Letter from Military History – March 2011

Fire and Water

Sea battles differ in obvious ways from land battles. But fights at sea have been no less significant or decisive than land battles throughout recorded history: Think Salamis in 480 BC, Actium in 31 BC, Lepanto in 1571, the Spanish Armada in 1588, Trafalgar in 1805, Tsushima in 1905, Jutland in 1916, Midway in 1942 and the Atlantic in the 1940s, to name just a few.

When we hear the word battle, we may reflexively think of fighting on terra firma and visualize grunts digging foxholes, hitting the dirt at the scream of incoming artillery shells or going “over the top” from deep, muddy trenches. But war at sea unfolds on a vast, trackless, featureless wilderness that (until the advent of submarines) offers no cover or concealment—a wilderness far more hostile, indeed life-threatening, than any combination of dust and mud. Death by drowning is not a common fate in land battles, while at sea vast distances, deep water and harsh weather commonly combine to produce lethal conditions.

For most of maritime history, naval actions necessarily occurred in the waters within sight of land—indeed, at Salamis the Persian King Xerxes I ordered up a grandstand throne on the Attic coast, only to witness the chaotic destruction of his own fleet by the allied Greek navies. Once ships and navies ventured onto the high seas, a new set of challenges emerged: navigation and the hunt for enemy combatant fleets became difficult and chancy. Supply lines extended hundreds and even thousands of miles. Long-term fleet maintenance, catastrophic weather, and crew training and morale became major challenges, even without combat. Plus there were the challenges of seamanship—the essential task of maneuvering effectively a very large vessel under fire—a task that had no land-battle counterpart. Vice Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson’s aggressive ship handling at Trafalgar is a classic example.

Finally, the evolution of warship weaponry—from rams, bowmen and spear-toting boarding parties to early firearms, then to the mastery of artillery aboard a constantly moving platform, and finally to the modern era’s over-the-horizon weapons—took centuries of innovation, ingenuity and improvements in ship design. All in all, the history of war at sea parallels that of land warfare, as both involve the development of corresponding yet distinctive weaponry and other technologies, tactics and training.

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