Jane's Fighting Ships (2024)

The first edition of Jane’s All the World’s Fighting Ships was published in England by the firm of Sampson, Low, Marston & Company in November, 1897. And every year from that date to the present, with few exceptions, the public has had an opportunity to obtain the very latest information on the tonnage, armor, armament, and other details of the battleships, cruisers, carriers, destroyers, submarines, torpedo boats, and auxiliary craft of the navies of the world. To say “I saw it in Jane’s,” is almost equivalent to saying that the subject matter in hand is beyond argument. Since that first Jane’s was published the year before the sinking of the Maine and the outbreak of our War with Spain, the world has witnessed the development of the dreadnought, the destroyer, the aircraft carrier, PT-boat, and the submarine. Each successive issue of this famed naval annual has faithfully recorded the development of these new weapons of naval warfare.

Behind this rather astonishing reference book stands the figure of a versatile genius, John Frederick Thomas Jane, but known to his contemporaries as Fred T. Jane. It has been said of him that if he saw a warship silhouette he would be able to give without hesitation the name of the ship, her nationality, tonnage, rate, armor, speed, and armament. His brain was a veritable encyclopedia of the warships of the world. A man of untiring industry, he distinguished himself not only for his vast knowledge of naval affairs, but also as a reporter, artist, lecturer, politician, historian, and novelist. His activities in those lines have now been forgotten, but when he compiled that first edition of Jane’s he founded a naval yearbook that will remain a monument to his memory as long as navies endure. In spite of his many activities during the course of a very busy life, he found time to become a champion croquet player and was one of the first motoring enthusiasts in England.

Jane was born in Richmond, Surrey, the oldest of a large family of a Church of England vicar, the Reverend John Jane. He was intended for the Army but failed to pass his examinations. He turned to journalism, and in 1889, at the age of 24, went to sea as a special artist for the Pictorial World. It was on this cruise that he laid the foundation for a knowledge of the navies of the world that has seldom been equalled. He made later cruises with the ships of the Royal Navy as correspondent or artist for the Daily Chronicle, the world-famed Illustrated London News, or the Standard.

According to Mr. Francis McMurtrie, the present editor of Fighting Ships, Jane’s first idea of the book was conceived as far back as 1882, at the age of 17, when he started an album of sketches of warships that took part in the bombardment of Alexandria. In his preface to his first edition he wrote: The aim of this work is, primarily, to supply those details of warships which are not included in other naval annuals, that generally have hitherto been obtainable only in the Confidential Books of the different navies, and there on a scale too large for frequent and individual reference. . . . All vessels of the same nationality that resemble each other are placed together. . . . Where any distinguishable difference between sister ships exists it is noted; where the difference is practically not to be detected, one ship of the type does duty for all.” All the information about a single ship was given on one page. Mr. McMurtrie says, “Time has proved the essential soundness of this original scheme.” In this first edition will be found about 600 pen-and-ink sketches of warships all drawn by Mr. Jane himself, “Because such are much clearer than reproduced photographs, especially upon so small a scale.” Considering the stage in the progress of photography in his day and the means of reproduction he probably was correct. The drawings are remarkably well done and possess a certain well-defined charm.

To Americans his section dealing with the United States Navy in 1897 should be of especial interest. He lists 13 Civil War monitors built from 1863-1865 and notes that “Most of these ships are unseaworthy.” He includes the “dynamite” cruiser Vesuvius, built in 1888, and notes that she carried “3 pneumatic guns, but these are being removed.” He also includes the Dolphin, one of the first ships of the White Squadron authorized, and all the battleships that were destined soon to bring about the destruction of the Spanish fleet under Admiral Cervera at Santiago. Cervera’s ships are also listed under Espagne, including the Reina Mercedes, built in 1887.

In addition to being responsible for 19 issues of the Fighting Ships, he was also responsible for six issues of All the World’s Aircraft, begun in 1908. Besides these annuals, an impressive number of novels, fantasies, and histories came from his pen, most of them smacking of the sea and of his beloved Navy. His treatises on naval affairs included The Imperial Russian Navy; The Torpedo in Peace and War; Heresies of Sea Power; A Royal Bluejacket; Your Navy as a Fighting Machine; The British Battle Fleet; and All About the German Navy. So far as can be learned, Jane never visited the United States, but to Navy-minded Americans of forty years ago he will be remembered as the author of a series of ten “Naval War Games,” published in the Scientific American. In these games he worked out a series of imaginary battles between the fleets of the United States and the Imperial German Navy. He illustrated these battles with superb sketches drawn by himself.

Fred T. Jane was never the doctrinaire or the theorist in his written expositions of naval matters, but a reporter, first, last, and all the time. He disliked hysteria and attempts to influence Admiralty policy based on half-knowledge. He once offended an English audience before whom he was lecturing by pointing out that admiration of Nelson could be overdone if it involved disregard of changed conditions since Trafalgar.

When the First World War broke out, Mr. Jane, then 49 years old, helped to unravel the German spy system in England. He died in March, 1916, after travelling all over England lecturing on the naval side of the war. Three months after his death, the Battle of Jutland was fought, an event that he would have understood and whose significance he would have appreciated more than any other civilian alive. For he had a comprehensive knowledge of the sea power of both Britain and Germany that was pitted against each other in that engagement.

In the introduction to his first edition of the Fighting Ships, Mr. Jane wrote: “I personally inspected the greater part of the naval ships herein.” In addition to this personal knowledge, he had gained the friendship of Navy men the world over, and from them he secured the details of ships built, building, and being planned. These details he included in his books. But like the good reporter that he was, he would never divulge the source of his information.

The London publishing firm of Sampson, Low, Marston & Company have published the Fighting Ships from its beginning. In addition, the Boston firm of Little, Brown & Company brought out the first edition in the United States. The fourth edition was published by Harper & Brothers in 1901, and the fifth edition by Munn & Company in 1902. No other American firm, so far as can be learned, undertook its publication until the Macmillan Company brought out a magnificent edition at the height of the Second World War.

In the last quarter-century of Jane’s life he saw the rise of the navies of two aggressive powers, Germany and Japan. Unfortunately he did not live to see these same navies crushed in abject surrender. During his lifetime he witnessed the rise of modern navies all over the world. He also witnessed the infant beginnings of naval aviation. The peculiar genius of the man was indeed fitted to the times in which he lived.

A graduate of Syracuse University and the Library School of the New York Public Library, associate Professor Bolander became assistant librarian at the Naval Academy in 1925. He is now the Naval Academy librarian. This is his sixteenth article in the Proceedings.

Jane's Fighting Ships (2024)
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