War-Ships and Navies

THE task of any one who undertakes to describe this large volume is really very simple; he need but copy the title of the book and underline the words concise and complete, and the reader knows just what he has before him. The author has really done the work he proposed with great thoroughness, and with a proper regard for the general reader’s ignorance of technical terms. The interest of the subject is undeniable ; it is not only that we have a natural curiosity to know precisely what is meant by the various scraps of information that we receive about foreign armament, but it is, or may become, a matter of vital concern to us that our own navy bears, in point of effectiveness, this or that relation to the strength of the navy of some other country.

The leading naval power is of course England. We have given us full accounts of the most important ships of her navy, and they make a grim array. Mr. King assures us that “ never since the application of steam propulsion to ships of war has the British navy been relatively as strong as at the present day.” It contains nearly four hundred vessels of all kinds, and of powerful sea-going fighting-ships there are now, built and building, twenty-eight. Among these is the Devastation, which is a good sea-boat, in which almost everything except the fighting can be done by machinery ; the Thunderer, of which Mr. King says that, like all modern fighting-ships, it is operated in almost every important respect by steam. “ There are in all twenty-eight steam-engines and nine boilers.” Besides the motive engines, there “ are small engines, employed for subsidiary purposes, such as revolving the turrets, working the hydraulic gun-machinery, hoisting shot and shell, working the capstans, hoisting anchors and boats, working the steering apparatus, working pumps for circulating cold water through the surface-condensers, starting the motive engines, pumping water from the spaces between the double bottoms, feeding the boilers, hoisting ashes, and driving fans for ventilating the ship. In addition to this great responsibility, the engineer department is charged with all the water-tight doors in the ship, all valves and pipes and torpedoes. In short, the interior of the ship is a vast engineering workshop, requiring skill and energy successfully to manage it.”

This extract makes very clear the main difference between the ship of war of the present day and the kind that it has succeeded, and it is curious to notice that, by the comparative security given to the crew through the thickness of the armor and by the use of rams as means of offense, naval warfare has gone back to something very like the conditions that existed in Greek and Roman days ; and then, too, ships were protected with iron plates.

With regard to modern armor, recent investigation goes to show that the best sort consists of a steel face welded upon iron plating, with an inner course of iron. This makes a great saving of weight, and allows a large addition to the armament and the machinery. The armament moves along in parallel lines with the armor; no sooner does one man devise a shot-proof protection for a ship than another invents a gun that shall riddle the vessel as if it were made of papier-maché, while some third person constructs a torpedo that shall blow up ships and guns like so many wooden boxes. Yet what brief experience there has been of fights in which armored ships have taken part shows how different is the practical result from that which sounds so alarming on paper. At sea, the motion of both vessels makes the firing very uncertain at the best, and the chances that a heavy shot will strike precisely at right angles are very slight. It would seem possible that a ship in action is more likely to be injured by some accident to its complicated machinery than by the attacks of its foes. However, this has not been the opinion of the most competent judges, who have gone on building costly and powerful ships against the day when it shall be necessary to put them to their legitimate use. The French follow the English as fast as they can, and even distinctly second-rate powers, like Portugal, Holland, Sweden, etc., have their improved and more or less powerful armored ships. The German navy is rapidly growing, as is also the Russian. The Chilian navy is stronger than our own ; and even Japan and China are availing themselves of the latest discoveries to secure themselves against foreign attack. Indeed, what Mr. King has to say about the strength of the Chinese is of especial interest at this time. They have a navy yard near Shanghai, where they have built two steam-frigates and five gun-boats, and they have, besides, had powerful vessels built for them in England. The author says : “ China, the 4 effete ’ nation of the East, has just entered in the race between modern naval powers, and has already actually put to sea more powerful guns than has any other nation on the globe.” Yet, on the other hand, there are objections to these ships, such as their moderate speed and their exposure to the enemy’s guns ; moreover, there are people who might distrust even a wise Chinaman’s management of complicated machinery.

When we read what other nations have done, — and how much it is can he seen only by careful examination of Mr. King’s book, — it is with disappointment that we observe how inferior is the navy of the United States to that of other countries. The superiority of England and France we would willingly admit: England, for obvious reasons, is compelled to keep her navy in a state of the highest efficiency, and France has a large coast-line to protect, as well as an interest in many matters that may yet lead to sea contests. In the last war, the fleet of Germany was of as little use as if it had been frozen up in the Arctic Ocean; now, however, she possesses eighteen good ships, eleven of which are sea-going, and others are building ; so that, “ although she has nothing to match the English mastless sea-going ships, or the Italian Duilio or Dandolo and other such powerful armored craft, her armored fleet will soon have a strength sufficient, perhaps, to meet the French under any conditions proffered.” The Russian navy is composed of many ships, but it neither inflicted nor suffered much damage in the war with Turkey. Even the Spanish navy, although it contains no ships of the improved modern type, is by no means to be despised. Chili, as has been said, possesses a fleet stronger than our own.

Our navy has not “ a single armored sea-going ship, and has strictly but few modern cruising vessels, and no armaments of modern rifled guns ; in these respects, at least, it differs at present from the navies of all considerable European powers.” Mr. King, it will be noticed, speaks with great moderation of a condition of affairs which it is impossible that he should not regret. It may be asserted that we are quite able to take the risk of the sudden outbreak of war, with the chance of seeing our neglected fortifications of no use in stopping a hostile fleet that might levy any payment it chose from one of our sea-board cities, and that we at least save the great expense of insurance. There would be, however, little comfort in this reflection, for the cost of maintaining the navy for the fiscal year ending June 30, 1880, exclusive of the appropriations for ship-building and armaments, was $14,029,968.25; whilst the Spanish navy for the financial year of 1877 cost but $5,015,061 ; the Austrian navy, including ship-building and new constructions, $1,584,816 annually ; the German navy for 1879-80, $11,164,828.23; and that of Russia, for the year 1879, $19,421,277. Under these circumstances, it would be difficult to find any real cause for congratulations. We pay a large sum of money, and are outstripped by even third-rate powers; we are crippled before striking a blow. There is no respect in which we are not at a disadvantage; our ships are few and inferior, and our armaments insignificant, in comparison with those of other nations. In his last chapter Mr. King states the needs of our navy with great moderation, but doubtless with little hope of bringing about an improvement. The happy-go-lucky system will doubtless flourish until, some day, New York or Boston or Baltimore will have to pay out to some foreign commander a sum that would have sufficed to protect our whole sea-board. Yet what is needed can be seen here, stated clearly and briefly.

In closing, we can only repeat what we said at the beginning, — that Mr. King’s volume is a most thorough and interesting compilation, and one that deserves to be widely read.

  1. The War-Ships and Navies of the World. Containing a Complete and Concise Description of the Construction, Motive Power, and Armaments of the Modern War-Ships of all the Navies of the World; Naval Artillery, Marine Engines, Boilers, Torpedoes, and Torpedo-Boats. By CHIEF-ENGINEER J. W. KING, United States Navy, late Chief of the Bureau of Engineering. With sixty-six Full-Page Illustrations. Boston: A. Williams & Co. London: E. and F. N. Spon, 46 Charing Cross. 1880.