Friday 14 June 2024

La Belle Époque and my imagi-nations

Some time ago I decided that I was going to concentrate my wargaming efforts of putting together a number of 15mm imagi-nation armies. I chose the historical setting for these imagi-nations to be vaguely ten years either side of 1900, in other words, during La Belle Époque (the Beautiful Epoch).

This was a period characterised by general economic prosperity, colonial expansion, and technological and scientific innovation. Amongst the latter were the development of the motor vehicle, the telephone, early aircraft, and medical advances in the fields of germ theory of disease, bacteriology, and X-ray photography.

It was also a period of change for the various armed forces of the world. On land, the era saw the widespread introduction of magazine rifles with smokeless powder cartridges, the growing use of effective systems to reduce the recoil of artillery pieces, the issuing of heavy, long-range artillery that could accompany armies in the field, the development of more effective high explosives and propellent powders, and the development of automatic machine guns.

At sea, the navies of the world were also undergoing a period of rapid change. This incorporated the move from iron to steel as the main shipbuilding material, the introduction of better armour protection, the improvement in the powerplants fitted to warships, the increased calibre and barrel length of the main armament carried by battleships, the maturing of the torpedo as a weapon of war, the introduction of submarines, and the introduction of quick-firing guns.

These advances can clearly be seen when one compares the characteristics of HMS Trafalgar, which was first commissioned in 1890, with HMS St Vincent, which was commissioned twenty years later.

HMS Trafalgar

  • Displacement:12,590 tons
  • Dimensions:
    • Length:345ft (105m)
    • Beam:73ft (22m)
    • Draught 28ft 6in (8.69m)
  • Propulsion: 2-shaft Humphries triple expansion engines producing 7,500ihp
  • Speed: 15.1 knots
  • Complement: 577
  • Armament:
    • 2 × 2 BL 13.5-inch (343 mm) 67-ton guns
    • 6 × 1 QF 4.7-inch (120-mm) guns
    • 8 × 1 6-pounder (57 mm) guns
    • 9 × 1 QF 3-pounder (47 mm) guns
    • 6 × torpedo tubes
  • Armour:
    • Belt: 20-inches (508mm) amidships; 14-inches (356mm) at the ends
    • Forward bulkhead: 16-inches (406-mm)
    • After bulkhead: 14-inches (356mm)
    • Citadel: 16-inches to 18-inches (406mm to 457 mm)
    • Turrets: 18-inches (457mm)
    • Conning tower: 14-inches (356mm)
    • Battery bulkheads: 4-inches to 5-inches (102mm to 127mm)
    • Deck: 3-inchs (76mm)
HMS Trafalgar.

HMS St Vincent

  • Displacement: 19,700 tons
  • Dimensions:
    • Length: 536ft (163.4m)
    • Beam: 84ft (25.6m)
    • Draught: 28ft (8.5m)
  • Propulsion 18 x Babcock & Wilcox boilers powering 2 x sets of Parsons direct-drive steam turbines driving 4 propellers
  • Speed: 21 knots
  • Complement: 835
  • Armament:
    • 5 × 2 12-inch (305mm) guns
    • 20 × 1 4-inch (102mm) guns
    • 3 × 18-inch (450mm) torpedo tubes
  • Armour: 
    • Belt: 8-inches to 10-inches (203mm to 254mm)
    • Deck: 0.75-inches to 3inches (19mm to 76mm)
    • Turrets: 11-inches (279mm)
    • Barbettes: 9-inches to 10 inches (229mm to 254mm)

HMS St Vincent.

This was also the era during which the first practical aircraft took to the skies. It is generally accepted that the Wright brothers made a successful flight of 17th December 1903, although there were several other pioneers who have laid claim to this honour. These include Samuel Pierpoint Langley, Karl Jatho, and Richard William Pearse.

The Wright Flyer was a primitive aircraft, but each subsequent model had improved power, range, and load-carrying.

The Wright Flyer.

By 1910, Louis Bleriot had flown an aircraft that he had designed across the English Channel, Hugo Junkers had obtained a patent for a thick winged, all-metal aeroplane, the Imperial German Navy and the French Army had formed air arms, and experiments had been carried out in the United States and Germany to see if aircraft could be used as bombers or armed with a machine gun.

Samuel Franklin Cody's 1910 Michelin Cup Biplane.1910 Michelin Cup Biplane.

Samuel Franklin Cody's name was originally Samuel Frankline Cowdery ... and his family name may well have a similar root to my own in Normandy, France.

One of his great-great-grandsons is the BBC World Affairs Editor John Simpson whose full name is John Cody Fidler-Simpson.


  1. Love that period. For some reason I can't really explain I think my favourite year is 1910!

    1. Rob Young,

      It is a period of history with lots to recommend it ... and not just of the military front. The social and economic changes that were happening were significant.

      As to 1910 ... well, it saw a change of monarch, Lloyd George's 'People's Budget', the Crippen trial, the opening of Old Trafford football ground, the Suffragette movement was gathering strength, the London Palladium opened ... and much, much more.

      All the best,


  2. A period certainly full of lots of wargaming potential and interesting for me to see the big difference between the two ships, even though just 20 years apart. Looking at aeroplane development too from 1903 to say 1933 and the huge leaps made in just 30 years.

    1. Steve J.,

      The technological developments that took place seemed to accelerate as the century went on. After all, in 1939 the RAF still had squadrons flying biplanes and six years later they were introducing jet-powered aircraft.

      All the best,


  3. Maudlin Jack Tar,

    Very true indeed ... and it has allowed me to mix colourfully uniformed troops with others in tribal costume, drab browns, and khakis.

    All the best,


  4. Now this sounds like it could have wings as projects go chum

  5. Hola Bob

    Mi abuela materna nació en 1.910, y falleció en el 93. Recuerdo las historias que me contaba sobre cuanto había cambiado el mundo desde entonces, y sobre la Guerra civil Española, donde participó mi abuelo y cayó en la Batalla del Ebro.

    Mi tío abuelo sí que volvió de la guerra, ciego por el estallido de un obús en la Batalla del Jarama. Me hablaba del armamento (él llevaba un Mauser que en España era conocido como Mosquetón) y de los carros de combate, el Bombardeo de Guernica y del tiempo que fue prisionero de guerra.

    Recuerdo con gran nostalgia cómo mi abuela me enseñó a buscar alimento por las zonas no urbanizadas, usar una escopeta y a valerme por mí mismo. Me decía que nunca me alistase al ejército y que no fuese al frente jamás, pero que tenía que saber reaccionar si volvía a ocurrir una guerra.

    Para mí (nací en 1.979) me parecía ciencia ficción pero guardo un gran recuerdo.

    Aquí en España, no se vivió mucho la Belle Epoque, y hay una perspectiva muy diferente a la del resto de Europa, no obstante es un gran período para wargames.

    Muchas gracias Bob, por el artículo y por recordarme a mi abuela. Me decía muchas veces "Imagina que hubiera una guerra, pero no fuese nadie".


    1. Hello Bob

      My maternal grandmother was born in 1910, and died in '93. I remember the stories she told me about how much the world had changed since then, and about the Spanish Civil War, where my grandfather participated and fell in the Battle of the Ebro.

      My great-uncle did return from the war, blinded by the explosion of a shell in the Battle of Jarama. He talked to me about weapons (he carried a Mauser that in Spain was known as a Carabiner) and about battle tanks, the Bombing of Guernica and the time he was a prisoner of war.

      I remember with great nostalgia how my grandmother taught me to forage for food in undeveloped areas, use a shotgun and fend for myself. She told me to never join the army and never go to the front, but that I had to know how to react if a war happened again.

      For me (I was born in 1979) it seemed like science fiction but I have great memories.

      Here in Spain, the Belle Époque was not experienced much, and there is a very different perspective from the rest of Europe, however it is a great period for wargames.

      Thank you very much Bob, for the article and for reminding me of my grandmother. He told me many times "Imagine if there was a war, but no one was there."



      For many years the Spanish Civil War was viewed in the United Kingdom as purely a struggle between Fascism and Socialism, and the ‘story’ was very influenced by the outlook of those British socialists who fought for the Republic, many of whom moved into politics and the Trade Union movement and gained high office. It is only in the last thirty years that the history of the conflict has been re-examined and a more nuanced story of what happened is now being told.

      It sounds to me as if your grandmother was a very sensible lady. My father taught me how to grow food and to shoot but luckily I have never had to use those skills.

      I suspect that life in Spain during the Belle Époque was dominated by the loss of her navy and her colonies. Having seen the memorial in Cartagena to the fallen of the Spanish-American War, it must have had a tremendous impact politically, militarily, and on the country’s view of itself. Other than Cataluña and the Basque Region, where industrialisation seems to have flourished during the period and the middle classes in those areas prospered, the rest of Spain seems to have seem no benefit at all.

      All the best,



      Durante muchos años, la Guerra Civil Española fue vista en el Reino Unido como puramente una lucha entre el fascismo y el socialismo, y la "historia" estuvo muy influenciada por la perspectiva de los socialistas británicos que lucharon por la República, muchos de los cuales pasaron a la política y el movimiento sindical y obtuvo altos cargos. Sólo en los últimos treinta años se ha reexaminado la historia del conflicto y ahora se cuenta una historia más matizada de lo que ocurrió.

      Me parece que tu abuela era una señora muy sensata. Mi padre me enseñó a cultivar alimentos y a disparar, pero afortunadamente nunca tuve que usar esas habilidades.

      Sospecho que la vida en España durante la Belle Époque estuvo dominada por la pérdida de su armada y sus colonias. Haber visto el monumento en Cartagena a los caídos de la guerra hispanoamericana, debe haber tenido un tremendo impacto político, militar y en la visión que el país tiene de sí mismo. Aparte de Cataluña y la Región Vasca, donde la industrialización parece haber florecido durante el período y las clases medias en esas áreas prosperaron, el resto de España parece no haber obtenido ningún beneficio.

      Mis mejores deseos,


  6. A fascinating era, Bob 👍🏼👍🏼. There’s a piece on the Lone Warrior blog that’s just been posted, about ‘Seekriegspiel’, roughly this period, which sounded right up your street when I read it.

    1. Martin S.,

      Thanks for mentioning this. I saw the mention of Seekriegspiel on the blog and hope to find out more about it in due course.

      All the best,



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