A Review of Dreadnought: Britain, Germany, and the Coming of the Great War

With his now classic work, Dreadnought, Robert Massie weaves together the political and military ambitions of Great Britain and Germany, creating an unrivaled historical narrative of both national and personal ambitions. These ambitions led to the naval arms race of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, which then culminated in the carnage of World War I.

Beginning with Queen Victoria’s birth in 1837, Massie examines familial conflicts between the great houses of Europe. King George V, Kaiser William II of Germany, and Czar Nicholas II of Russia were cousins. Not just family rivals, these heads of state were also nationalistic opponents. Against this family background, we follow the machinations of historical figures such as Winston Churchill, Lord Fisher, Admiral von Tirpitz, Bernhard von Bulow, and Otto von Bismark. This time period is defined by nationalistic vanity, missed opportunities, and unintended consequences.

Although published in 1991, Dreadnought has withstood the test of time. Anyone with an interest in naval or colonial history should enjoy Dreadnought. I also recommend Dreadnought to those interested in technological innovation and its impact on warfare. Despite being written 26 years ago, Dreadnought is still in publication. Copies can also be found in libraries, or purchased from Amazon, eBay, and used bookstores.

The Shapwick Hoard

Discovered by metal detecting enthusiasts in September of 1998, the Shapwick Hoard consists of 9,262 Roman coins. The cache of 260 coins, found in Shapwick, England date from the reign of 30 BC to 224 AD. The Shapwick Hoard isn’t only the largest collection of silver denarii discovered in Great Britain, but also contains two ultra rare coins previously not found in Britain.

The hoard, valued at £265,000 was found, was discovered by Kevin and Martin Elliott. The cousins were searching for artifacts using a metal detector. After their initial discovery, archeologists soon began the painstaking work of excavating the hoard. These excavations showed the hoard had been stored in either small bundles or rolls. They were then stored in a large sack. The sack was then concealed in the corner of what was once a room in a Roman villa.

The coins, which date from Mark Antony’s reign to the reign of Severus Alexander, cover over 300 years. Of the 9,262 excavated coins, 5741 were minted during the reign of Emperor Septimius Severus (193–211 AD). The two rare coins feature Manlia Scantilla, the wife of Roman Emperor Didius Julianus. She had been declared Augusta (Empress) during her husband’s reign, which lased for nine weeks in 193 AD.

The Shapwick Hoard is currently on display at the Museum of Somerset, located in Taunton Castle.

The Roman Gladius

Introduced by the Spaniards. the gladius short sword became the primary weapon used by Roman foot soldiers. Based on an early Celtic design, the gladius dates to BC 500. In BC 361, the Roman historian Livy writes of consul Titus Manlius Torquatus using a gladius in single combat. Despite being smaller than the Gallic soldier he faced, Titus Manlius took advantage of the sword’s short blade to strike multiple blows to the stomach and groin.

The gladius had a 27-inch blade with a v-shaped tip, making it ideal for stabbing. Stabbing wounds, especially when inflicted in the abdominal area, usually prove fatal. The sharpened blade also made it an excellent weapon for slashing and hacking. When combined with the scutum (large shield), the small sized gladius, created a lethal combination. The scutum provided defense (to block and parry attacks), freeing the gladius to stab and hack.

Roman infantry practiced in large phalanx type elements, but soldiers knew combat would soon degenerate into close quarter one-on-one combat. The gladius, an ideal stabbing and thrusting weapon, proved ideal for closed rank infantry fighting. The attacker usually led with a body-slam, using the shield to knock opponents off-balance. The attacker then followed up with quick thrusts to the abdominal area.

Despite minor changes, the gladius remained Rome’s primary weapon until the third century. Changes in tactics favored a more open quarters form of warfare, which rendered the gladius obsolete. By the 7th Century the longer spatha replaced the gladius as the primary European infantry weapon. The spatha evolved into the Viking long sword used until the 10th Century. The design again changed, eventually becoming the medieval sword associated with 10th and 11th Century knights.


Jan Petersen in De Norske Vikingsverd (“The Norwegian Viking Swords”, 1919)

The Odd Case of the MV Joyita

When the MV Joyita, mysteriously disappeared in the South Pacific in 1955, most assumed the small ship and her 25 person compliment were lost at sea. However, she was found five weeks later drifting north of Vanua Levu, it was clear this wasn’t a normal accident. The Joyita was discovered over 600 miles west of her pre-planned route. Her radio was set on the international marine distress channel. Also, over 4 tons of cargo (medical supplies, timber, empty oil drums and foodstuffs) were missing. No trace of her passengers or crew were found.

Built in 1931, the Joyita started life as a luxury yacht for Roland West, a Los Angeles movie director. She was purchased in 1941 by the United States Navy. Joyita, now renamed Yard Patrol Boat 108 (YP-108) operated out of Hawaii until World War II ended. Declared as military surplus, the Joyita changed hands twice before being purchased by well known anthropologist Dr Katharine Luomala. Dr Luomala then chartered Joyita to her friend, Captain Thomas H. “Dusty” Miller. Captain Miller, a British sailor living in Samoa, used the ship as a trading and fishing charter boat.

In the early hours of October 3, 1955, the Joyita left Samoa’s Apia harbor for a two-day (270 mile) trip to the Tokelau Islands. Joyita was scheduled to leave the previous day, but problems with her port engine delayed her departure. Repairs were not made, and Joyita left Samoa with just one working engine. She was expected to arrive in the Tokelaus on October 5.

The Joyita was reported overdue on October 6. Despite not having received a distress signal, the Royal New Zealand Air Force quickly launched a search and rescue mission. After a seven-day search, which covered nearly 100,000 square miles of ocean, no trace of the Joyita, her crew, or her passengers were ever found. She was written off as another ship lost at sea.

However, the Joyita was discovered five weeks later drifting just north of Vanua Levu. When boarded, the Joyita was found to be in extremely poor shape. Her flying bridge was smashed and the deckhouse windows were broken. An auxiliary pump was rigged in the engine room, but it wasn’t connected. Joyita’s navigational equipment, along with the ship’s logbook and sextant were gone. Three life rafts and a dinghy were also missing, leading many to believe the crew and passengers had abandoned ship.

Despite the Joyita’s condition, a formal inquiry found the idea of the crew abandoning ship, “inexplicable on the evidence submitted at the inquiry.” Even though her engine room was flooded, the Joyita was never in danger of sinking. Her 69-foot hull was lined with 640 cubic feet of cork, which made her sinking almost impossible. This reasoning is supported by the fact that after almost a month adrift, the Joyita remained afloat.

Captain Miller received most of the blame regarding the Joyita’s loss. The inquiry found him reckless for departing Samoa on one engine. The inquiry also criticized the condition of the radio equipment. The investigation found a break in the radio cable, which limited the Joyita’s radio range to roughly two miles. No one had noticed because the broken cable had been painted over.

Although no trace of the passengers or crew were found, there was no shortage of theories regarding their fate. These theories ranged from the plausible to the absurd. People who knew Captain Miller claimed he wouldn’t have simply abandoned the Joyita. He knew the ship’s hull was cork-lined, making the ship virtually unsinkable. Unless faced with almost catastrophic conditions, there would be no reason to leave a large stable ship for smaller less stable life rafts. If the crew or passengers did abandon the Joyita, friends argued that Captain Miller was either seriously injured or dead. This theory makes sense, but doesn’t account for the disappearance of the ship’s cargo.

Other contemporary theories blamed the Japanese. The Fiji Times and Herald ran a story claiming the Joyita had encountered Japanese fishing boats. Having “observed something the Japanese did not want them to see,” the fishermen disposed of the Joyita’s passengers and crew. The Daily Telegraph, a British newspaper, suggested Japanese forces not realizing or recognizing that World War II were responsible. Others speculated that modern day pirates attacked the Joyita, killing all those aboard and seizing the cargo.

David Wright, an English lecturer at Auckland University, believes he knows what happened to the Joyita’s passengers and crew. In his 2002 book, Joyita: Solving the Mystery, Mr. Wright argues water from a corroded pipe located in the engine cooling system leaked. This leak partially flooded the engine room, leading to disastrous consequences. He cites the missing navigational equipment and life rafts as proof of a nighttime evacuation. But as stated in earlier abandonment theories, there is no explanation for the missing cargo.

So what happened to Joyita’s crew and passengers? Were they murdered? Did something happen to the captain, causing the ship’s compliment to panic and abandon ship? Or is a leaky pipe to blame?

Who really knows?

Spanish-American War

A brief conflict between the United States and the Spanish Empire in 1898, the Spanish–American War, saw the United States transformed from an isolationist country to a global power. The 10-week conflict gave the United States de facto control of the Caribbean and the Pacific territories of Guam and the Philippines. Considering just how unprepared the United States was for war, her victory was nothing short of miraculous.

By any metric, the United States Navy was inferior to most European navies. At this time, a nation’s military power (Great Britain, France, Germany) was measured in its ability to project sea power to protect colonial assets. While European powers competed to build bigger and better navies, the United States found itself in a naval arms race with Brazil. The British designed and built battleship Riachuelo (1883) and slightly smaller Aquidabã (1885) made Brazil the dominant naval force in the Americas.

The acquisition by the United States of the armored cruisers USS Maine and USS Texas was a direct response to the perceived Brazilian threat. Although construction of both ships began in the 1880s, building delays combined with design changes meant they were obsolete upon completion. Despite there shortcomings, the Maine and Texas represented the pinnacle of American warship design and the pride of the Navy.

Fortunately for the United States, Spain was even less prepared for war. During the Victorian Age, Spain’s military forces struggled to maintain the fragments of a once vast empire. The Spanish Navy, a mix of mostly antiquated warships, were scattered across the Atlantic, Pacific, and the Caribbean. To make up for their naval inadequacies, the Spanish augmented their Caribbean and Pacific fleets with shore batteries. These batteries, much like the fleets they were meant to protect, proved offensively useless.

On May 1, 1898, the first naval engagement took place. The American Asiatic Squadron, commanded by Commodore George Dewey, destroyed the Spanish Pacific Squadron stationed at Manila Bay. When the battle was over, the Spanish had lost its entire fleet of seven ships. There were 77 dead and 271 Spanish personnel wounded. Casualties would have been higher, but the Spanish fleet positioned itself in shallow waters, which allowed shipwreck survivors to swim to safety.

The July 3, 1898 Battle of Santiago de Cuba saw the complete annihilation of Spain’s Caribbean fleet. Once again, the Spanish Navy were hindered by their dilapidated ships and poorly trained crews. Six Spanish vessels, including the relatively modern armored cruiser Cristóbal Colón, were either sunk, scuttled, or grounded. Nearly 300 Spanish sailors were killed, another 150 wounded, and over 1,800 sailors and officers taken prisoner.

The Spanish-American War drastically altered the balance of power in the Caribbean and the Pacific. The Spanish Empire had never really recovered from the Napoleonic Wars of the early nineteenth century and was unable to effectively field combined military forces. Spain’s defeat in 1898 stripped it of all colonial possessions in the Americas. Spain would never again be a major colonial power.

The United States’ victory over the Spanish catapulted it into an imperial power and a major force in world affairs. Investments by the United States in its navy culminated in the creation of two squadrons consisting of 16 battleships, which circled the globe from December 16, 1907, to February 22, 1909. The Great White Fleet showed that America could globally assert its military power.

The Spanish-American War transformed the United States from a second-rate power into a global force and redefined its national identity. And it happened because the United States was fortunate enough to fight an opponent weaker than itself.



The Hoxne Hoard

On November 16, 1992 Eric Lawes was searching for a lost hammer with his metal detector. Instead, he found the largest cache of fourth and fifth century gold and silver coins discovered anywhere within the boundaries of the former Roman Empire. The Hoxne Hoard (found in Hoxne, England) consists of 14,865 Roman coins. In addition the coins, archeologists recovered gold jewelry, silver spoons, and assorted silver table settings. The treasure, worth an estimated 4.3 million dollars, is currently on display in the British Museum in London.

The cache breaks down 569 gold coins,14,191 silver coins and 24 bronze coins. These coins date from AD 337 to AD 408, with the majority dating between AD 394 to AD 405. Historians believe the hoard was buried no later than AD 450. The coins originated from all over the Roman Empire. There are 14 mint marks in the cache, ranging from Gaul (France) to Athioch (Turkey).

In addition to the coins, the hoard yielded 29 pieces of gold jewelry. The jewelry pieces include a gold chain, six chain necklaces, three rings and 19 bracelets. The recovered tableware consisted of 78 silver spoons, 20 gilded ladles, five bowls, four pepper-pots, two vases, nine toiletry items such as toothpicks and ear-cleaners, and two small padlocks. Combined with the recovered coins, the Hoxne Hoard contains nearly eight pounds of gold and fifty-two pounds of silver.

The dates on the coins coincide with Rome’s declining influence in Britain. During this period, the western Roman Empire was crumbling under constant pressure from barbarian tribes. Barbarian invasions had already caused widespread devastation, and by AD 401 the majority of Roman legions in Britain were pulled back to Rome. This left only a few Roman troops and citizens to defend themselves.

Late Roman Empire hoards (AD 350–450) are fairly common. Like the Hoxne Hoard, most are recovered along the former Empire’s fringes. This is probably due to unstable political and security conditions. Although these caches do vary in content, many from this time include silver tableware (dishes, utensils, bowls and cups). What makes the Hoxne Hoard unusual is it consists mainly of coins.

Although we will never know who hid the treasure, the Hoxne Hoard illustrates the wealth that existed in Roman Britain. It also shows that no society is immune to radical change. Who knows how many hoards remain to be found and what stories they will tell.

Peter Guest, author of The Late Roman Gold and Silver Coins from the Hoxne Treasure

Catherine Johns, author of The Hoxne Late Roman Treasure: Gold Jewellery And Silver Plate



Fabergé Eggs

Crafted between 1885 and 1917, Fabergé Eggs are one-of-a-kind jeweled eggs made from jewels and precious metals. They were originally created by Peter Carl Fabergé for the Russian Royal Family. Tsar Alexander III and his son, Nicholas II, gave the eggs to to family members as Easter gifts. Fabergé eggs associated with the Russian Court are called “Imperial” Fabergé eggs.

The precious materials required, combined with the delicate nature of the work, meant a team of highly skilled craftsmen were required for the construction of each Fabergé Egg. For example, the 1898 Dowager (Pelican) Fabergé egg made for Empress Maria Feodorovna was constructed of gold, diamonds, pearls, enamels, and ivory.

When Czar Nicholas II was forced to abdicate in 1917, Russian Bolsheviks confiscated the royal family’s wealth. Of the 50 Imperial eggs created, only 43 have survived. In 1922, much of the Romanov Imperial collections, including the eggs, were sold under Joseph Stalin’s “treasures to tractors” program. Others simply disappeared in the chaos of Revolutionary Russia.

The surviving Fabergé Eggs command astronomical prices. In 2002, a dealer bought what he thought was scrap gold for 13,000 dollars. Thinking he had overpaid, he held onto the gold egg for ten years. Once he decided to sell the egg, a cursory internet search revealed he had found the Third Imperial Egg. Made in 1887, this egg was worth 33 million dollars.

There are still seven more out there.