Pre-dreadnoughts were evolved from earlier turret and barbette ships. A classic example of pre-dreadnought was the Royal Navy's Royal Sovereign class. They were characterized by having a main battery of (typically) four 12-inch (305 mm) guns in two turrets, one fore and one aft, an intermediate battery of a number of guns in the 8- to 10-inch range placed in the superstructure, and a tertiary battery of light, rapid-fire guns for defence against torpedo boats. The mixed armament was ideal for the battle ranges of approximately 3,000 yards that pre-dreadnoughts were designed for. The smaller weapons "smothered" (peppered with holes) the "upper works" (superstructure), while the larger, slow-firing weapons could punch through thick armor to the enemy's "vitals" (engines, magazines).
Sailing rigs had been abandoned in the 1880s, as it became clear that masts, sails, rope and rig added much top weight without any corresponding value in endurance. The stays and guys interfered with clear arcs of fire for the guns, and the whole rig was in danger of falling on the guns with the slightest battle damage. Meanwhile, steam engines had become quite reliable, and so pre-dreadnoughts were powered by the latest triple-expansion engines.
The arrival of a reliable torpedo in the 1890's made short-range battle a hazardous proposition, thus battle ranges perforce increased. At such ranges, hits could be obtained only through slow, deliberate salvo fire in which each salvo was spotted and corrections made. Making spotting corrections from a forest of shell splashes from different calibers was impossible; small projectiles could not penetrate armor at these ranges; and small, rapid-firing guns had to wait for fall of shot (perhaps 15-30 seconds) before firing again, thus giving up their rate of fire advantage. All this pointed to an armament of as many large guns of a single caliber as could be carried.
HMS Dreadnought introduced the concept of the all big-gun battleship, mounting up to 12 large calibre guns. This design made all earlier battleships obsolete overnight - hence the slightly derogatory term "pre-dreadnoughts" for these older battleship, while new "all big gun" designs were termed "dreadnoughts". HMS Dreadnought also introduced the steam turbine into battleship design, in its way this was as revolutionary as the gun layout.
Since dreadnought battleships could engage effectively at two or three times the range of pre-dreadnoughts, these older ships passed rapidly into obsolescence. Even mixed-caliber battleships completed after HMS Dreadnought were referred to as "pre-dreadnoughts", since this was an accurate reflection of their fighting value. This technological advance effectively negated the Royal Navy's huge numerical superiority and allowed the German Navy to begin construction of a modern battle fleet on level terms with the British, although because of the head-start gained with the Dreadnought, and because the large size of dreadnought battleships required Germany to widen and deepen their canals and naval infrastructure, Britain managed to re-establish a narrow 4-dreadnought lead. (There is considerable difference in opinion between military historians as to whether the dramatic rush to dreadnought-style vessels was a strategic success or failure).
Pre-dreadnought battleships saw service during the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905, notably at the Battle of Tsushima. During World War I the remaining pre-dreadnoughts were generally used for second-line tasks such as convoy escort and shore bombardment (notably during the Gallipoli campaign where a number were lost to submarine attack), although a small squadron of German ones were present at the Battle of Jutland in 1916 (German sailors called them the "five minute ships", which was the amount of time they were expected to survive).
After World War I most pre-dreadnoughts were broken up along with many dreadnoughts. Germany was allowed to keep eight in service for coast-defence duties under the terms of the Versailles treaty and some of these soldiered on into World War II. One of them, Schleswig-Holstein, shelled the Polish Westerplatte peninsula just from the first minutes of the war. Greece also had a pair of ex-US Navy pre-Dreadnoughts in service at the time; they were sunk in due course when Germany invaded her in 1941.
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