Green politics, philosophy, history, paganism and a lot of self righteous grandstanding.

Friday, 5 November 2010

By the Rocket's Red Glare

The Bombardment of Fort McHenry

Britain has given America some great gifts: democracy, the English language and Catherine Zeta Jones come immediately to mind. All three may have been well and truly ****ed by the Yanks since, but at least they acknowledge where they came from.

However I feel we never really get the credit we deserve for giving them the most famous line in their national anthem.

The rocket's being referred to are not those that are currently illuminating the night sky here, but those being fired at Fort McHenry by the Royal Navy at the Battle of Baltimore during the War of 1812. Britain's military was at that time in the middle of a love affair with rockets that had started with a bang 34 years previously in India, and was to eventually fizzle out over South Africa 79 years later.

Gunpowder appears to have reached India from China in the Fourteenth century, although references in Vedic literature to "weapons of fire" may indicate the previous use of some other type of fiery missile. They had first been fired at the British in 1755, but had been dismissed as a fairly useless gimmick.

The Battle of Pollilur
That view was hastily revised in 1780 when the army of the East India Company fought the Kingdom of Mysore at the Battle of Pollilur. A barrage of rockets blew up the ammunition wagons and John Company's army, which included elite Scottish Highlanders, surrendered. The battle was the first British defeat suffered on the sub-continent.

Thanks to the rockets the reverse was not seen as being the result of Indian, or Moslem, pluck, but fiendish oriental ingenuity. It helped that Tipu Sultan, who ascended to the throne of Mysore two years after Pollilur, was a bit of a gadget-man. A mechanical tiger of his, powered by bellows and depicted savaging a East India Company soldier, who moans realistically, is on display in the V&A museum. His reputation carried on past his eventual defeat into the nineteenth century, and Jules Verne even made him the uncle of that ultimate gadget-man, Captain Nemo.

Rocket practise
Meanwhile the army's greatest brains were set to work on rocketry, and the result was the Congreve War Rockets that Francis Key Scott saw being fired in 1814. (Yes I know I said this was 'The War of 1812', but that was just it's name. It actually lasted until 1815.) The rocket was lighter and longer ranged than conventional artillery and was employed smiting the King's enemies around the world. 25,000 of them were fired at the peaceful Danes in 1807 and a rocket battery was the sole British unit present at the 'Battle of the Nations' that defeated Napoleon for the first time in 1813. The rocket as a weapon had just one drawback, one that will be familiar to anyone who has had to flee from an errant firework - they were so inaccurate it was almost impossible to hit anything with them.

This didn't put the military off and indeed they clung to their Congreve rockets even after a (slightly) improved version, the Hale's spin-stabilised War Rocket, was invented. Mr Hale was unable to sell them to his own country and it was actually the Americans who debuted the new missile, against the Mexicans in 1847.

The Assault on Magdala
The Russian, Italian and Austrian armies all adopted it, to little effect. The German army was meanwhile busy showing the world that breech loading rifles and artillery were the future and that fireworks had no place on the modern battlefield. Never-the-less the British Army and Royal Navy eventually bought Hale's toy and carried it with them on various colonial wars from Ethiopia to Afghanistan.

In 1879 an unfortunate Major Russell found himself in charge of a rocket battery at the Battle of Isandhlwana. As a Zulu Impi descended on him he managed to fire off just one rocket - which missed, before having to resort to his sword. This just about summed up the performance of the war rocket. Two years later when a battery of Navy rockets went off to fight the Boers where they were similarly ineffective.

That was pretty much it for the gunpowder war rocket. They remained on the official inventory until 1919, before finally being pensioned off along with the cavalry lance and other relics of the previous century.

It was not the end for rockets. Twenty five years later chemical fueled V2s were falling on London. This time though nobody felt like turning the result into poetry.

No comments: