorder that followed, one of the French 74's, the Seduisant, drove on to a rock and became a total wreck. From 1300 on board only some 600 were saved.

Despite this setback the French evaded Colpoys’ squadron and reached Bantry Bay, in South-West Ireland, in late December. Here storms and fog made landing impossible and the decision was taken to abandon the expedition and return to France. 
A contemporary British view of the failure of the Bantry Bay Expedition
- Cartoon by Gillray
The French straggled home in ones and twos and threes, no longer a fleet. On the January 13th, one of the French 74's, the Droits de l’Homme, commanded by a Captain Raymond de Lacrosse, found herself alone off the Britany coast. Visibility was poor and Lacrosse decided to approach no nearer but to sail southward under easy sail, the wind on his starboard beam. In mid-afternoon two sails were spotted on the lee bow, between the Droits de l'Homme and the land. These proved to be Pellew’s Indefatigable, in company with a 36-gun 18-pounder frigate, the Amazon, commanded by a Captain Reynolds. Pellew immediately signalled to the Amazon to give chase, and steered towards the enemy, sailing considerably faster than his smaller consort in the heavy sea.

On this winter day dusk fell early, about four-thirty and the wind, which had been fresh all day, blew a full gale. As darkness came on the Droits de l'Homme lost her fore and main topmasts in a violent squall. Fearing that there might be yet more British ships about, Lacrosse altered course to eastward, and ran straight before the gale, hoping to reach the channel leading to Brest. It was a dangerous decision, as he cannot have been certain about his exact position, and should he have mistaken his landfall, there would be no chance for a crippled ship on a lee shore in such conditions.

At five-thirty the Indefatigable, in near darkness and under close-reefed topsails, surged across the Droits de l'Homme’s stern and raked her. The French ship had nearly a thousand troops on board and they peppered the Indefatigable with musket fire as she passed.  Pellew's manoeuvre brought the two vessels so close together that the ensign staff of the French ship fouled  the Indefatigable's mizzen rigging  and British seamen dragged the tattered remains of the French tricolour on to their own quarterdeck. Lacrosse now tried to bring his vessel alongside, possibly with a view to boarding, difficult as the high seas running would make it, but Pellew managed to sheer away. The Droits de l'Homme's bowsprit actually grazed Indefatigable's spanker boom, and she in turn suffered raking fire as she turned away.
Indefatigable (on right) engages, mid-afternoon
Amazon seen coming up on the horizon
For the next hour and more the Indefatigable engaged the French ship-of-the-line single-handedly. In her favour was the fact that in the heavy sea that was running Lacrosse hardly dared open his lower deck gun-ports, and thus lost use of his 36-pounders, his most formidable weapons. The Droits de l'Homme carried 18-pounders in her upper tier, while the Indefatigable had an unusually powerful armament for a frigate – 24-pounders on the gun-deck and 42-pounder carronades on the poop and forecastle. In spite of the sea she fought her 24-pounders right through the action. The loss of his topmasts made it impossible for Lacrosse to steady his ship, and she rolled so furiously that her gunners and small-arms men found aiming difficult.

The Amazon arrived out of the darkness shortly before seven o’clock. She blasted a broadside into the Droits de l'Homme but swift action by Lacrosse avoided raking through the stern. The Amazon's manoeuvre had brought both British frigates on the same side of the French ship, masking each other’s fire, so at seven-thirty they both pulled ahead of the enemy. Pellew seems to have been particularly concerned to repair damage to his rigging.

The Droits de l'Homme also needed a respite badly – heavy casualties had been sustained and poor discipline and training had resulted in considerable confusion – but it proved a short one. An hour later Pellew’s two frigates  resumed their attack, stationing themselves one on either bow of the enemy, and manoeuvring so as to rake her alternately. The Droits de l'Homme attempted to yaw first one way and then the other in order to return their fire, but without much success.
The height of the action, night of 13/14th January
Le Droits de l'Homme sandwiched between Pellew's two frigates
It is hard to visualise just how ghastly the scene must have been – the high waves, the screaming wind, the crashing guns, the cries of the injured and dying, the enveloping darkness and choking clouds of smoke illuminated by the deafening gunfire. This continued for over two hours.

At ten-thirty the Droits de l'Homme’s  mizzen-mast went overboard, and the frigates now positioned themselves off her port and starboard quarter, firing grapeshot  so as to hinder any attempt at rigging a jury-mast. Both British ships were rolling so violently that their guns' breechings – their restraining ropes – were parting and iron ring-bolts in the deck, to which they were fastened were being torn free. The brutal pounding march continued through the night, so heavy that by midnight the French vessel’s store of roundshot was exhausted. And still the British ships blasted without let-up.

At four in the morning, long before daylight, a look-out on the Indefatigable reported land directly ahead. Pellew immediately signalled the danger to the Amazon, and hauled his wind southwards, while the Amazon bore away to the north. The Droits de l'Homme, possibly oblivious to the danger, held straight on.

All three ships were now in extreme peril. Attack had proved the best form of defence for the Indefatigable – her crew’s superior gunnery skills has seen to that. Almost miraculously, no one had been killed and fewer than twenty were wounded, half of them only slightly. She had however suffered severe damage aloft – the French were known for aiming for masts, spars and rigging.  The most significant damage was that the shrouds of the maintop-mast had been severed. Should this mast fall then Indefatigable could not hope to beat off a lee shore in strong wind under her fore and mizzen topsails only. The hero of the hour proved to be the seaman who was captain of the maintop. He went aloft and somehow reached the lurching  topmast-head. The end of a hawser was passed up to him and he managed to secure it around the head of the mast. The other end was made fast below and the mast was stabilised. This was perhaps the most heroic exploit of the battle for it was accomplished in darkness, and in a gale, with the swaying topmast threatening to go over at every moment, taking the seaman with it.
All three ships fighting for survival in Audierne Bay
The Indefatigable stood to the south, close-hauled. Then, in the light of dawn, breakers were seen ahead, astern and to starboard. Blindly running before the gale during the night action, all three ships had been entrapped in Brittany’s Audierne Bay.

Pellew wore ship – he “jibed”, a difficult manoeuvre for a square-rigged ship at any time and a daunting one for a damaged one and in the teeth of a gale. Superb professionalism by officers and men alike proved it successful and through the morning Pellew worked towards  the safety of the open sea.

The Amazon was less lucky. She had taken higher casualties - three killed and fifteen badly wounded – and her masts and spars were badly damaged. Her mizzen topmast, gaff, spanker -boom, and main-topsail yard were gone, and her sails were in shreds. She ran on shore and broke up, but not before all but six of her disciplined crew all came safely ashore on rafts. They were immediately surrounded by French troops and marched off into captivity. It is pleasing to learn that they were well treated. Amazon’s Captain Reynolds was later honourably acquitted by a court martial for the loss of his ship, and his two lieutenants were promoted.
The destruction of Le Droits de l'Homme
Indefatigable seen escaping seawards on the left
A worse fate awaited the Droits de l'Homme. She too ran on to rocks but discipline seems to have broken down and officers proved incapable or regaining control.  For the next four days the survivors clung, cold and starving, to the remains of the wreck until a French brig managed to reach them and get them ashore. Among the survivors was General  Jean Joseph Amable Humbert, who the following year was successful in landing a small French army in Ireland. Humbert’s life was a fascinating – and unlikely – one and worthy of a separate blog in the future.   

In the action the Droits de l’Homme lost over 100 killed, and 150 wounded, from the gunfire of Pellew’s frigates. A British naval officer who was a prisoner on board, and survived, though barely, claimed that after she had run on the rocks about 1000 men drowned or died of starvation and exposure. Just over 400 were saved.

Pellew’s reputation and fame, already great, reached new levels after this action which was perhaps the only instance of a ship-of-the-line being destroyed by frigates. The circumstances were however  exceptional and few captains other than Pellew would have dared turn storm and darkness into weapons against the larger ship.

Few more desperate actions were fought in the Age of Sail

Friday, 9 May 2014

Pride, Folly and Brilliant Seamanship – Apia 1889

In 1889 United States and German naval units were eyeing each other in an armed confrontation which Britain watched as a neutral but cautious observer.  A false move by any party could well have triggered a shooting war with immeasurable historical consequences. The United States, up to then underestimated as an emerging Great Power, and the newly established German Empire – dating only from 1871 – were both taking their first steps towards projection of military and naval, as well as commercial, influence on a global scale. As new players, both were conscious – perhaps over conscious – of the importance of prestige.
HMS Calliope - the heroine of Apia
The scene of the confrontation was an unlikely one – the harbour of Apia on the northern coast of the Pacific island of East Samoa.

A civil war had been in progress since 1886 – and indeed was to drag on to 1894 – and it involved a struggle between two Samoan factions for control of the Samoan Islands. German trading and plantation companies already had significant commercial interests in copra and cocoa-bean processing, competing in the process with American traders.  Almost inevitably, Germans and Americans found themselves backing different Samoan factions and Britain too, though to a lesser extent, had a business presence.  Tensions heightened in 1887 when a German naval vessel, ostensibly sent to protect German commercial interests, shelled a village in which American-owned property was destroyed –  thereby resulting in despatch of an American naval force to protect American interests. The situation worsened the following year when one Samoan faction  inflicted casualties on a German landing-party and destroyed German-owned plantations.

National pride was now at stake – the more so in view of the growing ambitions of Germany and the United States. German, American and British naval units were despatched to Samoa and by March 1889 were moored in Apia harbour, each waiting for the other to make a move. Suspicion and mistrust were greatest between the Germans and the Americans and the British maintained a position of neutral observers. Annexation by either Germany or the US was a distinct possibility and national prestige was at stake – to what now seems a ludicrous extent. One more incident involving the rival Samoan groups,  an incident likely to be outside the control of the foreign forces, could have been enough to shift the situation from armed confrontation to outright war between the German and American naval units.
SMS Olga - the largest German vessel present at Apia March 1889
And it was at this moment – on 15 March 1889 – that a hitherto unexpected player, Nature itself, dealt the deciding hand. In the process death and disgrace were to be visited on some of those involved while another was to earn universal admiration for a spectacular feat of seamanship.

The German force present at Apia consisted of three ships: the 2,424-ton corvette SMS Olga, the1,040-ton gunboat  SMS Adler and the  760-ton gunboat SMS Eber. Though the Olga was the largest and most powerfully armed of these ships, the commander of the German force was Fregattenkapitän Fritze of the Adler.
The USS Trenton - flagship of the US Pacific Station
The United States was also represented by three units. The flagship was the USS Trenton, A 3,900 frigate, the largest US warship built between the Civil War and the "New Navy"  era that commenced in 1883. She flew the flag of Rear Admiral Lewis Ashfield Kimberly, and was commanded by Captain Norman Von H. Farquhar. The second American  ship was the USS  Vandalia, a 2,033-ton sloop, notable for having carried former President Ulysses S. Grant on a tour of the Mediterranean  in 1877/78. The smallest of the three ships was the USS Nipsic, a 1,375-ton gunboat.
HMS Calliope - superbly designed and brilliantly commanded
The Royal Navy’s single vessel, the  2,770 ton screw corvette HMS Calliope, launched in 1884, though not the largest, was the most modern present, being built of steel.  She and her sister Calypso have been  described as “probably the most successful design of cruising ship” of their time and were intended from the outset for service in Pacific and Australian waters. Like the German and American ships she carried masts and sails to complement her steam-power so as to allow less dependence on sources of fuel on remote stations. 

Calliope was commanded by Captain Henry C. Kane, a 46-year old officer who had already distinguished himself in action on land in Egypt in 1882. His background was interesting – the son of the eminent Irish research chemist, Sir Robert Kane, who was the only Catholic member of the "Irish Relief Commissioners" board that investigated the causes and possible solutions to the Irish Potato Blight in the 1850s. His mother was a noted botanist and author in her own right.

Apia is an exposed harbour, open to the Pacific and unprotected by high ground or an enclosing reef, and vulnerable to storms rolling in from the north.  For several days prior to March 15th there were increasing signs – including falling atmospheric pressure –  that a cyclone was approaching. This was indeed the cyclone season and Apia had been hit by one three years earlier, about which captains of the naval vessels present could learn from the locals. In all cases these commanders had seafaring experience in the Pacific and all saw the approach of potential disaster that could only be avoided by taking their ships from the harbour to ride out the likely 100 mph winds in the open sea. 

And yet, as if they were players in some bizarre game of “Chicken”, no commander ordered such a move. Considerations of “face” were involved and no one was willing to admit, in front of the other nations' navies, that they were afraid of the elements. Worse still, they refused to allow the thirteen merchant ships they were allegedly protecting to move either.

HMS Calliope's escape, cheered from USS Trenton
The cyclone struck in the early hours of March 15th. Samoans onshore had already taken shelter but out in the harbour the ships were exposed to the full fury of wind and wave. The American and German commanders stuck by their decisions to remain at anchor and only Kane of the Calliope had the moral courage to disregard considerations of pride and to head for the open sea. Engines straining, and making less than one knot against the oncoming wind and sea,  Calliope crawled northwards to safety through the narrow approach channel , despite  being less than six feet from a reef at one point. Once at sea she was easily able to ride out the ensuing winds. The achievement represented seamanship of the highest order and reflected credit not only on every officer and man of the Calliope but on her designers, constructors and engine builders.  

Back in the harbour the USS Trenton’s moorings failed in the afternoon and she was flung against the beach, then dragged back into the sea until being finally wrecked on a reef at 10 p.m. that evening. The majority of her crew did however survive unhurt and were able to participate in the ensuing rescue operation. The USS Vandalia was thrown on to the same reef in the early afternoon. Her crew was to spend some 24 hours night clinging to her rigging, losing 43 men before rescue was possible. The gunboat USS Nipsic was thrown high on the beach with the loss of eight men.

A contemporary drawing, showing the USS Trenton dragging her moorings
The German vessels fared even worse. The SMS Olga was thrown high onto the beach but many of her crew escaped higher ground.  The Adler and SMS Eber were smashed together.  The Eber  had touched her propeller the reef in a storm some weeks earlier and the damage had impaired engine capability. Her commander, a Kapitan Wallis, recognising this weakness even before the cyclone hit, he had repeatedly requested permission to leave the harbour. This was refused by his superior, Fritze,  on the Adler. Eber used her engine in short bursts to try to stay off the reef, but she was pounded to pieces, losing 75men from her crew of 80. The Adler also fetched up on the reef and was also a total loss, though with smaller though appreciable loss of life, 20 men.
SMS Adler lying wrecked on the beach
The bow section of  SMS Eber with USS Trenton in the background
The sunken remnant of USS Vandalia is just visible alongside the Trenton
The irony was that though bull-headed pride was the cause of the disaster, only the single captain – Kane of the Calliope – who was not obsessed with it came out of the affair with credit. German and American prestige, far from being enhanced, suffered very badly while Kane’s moral courage, leadership and superb seamanship ensured that the reputation of the Royal Navy was raised to new heights. The events at Apia received attention from all over the world – and were described by the Samoan resident Robert Louis Stevenson In his 1892 book “A Footnote to History, Eight Years of Trouble in Samoa.”  The behaviour of the American and German commanders has provided an illuminating case for psychologists studying aspects of pride, pragmatism and decision-making under extreme pressure.

The Samoan Civil War dragged on for many years more though it never brought the United States and Germany close to war again. The final outcome was the annexation of East Samoa by the United States and of West Samoa to the Germans – which they were to lose to British Empire forces in 1914.

Kane’s subsequent career involved command of one of the largest vessels of the Victorian navy, HMS Inflexible, as well as the prestigious captaincy of HMS Victory. He retired as an admiral in 1907, was knighted in 1911 and died in 1917.

Another player in the drama of the Apia cyclone was to meet a dramatic end a quarter century later. A young midshipman on the Calliope, Horace Lambert Alexander Hood, was to die as a Rear-Admiral on the Inflexible, the first battle cruiser, at the Battle of Jutland in 1916 when she blew up with the loss of all but six of her crew of 1,032 officers and men. 

And HMS Calliope? She was to survive as a moored training ship for Royal Navy Volunteer Reservists until 1951. The painting below, by John Munday, shows her in her final years –a mundane end for a ship that had endured so much.
HMS Calliope in the Tyne, 1950, by John Munday
(with acknowledgement to the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich)

Tuesday, 6 May 2014


Sandie Will
One of the pleasures of becoming an author is that one comes in contact with interesting people in different countries and continents whom one would never know in the normal course of events. For me, one such interesting person is Sandie Will, an geologist who is also an aspiring writer. She is also  responsible for two very interesting blogs, one about writing on and one on scientific items on I particularly like the latter as she brings the excitement of the world of the geologist alive, something I can well appreciate given my own background.

As part of a blog-hop Sandie asked me to repeat on my blog an item which I filed previously about my writing process, which she thought could be of interest to other writers who had not seen it previously. If you have seen it before just skip but if not you may find the information of value.

Like other writers on this blog hop I’ve been asked to answer four questions about my writing process and at the end I’ll hand over the baton to another blogger who’ll be filing answers to the same questions on her own blog on Monday 12th May.

Question 1: What are you working on?

I’m currently on the home straight – the last 15% - of the first draft of the fifth Dawlish Chronicles novel. Volumes one and two – Britannia’s Wolf and Britannia’s Reach – have already been published and the third will come out around the end of this year. I’ll say more about my writing process – and why my writing is ahead of my publishing – in response to Question 4 below. In my own mind have a clear overview of the whole life of the series’ protagonist, Nicholas Dawlish (1845-1918) and indeed a sketch of it is provided on my website Each of the books I write is set in a specific period and they deal with Dawlish’s participation either in actual historic events or in situations closely based on them and consistent with contemporary circumstances. In the first book in the series, Britannia’s Wolf, the reader meets Dawlish at the age of 32 and well established in his profession as a naval officer. This book, and its sequel, Britannia’s Reach, cover Dawlish’s life in the 1877 to 1880 period and involve service in the Ottoman Empire and in South America. By the fifth in the series, now being written, the calendar has advanced to 1882 and Dawlish has gained in experience and advanced in seniority – not that it makes life any easier for him, given the situations he must deal with! Though the main action is set in the period of Dawlish’s late 30’s, there are sections dealing with earlier events in his life, some hints of what might be involved having been given, but left opaque, in earlier books. A challenge for me as a writer – as it is for any creator of a series – is to ensure that the character matures with experience, personal as well as professional. This also applies to other characters carried across from one book into the next.

Question 2: How does your work differ from others of its genre?

The Dawlish Chronicles fall under the general heading of “naval fiction”. This is dominated by novels – usually in series – set in the Age of Fighting Sail, mainly in the Napoleonic Wars. The two acknowledged masters of the genre, C.S.Forester in the Hornblower novels, and Patrick O’Brian in the Aubrey-Maturin series, concentrate on this period. Though I have read widely about naval warfare in this era my major historical interest – political and cultural as well as naval – has been concentrated more on 1860-1945. Of particular interest was the half-century between the American Civil War and the run-up to World War 1 which is fascinating not only in power-politics terms but because of the rapid progress of technology which changed naval warfare as well as much else. Little naval fiction is however set in this period – the “Age of Steam” – despite the fact that complex and shifting great-power relationships provide a rich setting for it. In addition, the era’s cutting-edge technology was in itself a factor in upsetting established balances and relationships.

Bringing together these two elements – the political and the technological – represents the starting point for a series. I then needed a protagonist, ideally one who lived through the entire period, and who needed to cope with rapid change – and to master it – if he wanted to advance his career. Enter therefore Nicholas Dawlish, born in 1845 and in 1859 entering a Royal Navy which was still commanded by veterans of the Nelson era. Like real-life contemporaries such as Admiral Sir John Fisher, later Lord Fisher, who was to serve on into the early years of World War 1, Dawlish must be as familiar with steam power, steel construction, torpedoes and ever-bigger guns as Horatio Hornblower and Jack Aubrey were with sails, rigging, carronades and broadsides.

It’s notable that several agents warned me that “Age of Steam” novels would never sell – one indeed recommended rewriting my novels for a Napoleonic setting – but the response of readers to Britannia’s Wolf and Britannia’s Reach has been uniformly enthusiastic. Perhaps I have indeed identified a gap in the market!

 Question 3: Why do you write what you do?

The short answer is that “I have to” and I guess that this applies to most writers. I’ve got a story in mind and I need to get it out. I’m fascinated by the great-power rivalries and alignment shifts in the six decades up to World War 1 – France remained a major potential enemy to Britain for most of this period and relations with Russia were fraught since massive Russian expansion in Central Asia was seen as a threat to India. Maintenance of the crumbling Ottoman Empire was seen as essential for protecting British interests against Russian ambitions. The Austro-Hungarian Empire (which had an effective navy) was in decline, but that decline was in itself dangerous – as events in 1914 were to prove – and doubts existed whether the new and powerful German Empire should be regarded as a potential British ally or as a growing threat. The Chinese Empire was in the throes of decline and internal conflict while Japan – modernising with almost incredible speed – was positioning itself to establish dominance in the Far East. Add to this the “Scramble for Africa”, in which European powers were competing to secure territory, massive British commercial investment in Latin America and the almost unnoticed advance of the United States to world-power status and the  global complexities can be seen as great as those of our own time.

In this period the “British Empire” was seen as at its apogee. In effect however there were several empires, all different in the nature of their relationship to Britain itself, in accommodation to local power groups and as regards presence – or not – of British settlers. In addition to this “Formal Empire” there was an equally important informal one, based on investment and commercial penetration, and in some cases dominance, in independent nations, as in China and South America. Such investment provides the background to “Britannia’s Reach”.

I want to set stories in this era – believable stories anchored in real events and which are true to contemporary outlooks and values. Much historical fiction consists of “21st Century Characters in Period Costume”, and this I’ve tried to avoid. My protagonist, Nicholas Dawlish, views the world from a standpoint of Victorian values of duty, earnestness, patriotism, honour and class consciousness that borders on snobbery. He’s decent and conscientious, and he’s immensely proud to be an Englishman, but the values he espouses can cause him major personal anguish when he’s confronted with situations in which they may not comfortably support him. In Britannia’s Wolf and Britannia’s Reach his values are tested to the limit when he finds himself allied to forces which have no regard for such ethical concerns. The extent to which he should – or must – compromise is a theme in both books and he will not find it easy in as-yet unpublished work either.

Question 4: How does your writing process work?

Each of my books is placed within an overall understanding of my protagonist’s life from birth to death. One plot flows from the other but each is firmly linked to actual events of the period e.g. the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78.  Extensive reading about the actual year or years raises possibilities for a plot. How would certain developments have been viewed by the British government? What larger strategic concerns were involved, and what more immediate ones? How did the situation – often a crisis – play out? How could Nicholas Dawlish play a role in the process?

Developing a plot from these elements is linked in a circular process to more detailed research. The plot demands supportive insights if it’s to work, and that demands research, and that in turn opens up further plotting possibilities. There will be several reiterations of this and the process can’t be hurried. I make extensive use of “mind mapping” techniques and I develop an overall contents plan – how many chapters, what happens in each etc. I do this in parallel with the actual writing of another book so that the plot is “simmering on the back burner” for considerable time. I might add that I’m lucky enough to be a member of the London Library – the largest private library in the world, founded in the 1840s by Thomas Carlyle and other luminaries. This gives me access to a vast range of contemporary material, including journals and newspapers.

Once the plot is finalised (and it never is, 100%, as during writing more opportunities for refinement present themselves) it’s necessary to get down to producing the first draft. I aim at writing every day and usually manage about 1000 new words as well as revising the previous day’s work. Trollope’s dictum of Nulla dies sine linea – Not a day without a line – is worth aiming at but not always possible when one has other obligations, as I do. I write in the morning – usually 1000 to 1300 hrs – but if I walk with the dog in the afternoon I tend to be working mentally on refinement of what I’ve written and on what’s coming in the next days. I may put in another hour or two several times a week and I estimate that I’m hitting the keys for about twenty hours a week in total. In my parallel life I’m retired from fulltime employment but I’m an elected representative in local government, as well as a school governor, so my days are very full.

The London Library in the corner of St.James's Square
Once I have the first draft completed I do a quick revision and then set it aside while I start detailed revision of the next book to be published. (This is why I’m currently writing the fifth Dawlish novel while numbers three and four are ready at the first draft stage). Leaving the first draft for several months is essential. It stays on my subconscious “back burner” and when I return to it I will be more critical, better able to spot weaknesses and opportunities, and ready to revise more thoroughly.

“Writing is rewriting” and the first draft, when I return to it, is ruthlessly edited. Entire sections may be cut out and paragraphs or chapters added. Internal consistency and continuity is essential and in the case of a series, must be linked back to other books as well. I’m assisted by one of my daughters, a devotee of military and naval fiction, who reviews as regards such aspects, as well as being ruthless in relation to plotting weaknesses. I may go through three or four further revisions and the last concentrates on proofreading – a nightmare for the independent author.

So that’s it. The process is relatively straightforward but the critical success factor is perseverance. Hanging in there – even sitting in front of a blank screen for several hours when you’re despairing – will get you there in the end!

So that’s it – I’ve shared my secrets and I hope you find them of interest, whether you’re a reader or a writer.

I’m now passing the baton to Jen Ponce, of Nebraska, who writes on wholly different themes to me, as you’ll see from her blog She has a very interesting background and, among much else, is an advocate for victims of domestic violence.

Jen is especially interesting on the mechanics of writing and of publication as an indie author. She’ll be posting in this blog-hop on Monday 12th May.

Monday, 5 May 2014

Our God and soldier we alike adore...

A good review is always excellent for a writer's morale and the following, by Joseph White in the US, is especially interesting, in that it links one of the themes in my novel "Britannia's Wolf" with concerns faced by young officers in the modern US Navy and Army:

" This is far from a normal Horatio Hornblower-knockoff. The main character is one of the first of the steam-navy sailors, and he is continually thrown into situations that (according to the books) he shouldn't have to endure. This first volume of the Dawlish Chronicles dips into the morass of Victorian class differentiation... and that's just a sub-plot!

As Dawlish must adjust and adapt to the changing British Navy of the late Nineteenth Century, I could not help but think of the problems of modern junior officers in the rapidly changing (U.S.) Navy and Army, increasingly treated as mercenaries rather than patriots by those who do not understand the changing nature of war and of service.

I liked this book so well that I immediately bought the second volume, which is the most original slice of "here's our hero in a damned uncomfortable squeeze" that I remember. I hope this series continues, and I hope the author also turns his attention to the modern day. A most original thinker and a good writer."

Mr.White hits on a problem that I guess has been around since the dawn of human history and which applies to the armed forces of many other nations as well as those of the USA today. The concern was very elegantly expressed by Francis Quarles in 1632 :

"Our God and soldier we alike adore. 
Even at the brink of danger; not before; 
After deliverance, both alike requited. 
Our God's forgotten, and our soldiers slighted." 

It's all too easy to forget that in Orwell's phrase "People sleep peacefully in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf" - and today it's women who also bear that burden. The idea is also well expressed in one of Bernard Cornwell's novels in which Richard Sharpe reflects that "a soldier is somebody who defends others who can't defend themselves."

I suspect also that every writer of serious military or naval fiction has this thought in mind that however much thier work must entertain, it must also reflect this reality.