Problems of Empire/Great Britain as a Sea Power
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Great Britain as a Sea Power
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|From the Nineteenth Century, July 1893.|
GREAT BRITAIN AS A SEA POWER.
From the 'Nineteenth Century,' July, 1893.
The cost of the defence of the of British Empire. The gross cost to the British taxpayer of defending the British Empire amounted, for the year 1892-93, to over 35½ millions of pounds, 20½ millions of which (in round numbers) were devoted to expenditure on the Army, and 15 millions to expenditure on the Navy. The estimates for these two great services are passed through Parliament year after year with some slight criticism on points of detail. It is a cogent argument in favour of the policy of such measures as the Naval Defence Act that it compels Parliament from time to time to consider broadly the requirements of the country for the purposes of defence. On ordinary occasions few of those who are responsible for granting these enormous sums of money, fewer still among the general body of taxpayers, have paused to consider whether we are proceeding on the right principles in allocating the expenditure. It is true that there is a general feeling that for the 20 millions spent on the Army, the most efficient part of which is in India,and is paid for by the Indian taxpayer, the nation by no means gets its money's worth.
Lord Harrington's Commission on Military Expenditure. Lord Harrington's commission, composed though it was of able men, after conducting an exhaustive inquiry into the whole subject, was able to suggest little in the way of reform. Sir George Chesney, Mr. Arnold Forster, and 'Vetus' in the Times, could only point out defects of administration. One writer who has gone to the root of the matter has shown that, until the British people and British statesmen make up their minds as to the part they expect the Army to play in the defence of the Empire, our military expenditure is likely to continue wasteful and misdirected.
Forms of attack on the Empire. There are three forms of attack which we must be prepared to meet in the event of war with a first-class European power: attacks on commerce, attacks on colonies and dependencies, invasion.
On commerce. In former wars in which we have been engaged our commerce though suffering heavy losses, steadily increased in volume. In any war of the future no one can doubt that our commerce will be much exposed to attack. The British Empire, according to Lloyd's Register, possesses, at the present time, more than half the total merchant tonnage of the world. Nearly two-thirds of the tonnage of steamships, which are generally considered to possess three times the carrying efficiency of sailing-ships, are owned in the British Empire. Turning from shipping to cargoes, the total trade of the British Empire in 1890 amounted to nearly 1,200,000,000l., 750,000,000l. representing the share of the United Kingdom alone. The trade of the United Kingdom is of vital importance. One hundred years ago England was nearly, if not quite, self-supporting. To-day we are not provisioned for more than six weeks or two months.
The Jeune Ecole. The young school of naval officers, led by Admiral Aube, has laid it down that the naval force of France when employed for offensive purposes should be concentrated on the attack of British commerce. Admiral de la Reveillère, in a recent article in the Marine Française, observes: 'La Jeune Ecole se trompe assurément sur la portée de ce genre de lutte quand elle s'imagine, avec quelques torpilleurs dans la Manche et quelques croiseurs très rapides, condamner l'Angleterre à périr d'inanition; mais ce n'en est point moins le vrai moyen de combattre.' In adopting the 'guerre de course' as the be-all and end-all of their policy, the naval strategists of the Jeune Ecole hardly pay sufficient regard to the teachings of history. The whole maritime energies of the French Republic after the battle of the 1st of June in 1794, and of the French Empire after the battle of Trafalgar, were directed to the subjugation of England through the destruction of her commerce. The command of the sea was not disputed. British fleets and British cruisers were, if possible, to be avoided. The first principle of naval warfare was sacrificed to an ulterior object.
Captain Mahan. Captain Mahan, in his recent work, has conclusively shown that, in thus acting, the French Government singularly failed to attain the object which they had in view. British commerce, indeed, suffered numerous losses at the hands of French ships and French privateers throughout the war, but its steady ebb and flow was never seriously affected by these means. The number of British merchant vessels captured during the twenty-one years 1798-1814 amounted to 11,000; the average number of ships entering and clearing the ports of Great Britain, exclusive of the coasting trade, amounted annually to over 21,000. From these and other considerations Captain Mahan draws the conclusion 'that the direct loss to the nation by the operation of hostile cruisers did not exceed 2½ per cent. of the commerce of the Empire; and that this loss was partially made good by the prize ships and merchandise taken by its own naval vessels and privateers.' It should be further observed that the total number of vessels belonging to the British Empire rose from 16,875 in 1795 to 22,051 in 1805, and 23,703 in 1810. What was the result of the war to our opponent? Before the Revolution, Admiral de la Reveillere asserts that the commerce of France equalled that of England. The revolutionary war had not been long in progress before the French Directory was constrained to admit (in 1799) that 'not a single merchant-ship is on the sea carrying the French flag.' The history of the great war established beyond contravention the principle that no serious interruption to commerce is possible by the naval forces of a power which has not first obtained the command of the sea. It illustrates the fallacy of the idea that England can be reduced to scarcity while the relative strength of the two navies remains as it is now. On this point Admiral de la Reveillere is again worth quoting: 'S'imaginer que nous pourrons suffisamment bloquer les côtes anglaises pour reduire le pays à la famine … est une idée qui ne pénétrera jamais dans une tête saine.' In any future war in which the British Empire may become involved, British commerce will undoubtedly suffer losses; their number and extent will depend on the strength and efficiency of the British Navy; but it is only in the case of that strength being allowed to fall to a point which will leave the command of the sea in doubt that British commerce can be seriously interrupted. In such a case it is idle for British merchants to talk of securing the safety of their trade under a neutral flag. No power with which we might be at war would respect the neutral flag where ships were carrying food supplies absolutely vital to the existence of the enemy. Place the command of the sea in doubt, and the ruin of British commerce and the British Empire is assured.
Attacks on Colonies.
By land on Canada and India. Of all the colonies and dependencies of the British Empire, India and Canada alone are open to serious attack by land. Though the navy is powerless to prevent these two great British possessions from being attacked, the power to defend them depends absolutely on the command of the sea. In the event of war with Russia we can place reinforcements to our army on the north-west frontier of India far more easily, far more cheaply, and probably more expeditiously than the Russians can bring forward their invading forces. Deprived of the power of reinforcing the army in India by sea, England's hold upon India is gone for ever. The contingency of war with the United States no Englishman cares to contemplate. Should Canada be ever again liable to invasion, our power of defending Canadian soil depends, as in the case of India, on the power of transporting British troops by sea. Canada is defended from the attack of any other power but the United States; Australasia and South Africa are secure from the attack of every power, by the fact that they are of large extent and occupied by a numerous and friendly population. An army of 50,000 men would be required to conquer and hold either of these great colonies or dependencies. Such a force cannot be transported across the ocean by surprise. To make the attempt while the command of the sea was in doubt would be madness.
By sea. Canada, Australia, South Africa, and, we may add, India are by many considered liable to serious attack by hostile navies, which would assail their ports and prey on the shipping on their coasts. Halifax is the only port in these Colonies which can possibly be considered within the radius of action of fleets in European waters. The ports of the Cape Colony, of India, of Australia and New Zealand, possess an important element of safety from attack in their distance from Europe. The bases of the enemy in their neighbourhood are few. The naval force maintained by foreign powers in the Eastern seas, whether in the India Ocean, in the China Sea, or the Pacific, is quite insignificant compared with that maintained by the British Empire. It is clear that no power could withdraw a fleet of ironclads for operations in distant seas without abandoning to us the absolute command of European waters and without setting free a proportionate number of British battleships. Attacks on commerce by one or two cruisers, keeping generally out of sight of the coasts, are the most probable form which the operations of an enemy would take on the coasts of India, Australia, or South Africa. Occasional raids on territory might be made with the object of obtaining supplies; but it may be safely asserted that few captains of cruisers would waste ammunition on bombardment with the chance of falling in with an enemy's cruiser before they could return to their base to obtain a fresh supply. Against attacks on commerce the best form of defence is an active naval defence, by ships which are able to pursue and fight the cruisers of the enemy wherever they may be found. In accepting the localisation of the vessels of the special Australian squadron in deference to the wish of the Colonies, we have acted on a principle unanimously condemned by students of naval strategy and we have seriously hampered the utility of such a squadron. The naval defence of Australasia and Australasian commerce is amply provided for. A few guns to deny the ports to the cruisers of the enemy are all that is required on shore. Unfortunately at Melbourne large sums of money have been spent on providing a defence sufficient to keep a fleet of armour-clads at bay. In other words, Melbourne is defended against an attack which it is inconceivable could be made upon it under present conditions.
Attacks on our Coaling stations. our minor possessions divide themselves into colonies and coaling stations. The former have no local defences; they depend for their immunity from attack on the power of the British Navy. The latter have been lately provided with modern defences in accordance with the recommendations of Lord Carnarvon's commission. Our most important coaling stations are on the routes to the East, on that viâ the Suez Canal, Gibraltar, Malta, Aden, Ceylon, Singapore, Hongkong; on that viâ the Cape of Good Hope, Sierra Leone, Ascension, St. Helena, Cape Town, Simon's Bay, and Mauritius. In the West Indies we have Port Castries (St. Lucia) and Port Royal (Jamaica); in the North Atlantic we have Bermuda; in the South Atlantic we have the Falkland Islands—an important station as yet undefended. Of all our coaling stations, Gibraltar and Malta alone can be considered open to attack by a powerful fleet, and against such an attack they must be defended. The Straits of Gibraltar is by far the most important strategic point in the British Empire. Gibraltar is insecure and inconvenient in many respects as a port, but for want of a better in the immediate neighbourhood it is the base on which must rest that British fleet on which the main burden of the defence of the Empire will fall. It must also be the base for the cruisers protecting our trade with the East, whether by the Cape of Good Hope or the Suez Canal, and the trade with South America. While the strategic importance of Gibraltar is absolute, that of Malta is only relative. It is a convenient base for operations in the Eastern Mediterranean, and for protecting the Mediterranean trade. After Gibraltar the Cape of Good Hope is the most important strategic point in the British Empire. Some, indeed, would place it first. As a base for cruisers protecting trade this may be true; but, while Gibraltar has very great importance in this respect, as an indispensable base for our fleets it is without a rival. The strategic importance of our other coaling stations as protecting one or other of our trade routes is sufficiently obvious. Of those the defences of which have not yet been undertaken, it may be observed that Esquimault is of little value except for the deposits of coal at Nanaimo, and for the fact that it secures the Pacific end of the great Canadian line of communication against attack from any other power but the United States. Esquimault is ill situated for protecting British trade with the West Coast of America; and Canadian trade with China and Japan, though growing, is as yet of slight importance. It is clearly a position which, if worth defending at all, should be defended almost entirely at the cost of the Colonial Government. The Falkland Islands are the only base from which protection can be afforded by our cruisers to the homeward-bound trade from Australia and to the important trade with the West Coast of America.
Security of Coaling stations dependent upon command of the sea. Most of our coaling stations proper are islands, and Aden and Sierra Leone are practically cut off from the rest of the world except by sea. Gibraltar is the single exception, and it is only in the improbable contingency of war with Spain that Gibraltar can be considered as anything but an island. The power to hold our coaling stations, therefore, depends absolutely on the possession of the command of the sea. In the wars of the French Revolution and Empire we were long, far too long, before we bent our energies to the task; but by 1812 the Colonies of France, of Holland, and Denmark had fallen before the British arms. Issuing from the Isle de France and the French West Indies, French privateers had done considerable harm to British commerce. They were opposed with energy by our cruisers, but it is difficult to understand why the attempt was not made earlier to capture these important hostile positions.
Necessity for coaling stations under modern conditions Bases for ships operating at a distance from the mother country are far more necessary than before the introduction of steam. Sailing-ships could, and did, remain at sea for many months at a time. Their power to remain at sea was only limited by the amount of water that they carried. The period during which a modern ship of war can remain at sea is determined mainly by her coal endurance; and, to a great extent, by the necessity of effecting repairs in port to delicate machinery. The coal endurance of modern ships of war is even more limited than official figures, so far as any are available, lead us to suppose; and when Lord Salisbury placed the limit of the striking distance of a ship of war at 2000 miles—viz., the distance at which she could deliver a blow and return to her port—he certainly did not underestimate her powers. The country which possesses the most numerous coaling stations and the best situated as regards trade routes will have a great advantage in a future war. In this respect the British Empire is without a rival.
Malta as an example. While a navy depends for its power of operating in distant waters very largely on coaling stations, the existence of the latter depends absolutely on the power of the fleet to protect them. No local defence, whether in fortifications or men, will preserve them to a power which has lost the command of the sea. The history of Malta during the great war affords an admirable instance of the interdependence of fleets and coaling stations, though it must be admitted that the lesson to be drawn is to some extent weakened by the need of modern ships for coal. Many people consider that the possession of Malta is indispensable to the maintenance of British influence in the Mediterranean. How far this is true may be judged from the fact that Nelson won the battle of the Nile when Malta was in the hands of the French, and that Malta fell into our hands, though not for some time, as the direct consequence of that battle which gave us the command of the Mediterranean. Captain Mahan summarises the conclusions which should be drawn in these words:—'Its fate, when in the hands of France … gives warning that the fleet depends less upon Malta than Malta on the fleet.' If this be true of Malta, it is still more true of other coaling stations which do not lie in such proximity to the ports of foreign countries. We have acted wisely in giving to our coaling stations sufficient defence against one or two hostile cruisers. More than this is not required, As long as our Navy is maintained at its proper strength, and is efficiently officered and manned, it should not be possible for a serious expedition to leave the enemy's port without a British fleet being immediately in pursuit.
Defence of Coaling stations in hands of Army. The local defences of the coaling stations throughout the Empire are in the hands of the Army—a policy which is not adopted by other nations. To this system many object on the grounds (1) that their defence more properly belongs to the sphere of the Navy; (2) that the Navy possesses in our magnificent marine corps a force which is far better adapted to the garrisoning of isolated and distant coaling stations than a short-service army. It is urged, and urged with force, that it must be absolutely destructive to the efficiency of a regiment to place three companies in garrison at Mauritius, one company at St. Helena, and the remaining companies at Cape Town—roughly 2000 miles away from either of the detachments. The principal objections to a change come from naval officers themselves, who consider that, if responsible for the defence of coaling stations or coasts, they would be tempted to keep their ships in the neighbourhood of their ports, instead of pursuing the enemy wherever he might be found, and making, as we have done in past years, our frontier line our enemy's coast. Though much money may be wasted under our present system in providing defences, whether forts or submarine mines, which the circumstances do not require, the naval objection to a change of system must be admitted to be of great force.
Defence against Invasion at Home. If, for the protection of our commerce, our Colonies, and coaling stations, we depend in great measure on the Navy, still more do we do so for protection against invasion. The ideas put forward by the author of the Battle of Dorking, to a large extent, prevail. Our military authorities have, in the last few years, elaborated a system of defence for the metropolis; large sums of money have been lavished on forts, intended to protect Chatham, Portsmouth, &c., from the attack of an invading army. It is surely better to prevent an enemy from landing than to take elaborate and costly measures to meet him after he has landed. 'Aucune personne de bon sens ne songera à nous voir assez maitres de la Manche pour opérer un débarquement et pour ravitailler une armée débarquée.' So says Admiral de la Reveillere in the article already quoted. In England it has been generally the practice of late years to estimate the probabilities of invasion in defiance of the lessons of our history. Two hundred years ago Lord Torrington demonstrated the value of the 'Fleet in being' as an absolute protection against invasion, as has been so well pointed out by Admiral Colomb. For nearly two years Napoleon lay encamped on the heights above Boulogne with over 130,000 of the flower of his army, waiting for that opportunity which never came; and it must be remembered that Napoleon had one chance of success which cannot occur again. The boats and vessels in which the invading army was to be embarked could be propelled by means of oars; the British ships which were to destroy them were mainly dependent on the wind. In a calm it was possible for the Boulogne flotilla to have moved without the British ships being able to reach them. Such a chance of success is not possible in these days of steam. In the fine passage with which he opens his account of the history of these two years Captain Mahan points out how the British fleets, which by Lord St. Vincent's strategy were continually maintained before Brest, Rochefort, Ferrol, and Toulon, were the real obstacles to the army of invasion. Our greatest naval victory won by our greatest naval hero was merely an incident in that well-planned campaign. The battle of Trafalgar was not necessary to prevent England being invaded, but it did render the prospect of invading England hopeless.
Conditions in War with France. As it was then, so it will be again to-day. In the event of war with France—and France is the only power whose fleet gives her the least prospect of being able to invade Great Britain—our protection against invasion will not consist in forts on the English coast, however well manned, and however well armed. By far the finest portion of the French Navy is now in the Mediterranean. The force maintained in the ports on the Atlantic and the Channel is comparatively insignificant. Our energies will be devoted to keeping the Mediterranean squadron in port; and if, as many naval authorities now hold, a blockade is no longer possible, we must bar the passage into the ocean through the Straits of Gibraltar. As in the day of Napoleon, so now, we shall hold the interior position and be able to combine our fleets at will. Our defence against invasion will rest primarily with the Mediterranean fleet. If that fleet is defeated in battle, and such a contingency has to be contemplated, it will not be defeated without inflicting serious damage on its opponents. To provide against such a contingency the Navy must be of sufficient strength in battleships to admit of a reserve squadron being maintained, capable of meeting the French Mediterranean fleet after it has been in conflict with our own. 'No amount of foresight or calculation' Lord George Hamilton has said, 'can anticipate naval combinations and naval movements; therefore it seems to me essential that, for the purpose of meeting such unexpected blows, we should have a considerable margin of reserve.'
French torpedo-boat attack upon British fleets. There is one form of attack which does not fall under any of the three heads under which we have been considering the principles of Imperial defence. The British naval manoeuvres of the last three years have shown (1) that the English shores of the Channel are well within the range of torpedo-boat attack from the stations which have been recently established from Dunkirk to Brest; (2) that the mere menace of torpedo-boat attack is sufficient to seriously retard the junction of two powerful fleets. In view of our recent experience, it is probably true to say that the principal danger we have to fear in the event of war with France is an attack by torpedo-boats on our assembling fleets at Plymouth, Portland, or Spithead—similar to that made by Captain Barry's flotilla on Sir George Tryon's fleet in Plymouth Sound in the manoeuvres of 1890. An offensive defence, it was clearly shown by the manoeuvres of 1891, is the best way of meeting such an attack. We must have numerous 'torpedo-boat destroyers,' fast enough to catch and powerful enough to destroy the torpedo-boats of the enemy. We may congratulate ourselves that a first step has already been taken in this sound line of policy. More than this is required by the circumstances of the case. The anchorages at our Channel naval ports sorely need additional protection, by means of breakwaters, against an attack to which they are at present so much exposed.
Principles of Imperial Defence summarised. The principles of imperial defence may be summarised by considering what our objective is to be in time of war. Our first and principal object is obviously to defeat the enemy's main fleet in battle or to completely checkmate its operations. An effective army, powerful fortifications, superiority in cruisers, will not compensate for a deficiency in the line of battle. Battleships alone can give us that command of the sea which is indispensable alike to the safety of our commerce, our colonies and dependencies, and the shores of the United Kingdom. Our secondary object must be to maintain a sufficient force of cruisers to deal either with hostile cruisers designed to prey upon our commerce, or with expeditions intended for the attack of colonies, which might escape our principal fleets. It is a sounder and cheaper policy to endeavour to deal with these at the point of departure than to pro vide elaborate defences to meet them on arrival at their destination. The cruisers defend not only the point to be attacked, but they also secure the integrity of the trade routes over the ocean. Our third object should be to capture the coaling stations and colonies of the enemy which are indispensable to his depredations on our commerce. This is an object, as has already been stated, to which the attention of those responsible for directing the forces of Great Britain, in the great war, were not early enough directed. How many millions of pounds would have been saved if we had earlier seized Mauritius, Martinique, and Guadalupe! In this connection Captain Mahan points out that, contrary to the general principles of strategy, whether military or naval, for a power which has command of the sea, dissemination of force within reasonable limits is advisable. Convenient harbours for coaling, etc., in all parts of the world are indispensable to attacks on a commerce so widely distributed as that of the British Empire. Deprive the enemy of these, and his attacks on commerce are to a great extent rendered impossible; but without some dissemination of force such a policy cannot be carried out.
Mr. Shaw Lefevre. Mr. Shaw Lefevre said in the House of Commons on the 7th of May, 1889:—
'France has greatly increased her empire, not only in China and Tonquin, but in Africa, and has extended her interests in other parts of the world; and in the event of a war with this country all these interests would be jeopardised, and in a very short time France would be cut off from her communication with all her outlying dependencies in different parts of the world.'
When we hear that the French have occupied the Kerguelen Islands, St. Paul and Amsterdam which, by the way, are marked as British possessions in most English maps or that the United States contemplates the annexation of the Sandwich Islands, it should not give us dissatisfaction. Such acquisitions only increase the vulnerability of states whom we are practically powerless to injure in their own territory.
Limitations of the usefulness of the Army In view of the military forces now maintained by Continental powers under a system of conscription, extended operations on the Continent are no longer conceivable. The part which the British Army can play in a war with a first-class power is only a secondary one, except in the cases of war with Russia or the United States. Though secondary, it is still important. The Army has not only to defend our own coaling stations: it will have to co-operate with the Navy in the capture of the Colonies and coaling stations of the enemy. The capture of St. Pierre and Miquelon, of Diego Suarez or New Caledonia, would not, perhaps, be great achievements for the British Army, but the conquest of Algeria would test its powers to the utmost. With Algeria hostile in time of war, the trade route up the Mediterranean could never be absolutely secure, and it might be advisable to abandon it altogether. For the Eastern trade this would only mean serious inconvenience. For the trade with the Mediterranean and Levant it would mean absolute extinction for the time and British trade with the Mediterranean bears a large proportion to the total trade of the country.
To those who have studied and grasped the principles of warfare which are applicable to a sea power like Great Britain principles which we have to thank Captain Mahan for so clearly setting forth the relative proportions of naval and military expenditure in the British Empire appear strange indeed. If these proportions were reversed, the British Empire would be infinitely better defended than it is at present. For our naval expenditure we obtain a Navy powerful indeed, but by no means sufficient for our needs. For our military expenditure we are able to provide the defences and garrisons of our coaling stations, we have a Home Army from which we hope to be able to reinforce the Army in India in case of need, but which is in any case most costly, and insufficient in numbers to undertake offensive defence.
- Still largely carried in sailing vessels in 1893.
- These have been constructed at Portland, &c.