Anatomy of a Pre-Dreadnought Battleship
What defined a pre-dreadnought battleship? It was, first and foremost, a capital ship, mounting the largest guns and toughest armor its navy could afford, and fully capable of maneuvering in the line of battle against any antagonist's battlefleet. Of the many hundreds of steam warships that were built, more than 175 could be considered pre-dreadnought battleships. The pre-dreadnought era is usually defined as from about 1890 to around 1906.
A pre-dreadnought battleship was a steamship of this time, built of steel, with a great ram beak at the bow for puncturing enemy ships below the waterline (although seldom used, this was a nearly universal convention). Driven by piston steam engines, powered by coal-fired boilers, the pre-dreadnought was generally propelled by twin or triple screws. Its sides were layered, in complex and varying patterns, with steel armor, and its gun positions and key interior spaces were separately protected, sometimes with armor a foot thick or more, although 9 to 11 inches was more usual. At left, artist's conception of Admiral Togo and staff in the conning tower during action, c. 1905. Telephones and telegraphs allow the commanders to control the ship, while slits in the conning tube permit them to see all round.
The pre-dreadnought was armed with many sizes of gun, from the main armament -- 50-foot-long 12-inch guns (305 mm), effective up to five miles -- to the secondary batteries used to beat up an opponent's topsides, to the 3" and 1" guns used to fend off attack by lightning-swift torpedo boats, to the light antipersonnel weapons intended for crowd control or close-in combat. And the pre-dreadnought carried a limited number of big guns: usually three or four, compared to a Dreadnought battleship, which mounted at least ten 12-inch guns. Lastly, the pre-dreadnought carried a full complement of 18-inch Whitehead torpedoes -- Glory had four submerged tubes to launch her "tin fish" forward, aft, or from either beam -- or 45 cm in metric. There is no record of a battleship sinking an enemy craft with torpedoes; in such gun-reliant craft torpedoes were probably not highly regarded. Electric searchlights mounted on masts and funnels illuminated torpedo attackers at night. And to defend against incoming torpedoes, the battleship was equipped with a "net boom defence" -- a steel-link net suspended from booms which would surround the ship's underwater hull when anchored. Sadly, when war came in 1914, the Germans neutralized this elaborate and expensive defense by simply equipping their torpedoes with razor-sharp cutters on the nose.
During the period of our study, the Germans mounted a spirited challenge to British supremacy at sea. From being well behind in the 1890s, the Kaiser's fleet came close to matching Britain's by 1915. As our extensive financial data and blow-by-blow narrative of the pre-WWI arms race reveal, the naval competition proved an alarming drain on the finances of both countries. But then, imperialism and navalism were part of the air one breathed in the Nineties and the Edwardian era. The jingoism of Teddy Roosevelt in the same period merely mirrored fashionable thinking in Europe.
Seen above at Malta, HMS Glory was a typical British pre-dreadnought, commissioned at the apogee of the British Empire in 1900, one of the 51 pre-dreadnought battleships on the Royal Navy's roster. She belonged to the Canopus class of light-ish battleships designed principally for colonial service. The Glory is described in detail on our Canopus class page. For a cutaway view of the inner workings of a German battleship of the same time, click here.
FLASH! Late Report from BBB's bean counters: If one includes the semi-dreadnought ships, our total of pre-dreadnought battleships vaults to 191.
Full Info on Pre-dreadnought and Early Dreadnought Battleships
& Pertinent History of the Time
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