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Thursday, June 20, 2013

Just Finished Reading: War at Sea in the Ironclad Age by Richard Hill (FP: 2000)

As I have said several (OK, many) times before I have a particular interest in historical periods of transition such as the Industrial Revolution, the Renaissance and so on. One of the much shorter transitions that I find fascinating is the move from sail and wood to steam and iron in ship construction. Over an amazing 50 years the worlds navies moved from a largely sail powered, wooden constructed and broadside gun battery design to something recognisably modern – the British built Dreadnought with advanced steam engines, iron and steel hulls and boasting fore and aft large calibre guns in fully rotatable turrets. It was nothing less than a revolution in sea power progressing at such a rapid speed that warships practically became obsolete within a few years of slipping into the water for the first time and without firing a shot in anger.

Starting from the US Civil War – the origin of many of the innovations later to become standard in navies across the world – the author outlines the technical and strategic drivers for the development of advanced warships built to compete with the designs produced for the British, French, Russian, German and Japanese navies to name the major players in this global game of one-upmanship. Surprisingly very few of the ships designed with such great effort where ever used to dominate other ships of their class. Apart from clashes with out-of-date and heavily outclassed opponents there are very few notable encounters between modern fleets and the few lessons that could be drawn from these encounters where difficult in the extreme to interpret accurately. Such lessons – both correct and incorrect – would come to haunt all of the world’s navies in the upcoming clash of giants in World War 1.

With detailed diagrams, lots of contemporary photographs and drawings, and analysis of both fleet actions and individual encounters this is an interesting an informative look at a time when everything was changing and the modern world we know today was being born. If you have an interest in naval affairs, military technology or, as I do, periods of transition then this is a book you should have on your shelf. At only just over 200 pages it is only an overview but with a decent bibliography it is a gateway to larger and more detailed accounts of the times and their consequences. More naval history to come. 

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