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The war of 1778, between Great Britain and the House of Bourbon, which is so inextricably associated with the American Revolution, stands by itself in one respect. It was purely a maritime war. Not only did the allied kingdoms carefully refrain from continental entanglements, which England in accordance with her former policy strove to excite, but there was between the two contestants an approach to equality on the sea which had not been realized since the days of Tourville. The points in dispute, the objects for which the war was undertaken or at which it aimed, were for the most part remote from Europe; and none of them was on the continent with the single exception of Gibraltar, the strife over which, being at the extreme point of a rugged and difficult salient, and separated from neutral nations by the whole of France and Spain, never threatened to drag in other parties than those immediately interested.
No such conditions existed in any war between the accession of Louis XIV. and the downfall of Napoleon. There was a period during the reign of the former in which the French navy was superior in number and equipment to the English and Dutch; but the policy and ambition of the sovereign was always directed to continental extension, and his naval power, resting on inadequate foundations, was ephemeral. During the first three-quarters of the eighteenth century there was practically no check to the sea power of England; great as were its effects upon the issues of the day, the absence of a capable rival made its operations barren of military lessons. In the later wars of the French Republic and Empire, the apparent equality in numbers of ships and weight of batteries was illusive, owing to the demoralization of the French officers and seamen by causes upon which it is not necessary here to enlarge. After some years of courageous but impotent effort, the tremendous disaster of Trafalgar proclaimed to the world the professional inefficiency of the French and Spanish navies, already detected by the keen eyes of Nelson and his brother officers, and upon which rested the contemptuous confidence that characterized his attitude, and to some extent his tactics, toward them. Thenceforward the emperor “turned his eyes from the only field of battle where fortune had been unfaithful to him, and deciding to pursue England elsewhere than upon the seas, undertook to restore his navy, but without reserving to it any share in a strife become more than ever furious... Up to the last day of the Empire he refused to offer to this restored navy, full of ardor and confidence, the opportunity to measure itself with the enemy.” (1) Great Britain resumed her old position as unquestioned mistress of the seas.
1. Jurien de la Graviere: Guerres Maritimes, vol. ii. p. 255.
The student of naval war will therefore expect to find a particular interest in the plans and methods of the parties to this great contest, and especially where they concern the general conduct of the whole war, or of certain large and clearly defined portions of it; in the strategic purpose which gave, or should have given, continuity to their actions from first to last, and in the strategic movements which affected for good or ill the fortunes of the more limited periods, which may be called naval campaigns. For while it cannot be conceded that the particular battles are, even at this day, wholly devoid of tactical instruction, which it has been one of the aims of the preceding pages to elicit, it is undoubtedly true that, like all the tactical systems of history, they have had their day, and their present usefulness to the student is rather in the mental training, in the forming of correct tactical habits of thought, than in supplying models for close imitation. On the other hand, the movements which precede and prepare for great battles, or which, by their skilful and energetic combinations, attain great ends without the actual contact of arms, depend upon factors more permanent than the weapons of the age, and therefore furnish principles of more enduring value.
In a war undertaken for any object, even if that object be the possession of a particular territory or position, an attack directly upon the place coveted may not be, from the military point of view, the best means of obtaining it. The end upon which the military operations are directed may therefore be other than the object which the belligerent government wishes to obtain, and it has received a name of its own, - the objective. In the critical consideration of any war it is necessary, first, to put clearly before the student’s eye the objects desired by each belligerent; then, to consider whether the objective chosen is the most likely, in case of success, to compass those objects; and finally, to study the merits or faults of the various movements by which the objective is approached. The minuteness with which such an examination is conducted will depend upon the extent of the work which the inquirer proposes to himself; but it will generally conduce to clearness if an outline, giving only the main features unencumbered by detail, should precede a more exhaustive discussion. When such principal lines are thoroughly grasped, details are easily referred to them, and fall into place. The effort here will he confined to presenting such an outline, as being alone fitted to the scope of this work.
The principal parties to the War of 1778 were, on the one hand, Great Britain; on the other, the House of Bourbon, controlling the two great kingdoms of France and Spain. The American colonies, being already engaged in an unequal struggle with the mother-country, gladly welcomed an event so important to them; while in 1780 Holland was deliberately forced by England into a war from which she had nothing to gain and all to lose. The object of the Americans was perfectly simple, - to rid their country out of the hands of the English. Their poverty and their lack of military sea power, with the exception of a few cruisers that preyed upon the enemy’s commerce, necessarily confined their efforts to land warfare, which constituted indeed a powerful diversion in favor of the allies and an exhausting drain upon the resources of Great Britain, but which it was in the power of the latter to stop at once by abandoning the contest. Holland, on the other hand, being safe from invasion by land, showed little desire for anything more than to escape with as little external loss as possible, through the assistance of the allied navies. The object of these two minor parties may therefore be said to have been the cessation of the war; whereas the principals hoped from its continuance certain changed conditions, which constituted their objects.
With Great Britain also the object of the war was very simple. Having been led into a lamentable altercation with her most promising colonies, the quarrel had gone on step by step till she was threatened with their loss. To maintain forcible control when willing adhesion had departed, she had taken up arms against them, and her object in so doing was to prevent a break in those foreign possessions with which, in the eyes of that generation, her greatness was indissolubly connected. The appearance of France and Spain as active supporters of the colonists’ cause made no change in England’s objects, whatever change of objective her military plans may, or should, have undergone. The danger of losing the continental colonies was vastly increased by these accessions to the ranks of her enemies, which brought with them also a threat of loss, soon to be realized in part, of other valuable foreign possessions. England, in short, as regards the objects of the war, was strictly on the defensive she feared losing much, and at best only hoped to keep what she had. By forcing Holland into war, however, she obtained a military advantage; for, without increasing the strength of her opponents, several important but ill-defended military and commercial positions were thereby laid open to her arms.
The views and objects of France and Spain were more complex. The moral incentives of hereditary enmity and desire of revenge for the recent past doubtless weighed strongly, as in France did also the sympathy of the salons and philosophers with the colonists’ struggle for freedom; but powerfully as sentimental considerations affect the action of nations, only the tangible means by which it is expected to gratify them admit of statement and measurement. France might wish to regain her North American possessions; but the then living generation of colonists had too keen personal recollection of the old contests to acquiesce in any such wishes as to Canada. The strong inherited distrust of the French, which characterized the Americans of the revolutionary era, has been too much overlooked in the glow of gratitude which followed the effectual sympathy and assistance then given; but it was understood at the time, and France felt, that to renew those pretensions might promote, between people of the same race only recently alienated, a reconciliation by just concessions, which a strong and high-minded party of Englishmen had never ceased to advocate. She therefore did not avow, perhaps did not entertain, this object. On the contrary, she formally renounced all claim to any part of the continent which was then, or had recently been, under the power of the British crown, but stipulated for freedom of action in conquering and retaining any of the West India Islands, while all the other colonies of Great Britain were, of course, open to her attack. The principal objects at which France aimed were therefore the English West Indies and that control of India which had passed into English hands, and also to secure in due time the independence of the United States, after they had wrought a sufficient diversion in her favor. With the policy of exclusive trade which characterized that generation, the loss of these important possessions was expected to lessen that commercial greatness upon which the prosperity of England depended, - to weaken her and to strengthen France. In fact, the strife which should be greater may be said to have been the animating motive of France; all objects were summed up in the one supreme end to which they contributed, - maritime and political superiority over England.
Preponderance over England, in combination with France, was also the aim of the equally humbled but less vigorous kingdom of Spain; but there was a definiteness in the injuries suffered and the objects specially sought by her which is less easily found in the broader views of her ally. Although no Spaniard then living could remember the Spanish flag flying over Minorca, Gibraltar, or Jamaica, the lapse of time had not reconciled the proud and tenacious nation to their loss; nor was there on the part of the Americans the same traditional objection to the renewal of Spanish sovereignty over the two Floridas that was felt with reference to Canada.
Such, then, were the objects sought by the two nations, whose interposition changed the whole character of the American Revolutionary War. It is needless to say that they did not all appear among the causes, or pretexts, avowed for engaging in hostility; but sagacious English opinion of the day rightly noted, as embodying in a few words the real ground of action of the united Bourbon Courts, the following phrase in the French manifesto: “To avenge their respective injuries, and to put an end to that tyrannical empire which England has usurped, and claims to maintain upon the ocean.” In short, as regards the objects of the war the allies were on the offensive, as England was thrown upon the defensive.
The tyrannical empire which England was thus accused, and not unjustly, of exercising over the seas, rested upon her great sea power, actual or latent; upon her commerce and armed shipping, her commercial establishments, colonies, and naval stations in all parts of the world. Up to this the her scattered colonies had been bound to her by ties of affectionate sentiment, and by the still stronger motive of self-interest through the close commercial connection with the mother-country and the protection afforded by the constant presence of her superior navy. Now a break was made in the girdle of strong ports upon which her naval power was based, by the revolt of the continental colonies; while the numerous trade interests between them and the West Indies, which were injured by the consequent hostilities, tended to divide the sympathies of the islands also. The struggle was not only for political possession and commercial use. It involved a military question of the first importance, - whether a chain of naval stations covering one of the shores of the Atlantic, linking Canada and Halifax with the West Indies, and backed by a thriving seafaring population, should remain in the hands of a nation which had so far used its unprecedented sea power with consistent, resolute aggressiveness, and with almost unbroken success.
While Great Britain was thus embarrassed by the difficulty of maintaining her hold upon her naval bases, which were the defensive element of her naval strength, her offensive naval power, her fleet, was threatened by the growth of the armed shipping of France and Spain, which now confronted her upon the field which she had claimed as her own, with an organized military force of equal or superior material strength. The moment was therefore favorable for attacking the great Power whose wealth, reaped from the sea, had been a decisive factor in the European wars of the past century. The next question was the selection of the points of attack - of the principal objectives upon which the main effort of the assailants should be steadily directed, and of the secondary objectives by which the defence should be distracted and its strength dissipated.
One of the wisest French statesmen of that day, Turgot, held that it was to the interest of France that the colonies should not achieve their independence. If subdued by exhaustion, their strength was lost to England; if reduced by a military tenure of controlling points, but not exhausted, the necessity of constant repression would be a continual weakness to the mother-country. Though this opinion did not prevail in the councils of the French government, which wished the ultimate independence of America, it contained elements of truth which effectually moulded the policy of the war. If benefit to the United States, by effecting their deliverance, were the principal object, the continent became the natural scene, and its decisive military points the chief objectives, of operations; but as the first object of France was not to benefit America, but to injure England, sound military judgment dictated that the continental strife, so far from being helped to a conclusion, should be kept in vigorous life. It was a diversion ready made to the hand of France and exhausting to Great Britain, requiring only so much support as would sustain a resistance to which the insurgents were bound by the most desperate alternatives. The territory of the thirteen colonies therefore should not be the principal objective of France; much less that of Spain.
The commercial value of the English West Indies made them tempting objects to the French, who adapted themselves with peculiar readiness to the social conditions of that region, in which their colonial possessions were already extensive. Besides the two finest of the Lesser Antilles, Guadeloupe and Martinique, which she still retains, France then held Sta. Lucia and the western half of Hayti. She might well hope by successful war to add most of the English Antilles, and thus to round off a truly imperial tropical dependency; while, though debarred from Jamaica by the susceptibilities of Spain, it might be possible to win back that magnificent island for an allied and weaker nation. But however desirable as possessions, and therefore as objects, the smaller Antilles might be, their military tenure depended too entirely upon control of the sea for them to be in themselves proper objectives. The French government, therefore, forbade its naval commanders to occupy such as they might seize. They were to make the garrisons prisoners, destroy the defences, and so retire. In the excellent military port of Fort Royal, Martinique, in Cap Francais, and in the strong allied harbor of Havana, a fleet of adequate size found good, secure, and well-distributed bases; while the early and serious loss of Sta. Lucia must be attributed to the mismanagement of the French fleet and the professional ability of the English admiral. On shore, in the West Indies, the rival powers therefore found themselves about equally provided with the necessary points of support; mere occupation of others could not add to their military strength, thenceforth dependent upon the numbers and quality of the fleets. To extend occupation further with safety, the first need was to obtain maritime supremacy, not only locally, but over the general field of war. Otherwise occupation was precarious, unless enforced by a body of troops so large as to entail expense beyond the worth of the object. The key of the situation in the West Indies being thus in the fleets, these became the true objectives of the military effort; and all the more so because the real military usefulness of the West Indian ports in this war was as an intermediate base, between Europe and the American continent, to which the fleets retired when the armies went into winter quarters. No sound strategic operation on shore was undertaken in the West Indies except the seizure of Sta. Lucia by the English, and the abortive plan against Jamaica in 1782; nor was any serious attempt against a military port, as Barbadoes or Fort Royal, possible, until naval preponderance was assured either by battle or by happy concentration of force. The key of the situation, it must be repeated, was in the fleet.
The influence of naval power, of an armed fleet, upon the war on the American continent has also been indicated in the opinions of Washington and Sir Henry Clinton; while the situation in the East Indies, regarded as a field by itself, has been so largely discussed under the head of Suffren’s campaign, that it needs here only to repeat that everything there depended upon control of the sea by a superior naval force. The capture of Trincomalee, essential as it was to the French squadron which had no other base, was, like that of Sta. Lucia, a surprise, and could only have been effected by the defeat, or, as happened, by the absence of the enemy’s fleet. In North America and India sound military policy pointed out, as the true objective, the enemy’s fleet, upon which also depended the communications with the mother-countries. There remains Europe, which it is scarcely profitable to examine at length as a separate field of action, because its relations to the universal war are so much more important. It may simply be pointed out that the only two points in Europe whose political transfer was an object of the war were Gibraltar and Minorca; the former of which was throughout, by the urgency of Spain, made a principal objective of the allies. The tenure of both these depended, obviously, upon control of the sea.
In a sea war, as in all others, two things are from the first essential, - a suitable base upon the frontier, in this case the seaboard, from which the operations start, and an organized military force, in this case a fleet, of size and quality adequate to the proposed operations. If the war, as in the present instance, extends to distant parts of the globe, there will be needed in each of those distant regions secure ports for the shipping, to serve as secondary, or contingent, bases of the local war. Between these secondary and the principal, or home, bases there must be reasonably secure communication, which will depend upon military control of the intervening sea. This control must be exercised by the navy, which will enforce it either by clearing the sea in all directions of hostile cruisers, thus allowing the ships of its own nation to pass with reasonable security, or by accompanying in force (convoying) each train of supply-ships necessary for the support of the distant operations. The former method aims at a widely diffused effort of the national power, the other at a concentration of it upon that part of the sea where the convoy is at a given moment. Whichever be adopted, the communications will doubtless be strengthened by the military holding of good harbors, properly spaced yet not too numerous, along the routes, - as, for instance, the Cape of Good Hope and the Mauritius. Stations of this kind have always been necessary, but are doubly so now, as fuel needs renewing more frequently than did the provisions and supplies in former days. These combinations of strong points at home and abroad, and the condition of the communications between them, may be called the strategic features of the general military situation, by which, and by the relative strength of the opposing fleets, the nature of the operations must be determined. In each of the three divisions of the field, Europe, America, and India, under which for sake of clearness the narrative has been given, the control of the sea has been insisted upon as the determining factor, and the hostile fleet therefore indicated as the true objective. Let the foregoing considerations now be applied to the whole field of war, and see how far the same conclusion holds good of it, and if so, what should have been the nature of the operations on either side.
In Europe the home base of Great Britain was on the English Channel, with the two principal arsenals of Plymouth and Portsmouth. The base of the allied powers was on the Atlantic, the principal military ports being Brest, Ferrol, and Cadiz. Behind these, within the Mediterranean, were the dock-yards of Toulon and Cartagena, over against which stood the English station Port Mahon, in Minorca. The latter, however, may be left wholly out of account, being confined to a defensive part during the war, as the British fleet was not able to spare any squadron to the Mediterranean. Gibraltar, on the contrary, by its position, effectually watched over detachments or reinforcements from within the Straits, provided it were utilized as the station of a body of ships adequate to the duty. This was not done; the British European fleet being kept tied to the Channel, that is, to home defence, and making infrequent visits to the Rock to convoy supplies essential to the endurance of the garrison. There was, however, a difference in the parts played by Port Mahon and Gibraltar. The former, being at the time wholly unimportant, received no attention from the allies until late in the war, when it fell after a six months’ siege; whereas the latter, being considered of the first importance, absorbed from the beginning a very large part of the allied attack, and so made a valuable diversion in favor of Great Britain. To this view of the principal features of the natural strategic situation in Europe may properly be added the remark, that such aid as Holland might be inclined to send to the allied fleets had a very insecure line of communication, being forced to pass along the English base on the Channel. Such aid in fact was never given.
In North America the local bases of the war at its outbreak were New York, Narragansett Bay, and Boston. The two former were then held by the English, and were the most important stations on the continent, from their position, susceptibility of defence, and resources. Boston had passed into the hands of the Americans, and was therefore at the service of the allies. From the direction actually given to the war, by diverting the active English operations to the Southern States in 1779, Boston was thrown outside the principal theatre of operations, and became from its position militarily unimportant; but had the plan been adopted of isolating New England by holding the line of the Hudson and Lake Champlain, and concentrating military effort to the eastward, it will he seen that these three ports would all have been of decisive importance to the issue. South of New York, the Delaware and Chesapeake Bays undoubtedly offered tempting fields for maritime enterprise; but the width of the entrances, the want of suitable and easily defended points for naval stations near the sea, the wide dispersal of the land forces entailed by an attempt to hold so many points, and the sickliness of the locality during a great part of the year, should have excepted them from a principal part in the plan of the first campaigns. It is not necessary to include them among the local bases of the war. To the extreme south the English were drawn by the ignis fatuus of expected support among the people. They failed to consider that even if a majority there preferred quiet to freedom, that very quality would prevent them from rising against the revolutionary government by which, on the English theory, they were oppressed; yet upon such a rising the whole success of this distant and in its end most unfortunate enterprise was staked. The local base of this war apart was Charleston, which passed into the hands of the British in May, 1780, eighteen months after the first expedition had landed in Georgia.
The principal local bases of the war in the West Indies are already known through the previous narrative. They were for the English, Barbadoes, Sta. Lucia, and to a less degree Antigua. A thousand miles to leeward was the large island of Jamaica, with a dock-yard of great natural capabilities at Kingston. The allies held, in the first order of importance, Fort Royal in Martinique, and Havana; in the second order, Guadeloupe and Cap Francais. A controlling feature of the strategic situation in that day, and one which will not be wholly without weight in our own, was the trade-wind, with its accompanying current. A passage to windward against these obstacles was a long and serious undertaking even for single ships, much more for larger bodies. It followed that fleets would go to the western islands only reluctantly, or when assured that the enemy had taken the same direction, as Rodney went to Jamaica after the Battle of the Saints, knowing the French fleet to have gone to Cap Francais. This condition of the wind made the windward, or eastern, islands points on the natural lines of communication between Europe and America, as well as local bases of the naval war, and tied the fleets to them. Hence also it followed that between the two scenes of operations, between the continent and the Lesser Antilles, was interposed a wide central region into which the larger operations of war could not safely be carried except by a belligerent possessed of great naval superiority, or unless a decisive advantage had been gained upon one flank. In 1762, when England held all the Windward Islands, with undisputed superiority at sea, she safely attacked and subdued Havana; but in the years 1779-1782 the French sea power in America and the French tenure of the Windward Islands practically balanced her own, leaving the Spaniards at Havana free to prosecute their designs against Pensacola and the Bahamas, in the central region mentioned. (1)
1. It maybe said here in passing, that the key to the English possessions in what was then called West Florida was at Pensacola and Mobile, which depended upon Jamaica for support; the conditions of the country, of navigation, and of the general continental war forbidding assistance from the Atlantic. The English force, military and naval, at Jamaica was only adequate to the defence of the island and of trade, and could not afford sufficient relief to Florida. The capture of the latter and of the Bahamas was effected with little difficulty by overwhelming Spanish forces, as many as fifteen ships-of-the-line and seven thousand troops having been employed against Pensacola. These events will receive no other mention. Their only bearing upon the general war was the diversion of this imposing force from joint operations with the French, Spain here, as at Gibraltar, pursuing her own aims instead of concentrating upon the common enemy, - a policy as shortsighted as it was selfish.
Posts like Martinique and Sta. Lucia had therefore for the present war great strategic advantage over Jamaica, Havana, or others to leeward. They commanded the latter in virtue of their position, by which the passage westward could be made so much more quickly than the return; while the decisive points of the continental struggle were practically little farther from the one than from the other. This advantage was shared equally by most of those known as the Lesser Antilles; but the small island of Barbadoes, being well to windward of all, possessed peculiar advantages, not only for offensive action, but because it was defended by the difficulty with which a large fleet could approach it, even from so near a port as Fort Royal. It will be remembered that the expedition which finally sat down before St. Kitt’s had been intended for Barbadoes, but could not reach it through the violence of the trade-wind. Thus Barbadoes, under the conditions of the time, was peculiarly fitted to be the local base and depot of the English war, as well as a wayside port of refuge on the line of communications to Jamaica, Florida, and even to North America; while Sta. Lucia, a hundred miles to leeward, was held in force as an advanced post for the fleet, watching closely the enemy at Fort Royal.
In India the political conditions of the peninsula necessarily indicated the eastern, or Coromandel, coast as the scene of operations. Trincomalee, in the adjacent island of Ceylon, though unhealthy, offered an excellent and defensible harbor, and thus acquired first-rate strategic importance, all the other anchorages on the coast being mere open roadsteads. From this circumstance the trade-winds, or monsoons, in this region also had strategic bearing. From the autumnal to the spring equinox the wind blows regularly from the northeast, at times with much violence, throwing a heavy surf upon the beach and making landing difficult; but during the summer months the prevailing wind is southwest, giving comparatively smooth seas and good weather. The “change of the monsoon,” in September and October, is often marked by violent hurricanes. Active operations, or even remaining on the coast, were therefore unadvisable from this time until the close of the northeast monsoon. The question of a port to which to retire during this season was pressing. Trincomalee was the only one, and its unique strategic value was heightened by being to windward, during the fine season, of the principal scene of war. The English harbor of Bombay on the west coast was too distant to be considered a local base, and rather falls, like the French islands Mauritius and Bourbon, under the head of stations on the line of communications with the mother-country.
Such were the principal points of support, or bases, of the belligerent nations, at home and abroad. Of those abroad it must be said, speaking generally, that they were deficient in resources, - an important element of strategic value. Naval and military stores and equipments, and to a great extent provisions for sea use, had to be sent them from the mother-countries. Boston, surrounded by a thriving, friendly population, was perhaps an exception to this statement, as was also Havana, at that time an important naval arsenal, where much ship-building was done; but these were distant from the principal theatres of war. Upon New York and Narragansett Bay the Americans pressed too closely for the resources of the neighboring country to be largely available, while the distant ports of the East and West Indies depended wholly upon home. Hence the strategic question of communications assumed additional importance. To intercept a large convoy of supply-ships was an operation only secondary to the destruction of a body of ships-of-war; while to protect such by main strength, or by evading the enemy’s search, taxed the skill of the governments and naval commanders in distributing the ships-of-war and squadrons at their disposal, among the many objects which demanded attention. The address of Kempenfeldt and the bad management of Guichen in the North Atlantic, seconded by a heavy gale of wind, seriously embarrassed De Grasse in the West Indies. Similar injury, by cutting off small convoys in the Atlantic, was done to Suffren in the Indian seas: while the latter at once made good part of these losses, and worried his opponents by the success of his cruisers preying on the English supply-ships.
Thus the navies, by which alone these vital streams could be secured or endangered, bore the same relation to the maintenance of the general war that has already been observed of the separate parts. They were the links that bound the whole together, and were therefore indicated as the proper objective of both belligerents.
The distance from Europe to America was not such as to make intermediate ports of supply absolutely necessary; while if difficulty did arise from an unforeseen cause, it was always possible, barring meeting an enemy, either to return to Europe or to make a friendly port in the West Indies. The case was different with the long voyage to India by the Cape of Good Hope. Bickerton, leaving England with a convoy in February, was thought to have done well in reaching Bombay the following September; while the ardent Suffren, sailing in March, took an equal time to reach Mauritius, whence the passage to Madras consumed two months more. A voyage of such duration could rarely be made without a stop for water, for fresh provisions, often for such refitting as called for the quiet of a harbor, even when the stores on board furnished the necessary material. A perfect line of communications required, as has been said, several such harbors, properly spaced, adequately defended, and with abundant supplies, such as England in the present day holds on some of her main commercial routes, acquisitions of her past wars. In the war of 1778 none of the belligerents had such ports on this route, until, by the accession of Holland, the Cape of Good Hope was put at the disposal of the French and suitably strengthened by Suffren. With this and the Mauritius on the way, and Trincomalee at the far end of the road, the communications of the allies with France were reasonably guarded. England, though then holding St. Helena, depended, for the refreshment and refitting of her India-bound squadrons and convoys in the Atlantic, upon the benevolent neutrality of Portugal, extended in the islands of Madeira and Cape Verde and in the Brazilian ports. This neutrality was indeed a frail reliance for defence, as was shown by the encounter between Johnstone and Suffren at the Cape Verde; but there being several possible stopping-places, and the enemy unable to know which, if any, would be used, this ignorance itself conferred no small security, if the naval commander did not trust it to the neglect of proper disposition of his own force, as did Johnstone at Porto Praya. Indeed, with the delay and uncertainty which then characterized the transmission of intelligence from one point to another, doubt where to find the enemy was a greater bar to offensive enterprises than the often slight defences of a colonial port.
This combination of useful harbors and the conditions of the communications between them constitute, as has been said, the main strategic outlines of the situation. The navy, as the organized force linking the whole together, has been indicated as the principal objective of military effort. The method employed to reach the objective, the conduct of the war, is still to be considered. (1)
1. In other words, having considered the objects for which the belligerents were at war and the proper objectives upon which their military efforts should have been directed to compass the objects, the discussion now considers how the military forces should have been handled; by what means and at what point the objective, being mobile, should have been assailed.
Before doing this a condition peculiar to the sea, and affecting the following discussion, must be briefly mentioned; that is, the difficulty of obtaining information. Armies pass through countries more or less inhabited by a stationary population, and they leave behind them traces of their march. Fleets move through a desert over which wanderers flit, but where they do not remain; and as the waters close behind them, an occasional waif from the decks may indicate their passage, but tells nothing of their course. The sail spoken by the pursuer may know nothing of the pursued, which yet passed the point of parley but a few days or hours before. Of late, careful study of the winds and currents of the ocean has laid down certain advantageous routes, which will be habitually followed by a careful seaman, and afford some presumption as to his movements; but in 1778 the data for such precision were not collected, and even had they been, the quickest route must often have been abandoned for one of the many possible ones, in order to elude pursuit or lying-in-wait. In such a game of hide-and-seek the advantage is with the sought, and the great importance of watching the outlets of an enemy’s country, of stopping the chase before it has got away into the silent desert, is at once evident. If for any reason such a watch there is impossible, the next best thing is, not attempting to watch routes which may not be taken, to get first to the enemy’s destination and await him there; but this implies a knowledge of his intentions which may not always be obtainable. The action of Suffren, when pitted against Johnstone, was throughout strategically sound, both in his attack at Porto Praya and in the haste with which he made for their common destination; while the two failures of Rodney to intercept the convoys to Martinique in 1780 and 1782, though informed that they were coming, show the difficulty which attended lying-in-wait even when the point of arrival was known.
Of any maritime expedition two points only are fixed, - the point of departure and that of arrival. The latter may he unknown to the enemy; but up to the time of sailing, the presence of a certain force in a port, and the indications of a purpose soon to move, may be assumed as known. It may be of moment to either belligerent to intercept such a movement; but it is more especially and universally necessary to the defence, because, of the many points at which he is open to attack, it may be impossible for him to know which is threatened; whereas the offence proceeds with full knowledge direct to his aim, if he can deceive his opponent. The importance of blocking such an expedition becomes yet more evident should it at any time be divided between two or more ports, - a condition which may easily arise when the facilities of a single dock-yard are insufficient to fit out so many ships in the time allowed, or when, as in the present war, allied powers furnish separate contingents. To prevent the junction of these contingents is a matter of prime necessity, and nowhere can this be done so certainly as off the ports whence one or both is to sail. The defence, from its very name, is presumably the less strong, and is therefore the more bound to take advantage of such a source of weakness as the division of the enemy’s force. Rodney in 1782 at Sta. Lucia, watching the French contingent at Martinique to prevent its union with the Spaniards at Cap Francais, is an instance of correct strategic position; and had the islands been so placed as to put him between the French and their destination, instead of in their rear, nothing better could have been devised. As it was, he did the best thing possible under the circumstances.
The defence, being the weaker, cannot attempt to block all the ports where divisions of the enemy lie, without defeating his aim by being in inferior force before each. This would be to neglect the fundamental principles of war. If he correctly decide not to do this, but to collect a superior force before one or two points, it becomes necessary to decide which shall be thus guarded and which neglected, - a question involving the whole policy of the war after a full understanding of the main conditions, military, moral, and economic, in every quarter.
The defensive was necessarily accepted by England in 1778. It had been a maxim with the best English naval authorities of the preceding era, with Hawke and his contemporaries, that the British navy should be kept equal in numbers to the combined fleets of the Bourbon kingdoms, - a condition which, with the better quality of the personnel and the larger maritime population upon which it could draw, would have given a real superiority of force. This precaution, however, had not been observed during recent years. It is of no consequence to this discussion whether the failure was due to the inefficiency of the ministry, as was charged by their opponents, or to the misplaced economy often practised by representative governments in time of peace. The fact remains that, notwithstanding the notorious probability of France and Spain joining in the war, the English navy was inferior in number to that of the allies. In what have been called the strategic features of the situation, the home bases, and the secondary bases abroad, the advantage upon the whole lay with her. Her positions, if not stronger in themselves, were at least better situated, geographically, for strategic effect; but in the second essential for war, the organized military force, or fleet, adequate to offensive operations, she had been allowed to become inferior. It only remained, therefore, to use this inferior force with such science and vigor as would frustrate the designs of the enemy, by getting first to sea, taking positions skilfully, anticipating their combinations by greater quickness of movement, harassing their communications with their objectives, and meeting the principal divisions of the enemy with superior forces.
It is sufficiently clear that the maintenance of this war, everywhere except on the American continent, depended upon the mother-countries in Europe and upon open communication with them. The ultimate crushing of the Americans, too, not by direct military effort but by exhaustion, was probable, if England were left unmolested to strangle their commerce and industries with her overwhelming naval strength. This strength she could put forth against them, if relieved from the pressure of the allied navies; and relief would be obtained if she could gain over them a decided preponderance, not merely material but moral, such as she had twenty years later. In that case the allied courts, whose financial weakness was well known, must retire from a contest in which their main purpose of reducing England to an inferior position was already defeated. Such preponderance, however, could only be had by fighting; by showing that, despite inferiority in numbers, the skill of her seamen and the resources of her wealth enabled her government, by a wise use of these powers, to be actually superior at the decisive points of the war. It could never be had by distributing the ships-of-the-line all over the world, exposing them to be beaten in detail while endeavoring to protect all the exposed points of the scattered empire.
The key of the situation was in Europe, and in Europe in the hostile dockyards. If England were unable, as she proved to be, to raise up a continental war against France, then her one hope was to find and strike down the enemy’s navy. Nowhere was it so certainly to be found as in its home ports; nowhere so easily met as immediately after leaving them. This dictated her policy in the Napoleonic wars, when the moral superiority of her navy was so established that she dared to oppose inferior forces to the combined dangers of the sea and of the more numerous and well-equipped ships lying quietly at anchor inside. By facing this double risk she obtained the double advantage of keeping the enemy under her eves, and of sapping his efficiency by the easy life of port, while her own officers and seamen were hardened by the rigorous cruising into a perfect readiness for every call upon their energies. “We have no reason,” proclaimed Admiral Villeneuve in 1805, echoing the words of the emperor, “to fear the sight of an English squadron. Their seventy-fours have not five hundred men on board; they are worn out by a two years’ cruise.” (1) A month later he wrote: “The Toulon squadron appeared very fine in the harbor, the crews well clothed and drilling well; but as soon as a storm came, all was changed. They were not drilled in storms.” (2) “The emperor,” said Nelson, “now finds, if emperors hear truth, that his fleet suffers more in a night than ours in one year... These gentlemen are not used to the hurricanes, which we have braved for twenty-one months without losing mast or yard.” (3) It must be admitted, however, that the strain was tremendous both on men and ships, and that many English officers found in the wear and tear an argument against keeping their fleets at sea off the enemy’s coast. “Every one of the blasts we endure,” wrote Collingwood, “lessens the security of the country. The last cruise disabled five large ships and two more lately; several of them must be docked.” “I have hardly known what a night of rest is these two months,” wrote he again; “this incessant cruising seems to me beyond the powers of human nature. Calder is worn to a shadow, quite broken down, and I am told Graves is not much better.” (4) The high professional opinion of Lord Howe was also adverse to the practice.
1. Orders of Admiral Villeneuve to the captains of his fleet, Dec. 20, 1804. 2. Letter of Villeneuve, January, 1805. 3. Letters and Despatches of Lord Nelson. 4. Life and Letters of Lord Collingwood.
Besides the exhaustion of men and ships, it must also be admitted that no blockade could be relied on certainly to check the exit of an enemy’s fleet. Villeneuve escaped from Toulon, Missiessy from Rochefort. “I am here watching the French squadron in Rochefort,” wrote Collingwood, “but feel that it is not practicable to prevent their sailing; and yet, if they should get by me, I should be exceedingly mortified... The only thing that can prevent their sailing is the apprehension that they may get among us, as they cannot know exactly where we are.” (1)
1. Life and Letters of Lord Collingwood.
Nevertheless, the strain then was endured. The English fleets girdled the shores of France and Spain; losses were made good; ships were repaired; as one officer fell, or was worn out at his post, another took his place. The strict guard over Brest broke up the emperor’s combinations; the watchfulness of Nelson, despite an unusual concurrence of difficulties, followed the Toulon fleet, from the moment of its starting, across the Atlantic and back to the shores of Europe. It was long before they came to blows, before strategy stepped aside and tactics completed the work at Trafalgar; but step by step and point by point the rugged but disciplined seamen, the rusty and battered but well-handled ships, blocked each move of their unpractised opponents. Disposed in force before each arsenal of the enemy, and linked together by chains of smaller vessels, they might fail now and again to check a raid, but they effectually stopped all grand combinations of the enemy’s squadrons.
The ships of 1805 were essentially the same as those of 1780. There had doubtless been progress and improvement; but the changes were in degree, not in kind. Not only so, but the fleets of twenty years earlier, under Hawke and his fellows, had dared the winters of the Bay of Biscay. “There is not in Hawke’s correspondence,” says his biographer, “the slightest indication that he himself doubted for a moment that it was not only possible, but his duty, to keep the sea, even through the storms of winter, and that he should soon be able to ‘make downright work of it.’” (1) If it be urged that the condition of the French navy was better, the character and training of its officers higher, than in the days of Hawke and Nelson, the fact must be admitted; nevertheless, the admiralty could not long have been ignorant that the number of such officers was still so deficient as seriously to affect the quality of the deck service, and the lack of seamen so great as to necessitate filling up the complements with soldiers. As for the personnel of the Spanish navy, there is no reason to believe it better than fifteen years later, when Nelson, speaking of Spain giving certain ships to France, said, “I take it for granted not manned [by Spaniards], as that would be the readiest way to lose them again.”
1. Burrows: Life of Lord Hawke.
In truth, however, it is too evident to need much arguing, that the surest way for the weaker party to neutralize the enemy’s ships was to watch them in their harbors and fight them if they started. The only serious objection to doing this, in Europe, was the violence of the weather off the coasts of France and Spain, especially during the long nights of winter. This brought with it not only risk of immediate disaster, which strong, well-managed ships would rarely undergo, but a continual strain which no skill could prevent, and which therefore called for a large reserve of ships to relieve those sent in for repairs, or to refresh the crews. The problem would be greatly simplified if the blockading fleet could find a convenient anchorage on the flank of the route the enemy must take, as Nelson in 1804 and 1805 used Maddalena Bay in Sardinia when watching the Toulon fleet, - a step to which he was further forced by the exceptionally bad condition of many of his ships. So Sir James Saumarez in 1800 even used Douarnenez Bay, on the French coast, only five miles from Brest, to anchor the in-shore squadron of the blockading force in heavy weather. The positions at Plymouth and Torbay cannot be considered perfectly satisfactory from this point of view; not being, like Maddalena Bay, on the flank of the enemy’s route, but like Sta. Lucia, rather to its rear. Nevertheless, Hawke proved that diligence and well-managed ships could overcome this disadvantage, as Rodney also afterward showed on his less tempestuous station.
In the use of the ships at its disposal, taking the war of 1778 as a whole, the English ministry kept their foreign detachments in America, and in the West and East Indies, equal to those of the enemy. At particular times, indeed, this was not so; but speaking generally of the assignment of ships, the statement is correct. In Europe, on the contrary, and in necessary consequence of the policy mentioned, the British fleet was habitually much inferior to that in the French and Spanish ports. It therefore could be used offensively only by great care, and through good fortune in meeting the enemy in detail; and even so an expensive victory, unless very decisive, entailed considerable risk from the consequent temporary disability of the ships engaged. It followed that the English home (or Channel) fleet, upon which depended also the communications with Gibraltar and the Mediterranean, was used very economically both as to battle and weather, and was confined to the defence of the home coast, or to operations against the enemy’s communications.
India was so far distant that no exception can be taken to the policy there. Ships sent there went to stay, and could be neither reinforced nor recalled with a view to sudden emergencies. The field stood by itself. But Europe, North America, and the West Indies should have been looked upon as one large theatre of war, throughout which events were mutually dependent, and whose different parts stood in close relations of greater or less importance, to which due attention should have been paid.
Assuming that the navies, as the guardians of the communications, were the controlling factors in the war, and that the source, both of the navies and of those streams of supplies which are called communications, was in the mother-countries, and there centralized in the chief arsenals, two things follow: First, the main effort of the Power standing on the defensive, of Great Britain, should have been concentrated before those arsenals; and secondly, in order to such concentration, the lines of communication abroad should not have been needlessly extended, so as to increase beyond the strictest necessity the detachments to guard them. Closely connected with the last consideration is the duty of strengthening, by fortification and otherwise, the vital points to which the communications led, so that these points should not depend in any way upon the fleet for protection, but only for supplies and reinforcements, and those at reasonable intervals. Gibraltar, for instance, quite fulfilled these conditions, being practically impregnable, and storing supplies that lasted very long.
If this reasoning be correct, the English dispositions on the American continent were very faulty. Holding Canada, with Halifax, New York, and Narragansett Bay, and with the line of the Hudson within their grip, it was in their power to isolate a large, perhaps decisive, part of the insurgent territory. New York and Narragansett Bay could have been made unassailable by a French fleet of that day, thus assuring the safety of the garrisons against attacks from the sea and minimizing the task of the navy; while the latter would find in them a secure refuge, in case an enemy’s force eluded the watch of the English fleet before a European arsenal and appeared on the coast. Instead of this, these two ports were left weak, and would have fallen before a Nelson or a Farragut, while the army in New York was twice divided, first to the Chesapeake and afterward to Georgia, neither part of the separated forces being strong enough for the work before it. The control of the sea was thus used in both cases to put the enemy between the divided portions of the English army, when the latter, undivided, had not been able to force its way over the ground thus interposed. As the communication between the two parts of the army depended wholly upon the sea, the duty of the navy was increased with the increased length of the lines of communication. The necessity of protecting the seaports and the lengthened lines of communication thus combined to augment the naval detachments in America, and to weaken proportionately the naval force at the decisive points in Europe. Thus also a direct consequence of the southern expedition was the hasty abandonment of Narragansett Bay, when D’Estaing appeared on the coast in 1779, because Clinton had not force enough to defend both it and New York.(1)
1. Of this Rodney said: “The evacuating Rhode Island was the most fatal measure that could possibly be adopted. It gave up the best and noblest harbor in America, from whence squadrons, in forty-eight hours, could blockade the three capital cities of America, namely, Boston, New York, and Philadelphia.” The whole letter, private to the First Lord of the Admiralty, is worth reading (Life of Rodney, vol. ii. p. 429.)
In the West Indies the problem before the English government was not to subdue revolted territory, but to preserve the use of a number of small, fruitful islands; to keep possession of them itself, and to maintain their trade as free as possible from the depredations of the enemy. It need not be repeated that this demanded predominance at sea over both the enemy’s fleets and single cruisers, - “commerce-destroyers,” as the latter are now styled. As no vigilance can confine all these to their ports, the West Indian waters must be patrolled by British frigates and lighter vessels; but it would surely be better, if possible, to keep the French fleet away altogether than to hold it in check by a British fleet on the spot, of only equal force at any time, and liable to fail, as it often did, below equality. England, being confined to the defensive, was always liable to loss when thus inferior. She actually did lose one by one, by sudden attack, most of her islands, and at different times had her fleet shut up under the batteries of a port; whereas the enemy, when he found himself inferior, was able to wait for reinforcements, knowing that he had nothing to fear while so waiting.(1)
1. The loss of Sta. Lucia does not militate against this statement, being due to happy audacity and skill on the part of the English admiral, and the professional incapacity of the commander of the greatly superior French fleet.
Nor was this embarrassment confined to the West Indies. The nearness of the islands to the American continent made it always possible for the offence to combine his fleets in the two quarters before the defence could be sure of his purpose; and although such combinations were controlled in some measure by well-understood conditions of weather and the seasons, the events of 1780 and 1781 show the perplexity felt from this cause by the ablest English admiral, whose dispositions, though faulty, but reflected the uncertainties of his mind. When to this embarrassment, which is common to the defensive in all cases, is added the care of the great British trade upon which the prosperity of the empire mainly depended, it must be conceded that the task of the British admiral in the West Indies was neither light nor simple.
In Europe, the safety of England herself and of Gibraltar was gravely imperilled by the absence of these large detachments in the Western Hemisphere, to which may also be attributed the loss of Minorca. When sixty-six allied ships-of-the-line confronted the thirty-five which alone England could collect, and drove them into their harbors, there was realized that mastery of the Channel which Napoleon claimed would make him beyond all doubt master of England. For thirty days, the thirty ships which formed the French contingent had cruised in the Bay of Biscay, awaiting the arrival of the tardy Spaniards; but they were not disturbed by the English fleet. Gibraltar was more than once brought within sight of starvation, through the failure of communications with England; and its deliverance was due, not to the power of the English navy suitably disposed by its government, but to the skill of British officers and the inefficiency of the Spaniards. In the great final relief, Lord Howe’s fleet numbered only thirty-four to the allied forty-nine.
Which, then, in the difficulties under which England labored, was the better course, - to allow the enemy free exit from his ports and endeavor to meet him by maintaining a sufficient naval force on each of the exposed stations, or to attempt to watch his arsenals at home, under all the difficulties of the situation, not with the vain hope of preventing every raid, or intercepting every convoy, but with the expectation of frustrating the greater combinations, and of following close at the heels of any large fleet that escaped? Such a watch must not be confounded with a blockade, a term frequently, but not quite accurately, applied to it. “I beg to inform your Lordship,” wrote Nelson, “that the port of Toulon has never been blockaded by me; quite the reverse. Every opportunity has been offered the enemy to put to sea, for it is there we hope to realize the hopes and expectations of our country.” “Nothing,” he says again, “ever kept the French fleet in Toulon or Brest when they had a mind to comae out;” and although the statement is somewhat exaggerated, it is true that the attempt to shut them up in port would have been hopeless. What Nelson expected by keeping near their ports, with enough lookout ships properly distributed, was to know when they sailed and what direction they took, intending, to use his own expression, to “follow them to the antipodes.” “I am led to believe,” he writes at another time, “that the Ferrol squadron of French ships will push for the Mediterranean. If it join that in Toulon, it will much outnumber us; but I shall never lose sight of them, and Pellew (commanding the English squadron off Ferrol) will soon be after them.” So it happened often enough during that prolonged war that divisions of French ships escaped, through stress of weather, temporary absence of a blockading fleet, or misjudgment on the part of its commander; but the alarm was quickly given, some of the many frigates caught sight of them, followed to detect their probable destination, passed the word from point to point and from fleet to fleet, and soon a division of equal force was after them, “to the antipodes” if need were. As, according to the traditional use of the French navy by French governments, their expeditions went not to fight the hostile fleet, but with “ulterior objects,” the angry buzz and hot pursuit that immediately followed was far from conducive to an undisturbed and methodical execution of the programme laid down, even by a single division; while to great combinations, dependent upon uniting the divisions from different ports, they were absolutely fatal. The adventurous cruise of Bruix, leaving Brest with twenty-five ships-of-the-line in 1799, the rapidity with which the news spread, the stirring action and individual mistakes of the English, the frustration of the French projects (1) and the closeness of the pursuit, (2) the escape of Missiessy from Rochefort in 1805, of the divisions of Willaumez and Leissegues from Brest in 1806, - all these may be named, along with the great Trafalgar campaign, as affording interesting studies of a naval strategy following the lines here suggested; while the campaign of 1798, despite its brilliant ending at the Nile, may be cited as a case where failure nearly ensued, owing to the English having no force before Toulon when the expedition sailed, and to Nelson being insufficiently provided with frigates. The nine weeks’ cruise of Ganteaume in the Mediterranean, in 1808, also illustrates the difficulty of controlling a fleet which has been permitted to get out, unwatched by a strong force, even in such narrow waters.
1. The plan of campaign traced by the Directory for Bruix became impossible of execution; the delay in the junction of the French and Spanish squadrons having permitted England to concentrate sixty ships in the Mediterranean. - Troude, vol. iii. p. 158. 2. The combined squadrons of France and Spain, under Bruix, reached Brest on their return only twenty-four hours before Lord Keith, who had followed them from the Mediterranean. (James: Naval History of Great Britain.)
No parallel instances can be cited from the war of 1778, although the old monarchy did not cover the movements of its fleets with the secrecy enforced by the stern military despotism of the Empire. In both epochs England stood on the defensive; but in the earlier war she gave up the first line of the defence, off the hostile ports, and tried to protect all parts of her scattered empire by dividing the fleet among them. It has been attempted to show the weakness of the one policy, while admitting the difficulties and dangers of the other. The latter aims at shortening and deciding the war by either shutting up or forcing battle upon the hostile navy, recognizing that this is the key of the situation, when the sea at once unites and separates the different parts of the theatre of war. It requires a navy equal in number and superior in efficiency, to which it assigns a limited field of action, narrowed to the conditions which admit of mutual support among the squadrons occupying it. Thus distributed, it relies upon skill and watchfulness to intercept or overtake any division of the enemy which gets to sea. lit defends remote possessions and trade by offensive action against the fleet, in which it sees their real enemy and its own principal objective. Being near the home ports, the relief and renewal of ships needing repairs are accomplished with the least loss of time, while the demands upon the scan-tier resources of the bases abroad are lessened. The other policy, to be effective, calls for superior numbers, because the different divisions are too far apart for mutual support. Each must therefore be equal to any probable combination against it, which implies superiority everywhere to the force of the enemy actually opposed, as the latter may be unexpectedly reinforced. How impossible and dangerous such a defensive strategy is, when not superior in force, is shown by the frequent inferiority of the English abroad, as well as in Europe, despite the effort to be everywhere equal. Howe at New York in 1778, Byron at Grenada in 1779, Graves off the Chesapeake in 1781, Hood at Martinique in 1781 and at St. Kitt’s in 1782, all were inferior, at the same time that the allied fleet in Europe overwhelmingly outnumbered the English. In consequence, unseaworthy ships were retained, to the danger of their crews and their own increasing injury, rather than diminish the force by sending them home; for the deficiencies of the colonial dock-yards did not allow extensive repairs without crossing the Atlantic. As regards the comparative expense of the two strategies, the question is not only which would cost the more in the same time, but which would most tend to shorten the war by the effectiveness of its action.
The military policy of the allies is open to severer condemnation than that of England, by so much as the party assuring the offensive has by that very fact an advantage over the defensive. When the initial difficulty of combining their forces was overcome, - and it has been seen that at no time did Great Britain seriously embarrass their junction, -the allies had the choice open to them where, when, and how to strike with their superior numbers. How did they avail themselves of this recognized enormous advantage? By nibbling at the outskirts of the British Empire, and knocking their heads against the Rock of Gibraltar. The most serious military effort made by France, in sending to the United States a squadron and division of troops intended to be double the number of those which actually reached their destination, resulted, in little over a year, in opening the eyes of England to the hopelessness of the contest with the colonies, and thus put an end to a diversion of her strength which had been most beneficial to her opponents. In the West Indies one petty island after another was reduced, generally in the absence of the English fleet, with an ease which showed how completely the whole question would have been solved by a decisive victory over that fleet; but the French, though favored with many opportunities, never sought to slip the knot by the simple method of attacking the force upon which all depended. Spain went her own way in the Floridas, and with an overwhelming force obtained successes of no military value. In Europe the plan adopted by the English government left its naval force hopelessly inferior in numbers year after year; yet the operations planned by the allies seem in no case seriously to have contemplated the destruction of that force. In the crucial instance, when Derby’s squadron of thirty sail-of-the-line was hemmed in the open roadstead of Torbay by the allied forty-nine, the conclusion of the council of war not to fight only epitomized the character of the action of the combined navies. To further embarrass their exertions in Europe, Spain, during long periods, obstinately persisted in tying down her fleet to the neighborhood of Gibraltar; but there was at no time practical recognition of the fact that a severe blow to the English navy in the Straits, or in the English Channel, or on the open sea, was the surest road to reduce the fortress, brought more than once within measurable distance of starvation.
In the conduct of their offensive war the allied courts suffered from the divergent counsels and jealousies which have hampered the movements of most naval coalitions. The conduct of Spain appears to have been selfish almost to disloyalty, that of France more faithful, and therefore also militarily sounder; for hearty co-operation and concerted action against a common objective, wisely chosen, would have better forwarded the objects of both. It must be admitted, too, that the indications point to inefficient administration and preparation on the part of the allies, of Spain especially; and that the quality of the personnel (1) was inferior to that of England. Questions of preparation and administration, however, though of deep military interest and importance, are very different from the strategic plan or method adopted by the allied courts in selecting and attacking their objectives, and so compassing the objects of the war; and their examination would not only extend this discussion unreasonably, but would also obscure the strategic question by heaping up unnecessary details foreign to its subject.
1. The high professional attainments of many of the French officers is not overlooked in this statement. The quality of the personnel was diluted by an inferior element, owing to the insufficient number of good men. “The personnel of our crews had been seriously affected by the events of the campaign of 1779. At the beginning of 1780 it was necessary either to disarm some ships, or to increase the proportion of soldiers entering into the composition of the crews. The minister adopted the latter alternative. New regiments, drawn from the land army, were put at the disposal of the navy. The corps of officers, far from numerous at the beginning of hostilities, had become completely inadequate. Rear-Admiral de Guichen met the greatest difficulty in forming the complements, both officers and crews, for his squadron. He took the sea, February 3, with ships ‘badly manned,’ as he wrote to the minister.” (Chevalier: Hist. de la Marine Francaise, p. 184.) “During the last war [of 1778] we had met the greatest difficulty in supplying officers to our ships. If it had been easy to name admirals, commodores, and captains it had been impossible to fill the vacancies caused by death, sickness, or promotion among officers of the rank of lieutenant and ensign.” (Chevalier: Marine Francaise sous la Republique, p. 20.)
As regards the strategic question, it may be said pithily that the phrase “ulterior objects” embodies the cardinal fault of the naval policy. Ulterior objects brought to nought the hopes of the allies, because, by fastening their eyes upon them, they thoughtlessly passed the road which led to them. Desire eagerly directed upon the ends in view - or rather upon the partial, though great, advantages which they constituted their ends - blinded them to the means by which alone they could be surely attained; hence, as the result of the war, everywhere failure to attain them. To quote again the summary before given, their object was “to avenge their respective injuries, and to put an end to that tyrannical empire which England claims to maintain upon the ocean.” The revenge they had obtained was barren of benefit to themselves. They had, so that generation thought, injured England by liberating America; but they had not righted their wrongs in Gibraltar and Jamaica, the English fleet had not received any such treatment as would lessen its haughty self-reliance, the armed neutrality of the northern powers had been allowed to pass fruitlessly away, and the English empire over the seas soon became as tyrannical and more absolute than before.
Barring questions of preparation and administration, of the fighting quality of the allied fleets as compared with the English, and looking only to the indisputable fact of largely superior numbers, it must be noted as the supreme factor in the military conduct of the wars that, while the allied powers were on the offensive and England on the defensive, the attitude of the allied fleets in presence of the English navy was habitually defensive. Neither in the greater strategic combinations, nor upon the battlefield, does there appear any serious purpose of using superior numbers to crush fractions of the enemy’s fleet, to make the disparity of numbers yet greater, to put an end to the empire of the seas by the destruction of the organized force which sustained it. With the single brilliant exception of Suffren, the allied navies avoided or accepted action; they never imposed it. Yet so long as the English navy was permitted thus with impunity to range the seas, not only was there no security that it would not frustrate the ulterior objects of the campaign, as it did again and again, but there was always the possibility that by some happy chance it would, by winning an important victory, restore the balance of strength. That it did not do so is to be imputed as a fault to the English ministry; but if England was wrong in permitting her European fleet to fall so far below that of the allies, the latter were yet more to blame for their failure to profit by the mistake. The stronger party, assuming the offensive, cannot plead the perplexities which account for, though they do not justify, the undue dispersal of forces by the defence anxious about many points.
The national bias of the French, which found expression in the line of action here again and for the last the criticised, appears to have been shared by both the government and the naval officers of the day. It is the key to the course of the French navy, and, in the opinion of the author, to its failure to achieve more substantial results to France from this war. It is instructive, as showing how strong a hold tradition has over the minds of men, that a body of highly accomplished and gallant seamen should have accepted, apparently without a murmur, so inferior a role for their noble profession. It carries also a warning, if these criticisms are correct, that current opinions and plausible impressions should always be thoroughly tested; for if erroneous they work sure failure, and perhaps disaster.
There was such an impression largely held by French officers of that day, and yet more widely spread in the United States now, of the efficacy of commerce-destroying as a main reliance in war, especially when directed against a commercial country like Great Britain. “The surest means in my opinion,” wrote a distinguished officer, Lamotte-Picquet, “to conquer the English is to attack them in their commerce.” The harassment and distress caused to a country by serious interference with its commerce will be conceded by all. It is doubtless a most important secondary operation of naval war, and is not likely to be abandoned till war itself shall cease; but regarded as a primary and fundamental measure, sufficient in itself to crush an enemy, it is probably a delusion, and a most dangerous delusion, when presented in the fascinating garb of cheapness to the representatives of a people. Especially is it misleading when the nation against whom it is to be directed possesses, as Great Britain did and does, the two requisites of a strong sea power, - a wide-spread healthy commerce and a powerful navy. Where the revenues and industries of a country can be concentrated into a few treasure-ships, like the flota of Spanish galleons, the sinew of war may perhaps be cut by a stroke; but when its wealth is scattered in thousands of going and coming ships, when the roots of the system spread wide and far, and strike deep, it can stand many a cruel shock and lose many a goodly bough without the life being touched. Only by military command of the sea by prolonged control of the strategic centres of commerce, can such an attack be fatal; (1) and such control can be wrung from a powerful navy only by fighting and overcoming it For two hundred years England has been the great commercial nation of the world. More than any other her wealth has been intrusted to the sea in war as in peace; yet of all nations she has ever been most reluctant to concede the immunities of commerce and the rights of neutrals. Regarded not as a matter of right, but of policy, history has justified the refusal; and if she maintain her navy in full strength, the future will doubtless repeat the lesson of the past.
1. The vital centre of English commerce is in the waters surrounding the British Islands; and as the United Kingdom now depends largely upon external sources of food-supply, it follows that France is the nation most favorably situated to harass it by commerce-destroying, on account of her nearness and her possession of ports both on the Atlantic and the North Sea. From these issued the privateers which in the past preyed upon English shipping. The position is stronger now than formerly, Cherbourg presenting a good Channel port which France lacked in the old wars. On the other hand steam and railroads have made the ports on the northern coasts of the United Kingdom more available, and British shipping need not, as formerly, focus about the Channel.
Much importance has been attached to the captures made during the hate summer manoeuvres (1888) by cruisers in and near the English Channel. The United States must remember that such cruisers were near their home ports. Their line of coal-supply may have been two hundred miles; it would be a very different thing to maintain them in activity three thousand miles from home. The furnishing of coal, or of such facilities as cleaning the bottom or necessary repairs, in such a case, would be so unfriendly to Great Britain, that it may well be doubted if any neighboring neutral nation would allow them.
Commerce-destroying by independent cruisers depends upon wide dissemination of force. Commerce-destroying through control of a strategic centre by a great fleet depends upon concentration of force. Regarded as a primary, not as a secondary, operation, the former is condemned, the latter justified, by the experience of centuries.
The preliminaries of the peace between Great Britain and the allied courts, which brought to an end this great war, were signed at Versailles, January 20, 1783, an arrangement having been concluded between Great Britain and the American Commissioners two months before, by which the independence of the United States was conceded. This was the great outcome of the war. As between the European belligerents, Great Britain received back from France all the West India Islands she had lost, except Tobago, and gave up Sta. Lucia. The French stations in India were restored; and Trincomalee being in the possession of the enemy, England could not dispute its return to Holland, but she refused to cede Negapatam. To Spain, England surrendered the two Floridas and Minorca, the latter a serious loss had the naval power of Spain been sufficient to maintain possession of it; as it was, it again fell into the hands of Great Britain in the next war. Some unimportant redistribution of trading-posts on the west coast of Africa was also made.
Trivial in themselves, there is but one comment that need be made upon these arrangements. In any coming war their permanency would depend wholly upon the balance of sea power, upon that empire of the seas concerning which nothing conclusive had been established by the war.
The definitive treaties of peace were signed at Versailles, September 3, 1783.