Feb 25

Wood That it Were

Thursday, February 25, 2016 10:42 AM


The ramifications of a battle can extend far beyond its immediate impact on the conflict at hand. Sometimes, the greatest impacts are on the technology and tactics of war-fighting.

Such was the case of the Battle of the Yalu River, the largest naval engagement of the first Sino-Japanese War on 17 September 1894. In the battles for control of the Korean peninsula, the larger Chinese Beiyang Fleet was met by the Japanese Navy.

A Japanese ukiyo-ye woodblock print of the battle.

A Japanese ukiyo-e woodblock print of the battle.

The Chinese fleet was one of the most powerful in Asia, consisting of modern, European-built, steel, pre-Dreadnought ships. The Imperial Japanese Navy was also armed with several European-built steel ships, thus making the Battle of the Yalu River one of the first large-scale engagements of ships of that technological era — and why its action was so keenly watched by European navies.

European advisers to the Chinese navy watched as battle unfolded:

“From seven to nine foreign officers of military education were on board the vessels that composed the Chinese fleet. These officers were of German, American and English nationalities. Apathetically the Chinese let fires burn that could easily have been put out in the first instance with but little damage.”

Four of the modern Chinese ships were set ablaze, with three burning entirely, and their defeat by the smaller, less-modern Imperial Japanese Navy imparted upon the Westerners several important lessons, chief among them that flammable wood was an unaffordable liability in modern warfare.

The Chinese battleship Laiyuan, which was destroyed by fire during the battle.

The Chinese battleship Laiyuan, which was destroyed by fire during the battle.

The lessons they took back home to were invaluable for ship design. The Germans acted very quickly, as an 1897 article featured in Proceedings shows:

“Restrictions in Use of Wood for Interior Fittings of Ships.

As the result of the experiences drawn from the battle of the Yalu, the use of wood has been much restricted in the new German ships. According to Herr A. Dietrich, Constructor-in-Chief of the Imperial Navy:

‘In the outfit and construction of the new German ships wood is used only for a few minor points. Wooden deck planks are no longer laid; steel deck plating is covered with linoleum, sometimes over a layer of cork. In the crews’ quarters the sides of the ships are not ceiled; in the officers’ rooms the ceiling is made of steel plates 1½ millimetres thick and lined with cork. For cabin bulkheads the steel is covered with thin woollen cloth, and with cork lining underneath where it is desirable to exclude sound or lower the temperature. Where heat is radiated from engine or funnel casings, cork lining is resorted to. All wood is removed from the ammunition rooms, save the racks for shells and powder charges, which are still made of wood. For all ladders and steps steel is used. The handrails on the conning bridges are no longer of wood, but of some other material which will not burn or splinter, and which is more agreeable to the touch of the hand than steel or brass. Chart-houses and captains’ rooms on bridges are entirely made of steel and fitted out with non-combustible materials. Since all such changes will be a little exaggerated, it seemed to be advisable to abandon wood for the interior fittings, and especially for the furniture, and to resort to fireproof material which will not splinter. Many things were tried; furniture was made of steel and aluminum, lined with cork and covered with linoleum or canvas; but it was not equal to wood furniture. Only the bedsteads are constructed of iron, steel or brass. The insignificant quantity of wood in the few pieces of furniture when ignited is not a dangerous source of smoke, but rather it is the outfit of the state-rooms, the mattresses, blankets, clothing, books, etc. However, for the present, wood cannot be abandoned entirely. Top signal masts, flag poles, etc., will be made of steel, but there one cannot save weight. The fighting capacity of the ships is without doubt increased through these innovations, since the ship is less apt to burn, the effects of splinters are restricted, and considerable weight is saved, which is available for ordnance and armor.'”

The U. S. Navy also paid careful attention to the Battle of the Yalu River. In the war with Spain in 1898, American sailors acted quickly to prepare their ships for what would become the Battle of Manila Bay:

“Before leaving Hong Kong the ships had been painted a dull slate color from water line to main truck and the yards had all been unshipped except light signal yards. During the twenty-eighth and twenty-ninth the ships were cleared for action. Awning stanchions and all deck hamper not necessary in battle were unshipped and sent below, and, following the lesson of the Yalu, all woodwork not absolutely necessary was thrown overboard. Gratings, skylights, tables, mess-benches, and in some of the ships, the wooden bulkheads in the officers’ quarters were unshipped and thrown over the side.”

Admiral Dewey's cabin aboard the USS Olympia during the Spanish-American War. Naval History and Heritage Command.

Admiral Dewey’s wood-adorned cabin aboard the USS Olympia during the Spanish-American War. Naval History and Heritage Command.

That battle only reinforced the importance of removing inflammable wood from modern warships, as damage was inflicted on both sides:

“. . .the [USS] Boston was struck four times, one shot . . . penetrating the side abreast the wardroom, exploding and setting fire to the inflammable woodwork there, which was soon extinguished . . . .

“In the engagement the Spanish lost all the ships of their fleet, including the flagship Reina Christina; the cruisers Castilla, Don Antonio de Ulloa, Don Juan de Austria, Velasco, Isla de Cuba, and Isla de Luzon, the gunboats General Lezo, and Marques del Duero, and the armed Hydrographic Commission steamer Argos of 500 tons. . . . . The Reina Christina and Castilla are complete wrecks, and while they burned during the afternoon and night after the fight, frequent explosions occurred aboard them. The Castilla’s sides being of wood, she burned to the water’s edge.”

The lessons carried through to warship design ever since.

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