HMS Warrior – such a beautiful ship, moored alongside in Portsmouth Historic dockyard. She was the “nuclear deterrent” of her day, who “never fired a shot in anger” Built in iron, armoured with iron and teak which form a huge, deep plated box called a citadel around the main fighting weaponised part of the ship and below the waterline: massive and towering masted. I visit her with a guided tour by three informative, passionate guides. Obsolete not long after her build, she reminds me of the rapid advance in modern computing over my lifetime. She is lucky to have survived the long decline of usefulness.
What surprises me are the guns. They still look like Elizabethan cannon. Cannon on sledges, not wheels, I’m told. Which apparently is progress. Somehow I think that a Victorian ship would have advanced a little more. They swivel, have accuracy and range and a whole lot of nasty ways of effectively maiming, killing and generally taking out ships: grape shot, heated shot, canisters loaded with metal – anti personnel, anti ship. Rack upon rack of rifles – Enfield rifles; Marines weapons have white slings as they “like to look pretty” when they kill people we are told. I’m not sure why I have always found the history of fighting fascinating – we are a murderous, brutal race I think.
The tour guide points to growing naval professionalism – uniforms , pay, leave – no more press ganged men. The ship is manned I remember by about 700 – 800 (one of the other!) men.
With 18 men to a gun crew/mess ,the 4-5000 calories required a day tell me life was brutal still. The food is “cooked” in a galley and dished out by the men’s mess cook – each 18 man mess has one for the week. The guide goes through the arduous physical procedure of loading and firing the guns. Cleaning, loading, ramming, priming and finally firing before repeating at a rapid rate that seems unbelievable. No wonder they needed the suet puddings which bulked up their diet. We descend to the boiler rooms. The statistics are chilling – the average age at death for stokers is 48, 4 hours on 4 hours off shifts, 40+ degrees heat and lungs filling with black crap from shovelling coal. She can progress on sail alone, but steam is the new technology – huge mind blowing amounts of coal are required.
The officers have a fancy wardroom but we are told that in battle stations, all the furniture, all the wooden partitions throughout the ship are stored, maybe even thrown overboard to make her a fighting gun platform. I need a sit down with a cup of tea after my fact overload.