The Evolution of the Modern Warship.
We may now pass on from the history of the doings of the British Navy to the history of the ships themselves, and the appliances with which our sailors fought. We have seen that in the time of King Alfred, when the Navy, properly so-called, came into existence, ships had but one deck, or were nearly altogether open, and had but one or two masts with large square sails, being propelled in calms and contrary winds by long oars. For purposes of offence they were fitted with beaks or rams to pierce the sides of the enemy, and were provided with catapults or other engines for hurling missiles, and with tubes for projecting Greek fire to create smoke and set their opponent on fire. The main tactics of the time, however, consisted in grappling with the enemy and transforming the combat into a hand-to-hand mêlée.
When cannon were first mounted on board ship, about the year 1335, they were fired over the bulwarks, and the gunners were thus fully exposed to the enemy’s fire. About the year 1500, however, the Dutch introduced the modern practice of pointing the guns through ports in the ship’s side, so that the gunners would be sheltered from all shot that could not pierce the sides. This improvement was soon universally adopted, and by the beginning of the sixteenth century, ships resembling on the whole the sailing ship of modern times had been evolved, having one or two tiers of guns. But as the fight was still at comparatively close quarters—owing to the guns being small, and of no great range,—warships were fitted with cumbrous “forecastles” and “aftercastles” (see illustration on page 69), and with heavy tops on the masts, to contain musketeers, in order to command the enemy’s deck. These features greatly detracted from their seaworthiness, and made them unwieldy, cumbrous craft.
As the centuries went on, experience gradually remedied the mistakes of the earlier builders. Artillery also was improved, and tactics no longer depended to the same extent on boarding and hand-to-hand fighting. High “forecastles” and “aftercastles,” and heavy tops, thus became of little use and were discarded, as were also the oars used on smaller craft, as the art of sailing became better understood and vessels more seaworthy. For similar reasons the navigating and fighting sections of the crew, hitherto distinct, were merged into one, only a small number of “marines,” as they are now called, being retained to perform military duties for which fully trained seamen were not required.
English naval architects seem to have had little inventive genius till a late period. The early ships were all imitations from the Genoese or other maritime people of the Mediterranean, while latterly the best vessels were either taken from the French or else copied from them. For instance the model for all the 80-gun ships built at the beginning of the nineteenth century was the Canopus, which was taken from the French, under the name of Franklin, at the Battle of the Nile in 1798. The Belleisle, a “74,” captured in 1795, bore a conspicuous part in the battle of Trafalgar. Many frigates also, whose names are known to fame, were acquired in the same way and performed useful service against their former possessors.
In the early part of the eighteenth century British men-of-war were of insufficient size for the guns they were made to carry, with the result they worked and sailed heavily, while in heavy weather their lower batteries could seldom be used. The smaller the vessel the thinner is her planking, and the more liable are her crew and structure to suffer from the shot of the enemy. Other nations realised this long before we did, especially the Americans, who built forty-four gun frigates almost as large as our “seventy-fours,” while their planking was even thicker. This, of course, told heavily against us in the war with the United States, but we were taught a lesson which perhaps helped us later on. In truth Britain’s battles were won not because her ships were superior in size or armament to those of other nations but on account of the pluck, courage, determination, and good seamanship of British officers and crews, and because the latter had been well trained to use their guns.
At last British naval architects woke up from their long lethargy and began to think for themselves. Till the end of the eighteenth century the ships were flat-sterned with heavy “quarter-galleries” projecting from the side at the stern, while their bows below water were bluff with long projecting beak-heads which, to avoid weight, were but flimsy structures, affording no protection whatever to the crew. In 1805 Sir Robert Seppings remedied this defect by constructing a solid circular bow right up to the main-deck, thus protecting the crew from raking shot. A dozen years later the same designer abolished the quarter-galleries, and introduced the neater and stronger circular stern. From this time forward, improvements were considerable and rapid until about 1860, when the ironclad settled the fate of the “wooden walls” that had protected England for well-nigh a thousand years.