BEFORE THE BATTLECRUISER: THE BIG CRUISER IN THE WORLD’S NAVIES, 1865-1910

Reviewed by: Tim Coyle

The cover of Before the Battlecruiser depicts perhaps the archetypical Big Cruiser, HMS Terrible, dressed overall for Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee Review on 26 June 1897. The starboard quarter view is dramatically highlighted by a dark, lowering sky. What a sight the review must have been; the peerless Royal Navy assembled to honour its monarch of 60 years at the height of the Empire on Which the Sun Never Set.
Terrible, and her sister, HMS Powerful were indeed Big Cruisers; their careers seeing their imperious presence at the South African War and the Boxer Rebellion (Terrible – 1899 to 1902) and Powerful (China 1898-9 and Cape 1899-1900). The latter served as the Australia Station flagship 1907-12.
Before the Battlecruiser addresses the author’s contention that large cruising warships (‘Big Cruisers’) have received scant coverage before the type was subsumed by the 1906 advent of the battlecruiser, the brainchild of the First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir John Fisher.
The Big Cruiser was not an official contemporary designation. The author writes that there existed a wide range of classifications given to the vessels in their respective navies. Indeed, until the 1922 Washington Naval Treaty there were no legal definitions of battleships and cruisers. Appellations included ‘large cruisers’, ‘1st class cruisers’, ‘2nd class battleships’, ‘cruiser corvettes’ and ‘armoured cruisers’. The book gathers those ships which could act as capital ships on foreign stations; as a fast wing of the battlefleet; to counter enemy maritime commerce, and to hunt enemy commerce raiders. To undertake these missions they needed speed, size and endurance. The author has selected approximately 200 ships from world navies that carried armoured side protection, were not primarily intended for service in the main battle line, had a displacement in excess of 7500 tons displacement and were built prior to HMS Invincible, the first battlecruiser.
Big Cruisers were in the orders of battle of Argentina, Austria-Hungary, Chile, China, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Japan, Russia, Spain, Sweden, the United Kingdom and the United States. In the empire era of the second half of the 19th century, big cruisers of the major powers were commonly deployed on foreign stations as a highly visible demonstration of their nations’ authority.
Before the Battlecruiser is a comprehensive review of individual navies’ designs and what design principles dictated their construction and service. It covers the steam and sail era from 1865 to the mid-1880s when broadside armament gave way to barbette mountings. The French ‘jeune ecole’ of the 1880s, comprising forward-thinking junior officers, led to some radical designs appropriately described by the French word ‘bizarre’. The Royal Navy marched through the 1880s towards the ‘classic British cruiser’ following an alarming 1884 Foreign Intelligence Committee report on the perceived RN inferiority to France. The RN sought fast, big protected cruisers to counter the perception that enemies would use armed liners as commerce raiders; 80 ships saw RN service between 1880 and 1919. The US Navy, having fallen into acute decrepitude following the Civil War, began a rejuvenation programme with three new armoured cruisers which led to a total of 18 by 1918. France built 44 Big Cruisers while Germany, surprisingly, only commissioned 12.
The German ships were comparatively modern as the Imperial German Navy only became a major naval power through the 1898 Navy Law which began the naval arms race with Britain. The German Big Cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, as the main component of the fleeing East Asia Squadron, destroyed the RN Big Cruisers Monmouth and Good Hope at the Battle of Coronel on 1 November 1914. Scharnhorst and Gneisenau were, in turn, sunk by HM Ships Invincible and Inflexible at the Falkland Islands on 8 December 1914, the battle heralding the demise of the Big Cruiser in battle by its putative replacement, the battlecruiser. Blucher, the other sacrificial German Big Cruiser, was sunk at the Battle of Dogger Bank on 24 January 1915. Its destruction cost the RN victory in this battle because of command and communications errors whereby the RN ships poured fire into Blucher at the expense of not targeting other German heavy ships.
Russia commissioned several powerful Big Cruisers which influenced other navies’ contemporary designs. Japan’s 17 Big Cruisers were modern, dating largely from 1900 with some surviving to 1945. Other, more minor, operators such as Spain, Brazil and Chile, all have their story to tell.
The book discusses the Big Cruiser in war and peace and it is this coverage, together with the ships’ design features through their relatively short reign, and the reasons for their decline, make this book well worth acquiring. Half of the book is devoted to line drawings and ship class data while the book’s narrative half is well illustrated. There is some overlap between Before the Battlecruiser and Norman Friedman’s British Cruisers of the Victorian Era, however, this should not dissuade potential readers as Before the Battlecruiser provides the full story of this warship type in the world’s navies and their role in naval diplomacy and warfare in a fascinating period of world history.

Tim Coyle
Australian Naval Institute