The loss of Franklin and his men was a huge mystery, how could so many men and two state of the art ships just disappear? Search parties scoured the arctic (and in the process charted most of the up til then unexplored regions of the arctic archipeligo, and McClure even technically made it through the passage in his “search” for Franklin) for more than a decade before any real traces of the expedition turned up. Many other expeditions suffered and lost men in the same era of arctic exploration, but none disappeared completely! To this day, there’s a lot we don’t know about how such a well equipped and large expedition could fail so completely and quickly.
Here’s what we’ve found and what we know at this point: The ships spent their first winter at Beechey Island, and all seemed well. The next summer, they travelled south, and were frozen in near King William Island that Fall. They wintered here, and the next summer the ice failed to melt, trapping them for a second winter on King William Island. This alone is not out of the ordinary for arctic expeditions, many ships were frozen in for several years without a great loss of life.
In the summer between the first and second winters at King William Island, in 1847, the crew leave a note in a cairn on King William Island saying “all is well”. After the second winter stuck in the ice, the note is dug up and in the margins someone writes that 24 men have died, including Franklin, and that the crew is abandoning their ships and marching south towards the mainland of North America. It’s important to point out this second note contained several errors, but we’ll get to that.
The crew’s march is a death march, the local eskimo later report seeing dozens of white men dying in their tracks. Some men may have made it all the way to the mainland, but none survive. By the early 1850s it’s likely that all or almost all of the expedition is dead.
McClintock in 1859 finds the note in the cairn on King William Island, a single skeleton, and finally a life boat with two skeletons in it. The contents of the lifeboat add to the mystery- “a large amount of abandoned equipment, including boots, silk handkerchiefs, scented soap, sponges, slippers, hair combs, and many books, among them a copy of The Vicar of Wakefield.” The lifeboat was being man-hauled, but was pointing north, not south. A decade later Hall finds more graves and campsites, all on the King William Island. This is pretty much the extent of the evidence known up until contemporary scientific expeditions.
So, the mysteries- Scurvy, starvation, and cold had killed men on previous and subsequent expeditions, but many expeditions had survived much longer than Franklin’s without anything so catastrophic. In all, the Franklin’s men had spent only three winters in the arctic before abandoning their ships. They were equipped for five.
The mysterious contents of the lifeboat and the inconsistencies in the note point to a deteriorating mental situation. Why would dying men man-haul heavy books and silverware? Why was the boat facing north, were the men trying to return to the abandoned ships?
So, what could the ships tell us?
When scientific autopsies were conducted on the bodies on King William’s Island, it was found that lead poisoning contributed to the deaths of those men. It’s believed the solder on the tins of food was the source, but there are other theories- perhaps the ship’s water system was the source. The men also were suffering from TB and Pneumonia.
Finding the ships could finally help resolve the issue, for instance if there are more bodies on or near the ships then we know some men may have turned around from their march and made it back. Plus finding more bodies would inevitably help our understanding of what killed the men. We could also get more insight into why the men were carrying such strange items in their lifeboat, by seeing the things they chose not to take. And obviously examining more of the food tins, as well as the ship’s water system, might better explain the presence of lead.
More than anything, we don’t know exactly what the ships might tell us, but there’s so little we know as it is, it’d be amazing to find any new bits of evidence.
Outside of the resurgence of ramming which came along with the development of armored ships, arguably beginning with the ramming of the Cumberland at the Battle of Hampton Roads in 1862, and continued throughout the riverine campaigns of the American Civil War before being picked up by foreign navies (see the Battle of Lissa (1866) and the Battle of Iquique (1879) there is very little mention of ramming as anything but a last-ditch tactic.
In my opinion, the more interesting thing about this question is why ramming fell out of favor. Why does the battle-tried bread-and-butter tactic of great navies from at least 535 BC until the Dark Ages1 simply vanish from use following the Battle of Lepanto in 1571 (the last instance of galley warfare as we generally think of it) and remain more or less completely unused for the next 300 years?
To understand this, we need to look at the differences between galley warfare and the naval warfare of the Age of Sail. Galley warfare is what might be termed “consolidated” warfare- it almost always occurs between large fleets and has as its goal the destruction of the enemy fleet. In a fleet engagement such as this, there is a great deal more support available than in a smaller engagement, so the risk of accidental death due to ramming (i.e. sinking one’s own ship by ramming another) is perceptually reduced. The battles during this time also take place in fairly calm seas with which the participants are familiar; this also makes ramming ‘safer’ from a psychological perspective. From a technological perspective, there is no really effective anti-ship weaponry available (even ballistae are incredibly difficult to fire accurately at a moving target while pitching and rolling in the sea) at the time, so ramming has de facto standing as the most effective anti-ship tactic simply because it is pretty much the only anti-ship tactic.
Warfare in the Age of Sail is much different, it is primarily “distributed” warfare. Mostly small engagements over a wide area in all weathers, with various goals. Prize money becomes an increasingly important factor in this era, so the goal of engagements becomes less about destroying the enemy fleet en masse and more about capturing the individual ships that made up the enemy fleet in small chunks, to increase the size of one’s navy and inflate one’s pockets. In a tactical climate like this, ramming carries a very low cost-benefit. For one thing, ships in the Age of Sail were designed to carry lots and lots of guns, not a ram; this being the case, ramming is far more dangerous to both ships than it would have been in the days of galley warfare. If you ram someone and either ship sinks, you’ve lost out on a lot of potential prize money. The fact that battles often took place in varied locales and weathers also contributed to the deprecation of ramming, as sailing ships are bound to the wind whereas oared vessels are not. There exist a great many battle scenarios where actually positioning in such a way as to be able to ram the enemy would be more or less impossible- in these situations, guns provide an advantage, because they increase the area in which you are able to fight your enemy. Instead of having to be right up against them, you can be right behind them and chasing them while fighting. The increased use of guns also made ramming less desirable in that even in ideal ramming conditions, ramming would require you to run straight into the enemy’s fire, risking heavy damage to your ship and crew. Worse, at the end of the day, if you decided to pull alongside in the same conditions and exchange point-blank broadsides with the enemy instead of ramming, you’d probably do more damage than you would if you rammed them.
One other reason that navies in the Age of Sail did not ram might have to do with the development of European naval warfare. For a large portion of history, European navies fought naval battles by tying their ships together and fighting what amounted to a land battle at sea (see the Battle of Svolder (1000) and the Battle of Sluys (1340)). Because of this, tactics developed in a much different way in the European naval tradtition than the Medeterranean/Arabic tradition (i.e. the fo’c’sle or forecastle was basically an attempt to copy the effectiveness of a fortress on land for application at sea during battles of the lash-the-ships-together-and-thunderdome-it-out type, and ships themselves grew out of this to be mobile, long range fortresses capable of supporting populations (almost like little towns) rather than purely offensive weapons like galleys, which were short range, crewed by comparably few men, and pretty much disposable).
The reason you see the move back to ramming with the onset of the Civil War is because the tactical climate shifts back to “consolidated” warfare of a slightly different kind. In this case, combat doesn’t occur between large fleets because ironclads can just annihilate any wooden ship you throw at them- instead, it occurs between high value targets- the most important ships in the fleet. Just as in the days of galley warfare, you have the factors of localized combat, predictable weather/seas, and the ultimate goal of destroying the enemy’s ships- what is really interesting, though, is that once again we see that there is no effective anti-ship weapon. Ironclads are highly effective against wooden ships, but they can’t do anything to one another ( for the most part the cannonballs just bounce off the armor), and since this is the case, ramming once again becomes a viable tactic. Since being chewed up by the enemy’s guns on approach isn’t an issue anymore because of armor, and since due to the advent of steam wind position and current are trivial aspects of a typical engagement (i.e. captains no longer needed to wait for the wind to shift just right to be able to get into ramming position), it makes sense to start ramming once more, as it is a means of attack capable of piercing through armor and achieving the desired end result of destroying the enemy.
KM Bismarck was the name ship of the largest warship class Germany produced in World War Two (although her sister Tirpitz was slightly larger once completed). He faced two enemy capital ships in battle with only a heavy cruiser for support. He destroyed HMS Hood in that battle (the pride of the Royal Navy for a couple decades) and damaged the battleship Prince of Wales as well. You can read a detailed account of the battle here.
He was a fast ship (about 30 knots at maximum speed, but with a sustained speed of about 20 knots for long range cruising) and powerful enough to threaten any convoys encountered. Unless the convoy was escorted by an old battleship, Bismarck would have forced the convoy to scatter so that some of its ships would escape. (The minimum sustained speed a merchant ship needed to make to be allowed in a fast convoy was 10 knots, otherwise it was restricted to the slow convoys of 8 knots, though in practice the convoys averaged speeds of 0.5-1.0 knots slower than this.) Simulating battles of Bismarck vs another solitary battleship in defending a convoy is a favorite of wargame enthusiasts and much detailed information in comparing the ships is available.
Bismarck’s rudder was jammed by a torpedo launched by a biplane from an aircraft carrier (the critical hit of several scored). This jam was not repairable at sea (going so far as to blow off the rudder with explosives was considered) and doomed the ship. Bismarck again faced two capital ships, and King George V and Rodney scored hundreds of hits while taking none in return, leaving Bismarck in thoroughly ruined condition. Some like to play guessing games as to whether Bismarck sank due to enemy shell fire or due to scuttling by his crew, but this is an artificial argument over semantics.
There has been some detailed analysis (and much under-informed debate) of why HMS Hood exploded after a handful of hits, but Bismarck didn’t after hundreds. The short answer is that battleship caliber shells designed before and soon after World War One were incapable of penetrating heavy armor and then exploding inside their targets. This meant that capital ships of that era (Hood, Rodney, Kirishima, and others) were designed and built to take heavy exploding shells on their outer surfaces. Technology had improved by the time the battleship holiday had finished so that the shells designed and used in World War Two were capable (at least under some conditions see immunity zone) of piercing heavy armor and detonating inside. This produces hugely more damage and could send fragments into critical areas of the ship (the magazines and engine spaces). For this reason, ships designed after the battleship holiday also included thinner armor inside the ship, to keep these fragments from reaching the critical areas. This meant that a new battleship fighting an older one had a large hidden advantage (the new ship could survive hits that would much more easily cripple or kill the old one).
These are only some of the reasons Bismarck is a significant ship. There are other aspects: the underdog fighting the entire enemy navy, the “lucky hits” on Hood and torpedo on Bismarck, the potential “what ifs” (Bismarck is not hit in the rudder (actually dual rudders) and makes port in occupied France or faces a single BB in attacking a convoy), as well as the relatively few members of her crew to survive (though Hood only had three survivors).