Monday, December 20, 2010

"Ay, tear her tattered ensign down! "

The Fighting Temeraire
Bernard Cornwell, one of my favorite historical novelists, reviews a book about a distinguished warship junked long after its days of glory and pleads for the preservation of others:
At Penn's Landing in Philadelphia, the battle-cruiser USS Olympia lies glorious and doomed. The oldest steel warship in the world today, she has a poignant history. In 1898, during the Spanish-American War, she was Adm. Dewey's flagship at the battle of Manila Bay, and in 1921 she carried the body of the first officially designated Unknown Soldier, felled in World War I, back from France to the U.S. The Olympia is magnificent. If nothing is done to save her, she will be towed offshore and sunk as an artificial reef. ....

The Temeraire[....]was to have a long and distinguished history, but by 1839 she was obsolete; and so she was towed to a breaker's yard and dismembered. We might have forgotten her except that J.M.W. Turner painted an iconic canvas—"The Fighting Temeraire"—that today hangs in London's National Gallery. The picture shows the vast dusk-gilded hull of the great battleship being towed up the Thames by a squat, steam-powered paddle-wheel tug. All the glory of the past is being dragged to oblivion beneath the cloud-haunted light of a setting sun. It is a picture that tells a story, and it is consistently voted Britain's favorite painting. ....

She deserved her fame. The three-decker was one of the most powerful ships in the Royal Navy. Her greatest day came on Oct. 21, 1805, when she followed Nelson's Victory into the melee at Trafalgar, where her 98 guns saved the British flagship, even if they could not save Nelson's life.

The Victory had been engaged by the Redoutable, undoubtedly the best-trained ship in France's navy. Redoutable was locked to the Victory when the Temeraire sailed slowly past her stern and raked a broadside lengthwise down the Frenchman's hull, killing almost a third of her crew with that opening blow. The Temeraire then went alongside the wounded Redoutable, only to be sandwiched there by a second Frenchman, the Fougueux. Yet the Temeraire outfought both and forced each to surrender. The Temeraire had 47 of her 755 crew killed, but the Redoutable lost an extraordinary 487 dead out of 643 men, a fearsome tribute to the skilled gunnery of Britain's sailors. ....

USS Olympia
We are lucky that we still possess HMS Victory, Nelson's flagship at Trafalgar and a near-twin of the Temeraire. She lies in dry dock now, her great masts rearing above Portsmouth dockyard. HMS Warrior, Britain's first ironclad battleship, built in 1860, is moored nearby, while in Boston, of course, the USS Constitution still floats and is wonderfully preserved.

Those ships are, for the moment, safe. But Turner's painting and Mr. Willis's book remind us that fame and glory are not sufficient protection against an empty budget, and it will be tragic if we allow the Olympia to follow the Implacable to a watery grave. It is not too late. At Penn's Landing, in the impecunious care of the Independence Seaport Museum, we possess a precious fragment of America's naval history, and we can only hope that, 170 years from now, no one who writes the Olympia's biography will have to end it with the tale of her destruction. .... [more]
Book Review: The Fighting Temeraire - WSJ.com