Tag Archives: dan snow

Empire of the Seas: Sea Change

I’ve just watched the last instalment of Dan Snow’s latest series.

After Trafalgar the Royal Navy was riding the crest of a wave. Dominant in all of the world’s oceans, the ironclad era and the advent of engine propulsion spurred it on to new heights.

But away from the ships, a sea change too place in the culture of those who served in the Royal Navy. Whilst still worshipping the memory of Nelson, officers began to place obedience far above initiative – the value that Nelson had tried to instill among his Captains. As the Navy became the darling of British society, it also became more stratified socially, which stifled meritocracy.

One man in the early Twentieth Century tried to change all of this. Admiral Jackie Fisher became First Sea Lord with a comprehensive plan to modernise all aspects of the Royal Navy. His mantra was ‘if you want peace, prepare for war’ – put simply, he wanted to make the Royal Navy so large and so powerful, that no-one would dare challenge it. Soon 25% of all Government expenditure was being spent on the Navy.

Chief among this spending was the new Class of Battleship – the Dreadnought. Far better armed and armoured than any ship previously, she rendered all other ships virtually obsolete. An arms race developed in Europe, with the Kaiser’s Germany attempting to challenge British Naval supremacy.

Although the German Navy had less than half the amount of Dreadnoughts as Britain, in 1916 the German fleet attempted to draw the British Grand Fleet into battle. Although the Grand Fleet suffered heavy losses at Jutland, the battle was a strategic victory for the British – the sheer amount of ships flying the white ensign prevented the Germans from challenging them again. The British failings at Jutland had been caused by a slowness to adapt to the new technology of battle – poor communications combined with rigid obedience led to ships failing to act decisively, and un-necessary losses.

Although Jutland led to bursting of the 100 year ‘Trafagar bubble’, it also shook the Royal Navy out of its complacency. Never the less, after the First World War Britain was no longer the world’s dominant Naval power.

This episode ends the series nicely, but I do feel that it concludes very abruptly. British Naval power did not suddenly end after 1918 – the size of the Royal Navy in 1940 still prevented Nazi Germany from invading Britain. I would argue that it was through the symbolic loss of the Royal Oak, the Hood, Prince of Wales and Renown that Britain really lost her naval superpower status. The decline may have begun at Jutland, but it was only in the latter stages of the Second World War that the US Navy eclipsed the Royal Navy.

All in all, this has been a thought-provoking series that has discussed a key part of British history. I have been impressed with how well Dan Snow has put across some complicated ideas in very simple and understandable ways. Many of them are extremely relevant today. On the down side, perhaps it did ignore earlier and later factors outside of the series arbitrary start and end dates. An earlier episode on Tudor sea power and a later one on the Second World War would have made much more sense.

How about a similar series, looking at the British Army since Cromwell?

Catch the last episode here on BBC iplayer

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Empire of the Seas: High Tide

This is the third and penultimate episode in this BBC series, presented by Dan Snow. And having watched it last night, and again this morning on catch-up, I think its the best of the bunch. I’m still fed up with seeing shot after shot of Dan Snow climbing rigging, rowing in boats or sailing yachts – after 3 episodes its getting a bit boring now, and precisely how much did it all cost?

This programme does an excellent job of showing how Nelson’s Navy evolved into the magnificent machine that it became by the time of Trafalgar. The wooden walls and jack tars didn’t suddenly turn up off Cape Trafalgar in 1805. Their development was a long process. There does also seem to be an assumption that the loss of the American colonies was a grievous blow, but in truth the West Indies sugar islands and – increasingly – India were far more lucrative. Arguably, the loss of the 13 colonies freed up the Navy. And the combinaton of men, ships and gunnery almost always proved critical, wherever they were in the world.

Empire forced the Royal Navy into become a global force, with highly trained and ambitious men. The Navy was overwhelmingly a meritocracy, due to the constant pressure it commitments made on it. Men such as Nelson came to the fore. And the succesful protection of Imperial trade, combined with an exploring ethos, led to further imperial expansion.

Perhaps too often we think of the Navy as being a fighting force. But in peacetime brave officers spent years exploring, surveying and charting. These kinds of activities were very much in keeping with the Navy’s aggressive, global outlook.

That the Navy has such a central place in British culture and society is important to grasp. The need to fund the Navy led to the Income Tax. And technological innovations were driven by a need to make the fleet efective. Copper sheathing is a brilliant case in point. And tchnology in turn fuelled British industry.

Snow also makes the extremely relevant point that a Navy that isnt fighting, almost always becomes inefficient and loses its sharp edge. The Politicians and Admirals might like to bear this in mind when they give our ships off Somalia restrictive terms of engagement.

Catch Empire of the Seas: High Tide here on BBC iplayer

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Empire of the Waves: The Golden Ocean

I’ve just finished watching the latest instalment of this series presented by Dan Snow, and I found this episode very much to my liking. It had perhaps far too much of Snow sailing – he’s doing it for fun, whereas the men he’s talking about worked bloody hard day upon day for years. And I’m not sure watching him try his hand at being a working man by making a nail added to the programme. But the subject matter is top notch, and there has clearly been some first class research gone on behind the scenes.

Snow charts the period from 1690 to 1759 and reveals how England – soon to be Britain – and her Navy rose from the depths of military and economic disaster to achieve global supremacy. In 1690, France was a significant seapower and the Royal Navy relatively weak. William III had taken England into a disastrous war against the most powerful country in Europe. If England was to survive, it needed a new Navy, one capable of carrying the fight to its enemies anywhere in the world. I do feel perhaps that the programme overstates the extent to which England was weak in 1690 – after all, hadn’t the previous programme made the argument that British Sea Power began with the defeat of the Armada? if so, how did it decline between then and 1690?

To achieve this naval transformation required a national effort unlike anything that had been seen before. A determination to achieve mastery of the seas unleashed a chain reaction of revolutions in finance, industry and agriculture which reshaped the landscape and created the country’s first great credit boom. Years before the Industrial Revolution, the Royal Navy became the engine of global change, propelling Britain into the modern world. Could it be that the Royal Navy acted as a pump-primer for the Industrial Revolution? And not only did the Navy develop into a fighting force, but also one that combated piracy, and launched a number of amphibious operations.

This transformation had incredible results at sea. By 1759, French forces around the world were capitulating to Britain’s superior Navy. the Royal Navy’s march, Heart of Oak, refers to 1759 as ‘this wonderful year’. For the first time in her history, Britannia really did rule the waves.

I would have liked to see more about the effect that this naval transformation had on Britain itself, aside from a token view of industrial North England. How about the Naval Dockyards? Where did all the food come from, the wood, the rope, sails? A whole supportive infrastructure grew up to support Naval expansion – the bristling Warships were but the sharp tip of a very long sword. If anyone wants to take an in-depth look at like in the Royal Navy during the mid 18th Century, ‘The Wooden World’ by NAM Rodger is a very good read.

This episode sets the scene very well for the pivotal wars with Revolutionary and Napoleonic France. In particular I hope that anyone watching this programme will have realised that Britain did have Naval heroes long before Nelson – Anson, Vernon, Hawke to name but three. And, in the words of Admiral Sir Andrew Cunningham, First Sea Lord during the Second World War:

‘it takes a day to win a battle, but hundreds of years to build a tradition’.

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Dan Snow’s Empire of the Seas: Heart of Oak

In this series Dan Snow charts the role that the Royal Navy played in shaping modern Britain. As someone with a keen interest in naval and maritime history, and a confessed non-admirer of Mr Snow, I have been keenly awaiting the first programme.

The Royal Navy’s dominance of later years grew out of its defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588, and a need to protect the seas around the British Isles. It was but a small step from passive defence, to an aggressive form of defence, taking the fight to enemies such as the Dutch, the Spanish and the French.

Out of this dominance of the seas came an ability to trade. Trading networks grew around the globe branching back to Britain: from the Baltic, the Americas, the Baltic, the Mediterranean, Africa and the Far East. These were the beginnings of the British Empire. And Empire that was built wholly on the Oceans.

Many other aspects of the modern British state also grew out of the Royal Navy: administration, central organisation and a place in British national heritage. A huge supportive infrastructure also grew up out of the maintenance of the Royal Navy and commercial shipping. Patriotism, trade, Protestantism and national identity welded together to provide a crucible for the Royal Navy that would develop over the next few hundred years.

This programme also introduces some interesting aspects that are little-known to a modern audience, in particular the threat of the Barbary Corsairs, Pirates who operated out of the North African coast and preyed on fishing vessels at sea, and even the Southern Irish and South West British coastline. The Royal Navy patrolled the coastlines in defence. Lessons could be learnt here for the current scourge of Piracy off the Somalian Coast.

I do feel however that some earlier developments have been ignored. The Royal Navy was really founded initially by King Alfred, long before Snow’s series starts. And how could England launch succesive invasions of France during the Hundred Years War, other than with sea power? Henry VII and Henry VIII did much to develop maritime trade, and the Mary Rose in 1545 saw the Navy defending the realm against a foreign agressor 33 years before the Armada, yet somehow this is omitted.

This is a most interesting programme, and should hopefully inform a wider public about the long tradition of British naval power. What is most disappointing, however, is the discovery that the ‘historical consultant’ for the series is Brian Lavery – a well known Naval writer and academic. Seems that Dan ‘son of John’ is none other than a presenter. I could take him a lot more seriously if he actually did some work for the programme.

If you missed it, Episode 1 can be watched here on BBC iplayer

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