In the last few weeks, I have been looking to try and plot the coaling stations used by both the British and foreign navies on a map. Mentions of foreign stations tend to be sporadic in English, and without a working knowledge of German, French and Russian, it has been difficult to locate all of them. One of my supervisors therefore suggested that I look at the movements of the Russian fleet on the way to Tsushima, as it largely used French coaling infrastructure on its long journey around the Cape.
I discovered the diary of Eugene S Politovsky, who was part of that fleet, which has been translated and published. It is interesting on a number of levels. On a basic level it is the fairly sombre correspondence of a man on a naval mission which slowly deteriorates and ends in unprecedented disaster. It is also a fascinating insight into the day to day life of a sailor in the less fashionable age of steam.
What is especially interesting to me is the story it tells about infrastructure. The reason that the fleet had to steam via the Cape in itself was because of Britain's ability to deny Russia the use of the Suez Canal. By denying their own coaling facilities, and through their long standing alliance, those of Portugal as well, they were also able to fuelling opportunities to the Russians, delaying their movement and causing vast amounts of inconvenience to the fleet. Although they were able to make use of French coaling infrastructure, they constantly encountered British ships and possessions, and were even escorted by British ships around the Iberian coast.
Throughout the doomed journey Politovsky laments the vast power Britain held around the global oceans, feeling constantly under the influence and at the mercy of the whims of the Royal Navy. He also laments the lack of infrastructure of his own country. He recognises the value of coal early on: ‘Coal! It is our weak spot. Our comings, our goings, our voyage, and even our success depend on coal.’ Later, as the delays mounted up, and the realisation of the precarious situation the Baltic fleet faced, he remarked ‘the coaling question is the question of life.’
In a short example, the importance of coal and coaling infrastructure is explicitly shown.
Reference: Politovsky, E. S. (1906). From Libau to Tsushima : a narrative of the voyage of Admiral Rojdestvensky's fleet.