HL Deb 13 March 1876 vol 227 cc1855-63

rose to call attention to the present constitution of the Iron-clad Fleet, and the expediency of sacrificing speed in some of our future iron-clads to the attainment of greater powers of attack and resistance, greater handiness in manœuvring, greater stability, less draught of water, and cheaper construction: he wished also to ask Her Majesty's Ministers whether, in view of the probability of this country being compelled to adopt such a type of ships by the example of other Powers, the question of suitable dock accommodation had been or would be considered: and, lastly, he would move for a Return of the draught of water of each first-class iron-clad, noting in each case whether such ship could or could not pass through the Suez Canal when complete in coal, provisions, stores, and armament. As regarded iron-clads, he believed that beyond all question the English Navy was stronger than the navy of any single foreign Power. Whether it was stronger than any two other navies might be a matter of doubt. That it was not stronger than any three other navies united against us, he was perfectly certain; but was it necessary that we should make it stronger than any three other navies, or it was very improbable that any three Powers would unite to attack a country not ambitious or aggressive, and whose interests were not opposed to those of mankind? Formerly there had been a continuous rivalry between this country and France for the command of the seas; and the French had devoted so much attention to rivalling us on the ocean that they had not taken sufficient care to look to themselves on land, and hence the result of the war which had terminated in a manner so happily for us and the rest of the world. The French commenced the iron-clad system by building La Gloire, speedily followed by other iron-clads. In order to recover our supremacy at sea, which had thus been lost for a time, we made use of the resources of private yards as well as of those of the Royal Dockyards. To attain a high rate of speed we had sacrificed breadth; but then it became necessary to take into account the rivalry between the constructors of armour-plates to resist guns and the constructors of guns to penetrate armour-plates. He did not know how the contest at present stood as between the two. We were constructing 80-ton guns, which threw shot weighing upwards of half a-ton; but he was informed that the Italian Government had given an order to Sir William Armstrong for guns weighing 100 tons, and he had heard that the same Government were having plates constructed which would be 22 inches thick. It was manifest that to use armour capable of resisting such guns as were likely to be used we must have broader ships. We had the example of the Captain before us, and he was by no means certain that some of our present ships were not over-weighted. A young relative of his, who had been first lieutenant on board the Agincourt, told him that some years ago, while she was practising a system of evolutions off Gibraltar, under the influence of an Atlantic swell, she lurched over in such a manner that those on board were in doubt as to whether she would ever rise again. There were several accidents, in the shape of broken legs and other personal injuries. He supposed that in this case the Agincourt had all but reached her vanishing point of stability—had she lurched the fraction of a degree more, she would have gone over entirely. It was not easy to calculate the extreme effect of a heavy sea upon an armoured ship; but the point was one which ought to be seriously considered. He had no doubt that other nations would take to building iron-clads of a much wider construction than were in use at present; though, perhaps, they would not generally follow the example of Russia, which had gone to the extreme in that direction of building a ship as broad as she was long, or, in other words, making her circular. If other nations built broader ships we must follow; and he thought it would be well even to sacrifice some speed to greater handiness—greater quickness in evolutions. It must be remembered that artillery had now become the third weapon of destruction only in naval warfare, and the quality of handiness in manœuvring became of special value. In the only instances of ramming warfare—at the battle of Lissa, Admiral Tegethoff, with by no means a finer fleet than the Italian fleet of 11 iron-clads, sent the Ré d'Italia to the bottom with the ram of a wooden line-of-battle ship; and Admiral Farragut, with a wooden frigate, gave a very good account of the Confederate armoured ships. Another advantage of broader ships would be a smaller draught of water. Supposing a squadron of a small draught had passed through the Suez Canal, how many of our iron-clads could possibly do the same in pursuit? That was a point of great importance. Again, in the event of our being called upon to defend Belgium, how could a naval force most efficiently assist in that enterprize? He imagined that Antwerp was the strongest military position in Belgium; and to keep open communication with Antwerp by sea would be most important. Our heavy and somewhat unmanageable iron-clads would not be very suitable for that purpose. Smaller ships of less draught, but carrying equally heavy guns, would be better adapted to ascend the Scheldt and effect that object. Moreover, broader ships of lighter draught would cost less to build. Our present iron-clads cost, roughly estimated, from £250,000 to £500,000 sterling. That was, as it were, putting a great many eggs into one basket; and the same amount of money would pay for several ships of a different construction. It might be said that England, as the richest country, was interested in building the more expensive ships; and it was true that only a rich country could afford the luxury of very large ironclads; but, looking to the conditions of modern warfare, there might be doubts as to the policy of building them. He should have mentioned that, in regard to the manageableness of ships what applied to ramming also applied to the use of torpedoes—the handiest ship would most probably have the advantage. By building ships of a different type they would unquestionably lose in speed; and it might be said that the fleet which had the greatest speed could either compel or avoid an engagement, and that the traditions of our Navy led us to believe that if we could only bring on an engagement we might trust to the fortune of war for the result. On the other hand, naval battles were often fought by mutual consent. At Trafalgar the enemy awaited the attack, and there was no question of speed. In the only great naval battle of modern times the same was the case. At the Nile the ships fought at anchor, and the element of speed did not come in. It might be urged that that was a technical matter for the consideration of naval men only; but the responsibility of deciding upon it, after taking the best professional advice he could obtain, ultimately rested upon the shoulders of the First Lord of the Admiralty. He believed the last two re-constructions of our Navy occurred under the responsibility of the noble Lord near him (Lord Hampton) and the noble Duke opposite (the Duke of Somerset). The future construction of the Navy admitted of three alternatives. They might go on as at present, still increasing the size of their iron-clads; or they might hold their hands until they saw their way clearer; or, again, they might build broader ships. He only hoped they would continue building that exceedingly useful and not expensive class of ships—gunboats. He could hardly conceive of a war in which gunboats would not be serviceable, and they would certainly give great experience to both officers and men. If they ceased building very large ships at present they might, he thought, do something in the way of torpedoes. He might here remark that he had seen it mentioned the other day that a French officer had arrived on a mission to this country to inquire into our torpedo system. He entirely agreed in the view that it was necessary for England to have the strongest Navy in the world—a Navy at least capable of coping with any two others. But whatever was done with reference to the structure of our ships, it must be borne in mind that success must depend upon those who had the management of them. Our officers would doubtless do their duty in the future as they had done it in the past, and so also would our sailors, on one condition—namely, if they had the advantage of early training and were under good discipline. In view of the fearful, or at all events very destructive actions of the next war, when few ships which were engaged would probably come back safe to harbour, it was almost impossible to over-rate the importance of training and discipline.

Moved that there he laid before this House, Return of the draught of water of each first-class ironclad, noting in each case whether such ship could or could not pass through the Suez Canal when complete in coal, provisions, stores, and armament.—(The Lord Dunsany.)


wished, before any Minister answered the question, to say one or two words upon the subject. Their Lordships were quite aware that for the last 16 or 17 years we had been discussing what should be the type of the ships of war we should build in future. No sooner had one type been fixed upon than it was superseded in favour of another—in some cases, it was superseded before the vessels were off the stocks. He agreed with his noble and gallant Friend who had just spoken that whatever type of vessel was adopted, a small vessel carrying one heavy gun would always be useful, and it was desirable to increase that class of vessel. In the course of last autumn their Lordships might have seen the very able letters of Mr. Reed, the late Constructor of the Navy, who had recently been travelling in Russia. Mr. Reed gave a very interesting account of the construction and performances of the Russian circular iron-clads. As to the particular vessel which Mr. Reed described, he (the Duke of Somerset) thought it would be unsafe on the Atlantic; and a great objection had been raised against it—that it exposed too large a surface, and that if it attempted to approach a hostile fort there would be no difficulty in landing shells on her deck. When at Malta he asked a naval officer what he would do if he had to contend with one of those ships. He replied that he would go full speed, fire his guns, and in the confusion of the smoke run right over her. The probability, no doubt, was, that one of our iron-clads running into a vessel of this kind would sink her at once. He did not agree with his noble and gallant Friend that they ought to reduce the speed of their ships with the view of carrying more powerful batteries, and making them more handy. Speed was one of the primary conditions of naval warfare; and if they reduced it they would both sacrifice the use of the ram and diminish its force. The naval constructors who were now working for the Admiralty had an opportunity of hearing the best opinions from scientific men and from officers who had been to sea in iron-clads; and, therefore, the course which those naval constructors would recommend would be better than any advice which their Lordships might offer to Her Majesty's Ministers. It would be better to increase the number of small vessels carrying one or two heavy guns than to add to the number of our larger iron-clads, with the view of coping with all nations of the world. That course would add strength to their Navy, while the Admiralty was considering what type of iron-clad they should in future build.


said, that in 1865 two ships were built—the Agin-court and the Northumberland—which were the longest men-of-war ever built; they carried 12-ton guns, and had four masts. They were 59 feet wide and 400 feet long; but they were not handy ships to manœuvre, from their extreme length, and would fall an easy prey if engaged in hostilities with a well-handled ship. The size of the artillery carried on board ship was increasing rapidly, and it was necessary to increase the thickness of the armour-plate. In 1868 the Hercules was built. She was the same breadth as the Agincourt, but only 325 feet long, plated with 9 inches of armour. The Audacious, built in 1869, plated with 8 inches of armour and only 280 feet long—a very interesting account of her passage through the Suez Canal would be found in the Parliamentary Paper, Egypt No. 2. Three ships were now on the stocks. One was the Inflexible. She had two circular revolving turrets, in each of which she carried two 81-ton guns. She was 320 feet long, 75 feet in breadth of beam, and had 24 inch armour-plating. The other two, the Ajax and Agamemnon, were only 280 feet long, with 66 feet beam, so that the changes made had been in reducing the length and increasing the width of beam. These ships were all designed to attain a speed of 14 knots, which in most cases was exceeded, but in the case of the three last named ships building the contract speed was 13 knots only, and the object in reducing speed was to obtain some of the advantages that had been mentioned—namely, greater power of attack and resistance, owing to heavier guns and thicker armour. A 12-ton gun had greater powers of attack than a 10-ton gun, and 24 inch armour-plate had a greater resisting power than 5½ inches, and greater handiness of manœuvring; as, owing to decrease in length and increase in beam, ships could be turned more rapidly, which was of much more importance than it was 10 years age. Whether ships were used offensively, as a ram, or defensively, as against a ram, facility of manœuvring was of vital importance. All ships recently built drew less water than those previously built, and were designed with the view to their going through the Suez Canal. He was afraid he could not hold out any prospect of cheapness in construction, because the increased thickness of the plates was equal in cost to any saving that resulted under other heads. With reference to dock accommodation, the largest we had at present was that at Portsmouth, the width of which, between the piers at the entrance, was 82 feet; but new docks were in the course of construction at Devonport and at Haulbowline in Ireland and would be 94 feet between the piers at the entrance. Beyond that it was not possible to go, on account of the enormous pressure on the gates or caisson, and because the caisson would be too large and unwieldy; the caisson alone would cost £20,000. The great expense of making a dock was due to its depth, for in a deep dock the resisting power of the floor had to be very great to overcome the upward pressure of the land water, and if the future class of ships of war was of too great beam to enter the present docks it would be far cheaper to build new docks than to increase the width of the present docks. For as the beam of a ship was increased the length and depth would be decreased; a dock would therefore not be required so deep to accommodate a vessel of that type as for a vessel of the present construction; and it had been calculated that the cost of construction of two separate docks, one to hold the Inflexible, the other to hold the Russian circular ship Popoffka, would together cost less than one dock capable of holding either. He must decline to give a Return of the ships of the Royal Navy able to pass through the Suez Canal, as there was annually laid on the Table of the House of Commons a Return or statement of all the ships building, their length, beam, draught of water, and every information which, by a little calculation, would show which would and which would not pass through the Canal. The statement that a French naval officer was over here to make himself master of our torpedo construction and manufacture was a pure fabrication. He did not think that it was desirable to follow the example of Russia in the construction of circular iron-clads. The number of gunboats or small vessels which were being constructed at present was 16. He believed that he had answered all the Questions that had been put to him by the noble Lords who had taken part in the debate.


thought that if any other country had a better vessel than we had we should build one like her without delay. The worst of it was that before our vessels were launched they appeared to be out of date. More speed could be got out of a long than out of a short ship, which required more powerful engines and consumed more coals than the former; but then they were too unwieldy for fighting. It was a question whether we ought to build rams to go into action without any guns at all, or whether the gun should be placed in the ram itself. Earns appeared to be very dangerous to each other, and the question was whether we ought not to build vessels with a movable ram—a ram that could be carried inboard, and not shipped in its place till it was likely to be required for use. In the merchant service the commander of a vessel that ran down another was placed upon his trial, and it must appear strange to civilians that the rule was reversed in the Navy, and that the man whose ship was run down was placed on his trial while the commander of the running-down ship got off scot free.

On Question, resolved in the negative.

House adjourned at Seven o'clock, till To-morrow, a quarter before Five o'clock.