Pre-Dreadnoughts in the Media
There has been very little attention to the warships of this era in the mainstream media or even in novels, but there are a few films and books that have either a setting in the Victorian era or an alternate-history scenario that includes my 'favorite' ships.









Blake of the Rattlesnake  (1895)

Context: written before or during Sino-Japanese War


A 'future war' novel in which England battles France and Russia at sea. The focus is on Blake (narrated by a comrade of his), who becomes captain of the torpedo-gunboat Rattlesnake (and later of a destroyer given the same name). With these smaller torpedo-craft Blake wages a secretive campaign against the enemy after the war effort goes bad for England due to internal disputes, which disrupted the supply lines of the main fleet. All ships mentioned are real (although one Russian victory has a swarm of Russian ships which seems more dangerous than any fleet they had at the time); the political situation is kept vague.

            Besides the focus on torpedo warfare, used mostly against French cruisers, the action includes an early fleet battle in which ramming is a major factor (unlike in reality, but perhaps the Victoria incident was fresh in everyone's mind). The author also warns against guns not protected by armored turrets, to the extent that the less-protected guns should not be manned in combat (!). The book does have some interesting incidents, such as more than one case of friendly fire in the confusion of battle. There are battle maps and black-and-white paintings, in my reprinted edition both are tiny and the maps barely legible. Also interesting is the fact that very few of the ship classes which are so formidable in 1895 appear ten years later in 'Trafalgar Refought', evidence of the rapidity of the arms race in what is generally thought of only as the period of stability before the 'Dreadnought' was built. (The Rurik, which does, is much less highly regarded in Trafalgar Refought, and had by then been sunk in real life by Japan's armored cruisers at the Battle of Ulsan.)




Trafalgar Refought  (1905)

Context: written after Spanish-American war, written before/during Russo-Japanese War (references to this are included, perhaps added?)


A scenario in which the Battle of Trafalgar is fought in 1905 instead of 1805. The admirals are the same (Nelson's last campaign is the focus, again narrated by a subordinate) as are the names and numbers of ships, and the battle is still between England vs. a combined French and Spanish fleet. However the types of ships are updated so that larger ships-of-the-line become 1905-era battleships, smaller ones armored cruisers, and frigates are protected cruisers. Each ship therefore is assigned to a real-life class of British, French, Spanish, or Russian warship. (The Russian ships are used for most big 'Spanish' ships, Russia being France's main ally in 1905 instead of Spain).

            Although the lead-in to the final battle is based on the 1805 movements, the battle itself is original and detailed with a series of six large fold-out maps (likely to have rips in surviving copies of the book). The battle is a British victory of course, with Nelson maneuvering groups of ships so that one section of the Franco-Spanish fleet is isolated and hit from all sides, while the enemy forces are poorly-led and easily divided (some ships charging recklessly into the British lines and others wandering randomly or fleeing off the map). The authors note how much they favor the homogenous British fleet (with groups of ships of the same class operating together) over the mixed allied fleet (the French especially tended to build ships individually or in smaller classes). There is an unusual amount of ramming (despite the authors mentioning how difficult and hazardous it is) and lots of torpedoes fired by battleships and armored cruisers at close range hitting their targets (also not a factor in real battles, although maybe an attempt to compensate for the lack of destroyers in the fleet lists as they have no 1805 Trafalgar equivalent). The British do lose a few ships this time, unlike the original Trafalgar.






Context: modern alternate history novel


This novel describes a war between Germany and the United States in 1901, after the Spanish-American War. (In context, the Germans menaced Dewey's fleet in Manila in 1898 due to a desire to win the Philippines in the aftermath of the war, and in 1902 used violent 'gunboat diplomacy' against Haiti and Venezuela, challenging America's own imperialistic claim on the hemisphere.) The Germans bombard the US coastline and land a professional army which scatters the unprepared Americans and captures New York City. England has to be kept politically out of the way for this to make sense, since their navy is stronger than both the American and German fleets combined.

            Actions include an American battleship attacking German cruisers bombarding the shoreline, a submarine and destroyer attack on the German fleet in New York harbor with explosive results, and a final fleet battle as the Germans desperately try to maintain the tenuous supply line against Dewey's superior forces.



The Raid of Le Vengeur

Context: Early 1900s before Germany replaced France as the naval threat to England


A short story where a French submarine is outfitted with 'electric tendrils' as a sensory system. This sub is used to sink a British cruiser in port as a prelude to war, but the British have a destroyer with its own secret weapon (a searchlight that can illuminate objects through water) which defeats the French. The confrontation is brief, not as much of a cat-and-mouse game as the familiar WWII movies with subs against destroyers which this story seems to predict. Neither fantastical 'secret invention' is sonar of course.




The Collapse of the Old World/Seestern  (1906)

Context: A German view of a naval war, after the Russo-Japanese War


A story (made into a picture-presentation? This was described in Jane's 1906) in which a colonial dispute at Samoa between England and Germany (based on earlier incidents) leads to a gunboat battle, followed by an escalation to full-scale naval war between Germany and the alliance of England and France. The Germans inflict heavy damage but lose (an interesting admission from a German source, although the warning for preparedness is similar to that implied from disasters inflicted on the British navy in "Blake of the Rattlesnake", see above). The damage done to both sides is so great that European supremacy in the rest of the world is in danger (an appeal to racist Christian unity).




The Halfhyde series 

Context: modern series of adventure books


This is a series of books focused on a heroic British naval officer who is usually in trouble with is superiors and transferred between different stations and ships throughout the series (including one book involving the Boer War). His arch-villain is a Russian prince, although other enemies also appear. The two I have read are "Halfhyde's Island" where British, Russian, and Japanese ships face off over possession of a newly-emerged volcanic island in the Pacific (which proves unstable), and "Halfhyde to the Narrows" where a British destroyer squadron attempts to rescue a civilian crew captured by the Russians by passing into the Black Sea. Halfhyde is a Bond-like character in that he is repeatedly captured by his foes, then turns the tables and captures them or strands/damages their ships instead, then escapes the situation because international or internal politics prevents a full-scale war from being considered. The ships appear to be generic and mostly fictional, with few details on weapons, although in "Halfhyde's Island" the British ship on scene is a reconditioned obselete ironclad similar to several that were actually rebuilt to inflate the Royal Navy's 'battleship' numbers (an authentic and interesting choice for a book).




Facing the Flag  (1896)

Context: written between the Sino-Japanese War and Spanish-American War


A Jules Verne adventure in which a mentally unstable French inventor of Weapons of Mass Destruction is abducted by submarine-equipped pirates looking for more firepower. The pirates' island base is then armed with the 'fulgurator' which is an auto-propulsive bomb (launched like a disc-shaped missile) capable of annihilating a fort or ship. This weapon is compared favorably to the (real) Zalinsky pneumatic dynamite gun which was big news at the time and may have helped inspire the 'inventor' theme (Isn't Zalinsky also the name of the guy who shrunk his kids?). The nations of the world intervene to stop the threat, and in the action a British submarine the HMS Sword is destroyed by the pirates' submarine-tug, and a 2500-ton cruiser is sunk by the fulgurator (this ship's nationality is unknown but I'm guessing German the way it was hinted at). Four more cruisers attack, and are doomed until the inventor sees one raise the French flag, for instead of killing men from his own nation he sabotages the weapon and pirate base. The French cruiser is the 'Tonnant' described as about the same size as the vaporized ship, but like other vessels is fictional (the French navy did have a ship named 'Tonnant' at the time but this was a slow armored monitor not a small, fast cruiser).




Space: 1889 

Context: 1990s Role-Playing Game


An alternate-history/fantasy universe where space travel was invented in the 19th century and there are civilizations on Mars, Venus and the moon. The universe has a purposely unreal "science" backdated to the 1880s so that there is an interplanetary Ether that spaceships can travel through with a special Edison-invented engine, plus other once-popular ideas like the Canals of Mars and "lost world"-like dinosaur-infested swamps of Venus. The most attractive feature of the fantasy is flying ships made possible by 'antigravity' liftwood (best left unquestioned). This RPG is included here because of the colonial worldview (the British and others have established colonies on Mars and Venus, treating the local civilizations about as poorly as they really dealt with non-Christian humans) complete with steam-powered aerial gunboats facing down native Martian sky galleons and sailing sky-ships. Flying gunboats can also interact with naval battles on Earth as well, so there is a direct reference to ironclads.




Other stories of pre-Great War conflicts are described here: List of war fiction

Also worth mentioning: War of the Worlds (LINK) H.G. Wells' 1898 story of a small number of Martian 'conquistadores' defeating hordes of English troops.







Japanese Animated movie


An alternate world where steam power is more efficient, allowing the early invention of tanks, flying machines, armored suits, tracked war-wagons, and other vehicles (the setting of the film is supposedly in the 1860s but the technology is decades ahead of real life). There is a massive British battleship which resembles a Majestic-class or Royal Sovereign class battleship, plus brief glimpses of smaller ships resembling Victorian-era cruisers and torpedo gunboats. These fight the machines and flying castle of a private corporation of arms merchants.







A movie that follows up on the success of 'Titanic' by depicting a fictionalized account of the last voyage of its sister ship during World War I. The effects are CGI and not quite as grand. In one incident the Britannic is attacked by a German U-boat, but saved when a British battleship charges after the submarine. The old gray battleship is called the 'Victoria' and resembles a model of the American battleship 'Oregon' from the Spanish-American War. (One wonders if this was the best CGI model available? Or for some reason picked so it could be named after the British battleship sunk in 1893?)





Howl's Moving Castle

Japanese Animated movie


A fantasy world where industrial-era technology and magic coexist, and both are used for warfare. Besides flying battleships, steam cars, and personal winged flyers, there are two scenes with massively over-gunned battleships leaving and returning to harbor (damaged). These have the curves of French-inspired ships (such as the Russian Suvorov) and the turrets have the look (although less round) of the turrets of the 'Brandenburg' class, but are very crowded with turrets and cannons sticking out in every direction. The scene with the disabled, burning battleship limping into the port is impressive, if brief.



Battleship Potemkin

1925 Russian silent movie


How could I forget the classic? Ship images consist of brief shots of a model of the Potemkin and some stock footage depicting the confrontation between the Potemkin (and a torpedo boat) and the rest of the Black Sea fleet (of course the footage shows some turrets that postdate the event).




Japanese movie


There is a live-action movie I have seen (but do not remember the title, will try to find this again) about the Japanese army's siege of Port Arthur. At the end there are very brief scenes with the giant land artillery and the sinking Russian fleet, done using models (effects are on a par with the typical Godzilla movie.)




Nadia: Secret of Blue Water

Japanese animated TV series


A series set in 1889 and very loosely based on Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (the Nautilus is a submarine that used to be a starship). Besides battles between Nemo and rival "Neo-Atlanteans", the Nautilus has a couple of run-ins on the surface with the American battle fleet. The battleships as drawn have superimposed main turrets and so are not the pre-dreadnoughts to be expected in 1889, but some do have the white-and-tan color scheme of the Great White Fleet and large secondary guns along the sides. Of course, in 1889 the USA didn't have a fleet of battleships of any type.




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