In 1853 most of the world’s warships were still made from wood and powered by sail. The ships of the line that had dominated the great sea battles of the Napoleonic Wars continued to rule supreme in the navies of the world. In the decades after the fall of Napoleon there had been few major fleet actions between modern navies to spur innovation, and with no immediate prospect of battle, there seemed little need for development in warship design. But all that was about to change in a sea battle fought on the southern shore of the Black Sea.
Developments in warship design might have slowed to a snail’s pace, but the same could not be said of naval guns. In the 1820s the French artillery General Henri-Joseph Paixhans had developed an exploding shell for warships to take the place of the traditional solid cannon ball. The fuse of the shell was lit when the gun was fired, and the projectile exploded shortly after it had penetrated its target. The general was asked to demonstrate his new invention by the French Navy in 1824. A redundant two-decked warship, the Pacificateur, was supplied to serve as a target. After a brief bombardment, the ship broke up and sank, to the shock of the watching naval officers. The general then worked with the American Colonel Bomford on a suitable design of gun to fire his projectile, and Paixhans’s guns were quickly adopted by the navies of France, the US, Britain and Russia.
In November 1853 a force of twelve Turkish warships, armed with conventional guns that fired solid cannon balls, were blockaded in the Black Sea port of Sinop. Outside was a similar sized squadron of Russian ships, many of which were armed with new Paixhans guns. Protected by the harbour’s fortifications, and anchored in a solid line, the Turkish commander was confident of victory. Even when the Russian fleet forced its way into the port, and dropped anchor opposite their Turkish opponents, he was not alarmed. Then the Russians opened fire.
The new shells were devastating. They easily punched through the wooden hulls of their opponents, and exploded deep within. Several ships caught fire, others were sunk outright, and the frigate Navek Bakhri exploded. Only one small paddle steamer was able to escape from the carnage. Turkish casualties were in excess of three thousand, while the Russians lost 37 killed and 229 wounded. Within months Britain and France would be forced to send troops and ships to the Black Sea to prevent the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, triggering the Crimea War with Russia.
The shock of the Battle of Sinop echoed through the navies of the world. The first effect was to ensure that shell firing guns were quickly adopted by all. The second was to revolutionise warship design. Everywhere admirals demanded protection for their ships and crews from the new weapons. The oak that had served so well for centuries was clearly too feeble to resist the new technology, and they turned to iron instead.
Iron had already being used in a few experimental warships. As early as the Napoleonic Wars some iron components had been used in wooden ships in place of some of the more complex components that were difficult to source. This had evolved into using iron more extensively.The first warship with an iron hull was the gunboat Nemesis, built by Jonathan Laird of Birkenhead in 1839. The US Navy too was an early adopter, launching its first iron warship, USS Michigan, on the Great Lakes in 1843. But this was iron as a construction material, rather than for protection. Now iron was used to be used to amour the sides of vessels with plates several inches thick, able to resist the new shells. In 1859 the French Navy launched La Gloire, the world’s first ironclad battleship. Just two years later, following successful trials of the Royal Navy’s rival ironclad, HMS Warrior, the British Admiralty took the momentous decision that it would move to an all iron-armoured battle fleet. Where the Royal Navy led, the rest of the world followed.
The American Civil War, which broke out the same year, would prove the wisdom of that decision, with even the crudest built ironclad warships easily dominating their wooden opponents. After long centuries of domination, the age of oak was finally at an end.