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The Empire and the century/The Navy and the Empire

< The Empire and the century



In dealing with naval policy and strategy in a work appearing near Trafalgar Day, one is forcibly reminded or two memorable sayings. In one Nelson laid down a maxim for Cabinet Ministers that battleships 'are the best negotiators in Europe.' In the other he gave us the whole duty of a naval officer in what he called 'the Great Order,' which was that the destruction of the enemy's fleets is an object to which every other consideration must give way.

Since all the initial stages of a great British war must be on the sea, and the security of the United Kingdom, its Empire and its trade, depends on the ability of the Royal Navy to defend the sea communications, the policy of a British Government derives a unity of purpose which is the envy of European Powers forced to regard their land frontiers as exposed to the eruption of great conscript armies. The course of a diplomatic contest in which Great Britain is engaged must, therefore, largely depend upon the relative sense of power derived through the estimate framed of the strength of the respective navies. Organization, coal, and ammunition necessarily play their part as bearing on the training of the personnel, but, other things being equal, it is the battleships which are chiefly regarded. The standard of strength in battleships laid down by successive Cabinets since 1889 has been equality with the two leading Powers with 'a considerable margin of reserve.' Though it would be easy to ridicule this condition as a mere rule of thumb, in practice it has proved an efficient working instrument for Parliament.

In the case of India it is sometimes held that the situation is far more complicated, but if it be conceded for the sake of argument that India cannot be adequately defended on its land frontiers by the existing British and native garrison, it must also be acknowledged that the ability to send reinforcements depends absolutely on the adequacy of the Royal Navy. In this connection the Anglo-Japanese Alliance is a factor of considerable importance. In Eastern waters, where the sea power is divided between the United States, Japan, and Great Britain, the sea transport of Japanese troops is safeguarded by the activity of our ships in the Mediterranean. The latter would prevent the passage of hostile ships through the Suez Canal. The alliance directly increases our strength for such purpose to an extent we have never before had experience of, for all our battleships are now concentrated at home, whereas in 1796 we had thirty-six abroad to twenty-five for the allies.

It is, of course, assumed that the case of a war with the United States lies outside the range of discussion. British and American interests have so much in common in the Far East, as elsewhere, that the proposal has been made that America should safeguard the Monroe Doctrine for all time, while Great Britain might obtain economies on her navy estimates by a treaty binding each to go to the assistance of the other if attacked by a coalition of three, or even two. Powers. The advance of the American navy is, therefore, a matter of dispassionate interest to the British Empire. The United States is rich. The aggregate wealth more than doubles in twenty years, while the population has exactly doubled in thirty years, or advanced by an amount over three times as great as that of the United Kingdom. In addition, the naval forces are bound to become more cohesive after the completion of the Panama Canal. The opinion has, therefore, been expressed to the writer of more than one very high authority that the United States is destined to become the first maritime Power in the world. The solution, in all probability, lies in the future of Greater Britain. The wealth of America is the result of internal development, the annual ton-mileage of its railways being over six times as great as that of the United Kingdom. This development was very largely the result of the outward flow of British capital I once asked the President of the New York Chamber of Commerce what would happen when the rate of interest in the United States settled down to a safe and low basis. His reply was that capital would flow outwards—history would repeat itself; so that the present population, wealth, and progress of the British Colonies are no measure of the rapid increase which may be destined to come when capital flows in more and more from America and the older countries.

There are two things which turn a nation's eyes away from the sea. The one is concerned with building up, the other with pulling down. Both internal development and internal dissensions have the effect of absorbing the national energies to the exclusion of maritime affairs, and this consideration of internal dissensions should be especially noted as one in which the outlook for the British Empire is more favourable than for a long time past. Historically, the Colonies have always had a keener sense of the value of naval strength than the people of these islands. The American colonists were at one with us on the necessity of maritime predominance, however much they differed from us on matters of policy such as military garrisons and enforced contributions. Men like Mr. Hofmeyr, again, who have vehemently opposed our internal policy in South Africa, have been enthusiastic adherents of a strong British navy.

The present naval contributions of the Colonies, amounting to about 1 per cent. of our naval expenditure, do not even cover the cost of squadrons which could be distributed on a sounder basis if the contributions did not exist. This last condition was fulfilled in the case of Canada. We were thus enabled to withdraw ships from both sides of North America, and to reduce Halifax and Esquimalt to inexpensive cadres. As nations become richer, they act very much as individuals in devoting more attention to insurance. The advantage of a common navy over separate ones, both from the point of view of efficiency and economy, are so obvious that there need be no fear of a permanent tendency to create separate navies. The future might be safeguarded if far-seeing statesmen will bring colonial representatives more and more into our councils. At present the Colonies resemble the past history of the United States in looking inwards to internal development. The time, surely, will come with them also when their eyes will turn outwards. Their markets and sea communications will appeal to them with a more insistent force. They will see how useless is a weak detached force, and how strong is a combined one. 'Only numbers can annihilate,' said Nelson; and even when the Colonies are as rich as Holland, Denmark, Spain, or Belgium, they cannot hope to do better than those countries which are unable to afford battleships.

The so-called battleships of Austria are quite unfit to lie in the line of battle, while to build a Dreadnought outside Great Britain or Germany would probably cost about two and a half millions sterling, or nearly as much as we raise by a penny on the income tax. Indeed, one of the most significant changes since Nelson's time, when we found it indispensable that we should deal with the battleships of the Portuguese and Danish navies, is that the business of owning battleships has become far too expensive for any but the seven great maritime Powers, and of these Italy, in spite of spasmodic programmes, tends to drop out of the race. For the cost of one Dreadnought we could have obtained about eighteen of Nelson's Victory type, or eight of the steam line-of-battle ships of the Duke of Wellington type of less than fifty years ago. The expense does not end with the mere building of a large ship, for, apart from the trained complement, stores, and coal, docks have to be adapted both in length and breadth for cruisers 500 feet long or battleships 80 feet broad. In 1848 there were no snips in the navy over 210 feet long, and in 1890 none over 400 feet. Thus Germany, in the attempt to build ships fit to engage vessels of the Dreadnought type, must necessarily enlarge her existing docks and the accommodation of the Kiel Ship Canal.

The path chosen, however, is one along which Germany will be forced to follow Great Britain with much reluctance. She is bound to involve herself in a very large expenditure, which is merely accessory to fighting strength, and not the provision of fighting strength itself. This expense was certainly not foreseen when the second German Navy Bill was passed in 1900 for an extraordinary expenditure of £94,000,000 by the year 1920 as regards works, and the year 1916 as regards ships. This great effort is being made under the grave disadvantage of heavy expenditure connected with the defence of three important land frontiers, and a drain on resources through the military campaigns in the colonies. Great as are the advantages derived by Germany through the concentration of her navy, it involves the sacrifice of both colonies and distant commerce in face of a Power which can more than hold its own in home waters, and is in a position to attack elsewhere. The present programme of two battleships a year can easily be rivalled by Great Britain. In a few years Germany will cease to enjoy the advantages a new navy confers of a small pensioner or ineffective list, and but little wastage of ships to replace. For fifteen years Great Britain has nearly averaged a programme of three battleships and four to five cruisers, and could have obtained the same results with a smaller programme if the wise, economical method had been adopted of building a ship as rapidly as possible. Apart from the low national debt, the best German assets in this rivalry are the cheapness of the personnel, as compared with our own and the American, and the good administration, which has never wasted money in copying the crazes to which France has so often been subjected. As compared with the United States, France, and Russia, the German building resources are cheaper in their work and more efficient, but they cannot be compared with those of Great Britain, which exceed all Europe combined. In 1901 the United Kingdom built 983,133 tons of shipping as compared with the record output for Germany of 132,873 tons in 1903. The United States has a higher output than Germany, but it is almost exclusively for the coastal, river, and lake trades, which are a national monopoly.

However unpalatable the policy may be to Germany, in view of the shallow nature of her coasts, any attempt to rival other Powers must involve her in following their designs of larger dimensions for battleships. The experience of France shows that every attempt 'to turn' the position of the battleship, if we may use a military expression, has resulted in complete disillusionment. The French Parliament has now passed a vote which practically pledges the Government to build ship for ship against Germany, a course which, if pursued for a generation at the present rate of German shipbuilding, would entail, under the two-Power standard, a programme of four battleships a year for Great Britain. Under the spell of the submarine, France neglected to build battleships, with the result that the new Minister of Marine, M. de Lanessan, found that in 1908 France would possess twenty-eight battleships, of which only seventeen would be modern. He contrasted this with twenty-two modern battleships for Germany and fifty-two for Great Britain. 'It would be an act of folly,' he added, 'on the part of France to attempt to rival England in the number of her battleships; no nation has maritime obligations which are at all comparable with those of Great Britain.' This testimony from one of the most thoughtful of the great European administrators is of especial value, if it moderates certain pleadings for Great Britain to take the initiative in demanding the reduction of naval armaments. Such a course would carry with it the danger of placing the maritime policy of our Empire under the domination of a committee of foreigners meeting at the Hague.

The gravest reasons can be urged against any measure which might fetter this country in adjusting its principal naval defence of battleships, not solely in accordance with the variations of her policy and the number of probable battleships which may threaten her, but also in the provision of the requisite margin of safety against the accidents of navigation and possible successful operations on the part of torpedo vessels, submarine boats, and submarine mines. To state that naval campaigns are decided by battleships does not preclude the possibility of some losses through other causes. The Japanese lost two out of six of their battleships through automatic mines, while a third was accidentally sunk shortly after the peace. If a war with France and Germany were unhappily to break out in 1908, the British fleets could be threatened by twice as many torpedo craft as they possess themselves. The operations of the destroyer class would rapidly thin out the 450 torpedo craft of France and Germany; but prudence dictates that some margin of safety should exist, so that we can face the loss of a few battleships with equanimity. In the war period 1793-1802, while our losses from causes other than fighting amounted to eighteen sail of the line and forty-six frigates, the allied nations of France, Spain, and Holland only lost ten sail of the line and nine frigates. The losses were therefore as three to one.

Of the methods for trying to circumvent the tyranny of the battleship, there remains only the guerre de course so frequently formulated by French statesmen and admirals. The most formidable example in history was the French wars of 1798-1815, when we lost through war 2·36 per cent. of our shipping, without deducting large corresponding gains we made from the enemy. Such a risk is no more than one incidental to ordinary navigation, and to-day, allowing for neutral shipping, would represent 1½ per cent, of our total supplies. The only triumph over British commerce was when Sir John Jervis evacuated the Mediterranean before the superior fleets of France and Spain. From that moment to the Battle of the Nile British commerce with the Mediterranean entirely ceased. It was the action of a fleet of battleships which a few years later negotiated the opening of the Baltic again to British commerce. Then came Trafalgar, and the security afforded by that battle to commerce was such that insurance rates tumbled down 18 per cent. I would hesitate to labour the point were it not that these familiar lessons have to be learned over and over again. If Russian battleships were injured at Port Arthur by Japanese torpedo craft, how came they to be at anchor in an open roadstead? The answer is that they were afraid to put to sea because of the Japanese battleships. If battleships were again sunk by torpedo craft at Tsushima, the immunity the latter enjoyed was due to the beating down of all power of defence by the Japanese battleships. Certain Russian vessels fortunately escaped the attentions of the torpedo craft, and, in consequence, became by capture a part of the Japanese navy.

Two modern instances lend point to Nelson's saying concerning battleships as 'negotiators.' In the Panjdeh crisis confidence was so lacking that we spent several millions in a hurried and wasteful manner. In the Fashoda crisis we experienced the effect of past great naval efforts, so that only a few thousands were spent on mobilization. The preparation of armaments must always be the work of time, and Nelson only referred to battleships which could immediately exert their strength, as was done when, without any reduction of our blockading forces, Sir Hyde Parker's fleet was sent to conduct the negotiations where Nelson added Copenhagen to the laurels he had won at St Vincent and the Nile. In the recent war, it is clear that diplomacy and preparedness, which were closely coordinated by the Japanese, had no intimate relation whatever in Russian polity. In the case of Japan at the outbreak of war, we find that the shipbuilding programme was completely finished and the fleet concentrated at sea, whereas in Russia nine battleships were still building, and the commissioned ships badly divided in various harbours. The Japanese triumphantly vindicated Nelson's saying by showing to the world the close connection between the soft words of diplomacy and the hard knocks of gunnery. It is equally true that Admiral Togo, who paid us the compliment of hoisting his flag on Trafalgar Day, bore out in practice the truth of the Great Order which thoughts of that day induced us to refer to at the beginning of this article.

If the Great Order had inspired our policy during the past fifty years, it is difficult to believe that so large a proportion of expenditure and men would have been tied up in what Sir George Clarke has christened sedentary defence, involving as it has done dispersion of effort away from mobility, which latter is the essence of a field army and of a navy. For the work of an Empire of over 12,000 square miles, with 43,000 miles of coastline and a vast trade, mobile forces are most essential, for they only can cope with the whole of its multitudinous requirements. Yet, systematically, up to the time of the formation of the Defence Committee the war problems were faced piecemeal. There was no finality to the demands which could thus be formulated on purely imaginary hypotheses. In the words of the Esher Committee, 'It would be easy to show that unnecessary weakness, coupled with inordinate waste of national resources, thus results.' It is also beyond dispute that after the Peninsular, Crimean, American Civil, and Franco-German Wars we lived under the spell of military operations which had no parallel to purely British wars, so that we tended to lose our sense of the value of battleships as 'negotiators.' Three years after the Crimean War a Treasury Committee found that our relative strength to that of France had so far diminished that the prospect before us was that, in 1861, France would possess forty-four steam line-of-battle ships, of which four were iron-plated, as compared with forty for Great Britain, of which none were iron-plated. In 1860 the First Lord of the Admiralty stated in the House of Commons that 'we had no Channel Squadron whatever, that we had no naval defence of our own coast' Four years after the American Civil War there was again a scare about our naval strength, and two years aft«r the Franco-German War the First Lord of the Admiralty described our navy as existing largely on paper, many ships being mere dummies. Even so we continued to build muzzle-loading guns for our ships up to 1880, while every European navy had adopted the breechloader. The result was that at the beginning of the twentieth century, with the exception of four guns in the Italian Navy, Great Britain was the only nation with muzzle-loading guns, and of these she possessed over 800 in battleships and coast-defence vessels. In the present year it was discovered that many of the existing heavy guns of the navy were defective, and the Admiralty decided to increase the reserve of guns, which only amounted to 25 per cent. of the armament, as compared with 100 per cent. provided by Japan. These sorry results will always follow when attention is absorbed by minor details instead of vital requirements, and when statesmen quit the sure arguments of history and experiments for plausible guesswork. No more baneful conjecture was ever made than when Peel coined the phrase that 'steam had bridged the Channel,' and Palmerston passed it into the currency of our thoughts.

In the early days of steamers an Admiralty memorandum in reference to the mails had laid it down that it was the bounden duty of the Government to discourage steamers as calculated to strike a vital blow at our naval supremacy. The Admiralty Committee on manning, in 1858, discovered that future wars would still be fought under masts and sails, as the supply of coal would not be enough for a steam war. Cardiff alone exports in a year more than the navy uses in thirty years. Battleships fell in the estimation of all but the historical school, and, therefore, tended to be neglected. The powerful influence of the aged Duke of Wellington was used in favour of shore preparations for defence, and it was inevitable that the War Office should overlap naval functions by sedentary defences to resist invasion or coastal attacks. The military forces became less and less mobile, losing altogether the amphibious power, conferred by maritime strength, of being able to choose their striking point, or to assist the navy to capture ships protected by fortifications. In the House of Commons these considerations are seldom alluded to, for the practice is to forbid references to the navy and army estimates, and vice versa, while only last session £50,000,000 was voted under the guillotine rule, without any discussion at all, in the space of one minute.

In the strategical wilderness in which we wandered we worshipped many strange gods, whose costly tabernacles are to be found dispersed over the Empire. The fortifications of the dockyards and of Dover cost £12,000,000; and those at Bermuda have been described on the highest authority to be monuments of misapplied ingenuity. The evidence everywhere of worship of bricks and mortar, such as the Alderney Breakwater, Wei-Hai-Wei, the budding scheme of Rosyth Dockyard, and deserted 'tabernacles,' such as Halifax, Jamaica, Esquimalt, and Trincomalee Dockyards, afford matter enough to the curious student of the strange worship. The erroneous conclusions of this school as to the ability of the Russian Armada to reach the Far East, or to steam at all, unless the ships were docked, shows how strongly the idea of bases, coaling-stations, and docks had possessed their minds. Very typical of the priesthood set up by these new cults was the Royal Engineers Submarine Mining Corps, now in process of disbandment. No more costly affair has ever been devised. The moment it was placed in its proper perspective by Sir George Clarke and others it was bound to be revealed as more dangerous to friend than to foe.

The Royal Commission on the war showed that if we could have sent a striking force of a single brigade to Natal when war became inevitable, the whole course of the war would have been altered. We see from this instance that the National Debt is swollen by costly wars that might have been avoided by convincingly adequate organization, or, at any rate, curtailed by rapid blows at the outset of the war. The policy which devotes one-half the expenditure, and nine out of eleven soldiers—whether regulars, militia, yeomanry, or volunteers—to the work of passively waiting for the blows of an enemy, can only be compared to that of a football team which ties up nine out of eleven of its men in the goal. The comparison is unfair only in respect of the fact that the goal in football is really liable to be threatened, whereas in strategy the British goal is already covered by the operations of a strong navy.

The Cabinet's policy was outlined in the Stanhope memorandum of 1891, which formed a written constitution for the army. It showed that we no longer enjoyed the power of thinking in battleships which characterized Louis XVI. of France, who used to justify his economies by saying: 'Hush! it will give us a ship of the line the more.' It is clear that we have to educate our statesmen into the way of thinking in battleships, for the alternative is to drift into a bankruptcy both of strength and resources. Given the problem as stated in the now abandoned Stanhope memorandum, there could be no finality to expenditure, and so the credit of the country was threatened. Financial credit is closely related to naval supremacy, for the latter enables London to become the banking centre of the world On the other hand, the distress in England after 1797 arose mainly from the depreciation of the currency, so that in 1812 it was 21 per cent. below par value.

To think in battleships it is necessary to show the cost of purely passive defence in this country, and its equivalent in battleships of the latest type estimated to cost £1,800,000. For this purpose I use an official return, giving the net army estimates of 1903-1904 as £28,995,000. Of this sum £14,540,000 was devoted to the field army available for general service, including troops in South Africa and Egypt, and all regular units at home, except those in depots. This left for immobile or sedentary defence £14,455,000. To obtain the equivalent in Dreadnoughts, with twice the armament of former battleships, I submit the following table to criticism as the annual cost of such a vessel:

Interest on first cost at 3 per cent.  54,000
Depreciation for a life of twenty-five years  70,000
Cost of crew  45,000
Victualling  16,000
Coal  25,000
Stores of all kinds and repairs  20,000
 Annual cost of one Dreadnought in full commission  230,000

Dividing this total into the sum annually devoted to the passive defence, which can do nothing towards the winning of wars, we find that in 1908-1904 we were spending the equivalent of sixty-three Dreadnoughts, or of a number of fleets in full commission, probably over three times as formidable as the ones we now rely on to win command of the sea. This is not only, as the Times has rightly called it, 'the ruinous system of double insurance, but it is insurance in the wrong office. We have by no means, however, laid bare the full extent of the evil. A very large part of the £84,000,000 being spent on naval works out of loans, and of the £18,000,000 on military works, is for purely sedentary purposes. These sums represent an annual tax, for expenditure sanctioned during the last ten years, of £1,500,000. That great repairing establishments are absolutely necessary to the navy is a self-evident proposition, but to disperse the facilities of these establishments by a multiplication of dockyards in different parts of the world may easily result in loss rather than gain, and when done at the expense of fighting strength it is as if a general, having asked for reinforcements, is sent ambulances. With navies it is very much as it is in business—the large establishments win the orders. We may, by good luck, have a Gibraltar with a small dockyard as close to a battle as it is to Trafalgar, but the repair work might well be far more efficiently done if the vessel spent three or four days in steaming back to England. Thus, when the Howe lost her rudder in the Levant, it was found to be the speediest and most efficient course to send her to England and back, rather than to the dockyards at Malta and Gibraltar, which we have so assiduously nursed at the cost of many millions. As for the mere provision of docks, it will generally be found that at any port on a great trade route, private capital is only too anxious to provide those accessories to commerce and navies without any cost to the taxpayer, or, as at Colombo, with the assistance of a small subsidy. Much the same consideration should induce us to regard with suspicion the policy of shipbuilding in the dockyards, since it is notorious that the work is more cheaply performed by private firms.

Many conclusions follow on a policy of sea supremacy, which lead to vast economies. The distribution of the fleets for war purposes instead of police work is a case in point. Sea supremacy means safe communications for the predominant Power. We can, therefore, rely on merchant vessels to carry the bulk of our naval stores and coal. The very reverse has always been argued and carried out in practice. Our ships have been enlarged, and engines required to do much more work in driving an unnecessarily heavy displacement. The following table of the tonnage launcned in two periods for the navies will show that we should have been easily able to have attained better results:

Launched in Ten
Years ending
March 31, 1900.
Launched in Nine
Years ending
March 31, 1904.
Tons. Tons.
Great Britain 1,182,000 933,000
France, Russia, and Germany 1,068,000 847,000

If a thorough knowledge of strategy had been brought to bear on both the class of ships built and their designs, a smaller building programme would have left us in an equally unassailable position. If it were realized that the battleships of a predominant Power always afford a secure base of refuge to the cruisers, which, even when out of sight, can communicate by wireless telegraphy, we should hardly be building hybrid cruiser-battleships to do the work of scouts and look-out vessels. It is a significant commentary on the endeavour to obtain great strength of units rather than the requisite number of units that Sir Compton Domvile, in the 1903 manoeuvres, lost half his cruiser force through ordinary accidents. Like Nelson, he wanted eyes, not fists, in his scouts. On the other hand, the battleships are based only on their own strength. They must always be our first care. With them we obtain security, so that we can adjust and augment our forces during war, and, working to standard patterns, all types of vessels could be built in a year instead of sixteen to eighteen months, as is now estimated, or over three years, as has hitherto been our average for battleships. In the war of American Independence we replaced all the waste of war, and increased the navy from 188 battleships to 178, and from 97 frigates to 201. In the succeeding French wars we increased the battleships from 141 to 248, and the frigates from 157 to 323.

It must still remain true, however, that expenditure during peace is of far more value than any undertaken during war, always provided the Solomons control it, for otherwise much of it, as we have seen, had far better have been left to fructify in the banks of the nation. No ability and no exchequer can retrieve grave administrative blunders. The training of the personnel is, for instance, the work of years. At Trafalgar the training revealed inestimable advantages on the side of Nelson's fleet, for the mere enumeration of guns shows a superiority of 22 per cent for the allies. In his progress to Tsushima, the Japanese engineer pursued his ideal of mechanical efficiency from early youth upwards no less relentlessly than did the sucking Togos on deck that of fighting efficiency. Perfection it is given to no system to attain; but, by concentration and coordination of efforts, each in his proper sphere, we can come as near to it as is possible to those 'who are neither children nor gods, but men in a world of men.'

No man can forecast the will of a many-headed democracy. Alarmists can play on its nerves as orators do on its passions. The one makes fook rush in where angels fear to tread; the other shouts 'Fire!' to an excitable crowd. Scare has succeeded to scare, and the psychological factor in strategy plays a definite part as it did with the Americans, when a squadron was officially stated to have been stationed at Hampden Roads to calm the fears of the sea-board. To feed the symptoms of panic in democracy is to give it a strong drink, for which it will cry out the more. The remedy for democracy, and for its representative orators, is to educate them. The orator has pleaded for efficiency, and candidates have inscribed efficiency on their election addresses again and again. It has been my endeavour to strike a new note by going back to those simple first principles which came to us from the times of Drake, and which are capable of being understood by the man in the street. Efficiency will follow when simplicity is attained.