Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Books, Books, Books

I have not been in a writing mood because I have been in reading mode lately. These past few weeks, I have been trying to finish reading the books my wife and I accumulated this past year which have been lying around the house for months just waiting to be read. I will be writing about a couple books I liked and sharing some of the insights I learned in the next days.

“TO RULE THE WAVES: How the British Navy Shaped the Modern World” by Arthur Herman retraces the entire history of the Royal Navy from its “birth by fire” during the Spanish Armada invasion of England to Admiral Horatio Nelson’s glorious victory over Napoleon Bonaparte’s fleet during the Battle of Trafalgar up to the Falklands War in 1982.

While it is already a well-known fact that Great Britain built its empire on the back of its Royal Navy, it is not common knowledge that most of the men who built, manned and captained her ships came mostly from one small corner of England, in an area commonly referred to as “West Country” comprised of Cornwall, Devon, Dorset and Somerset. It is quite astonishing to learn that although no place in Britain is never more than 65 miles from the coast (much like the Philippines), the British were not really a seafaring people. Instead, the bulk of its naval officers and seamen came from rugged coastal communities and the great “maritime cities” like Cornwall and Norfolk. From the Elizabethan Age up to the Second World War, the West Country region has supplied the Royal Navy with more officers and men than any other region in England. If we compare it to the Philippines (since the UK archipelago is similar in size to the Philippines), its like saying that their navy was built on the back of men mainly from Panay or say Samar.

Most of Britain’s most famous naval captains such as John Hawkins, Sir Francis Drake, Sir Richard Grenville, Sir Walter Raleigh all grew up in Devon and Cornwall (John Hawkins and Francis Drake were in fact first cousins). During Queen Elizabeth’s reign in the 1500s, these “West Country men” assembled a hodgepodge of ships and surprisingly, defeated the mighty Spanish Armada thereby setting off England on its path to imperialism. Although England’s greatest admiral, Horatio Nelson, came from Norfolk in the North Sea and not in West Country, he was surrounded by West Country men. Nelson’s mentor, Admiral Hood, came from Dorset as well as a number of his sea captains at the Battle of Trafalgar in the 1700s. Even the officer who sailed back to England with the news of Nelson’s death was born in Tavistock in the West Country region. At the time of the Falklands War in 1982, the First Sea Lord Sir Henry Leach, was from the West Country and the commander of the Falkland Task Force, Rear Admiral John “Sandy” Woodward, was also from West Country Cornwall. So was the leader of the Marines who assaulted the Argentinian positions in the Falklands, Marine Brigadier General Julian Thompson who was from Cornwall.

During its heyday, the Royal Navy had an all-encompassing influence on British society. Not only was the Royal Navy viewed as the savior of Britain (after their stunning victories over the Spanish Armada and the Battle of Trafalgar) but also became the symbol of Britain’s imperialist might during the Victorian Age. Her admirals were deferred to by politicians, her sea captains adored by the public and her fighting ships were viewed almost as persons with identities and distinct personalities of their own (so it is by no accident that Ian Fleming, the creator of James Bond, chose to make his famous English spy a naval commander and not an army officer).

Two World Wars sapped the imperialist spirit of the British and by the 1970s, the Royal Navy was just a mere shadow of its formal self (so much so that when Argentina invaded the small British outpost in the Falklands in the 1980s, then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher forgot to invite the Royal Navy to her command conference meeting on how to address the crisis – an outrageous thought just 50 years ago). Here is a passage from the concluding pages of the book:

“One by one the substance and symbols of British naval supremacy, the embodiment of three centuries of tradition and pride, vanished. The mighty battleship Queen Elizabeth has served 33 years and carried the flags of 16 admirals, including David Beatty the day he received the surrender of the German High Seas Feet in 1918 – the greatest bloodless naval victory in history. As her ensign came down the last time in March 1948, a Royal Marine band played “Auld Lang Syne” and “God Save The King” as the commander in chief and other senior officers stood at attention.

HMS Renown has been Repulse’s sister ship. Rodney was one of two battleships that had sunk the Bismarck. Both were gone by 1948. Bismarck’s other opponent, the King George V, lingered on for a while in reserve. She was finally sold for the broker’s yard in 1958. HMS Vanguard had been finished too late to see action in World War II but she managed to survive the budget cuts until 1959 as Britain’s last remaining battleship. Then it was decided the Vanguard too had to go. As she was being tugged out of the Portsmouth harbor, she ran aground and would not move for more than an hour – as if in silent protest against her sad fate.

But none were sadder, perhaps, than that of HMS Implacable. Like the rest, the ship had held the king’s commission during the war: but her heart was not of steel but oak. The Implacable was the last survivor of Trafalgar still afloat. After Trafalgar, in 1855, Implacable was refitted as a training vessel for boy seamen at Devonport. For fifty years she taught young men the art of handling sails and going aloft on it, on the very sound where Hawkins, Drake, Raleigh had begun the modern age of fighting sail.

By 1908 that era had closed for good. The navy put the Implacable on its disposal list. However, a millionaire bought the ship and refurbished her at his own expense, so that she was able to serve as a training ship again in 1932, this time in Portsmouth. When war came, she was still in service as a coal hulk – the oldest wooden warship afloat. Then in 1947, the Admiralty decided it could no longer afford to keep her. There was a public outcry, but in an era of economic austerity, no money could be found to save her.

And so on December 2, 1949, she was towed out into Portsmouth harbor, as the Victory watched the only other survivor of Trafalgar pass by for the last time. Implacable was flying both the Union Jack and the French tricolor – and carrying four hundred tons of pig iron and a set of scuttling charges in her hull. After the two national anthems were played, the charges were detonated. But Implacable fooled her would-be executioners. As Nelson or Blake could have told them, the wooden ship of old did not sink like her modern steel descendants. Instead of turning over and plunging when her bottom blew out, Implacable stubbornly remained afloat, for several days until workers finally had to go in and break up her mighty timbers so she would not be a navigation hazard. Implacable had died unwanted but not unmourned: the most venerable victim of imperial overstretch.”

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