A History of Sea Power: Part 33


THE VICTORY AT SEA, Vice-Admiral W. S. Sims, U. S. N., 1920.

ANNUAL REPORT of the U. S Secretary of the Navy, 1918 THE DOVER PATROL, 1915-1917, Admiral Sir Reginald Bacon, R. N., 1919.

ZEEBRUGGE AND OSTEND DISPATCHES, ed. by C. Sanford Terry, 1919.

LAYING THE NORTH SEA MINE BARRAGE, Captain R. R. Belknap, U. S. N., U. S. Naval Inst.i.tute Proceedings, Jan.-Feb., 1920.


C. S. Alden, U. S. Naval Inst.i.tute Proceedings. June-July, 1920.

For more popular treatment see also SUBMARINE AND ANTI-SUBMARINE, Sir Henry Newbolt, 1919; THE FIGHTING FLEETS, Ralph D. Payne, 1918; THE U-BOAT HUNTERS, James B. Connolly, 1918; SEA WARFARE, Rudyard Kipling, 1917; etc.



The brief survey of sea power in the preceding chapters has shown that the ocean has been the highway for the march of civilization and empire. Crete in its day became a great island power and distributed throughout the Mediterranean the wealth and the arts of its own culture and that of Egypt. In turn, Ph?nicia held sway on the inland sea, and though creating little, she seized upon and developed the material and intellectual resources of her neighbors, and carried them not only to the corners of the Mediterranean, but far out on the unknown sea. Later when Ph?nicia was subject to Persia, Athens by her triremes saved the growing civilization of Greece, and during a brief period of glory planted the seeds of Greek, as opposed to Asiatic culture, on the islands and coasts of the aegean. After Athens, Carthage inherited the trident, and in turn fell before the energy of a land power, Rome. And as the Roman Empire grew to include practically all of the known world, every waterway, river and ocean, served to spread Roman law, engineering, and ideals of practical efficiency, at the same time bringing back to the heart of the Empire not only the products of the colonies, but such impalpable treasures as the art, literature, and philosophy of Greece. This was the story of the sea in antiquity.

After the dissolution of the Roman empire, as Christian peoples were struggling in blood and darkness, a great menace came from Arabia, the Saracen invasion, which was checked successfully and repeatedly by the navy of Constantinople. To this, primarily, is due the preservation of the Christian ideal in the world. Later, the cities of Italy began to reestablish sea commerce, which had been for centuries interrupted by pirates. Venice gained the ascendancy, and Venetian ships carried the Crusading armies during the centuries when western peoples went eastward to fight for the Cross and brought back new ideas they had learned from the Infidels. Then there arose a new Mohammedan threat, the Turk, determined like the earlier Saracen to conquer the world for the Crescent. Constantinople, betrayed by Christian nations, fell, Christian peoples of the Levant were made subject to the Turk, and thereafter till our day the aegean was a Turkish lake. About the same time a new Mohammedan sea power arose in the Moors of the African coast, and for a century and more the Mediterranean was a no-man's land between the rival peoples and the rival religions.

Meanwhile the trade with the East by caravan routes to the Arabian Gulf had been stopped by the presence of the Turk. To reach the old markets, therefore, new routes had to be found and there came the great era of discovery. The new world was only an accidental discovery in a search for the westward route to Asia. The claims of Spain to this new region called forth her fleets of trading ships.

But the lure of the West attracted the energies of the English also, and England and Spain clashed. As Spain became more and more dependent on her western colonies for income, and yet failed to establish her ascendancy over the Atlantic routes, she declined in favor of her enemies, England and Holland. The latter country, being dependent on the sea for sustenance, early captured a large part of the world's carrying trade, especially in the Mediterranean and the East. Her rich profits excited the envy and rivalry of the English, and in consequence, after three hard-fought naval wars, the scepter of the sea pa.s.sed to England. The subsequent wars between England and France served only to strengthen England's control of trade routes and extend her colonial possessions; with one notable exception, when France, denying to her rival the control of the sea at a critical juncture in the American Revolution, deprived her of her richest and most extensive colony. It was primarily England with her navy that broke the power of Napoleon in the subsequent conflict, and throughout a century of peace the spread of English speech and inst.i.tutions has extended to the uttermost parts of the world. One power in our day challenged Britain's control of the sea--now even more essential to her security than it was in the 17th century to that of Holland--and the World War was the consequence.

In all this story it is interesting to note that insularity in position is the reverse of insularity in fact. Crete touched the far sh.o.r.es of the Mediterranean because she was an island and her people were forced upon the sea. Similarly, Ph?nicia, driven to sea by mountains and desert at her back, spread her sails beyond the Pillars of Hercules. And England, hemmed in by the Atlantic, has carried her goods and her language to every nook and cranny of the earth. Thus the ocean has served less to separate than to bring together. As a common highway it has not only excited quarrels, but established common interests between nations. Special agreements governing the suppression of piracy and the slave trade, navigation regulations and the like, have long since brought nations together in peace on a common ground. It has also gone far to create international law for the problems of war. Rules governing blockade, contraband, and neutral rights have been agreed upon long since. But, as every war has proved, international law has needed a higher authority to enforce its rules in the teeth of a powerful belligerent. To remedy this defect is one of the purposes of a League of Nations.

Such has been the significance of the sea. The nations who have used it have made history and have laid the rest of the world under their dominion intellectually, commercially, and politically. Indeed, the story of the sea is the history of civilization.

At the conclusion of this survey, it is appropriate to pause and summarize what is meant by the term "sea power." It is a catch phrase, made famous by Mahan and glibly used ever since. What does sea power mean? What are its elements?

Obviously it means, in brief, a nation's ability to enforce its will upon the sea. This means a navy superior to those of its enemies.

But it means also strategic bases equipped for supplying a fleet for battle or offering refuge in defeat. To these bases there must run lines of communication guarded from interruption by the enemy.

Imagine, for instance, the Suez or the Panama Ca.n.a.l held by a hostile force, or a battlefleet cut off from its fuel supply of coal or oil.

The relation of shipping to sea power is not what it was in earlier days. Merchantmen are indeed still useful in war for transport and auxiliary service, but it is no longer true that men in the merchant service are trained for man-of-war service. The difference between them has widened as the battleship of to-day differs from a merchantman of to-day. Nor can a merchantship be transformed into a cruiser, as in the American navy of a hundred years ago.

The place of shipping in sea power is therefore subsidiary. In fact, unless a nation can control the sea, the amount of its wealth dispersed in merchantmen is just so much loss in time of war.

The major element in sea power is the fleet, but possession of the largest navy is no guarantee of victory or even of control of the sea. Size is important, but it is an interesting fact that most of the great victories in naval history have been won by a smaller fleet over a larger. The effectiveness of a great navy depends first on its quality, secondly, on how it is handled, and thirdly, on its power of reaching the enemy's communications.

The quality of a navy is two-fold, material and personal. In material, the great problem of modern days is to keep abreast of the time. The danger to a navy lies in conservatism and bureaucratic control. There is always the chance that a weaker power may defeat the stronger, not by using the old weapons, but by devising some new weapon that will render the old ones obsolete. The trouble with the professional man in any walk of life has always been that he sticks to the traditional ways. In consequence he lays himself open to the amateur, who, caring nothing about tradition, beats him with something novel.

The inventions that have revolutionized naval warfare have come from men outside the naval profession. Thus the Romans, unable to match the Carthaginians in seamanship, made that seamanship of no value by their invention of the corvus. Greek fire not only saved the insignificant fleets of the Eastern Empire, but annihilated the huge armadas of Saracen and Slav. If the South in our Civil War had possessed the necessary resources, her ironclad rams would have made an end of the Union navy and of the war. In our own time the German submarine came within an ace of winning the war despite all the Allied dreadnoughts, because its potentialities had not been realized and no counter measures devised. A navy that drops behind is lost.

The personal side is a matter of training and morale. The material part is of no value unless it is operated by skill and by the will to win. Slackness or inexperience or lack of heart in officers or men--any of these may bring ruin. Napoleon once spoke of the Russian army as brave, but as "an army without a soul." A navy must have a soul. Unfortunately, the tendency in recent years has been to emphasize the material and the mechanical at the expense of the intellectual and spiritual. With all the enormous development of the ships and weapons, it must be remembered that the man is, and always will be, greater than the machine.

As to handling the navy, first of all the War Staff and the commander in chief must solve the strategic problem correctly. The fate of the Spanish Armada in the 16th Century and that of the Russian navy at the beginning of the 20th are eloquent of the effect of bad strategy on a powerful fleet. Secondly, the commander in chief must be possessed of the right fighting doctrine--the spirit of the offensive. In all ages the naval commander who sought to achieve his purpose by avoiding battle went to disaster. The true objective must be, now as always, _the destruction of the enemy's fleet_.

Such are the material and the spiritual essentials of sea power.

The phrase has become so popular that a superior fleet has been widely accepted as a talisman in war. The idea is that a nation with sea power must win. But with all the tremendous "influence of sea power on history," the student must not be misled into thinking that sea power is invincible. The Athenian navy went to ruin under the catapults of Syracuse whose navy was insignificant. Carthage, the sea power, succ.u.mbed to a land power, Rome. In modern times France, with a navy second to England's, fell in ruin before Prussia, which had practically no navy at all. And in the World War it required the entry of a new ally, the United States, to save the Entente from defeat at the hands of land power, despite an overwhelming superiority on the sea.

The significance of sea power is _communications_. Just so far as sea control affects lines of communications vital to either belligerent, so far does it affect the war. To a sea empire like the British, sea control is essential as a measure of defense.

If an enemy controls the sea the empire will fall apart like a house of cards, and the British Isles will be speedily starved into submission. It is another thing, however, to make the navy a sword as well as a shield. Whenever the British navy could cut the communications of the enemy, as in the case of the wars with Spain and Holland, it was terribly effective. When it fought a nation like Russia in the Crimean War, it hardly touched the sources of Russian supplies, because these came by the interior land communications. So also the French navy in 1870 could not touch a single important line of German communications and its effect therefore was negligible. If in 1914 Russia, for example, had been neutral, no Allied naval superiority could have saved France from destruction by the combined armies of Germany and Austria, just as the Grand Fleet was powerless to check the conquest or deny the possession of Belgium. It must be borne in mind that a land power has the advantages of central position and interior lines, and the interior lines of to-day are those of rail and motor transport, offering facilities for a rapid concentration on any front.

Of course, modern life and modern warfare are so complex that few nations are able to live and wage war entirely on their own resources; important communications extend across the sea. In this respect the United States is singularly fortunate. With the exception of rubber, every essential is produced in our country, and the sea power that would attempt to strangle the United States by a blockade on two coasts would find it unprofitable even if it were practicable.

A hostile navy would have to land armies to strike directly at the manufacturing cities near the seaboard in order to affect our communications. In brief, sea power is decisive just so far as it cuts the enemy's communications.

Finally in considering sea power we should note the importance of coordinating naval policies with national. The character of a navy and the size of a navy depend on what policy a nation expects to stand for. It is the business of a navy to stand behind a nation's will. For Great Britain, circ.u.mstances of position have long made her policy consistent, without regard to change of party. She had to dominate the sea to insure the safety of the empire. With the United States, the situation has been different. The nation has not been conscious of any foreign policy, with the single exception of the Monroe Doctrine. And even this has changed in character since it was first enunciated.

At the present day, for example, how far does the United States purpose to go in the Monroe Doctrine? Shall we attempt to police the smaller South and Central American nations? Shall we make the Caribbean an area under our naval control? What is to be our policy toward Mexico? How far are we willing to go to sustain the Open Door policy in the Far East? Are we determined to resist the immigration of Asiatics? Are we bound to hold against conquest our outlying possessions,--the Philippines, Guam, Hawaiian Islands, and Alaska?

Shall we play a "lone hand" among nations, or join an international league? Until there is some answer to these questions of foreign policy, our naval program is based on nothing definite. In short, the naval policy of a nation should spring from its national policy.

On that national policy must be based not only the types of ships built and their numbers, but also the number and locale of the naval bases and the entire strategic plan. In the past there has been too little mutual understanding between the American navy and the American people. The navy--the Service, as it is appropriately called--is the trained servant of the republic. It is only fair to ask that the republic make clear what it expects that servant to do. But before a national policy is accepted, it must be thought out to its logical conclusion by both the popular leaders and naval advisers. As Mahan has said, "the naval officer must be a statesman as well as a seaman." Is the policy accepted going to conflict with that of another nation; if so, are we prepared to accept the consequences?

The recent history of Germany is a striking example of the effect of a naval policy on international relations. The closing decade of the 19th century found Great Britain still following the policy of "splendid isolation," with France and Russia her traditional enemies. Her relations with Germany were friendly, as they always had been. At the close of the century, the Kaiser, inspired by Mahan's "_Influence of Sea Power on History,_" launched the policy of a big navy. First, he argued, German commerce was growing with astonishing rapidity. It was necessary, according to Mahan, to have a strong navy to protect a great carrying trade. This von Tirpitz[1]

emphasizes, though he never makes clear just what precise danger threatened the German trading fleets, provided Germany maintained a policy of friendly relations with England. Secondly, Germany found herself with no outlet for expansion. The best colonial fields had already been appropriated by other countries, chiefly England. To back up German claims to new territory or trading concessions, it was necessary to have a strong navy. All this was strictly by the book, and it is characteristic of the German mind that it faithfully followed the text. "_Unsere Zukunft_," cried the Kaiser, "_liegt auf dem Wa.s.ser!_" But what was implied in this proposal? A great navy increasing rapidly to the point of rivaling that of England could be regarded by that country only as a pistol leveled at her head. England would be at the mercy of any power that could defeat her navy. And this policy coupled with the demand for "a place in the sun," threatened the rich colonies that lay under the British flag. It could not be taken otherwise.

[Footnote 1: MY MEMOIRS, Chap. xv and _pa.s.sim._]

These implications began to bear fruit after their kind. In the place of friendliness on the part of the English,--a friendliness uninterrupted by war, and based on the blood of their royal family and the comradeship in arms against France in the days of Louis XIV, Frederick the Great, and Napoleon--there developed a growing hostility. In vain missions were sent by the British Government to promote a better understanding, for the Germans declined to accept either a "naval holiday" or a position of perpetual naval inferiority. In consequence, England abandoned her policy of isolation, and came to an understanding with her ancient enemies, Russia and France. Thus Germany arrayed against herself all the resources of the British Empire and in this act signed her own death warrant.

A final word as to the future of sea power. The influence of modern inventions is bound to affect the significance of the sea in the future. Oceans have practically dwindled away as national barriers.

Wireless and the speed of the modern steamship have reduced the oceans to ponds. "Splendid isolation" is now impossible. Modern artillery placed at Calais, for instance, could sh.e.l.l London and cover the transportation of troops in the teeth of a fleet. Aircraft cross land and sea with equal ease. The submersible has come to stay. Indeed, it looks as if the navy of the future will tend first to the submersible types and later abandon the sea for the air, and the "illimitable pathways of the sea" will yield to still more illimitable pathways of the sky. The consequence is bound to be a closer knitting of the peoples of the world through the conquering of distance by time.

This bringing together breeds war quite as easily as peace, and the progress of invention makes wars more frightful. The closely knit economic structure of Europe did not prevent the greatest war in history and there is little hope for the idea that wars can never occur again. The older causes of war lay in pressure of population, the temptation of better lands, racial hatreds or ambitions, religious fanaticism, dynastic aims, and imperialism.

Some of these remain. The chief modern source of trouble is trade rivalry, with which imperialism is closely interwoven and trade rivalry makes enemies of old friends. There is, therefore, a place for navies still.

At present there are two great naval powers, Great Britain and the United States. A race in naval armaments between the two would be criminal folly, and could lead to only one disastrous end. The immediate way toward guaranteeing freedom of the seas is a closer entente between the two English-speaking peoples, whose common ground extends beyond their speech to inst.i.tutions and ideals of justice and liberty. The fine spirit of cooperation produced by the World War should be perpetuated in peace for the purpose of maintaining peace. In his memoirs van Tirpitz mourns the fact that now "Anglo-Saxondom" controls the world. There is small danger that where public opinion rules, the two peoples will loot the world to their own advantage. On the other hand, there is every prospect that, for the immediate future, sea power in their hands can be made the most potent influence toward peace, and the preservation of that inheritance of civilization which has been slowly acc.u.mulated and spread throughout the world by those peoples of every age who have been the pathfinders on the seas.

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