Prize Essay, 1917
*Essay received by U. S. Naval Institute, December 30, 1916. Published without change.
Motto: Easy methods; inconsiderable results.
The science of war as we know it to-day, like all other sciences, is the result of progressive development. As war implements changed by successive stages from the clubs and stones of savagery to the high-power guns of to-day the method of using these implements necessarily changed also, but the object of war has constantly remained the same, namely the reduction of one's opponent to such a state of impotence, actual or prospective, that he considers it the part of wisdom to submit to the will of his enemy.
Since war ceased to be a general mêlée in which one savage tribe fell upon another and fought by brute force until one was exterminated or enslaved, man has been more and more seeking to employ his brains as an aid in fighting. Many have reaped the advantage of more effective weapons or a more effective use of their weapons, but many more have striven in vain for a short cut to success in war—some patent nostrum by which victory could be won without taking and giving the hard blows that make war so disagreeable.
In the early ages of human development, sea-borne commerce was practically non-existent, but, so soon as civilization reached the era of colonization, it quickly became an important part of the economic life of the countries that faced the sea, and consequently of great importance in war.
A merchant vessel on the high-seas is particularly helpless to resist force, and furthermore constitutes, with her cargo, a concentrated form of wealth. The sea offers no facilities for concealment, and the lanes of maritime commerce converge in certain localities on account of physical features, as islands, straits or smaller seas, making the location of merchant ships fairly simple. Seeing this, some seeker for success-in-war-without-fighting evolved the idea of commerce destroying as the long-sought short cut to easy, economical and successful war.
He argued in this way. We will build ships of less cost than heavy men-of-war, and send them out to prey upon this helpless maritime wealth of our enemy. These ships will infest the regions in which his merchant ships converge, and by capturing or destroying them we will bring him to the verge of bankruptcy; at the same time enriching ourselves at his expense. This reasoning seemed plausible, and this means of winning war on the sea appeared to be both simple and economical, and straightway there arose a school of adherents, both naval and civilian, though it must be said that it always appealed with more force to those who direct the conduct of war than to those who actually have to execute it. In any case, from that day to this, most maritime wars have seen commerce destroying used with varying degrees of insistence.
That great student of naval history, Admiral Mahan, said: "There are certain teachings in the school of history which remain constant," and it would seem to be not without interest to see what lessons the school of history contains on commerce destroying in war, with special attention to its final result and its association with victory or defeat. Such lessons should be of particular interest at this time, when commerce destroying is being undertaken on an extensive scale and a new instrument, the submarine, is being employed in its service.
A survey of the history of commerce destroying will necessarily have to be very brief to be compassed in reasonable space, but even so, we may be able to deduce something therefrom of value to our country and of interest to ourselves. Such a survey may be divided logically into two parts, i. e., commerce destroying in former wars and commerce destroying in the present war. By handling the subject in this way we may more accurately gauge the present by the known results of the past, and after all, such a survey can have real value only in so far as it leads to a clearer understanding in the momentous present.
It is not necessary for our purpose that we go back in history for a further period than to enable us to cite sufficient examples upon which to base our deductions with reasonable safety. By the middle of the sixteenth century maritime commerce had risen to a position of great economic importance in the national lives of several European countries, particularly Spain. Her galleons usually voyaged several together, the better to defend themselves from the pirates and freebooters of that day, and on their homeward voyages were laden with cargoes of great value.
When England under Elizabeth and Spain under Philip went to war, partly for "the glory of God," and partly for the privilege of trade with America, the Spanish Navy was at the height of its glory, while the English Navy had yet to win its distinction, and to become imbued with those correct principles of naval warfare that for so long have maintained England in her world position. At this time England was a comparatively poor country, and first-line men-of-war were expensive, so for some years she made direct war on the commerce of Spain her chief objective, at the same time pillaging and destroying her colonial cities as occasion permitted.
At first this mode of warfare seemed to meet with considerable success, but, none-the-less, when Philip began building and fitting out a vast number of fighting ships, England found herself threatened with invasion, which commerce destroying was powerless to stop. Though Drake covered himself with glory when he “singed the King of Spain's beard for him" at Cadiz, the preparations for invasion were only delayed, not stopped.
After much delay through vacillation and economy, the English began to prepare a fighting fleet, and finally were able, though vastly outnumbered, to "defy the Duke Medina" and scatter to the winds the Great Armada.
Then it was that the English found that in saving England from invasion by destroying the Spanish war-fleet, they had also greatly simplified the problem of trade with America, and had put the commerce of Spain almost at their mercy.
For fifty years or more after this, England put her reliance in maritime war in her fighting fleet; but plausible fallacies die hard, and in the second Anglo-Dutch war the English showed they had only half-learned their lesson. Charles II, as usual; was short of money and, besides, the war was waged primarily over the question of maritime commerce, so again England made direct war on commerce, though several fleet actions took place. In these actions the English Navy, while winning no decisive victories, still maintained its position very satisfactorily. After the battle off the North Foreland, Charles, for purposes of economy, decided to put most of his fighting ships out of commission, and concentrate upon commerce destroying. The ineffectiveness of such action may be clearly seen, since the Dutch fleet entered the Thames River in 1667 and inflicted enormous damage, and England was quite willing to come to terms of peace containing no advantages for herself, except escape from the then vastly superior Dutch fleet.
England wholly learned her lesson this time, and not since the Peace of Breda, signed after De Ruyter's raid up the Thames, has she used commerce destroying as a primary mode of maritime war. On the contrary her own commerce has been attacked directly a number of times, but nevertheless it has continued to grow until it has become greater than that of any other country.
France has been the most faithful adherent of commerce destroying, having used it intermittently in her naval wars for over a hundred years. Over and over again it was demonstrated that it led to no considerable military advantage, but still she clung to it with a tenacity worthy of a better cause.
In the third and last Anglo-Dutch war, in which France was allied with England, each of the powers used their fighting fleets, rather than commerce destroying, and finally the Dutch sea power was destroyed and with this destruction Dutch commerce was automatically toppled from its pedestal of supremacy.
Again, in the War of the League of Augsburg, we see France taking the sea with fighting fleets and England, how allied with the Dutch, was partially defeated at the Battle of Beachy Head, though the next year Admiral Russell took the sea with a greater force than Tourville could gather. However, by skillfully handling his fleet Tourville drew the English fleet well out into the Atlantic, and during its absence the French light cruisers fell upon English commerce and inflicted enormous damage.
During this campaign, it should be noted, there was no actual fighting, and yet the injury to England was considerable. Here we probably have the origin of the French belief in the efficacy of commerce destroying as a primary mode of warfare on the sea. "Why," they argued, "have expensive fighting fleets when such injury can be done our enemy by cheaper cruisers and privateers." They quite overlooked the fact that their main fleet, by drawing off the English fleet in pursuit, gave to their cruisers the temporary immunity that enabled them to operate successfully.
The following year the French fleet was badly worsted at La Hogue, but direct war on commerce was continued on a scale previously unknown. Gradually, though, as the French Navy declined in fighting ships, their commerce destroyers were chased from the seas, and with sea control in England's hands French maritime commerce disappeared and its place was taken by England's increasing fleet of merchant vessels. As the disparity in fighting ships increased it became progressively more dangerous for the French commerce destroyers to go to sea, and more difficult for them to make captures even when they could keep the sea.
The part of a commerce destroyer is to destroy merchant vessels, not to fight, and consequently French commerce destroyers were usually so busy keeping out of the way of English men-of-war that they had but little opportunity to ply their vocation. Where the lanes of commerce converged, and captures should have been easy, England stationed men-of-war more powerful than commerce destroyers and the French ships had to seek their victims in more sparsely traversed regions, where captures were few. The peace terms were most humiliating to Louis XIV, and his comparatively successful war on commerce was in no way comparable to the military success on the sea of his enemy.
When the war of the Spanish Succession began France at first tried squadron warfare in rather a half-hearted way, but the ease and seeming economy of war on commerce again lured her away from the true principles of naval warfare. During the first five years of the war France captured or destroyed on an average about 230 English ships per year, but England captured more French ships during that time, though her fleet was primarily engaged in military operations that were not without great influence in leading up to the treaty of Utrecht, so disastrous to France. The individual exploits of some of the French privateering commanders were illustrious, but none-the-less the end of the war found France humbled and defeated and English sea power with its protecting wing at its height.
In the war of the Austrian Succession the naval history of the war of the Spanish Succession in effect repeated itself. France started off as though to fight her part in the war on the sea, but soon commerce destroying was again the accepted mode and the treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle in 1748 restored to France none of the concessions made by the treaty of Utrecht.
In the Seven Years' War between France and England we see another deplorable result of seeking an easy mode of warfare, for though the French fought on occasion, they were ever on the defensive—always willing to await the attack of their enemy—rather than seeking in aggressive action to deliver the heavy blows necessary to overcome an enemy, even if heavy blows have to be accepted in doing so. They seem to have thought that by making a pretence of fleet warfare they could impart the element needed to make commerce destroying effective as a means of bringing their enemy to terms.
It is quite true that England suffered the loss of many merchant vessels, but French commerce was practically denied the use of the sea by the English fleets, and, after all, the percentage of loss to the English was small. Her ships were now carrying both her own normal commerce and that abandoned by France. The financial loss to England was scarcely more than a small war tax upon maritime commerce, never amounting to more than 3 or 4 per cent per year. In the meantime England was taking the French colonies one by one, far more than compensating herself in a financial way for the small war tax, and at the same time establishing the foundation of the British Empire.
The treaty of Paris in 1763 left in English hands Canada, Nova Scotia, the Ohio valley, the country east of the Mississippi to New Orleans and numerous small West Indian islands, and a navy powerful enough to keep them. The practical results of France's war on English commerce were absolutely without effect when it came to signing the treaty of peace. Comment is unnecessary.
In the maritime part of the War of the American Revolution, France swung away from war on commerce and rather consistently followed squadron warfare, but the infection of non-aggressive action was still there as a legacy from the less rigorous mode of warfare. Still the results of the war were much more satisfactory to France than were those in which war on commerce had been accorded a more prominent part.
It is nothing short of remarkable that the French, after their years of failure to attain any material advantage through war on commerce, should again revert to it, yet they did no less. In the French Revolution the Committee of Public Safety announced "The new system of political warfare that your committee has adopted. . . . All our plans, all our cruises, all our movements in port and at sea, will have for object only to ravage its (England's) commerce, to destroy, to overturn its colonies, to force it finally into a shameful bankruptcy." That this system was termed new, can only be attributed to an utter lack of familiarity with naval history in general and with French naval history in particular.
It cannot be denied that for some years many English merchant ships were captured, and it was doubtless a source of annoyance to English merchants, but the monetary value of these ships was but a very small part of the total expense of war, and during these years, despite captures, English commerce actually increased. The "shameful bankruptcy" failed to materialize. As a matter of fact the French captures per year averaged only from 2.5 to 3.0 per cent of England's merchant fleet, which does not seem a very heavy war tax.
In the Napoleonic Wars, the French, though their military operations were directed by a master mind, still hoped to gain some advantage through war on commerce at sea. They fought several memorable fleet actions, it is true, but they were always the attacked, and it would seem as though the hearts of their seamen were ever longing for some less violent form of warfare, some easy mode of success, some method of "making war without running risks," as Napoleon himself said. For several years after Trafalgar, war on commerce was followed with energy and persistence, but one by one the French cruisers were sunk, captured or wrecked, and their own shipping, lacking the protecting influence of fighting squadrons, practically disappeared from the high seas.
The numerous examples from French history have been cited, because for a hundred years there were practically only two naval powers, and their modes of conducting warfare were diametrically opposite. England, profiting by the lessons learned from her wars with Spain and Holland, took the sea, whether inferior or superior in numbers, ready and eager to fight, and her objective was ever the fleet of her enemy. France over and over again sought by inconclusive maneuvers and commerce destroying to bring her enemy to terms. The known results of the various wars individually, and the cumulative total of a hundred years, illustrate more clearly than mere words may hope to do, the strength of the one method and the weakness of the other. It may be accepted as a maxim of warfare that what is worth having is worth fighting for, and easy methods lead to inconsiderable results.
Only a few more examples of commerce destroying prior to the present war will be mentioned, and these only because being less remote historically, they are more generally familiar, and because one famous example of war on commerce is of particular interest to Americans.
During our Civil War the South, having but few men-of-war, used them largely in warring upon the sea-borne commerce of the North. Three ships, the Florida, the Shenandoah and the Alabama, were particularly successful, but the importance of their operations has been vastly magnified by the romantic appeal of their careers, and the concurrent decline in American shipping that has lasted to the present time.
The Alabama was the most celebrated of these commerce destroyers, and yet she averaged only three captures per month, and the total loss by capture of the commerce of the North during the entire war, according to a congressional investigation made soon thereafter, was only 5 per cent of the whole, or 1¼ per cent per year. This does not impress one as being an exorbitant war tax on any branch of commerce. That these commerce destroyers were able to accomplish even as much as they did was due more to faulty methods of commerce protection on the part of the North, than to any inherent value in this mode of warfare.
While the commerce of the North was very seriously injured by the direct attack upon it, it is generally lost sight of that the commerce of the South was practically prohibited on the high seas by the purely military disposition of the Northern fleet. That this military disposition was a most effective factor in defeating the South, no one familiar with the history of the Civil War can doubt. At the same time it is highly improbable that the total result of the Southern commerce destroyers prolonged the losing struggle of the Confederacy by so much as one day, nor would the result of the war have been different had there been a hundred Alabamas—so long as they were used purely as commerce destroyers.
The permanent decline of American maritime commerce was due much less to commerce destroying than to legislative, economic and fiscal causes subsequent to the war.
In the Spanish-American War neither combatant had a merchant fleet worthy of the name, and so it affords no examples of war on commerce, though our men-of-war, of course, captured such Spanish merchant ships as came their way. The war was in effect concluded by the destruction of the Spanish fighting squadrons at Manila and Santiago.
In the Russo-Japanese War the Russian division based on Vladivostok made several raids on Japanese commerce, in one case getting as far down as the entrance to Tokyo Bay, but the influence of these raids on the final result of the war was absolutely nil. The Japanese refused to draw any part of their main fleet away from their strictly military objective—the Russian fleet of fighting ships in Port Arthur.
Even in this mere outline sketch of commerce destroying in past wars, it may be seen that certain facts repeat themselves with such consistency that we can but conclude that they belong to the constant teachings in the school of history. We see that commerce destroying has ever been used by the nation having the weaker navy—weaker in fighting ships, in morale, or in the willingness to run the legitimate risks of normal war on the sea; that the main incentives to such warfare are economy and the longing for an easy way to success in war; that the surest way of accomplishing the ruin of an adversary's commerce is to destroy the fighting force that protects it, rather than to make direct war on commerce; that commerce attacked directly sometimes actually increases in war, when protected by adequate fighting ships properly used; that, at its best, commerce destroying has been able to inflict no more than a small percentage of loss on an enemy's total maritime commerce; that the monetary loss to an enemy caused by attacking her merchant ships has never amounted to more than a very small fraction of the cost of war; that an enemy country has never been brought to the verge of bankruptcy through attacking its commerce; that war on commerce has never produced concrete results of moment tending to reduce an adversary to a state of impotence; and finally that commerce destroying has consistently been practiced by the nation that was, sooner or later, defeated in the essentials of the wars in which this form of warfare was employed.
It is hardly within the bounds of reason that the foregoing clearly discernible facts should have been merely coincidental. There must be some reason for the results, and when these results are similar again and again this reason must be fairly constant, if not fundamental. The results in war are after all the essential things, and when a mode of warfare fails to produce results the reasons for its adoption cease to be of particular interest.
So it is beside the question to advocate commerce destroying in war on account of its original economy, for on the whole its operation is very uneconomical, looking at the war as an entity rather than as a number of parts; it is of no moment to state that war on commerce will reduce an enemy to bankruptcy, since it has never done so; it is futile to the extreme to employ such war fare hoping to win victory thereby, since the history of a hundred and fifty years and more show it to have been ever associated with defeat.
It is not intended that the conclusion is to be drawn that the final results of the various wars were absolutely determined by the types of naval warfare employed, but beyond question the successful use of sea power did have a great influence in each case, and direct war on commerce does not seem to be the most advantageous use of sea power. Since the war is conducted by force it must be terminated by the destruction of force, and so far no easy method of accomplishing this has been evolved.
War on commerce has its uses, for it annoys and weakens an enemy, but as a primary, peace-compelling undertaking it does not produce military advantages of importance. The best way for a combatant nation to protect its own commerce and at the same time drive the commerce of its enemy from the sea, is to destroy the fighting ships of that enemy. That much is certainly true if we are to accept the lessons of history up to the present time, and we are safe in assuming that it will remain true until basic conditions shave changed or some new method or instrument in commerce destroying is utilized that fundamentally changes the problem.
It may be well to inquire here if there is any property of submarines that indicates that their use as commerce destroyers changes, to any great degree, the general problem of war on commerce as practiced by various nations for a hundred and fifty years. From a superficial examination it would seem as though such were the case, but upon deeper inquiry the effectiveness of the submarine as a commerce destroyer is found to be much more apparent than real. The ability to submerge is an advantage in that it aids in concealment and protection, but at the same time it enormously decreases vision and speed, both very essential for effective commerce destroying.
On account of the physical limitations of submarines they are easily injured or disarranged and a slight injury or disarrangement may be fatal. Compare the relative effect on a submarine and on a fast cruiser of to-day or a fast frigate of the past, of a shot hole, or a steel net or slight disarrangement in motive power, and the limitations of the submarine as a commerce destroyer are at once apparent. The ease with which she may be damaged even by a merchant vessel, very materially limits her ability to board and determine the character of a suspected vessel, and in even moderately heavy weather she is badly handicapped in every way. The size of crew carried by a submarine makes it impracticable for her to send in prizes under prize crews. She can only destroy her prizes. Thus while she can subtract from the wealth of her enemy, she cannot add to that of her own country. A commerce destroyer has always to keep careful watch for two things—her prey and her enemies, to capture the one and to evade the other. To enable herself to evade, the submarine has necessarily to reduce her ability to capture. Certainly up to the present the submarine has not demonstrated that it has changed fundamentally, or even in marked degree, the problem of commerce destroying.
The general non-military opinion as to the effectiveness of the submarine as a commerce destroyer is largely due to the fact that submarine exploits have been considered by the newspapers to have great news value and have been featured because the submarine was a new instrument of war, its employment in commerce destroying was unexpected and its humanitarian side gave to it an interest that its military accomplishments did not warrant.
If financial loss be made sufficiently great and sufficiently widespread to bring suffering or extreme deprivation upon many individuals it may have military effect by damping the general zeal for war or even by arousing a willingness to make great concessions for peace. In the case of the financial losses here considered, we have seen that the very interests that suffer the losses are the ones that to a certain degree have these losses compensated. In this age maritime losses are very generally distributed by means of insurance, and there are no indications of real suffering brought on by maritime losses at sea.
The effect of this form of warfare on the morale of those practicing commerce destroying is, of course, speculative, but it is highly probable that a navy that systematically practices war on defenceless merchant ships almost exclusively for any length of time will deteriorate in those characteristics that distinguish virile, courageous, manly naval personnel. When the French Navy was for so long practicing direct war on English commerce, the morale of her navy was at its lowest ebb. That this was not racial is at once apparent when we recall that during this same time the morale of the French army was above reproach.
We know that heroic action develops the capacity for heroic action, and the development of military character is very largely dependent upon the nature of the service one is required to render.
Though possibly not strictly within the scope of our inquiry, it may be of interest to note that friction with neutrals is one of the historic corollaries of war on commerce. It is not difficult for one warring on the commerce of an enemy to convince himself that an occasional attack on a neutral will produce results of benefit to his country, and such attack is so easy, and resistance so futile. Of course, such attacks may be of use in specific instances, but the resulting resentment of the neutral, if nothing more, is bound to react to the advantage of his enemy, particularly if that neutral is of importance in the family of nations. Especially in this day the good will of neutrals is an asset of considerable importance to a belligerent, and war on commerce is a very likely way of alienating such good will.
NOTE.—Various naval authors have been consulted in preparing the first part of the above, particularly Mahan, Darrieus, Daveluy, Corbett and Thursfield.