‘Too weak to fight and too slow to run away’

This was the way in which Admiral ‘Jacky’ Fisher described much of the Royal Navy’s Reserve Fleet when he became First Sea Lord. He inherited a fleet that looked powerful on paper, but which was dependant upon old ironclad and early pre-dreadnought battleships to make up the numbers. Not only that but they required expensive maintenance to keep them in reasonable condition and absorbed trained personnel who could otherwise have been used to crew newer, more effective ships.

Amongst the old and obsolete battleships that were still in service – in some form or another – in 1900 were:

  • HMS Defence (Broadside ship: completed 1861; refitted 1867 and 1872 to 1874): 1890: Floating workshop; 1935: Sold for scrap.
  • HMS Hector (Broadside ship: completed 1864; refitted 1867 to 1868): 1900: training ship; 1905: Sold for scrap.
  • HMS Achilles (Broadside ship: completed 1864; refitted 1868 and 1874): 1902: Depot ship; 1923: Sold for scrap.
  • HMS Northumberland (Broadside ship; completed 1868; refitted 1875 to 1879 and 1885 to 1887): 1898: Training ship; 1909: Coal hulk; 1927: Sold for commercial use; 1935: Sold for scrap.
  • HMS Bellerophon (Central battery ship: completed 1866; refitted 1881 to 1885): 1904: Training ship; 1922: Sold for scrap.
  • HMS Scorpion (Turret ship: completed 1865): 1901: Target ship (sunk); 1903: Refloated and sold for scrap.
  • HMS Wivern (Turret ship: completed 1865): 1904: Workshop and distilling ship; 1922: Sold for scrap.
  • HMS Hercules (Central battery ship: completed 1868; reconstructed 1892 to 1893): 1905: Depot ship; 1914: Training ship; 1932: Sold for scrap.
  • HMS Monarch (Turret ship: completed 1869; refitted 1871 and 1887; reconstructed 1890 to 1897): 1902: Depot ship; 1905L Sold for scrap.
  • HMS Audacious (Central battery ship: completed 1870; refitted 1880 to 1883 and again 1889 to 1890): 1901: Training ship; 1929: Sold for scrap.
  • HMS Invincible (Central battery ship: completed 1870): 1901: Depot ship; 1906: Training ship; 1914: Sank.
  • HMS Iron Duke (Central battery ship: completed 1871; refitted 1877 to 1878 and 1883 to 1885): 1900: Coal hulk; 1906: Sold for scrap.
  • HMS Swiftsure (Central battery ship: completed 1872; refitted 1881 and 1886 to 1888): 1901: Store hulk; 1908: Sold for scrap.
  • HMS Triumph (Central battery ship: completed 1873; refitted 1882): 1900: Depot ship; 1914: Store ship; 1921: Sold for scrap.
  • HMS Sultan (Central battery ship: completed 1871; refitted 1876 and 1879; reconstructed 1893 to 1896): 1906: Training ship; 1940: Deport ship: 1946: Sold for scrap.
  • HMS Cerebus (Breastwork monitor: completed 1870): 1900: Depot ship; 1924: Sold and sunk as a breakwater.
  • HMS Magdala (Breastwork monitor: completed 1870; rearmed 1892): 1903: Sold for scrap.
  • HMS Abyssinia (Breastwork monitor: completed 1870; rearmed 1892): 1903: Sold for scrap.
  • HMS Glatton (Breastwork monitor: completed 1872): 1903: Sold for scrap.
  • HMS Hotspur (Breastwork monitor/ram; completed 1871: reconstructed 1881): 1904: Sold for scrap.
  • HMS Rupert (Breastwork monitor; completed 1874: reconstructed 1891 to 1893): 1907: Sold for scrap.
  • HMS Devastation (Turret ship: completed 1873; refitted 1879, 1891 to 1892, and again in 1904): 1908: Sold for scrap.
  • HMS Thunderer (Turret ship: completed 1877; refitted 1881, 1889 to 1891, and again in 1903): 1909: Sold for scrap.
  • HMS Dreadnought (Turret ship: completed 1879; refitted 1894 and again 1895 to 1897): 1902: Depot ship; 1908: Sold for scrap.
  • HMS Cyclops (Breastwork monitor: completed 1874; refitted 1887 to 1889): 1903: Sold for scrap.
  • HMS Gorgon (Breastwork monitor: completed 1877; refitted 1888 to 1889): 1903: Sold for scrap.
  • HMS Hecate (Breastwork monitor: completed 1877; refitted 1885 to 1886): 1903: Sold for scrap.
  • HMS Hydra (Breastwork monitor: completed 1876; refitted 1888 to 1889): 1903: Sold for scrap.
  • HMS Alexandra (Central battery ship: completed 1877; reconstructed 1889 to 1891): 1903: Training ship; 1908: Sold for scrap.
  • HMS Temeraire (Central battery and barbette ship: completed 1877; refitted 1892 to 1894): 1902: Depot ship; 1915: Reformatory ship; 1921: Sold for scrap.
  • HMS Inflexible (Turret ship: completed 1881; refitted 1885): 1903: Sold for scrap.
  • HMS Ajax (Turret ship: completed 1883; refitted 1886): 1904: Sold for scrap.
  • HMS Agamemnon (Turret ship: completed 1883; refitted 1886): 1903: Sold for scrap.
  • HMS Belleisle (Central battery ship: completed 1878): 1900: Target ship (sunk 1903); 1904: Refloated and sold for scrap.
  • HMS Orion (Central battery ship: completed 1882; refitted 1890 to 1893): 1902: Depot ship; 1913: Sold for scrap.
  • HMS Superb (Central battery ship: completed 1880; reconstructed 1887 to 1891): 1904: Accommodation ship for infectious patients; 1906: Sold for scrap.
  • HMS Neptune (Turret ship: completed 1881; refitted 1886 to 1897): 1903: Sold for scrap.
  • HMS Colossus (Turret ship: completed 1886): 1904: Depot ship; 1908: Sold for scrap.
  • HMS Edinburgh (Turret ship: completed 1887): 1908: Target ship; 1910: Sold for scrap.
  • HMS Conqueror (Turret ship: completed 1886): 1907: Sold for scrap
  • HMS Hero (Turret ship: completed 1888): 1907: Target ship (sunk 1908).
  • HMS Collingwood (Barbette ship: completed 1887; refitted 1897): 1909: Sold for scrap.
  • HMS Anson (Barbette ship: completed 1889; refitted 1896): 1909: Sold for scrap.
  • HMS Camperdown (Barbette ship: completed 1889; refitted 1896 to 1897): 1911: Sold for scrap.
  • HMS Howe (Barbette ship: completed 1889): 1911: Sold for scrap.
  • HMS Rodney (Barbette ship: completed 1888): 1909: Sold for scrap.
  • HMS Benbow (Barbette ship: completed 1888): 1909: Sold for scrap.
  • HMS Sans Pareil (Turret ship: completed 1891): 1907: Sold for scrap.
  • HMS Nile (Turret ship: completed 1891): 1912: Sold for scrap.
  • HMS Trafalgar (Turret ship: completed 1890; refitted 1891 and 1905): 1911: Sold for scrap.
  • HMS Empress of India (Barbette ship: completed 1893): 1911: Target ship (sunk 1913).
  • HMS Ramillies (Barbette ship: completed 1893; refitted 1903 to 1904 and 1906): 1913: Sold for scrap.
  • HMS Repulse (Barbette ship: completed 1894; refitted 1903): 1911: Sold for scrap.
  • HMS Resolution (Barbette ship: completed 1893): 1914: Sold for scrap.
  • HMS Royal Oak (Barbette ship: completed 1893; refitted 1902): 1914: Sold for scrap.
  • HMS Royal Sovereign (Barbette ship: completed 1892; refitted 1903): 1913: Sold for scrap.
  • HMS Revenge (Barbette ship: completed 1894; refitted 1902): 1914: On list of ships to be sold but retained and used as a bombardment ship (renamed Redoubtable); 1919: Sold for scrap.
  • HMS Hood (Turret ship: completed 1893): 1911: Target ship; 1914: Sunk as blockship off Portland.
  • HMS Barfleur (Barbette ship: completed 1894; reconstructed 1902 to 1904): 1910: Sold for scrap.
  • HMS Centurion (Barbette ship: completed 1894; reconstructed 1901 to 1903): 1910: Sold for scrap.
  • HMS Renown (Barbette ship: completed 1897; refitted 1904 to 1905): 1909: Training ship; 1914: Sold for scrap.

Part of the Royal Navy’s Reserve Fleet can be seen moored in the background of this photograph of young sailors under training. Such ships required high levels of costly maintenance to keep them in anything approaching reasonable condition as well as a cadre of trained seamen who could be put to better use manning more modern ships.

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2 Comments on “‘Too weak to fight and too slow to run away’”

  1. I'm beginning to see why the ship building industry in Great Britain went south. The expense that went into some of those later warships that were scrapped less than 20 years later ought to suggested to someone that something was amiss. Adm Fisher saw the problem from the point of view of a fighting seaman, of course, but perhaps a larger view might already have indicated that the large battleship had already had its day on account of the vast expenditure in materials, building, design and cost, for what was pretty poor return even as a naval military unit.

    Mind you, the battleship did have an appeal all of its own – like that of traction engines and steam locomotives…

    Cheers,
    Ion

  2. Archduke Piccolo (Ion),

    Part if the problem was the pace of technological change, part was a result of Treasury pressure not to buy new ships whilst also being pressured by Government to keep a powerful navy, part was a result of natural conservatism within the Royal Navy, and part was due to inefficiency and trades demarcation in the building yards.

    What the UK did not have during the period 1880 to 1900 was the equivalent of the 74-gun sailing line-of-battleship that was the backbone of the Nelsonian battle fleet. Economic to build and man, not a great deal less powerful than a 100-gun ship and yet still potent. They got close with the 'Renown', 'Barfleur', and 'Centurion' … but then chose to go for bigger and better.

    By 1900 the 'big gun' battleship was the logical next step in battleship design … and if the RN had not built one, the USN was about to.

    All that said, the battleship was a potent symbol of power … and their passing was a sad day for lovers of warships.

    All the best,

    Bob


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