In the last decade there has been evidenced in the United States a drifting away from the realism of sea power. Certain heresies have arisen. We have heard said that Mahan is out of date and his teachings do not apply in this modern world; that in 1914-18 the huge navies were for the most part inactive and exerted no great influence in the conflict fought out on the land; that battleships are obsolete and have been superseded by aircraft and submarines; that the future needs of the United States require no more than a Navy adequate to defend our coast; and that in our isolated position, protected by ocean barriers, a Navy is a luxury rather than a necessity.
Realism is often uninteresting and at times extremely unpleasant, but as events clear away the mist of theory, necessity, under the pressure of fact, compels attention to it. Perhaps the time is opportune to recall to mind some of the realistic aspects of sea power. This can be conveniently done in the light of illustration supplied by World-War experience.
Most of mankind lead their lives ashore and find great difficulty in visualizing conditions that exist at sea. Preliminary to the study of any subject concerned with maritime warfare, it is important to grasp this essential difference between sea power and land power. The latter has to do with well- defined possessions and areas clearly marked by international boundary lines, whereas the former is chiefly concerned with great expanses of water crisscrossed by numerous traffic lanes traveled by all nations but belonging to none. The only national boundary lines on the oceans are those marking the 3-mile wide strips where sea meets shore.
There is a corollary to this. War on land takes place in definite localities, in territory possessed by one belligerent or the other. Neutrals can usually keep clear of these places and in most instances need not become involved. At sea such is not the case. The ocean is used by all but no one possesses any of this water. The only possessions at sea are ships and what they carry. As soon as a neutral ship passes the 3-mile limit she enters this “no man’s” region and is at once in an area open to hostile operations. As the belligerents may carry their activities to any sea locality, the neutral ship always runs a risk of making contact with them, and frequently involvement in the war at sea is inescapable. The laws of war recognize this condition and provide for it. The United States has had some bitter experiences respecting her neutral rights on the high seas.
There is another corollary hinging on this distinctive difference between conditions at sea and those on land. Sea power reduced to its simplest terms means ability to use the ocean trade routes. The agencies that contribute to it are manifold. Not only do they include merchant marine and navy with their shore establishments, but also passengers and goods transported, linked with their points of departure and destination. In the final analysis there are few if any walks of life that are not directly or indirectly affected by sea power. Since neutral ships must travel in waters subject to hostile operations and since belligerent navies exercise authority over neutral trade under laws governing blockade measures and transport of contraband, it follows that in any maritime war commercial people of all countries, willy-nilly, are inextricably concerned.
In times of peace the seas are free to all and each country develops sea power according to national needs and aspirations. When hostilities open between two or more countries, the laws of peace are superseded by the laws of war; the seas are no longer free to all, but each of the warring factions employs naval power to gain control of the trade routes for its own use and to deny their use to the enemy. The laws of war give extraordinary powers to belligerent navies and these affect neutrals, vitally when engaged in commerce with the warring countries and to a lesser extent when engaged in commerce with each other.
Three-fourths of the earth’s surface is ocean and when the World War started m 1914 immediately this “no man’s” domain was subject to belligerent activities. The objective was own use of the trade routes, denial of their use to the enemy. The attainment of this objective depended on two factors inseparable and always to be considered jointly—strength plus position.
From the sea-power point of view all else was ancillary. True perspective is maintained by riveting attention on this objective, “own use of the ocean trade mutes, denial of their use to the enemy” and on the determining twin factors “strength plus position.” This formula controlled the exercise of sea power. Pollies, campaigns, battles, enterprises of all sorts, on land and on sea, helped or retarded the attainment of this control of the ocean highways so far as they aided or jeopardized “strength plus position.”
From the outset Great Britain and her allies were favored by superior naval strength plus superior position. Germany had made great strides in the development of her sea power but when the war broke out her powerful fleet by geographic circumstance was placed in unfavorable position in the restricted waters of the Baltic-North Sea area. The only trade routes controlled were those leading to the northern Neutrals. The Austrian fleet was likewise confined to the narrow waters of the Adriatic and controlled no trade routes. On the other hand the superior naval forces of England and her allies, admirably located to control the exits of the North Sea and the Adriatic, by so doing were able to blockade enemy ports, destroy enemy over-seas trade, and at the same time bring the resources of the world in ships to their own support. By “strength plus position” they attained the objective “own use of the ocean trade routes, denial of their use to the enemy.” This, in synthesis, was the situation from the beginning to the end of the World War. This control of the world’s shipping and the highways it traveled was not absolute, however, and it is in a balanced examination of the more striking vicissitudes that the realism of sea power can be most readily apprehended.
When war was declared, Germany had a few cruisers at large. These had position on various trade routes and limited strength. The havoc wrought by the Emden is a conspicuous example of the vulnerability of commerce to cruiser attack under modern conditions. However, prompt and skillful action by England, aided by her world-wide system of naval bases, soon ran these cruisers to earth.
A German cruiser squadron concentrated under the command of Admiral Spee was also at large and presented a more difficult problem. This squadron proceeded from the China station to the west coast of South America. There at Coronel it met and defeated the inferior British force commanded by Admiral Cradock. Germany obtained temporary control of the trade routes in this area. Allied merchant shipping was tied up, marine insurance rates soared, German prestige was raised. This comparatively small squadron by virtue of demonstrated “strength plus position” became a factor of considerable importance. Its distant position between two oceans left open many courses of action. Where would Admiral Spee strike next?
England took immediate and energetic steps. Two battle cruisers were dispatched to re-enforce her cruiser strength already concentrating toward the South Atlantic. A third battle cruiser was sent to guard the West Indian-Panama area. In view of Germany’s powerful fleet in the North Sea, this detachment of strength from the Grand Fleet was severely felt but it was considered necessary.
While this overwhelming English force was proceeding to the outlying British base at the Falkland Islands, the German admiral was apparently unaware of the repercussions of his victory. It is reported he was depressed and considered his position hopeless, without bases and with superior enemy forces closing in upon him. The value of his force “in being,” even if it did nothing but disappear in the reaches of the South Atlantic for a long period of time, does not seem to have occurred to him. He made his way rather leisurely around Cape Horn and, having given the British just sufficient time to effect their concentration at the Falklands, walked into the trap and in one day was eliminated by the crushing defeat administered by Admiral Sturdee.
It may be that had Admiral Spee grasped the full significance of Coronel, he might have taken greater care to preserve his force “in being” and prolonged its life and usefulness. Even so, the odds were against him with his limited strength and precarious position. Without bases, pitted against English, French, and Japanese forces in possession of both strength and position, his days were numbered.
Thus the German Navy was swept off the seas and with it went German trade and German over-seas possessions. In this course, however, Germany attained one noteworthy success—the escape of the Goeben and Breslau to Turkish waters. These two German ships, after an adventurous cruise in the Mediterranean, eluded superior French and British forces and entered the Dardanelles nine days after the opening of the World War. Only a few shots were fired, no material losses were incurred, and yet the Goeben and Breslau, by their safe arrival in Turkish waters, exercised a considerable influence upon the war.
All authorities agree that the arrival of the German cruisers at Constantinople had an important bearing on political relations, especially in the Balkan area; but opinions differ as to the extent of this influence. Mr. Morgenthau, United States Ambassador to Turkey at that time, has recorded in his memoirs,
I doubt if two vessels have ever played a similar role in history. . . . Their entry into the Dardanelles, by sealing definitely the German-Turko alliance, was the logical sequel of all the intrigues and machinations that had been plotted during three years by Mr. Wangenheim, representative of William II at Constantinople. ... It was for this that the war has lasted so many years, because it was the decisive event that separated Russia from her allies and led to her defeat and downfall.
In reference to the escape of the Goeben and Breslau, Admiral Tirpitz, Germany’s Minister of Marine, has written: “The whole Turkish question received its definite favorable ending through the breaking through.” General Ludendorff has given his opinion that, “the entry of Turkey as an ally permitted Germany to continue the war two more years.” Mr. Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the British Admiralty, has expressed himself in the following extracts quoted from his book, The World Crisis:
The Goeben was carrying with her for the peoples of the East and Middle East more slaughter, more misery, and more ruin than has ever before been borne within the compass of a ship. . . . The evening of the tenth she entered the Dardanelles and the curse descended irrevocably upon Turkey and the East. . . . Two parties were struggling for mastery in the capital, but in view of the Treaty of Alliance which had been signed on August second, there could have been no doubt about the outcome. Moreover, in the Goeben and Breslau, to say nothing of the Turkish fleet, Enver Pasha and the war party had the means to force the Turkish government to adhere to the covenants which they had entered into on her behalf.
The prime factor in this area was control over water communications to Russia. In 1914, due to general lack of strategic foresight and inertia engendered by a long Period of peace, allied statesmen, generals, and admirals were slow in arriving at a full realization of the essential value of this control. Consequently, effort to gain it was exerted in a piecemeal manner that afforded the enemy opportunity to improve defenses in proportion. In the ensuing protracted struggle for control over this important crossroad of waterway to Russia and land route to Asia, the escape of the Goeben and Breslau was only one link in a melancholy chain of costly diplomatic and military failures that culminated a year later in the final abandonment of attempts to gain the Dardanelles. In the series of combined land and sea battles in this campaign, the Allies incurred losses that totaled 110,000 killed, wounded, and missing, with 96,000 admitted to hospitals, and a loss of 79,600 tons of warships including 6 battleships, 8 submarines, and a number of mine sweepers and small craft.
The objective of naval operations and battles is to bring about favorable alterations in the political and military situation. Jutland, when judged by fighting bone and losses suffered, by the size and dumber of ships engaged, their ability to maneuver, and their power to give and sustain hard blows, was the greatest naval battle the world has ever seen; but it was indecisive and produced practically no change in the political and naval situation. On the other hand, although little actual fighting was done, the escape of the Goeben and Breslau had political and military consequences that give it a claim to take rank among the most important naval events in history.
These incidents at the entrance to the black Sea illustrate how closely are associated policy, land power, and sea power. On this occasion all three co-operated admirably in behalf of Germany. Also it was clearly shown how each one leans upon the other two. They are not only closely associated, they are absolutely interdependent.
In times of stress a nation’s voice is heard in international affairs in proportion to its land and sea strength plus position. Conversely, the attainment of strength plus position is largely dependent upon the statesmen who conduct international affairs and their recommendations to government and people. Also the attainment of position plus strength for sea power often depends on land power and, again conversely, land power depends frequently on sea power to give it strength or position or both. Sometimes one is to the fore and sometimes another but to attain great results all three must work together for the common cause.
German statesmanship backed by military strength gained Turkey as an ally. The combined land and sea attacks of England and France to force open the gateway to Russia were repulsed by Army and Navy defense. This produced a blockade within a blockade. Germany and her allies, denied the use of the outer seas themselves, succeeded on interior lines in denying sea communications to Russia either via the Baltic in the north or the Black Sea in the south. The Coast Defense Russian Navy was inactive and practically a negligible factor. Thus cut off from her allies, Russia was unable to export grain or import munitions of war. She was helpless before the onslaught of the German armies from without and political intrigue from within. The influence of this interior blockade on the downfall of Russia with revolution was in certain respects similar to the influence of the North Sea blockade on the final downfall of Germany with revolution.
Referring to the basic objective of sea power “own use of ocean trade routes, denial of their use to the enemy,” it is to be noted that the German fleet in the North Sea did have strength and position to attain a part of this objective. In this limited area, trade routes to the northern neutrals were kept open and the Russian Baltic ports were blockaded. Also the secondary mission of coast defense was accomplished. An attending benefit was a corresponding political strength in this region. Norway, Sweden, Denmark, and Holland were the countries concerned. In the evaluation of influences on the course of the war, due weight must be given to these achievements of German sea power. Without them Germany could not have continued the struggle for more than a few months. But in the end this prolongation of hostilities without victory only served to increase the penalties of defeat.
In spite of the obvious effects of the blockade on Russia, Germany apparently did not grasp the full import of the shoe on the other foot. German headquarters were so obsessed with concepts of a continental land war that they failed to realize British sea power was their most formidable foe. They do not seem to have recognized the mutual interdependence of political power, land power, and sea power. To promote German victory the primary aim was to break the North Sea blockade and obtain access to the Atlantic trade routes. There is no evidence of any unified German plan to co-ordinate political, land, and sea power toward the accomplishment of this aim.
The campaign of the Marne was the most serious threat and this was defeated. During this campaign two German divisions were recalled and sent to the defense of East Prussia. Without discussing the practicability or impracticability of the project, in way of illustration it may be pointed out that had Germany with concentration of her Army strength succeeded in breaking through, establishing her line to the coast of the Bay of Biscay and consolidating Brest and Cherbourg as German ports, then the aspects of the war would have been completely changed. The North Sea blockade would have been broken and the way to the Atlantic opened. Germany would have then had “position.” Whether or not she would have had “strength” to defend this position and obtain use of the ocean trade routes must be left to conjecture. These hypothetical circumstances are mentioned only to show how the German predicament demanded some plan in some direction with the aim to break the blockade.
A decisive fleet battle in the North Sea, such as was Trafalgar, would at any time have settled definitely the question of the blockade and with it would have decided one way or the other the issue of the war. Such a battle in the open sea was not sought by either side. Germany did not wish to run any risk of losing the benefits she was already deriving from the menace of her “fleet in being,” and England was perfectly satisfied with her advantageous position and did not wish to run any risk of losing it. Under those circumstances only an extraordinary intervention of chance could have brought about a decisive sea battle. Chance did bring about a rather accidental fleet battle on the day of Jutland; but interesting as the engagement was from a technical and spectacular point of view, nothing decisive happened and it left the war situation exactly as it was before the encounter.
To understand why Jutland in effect was no more than a skirmish, it is only necessary to remark the plans of caution, both the German and the British, that dominated the engagement from beginning to end.
The German plan was not to run the risk of challenging the superior British fleet to decisive action on the high seas, but to operate the battleships within restricted areas as a “fleet in being,” that is, holding the High Seas Fleet over the Grand Fleet as a continual menace, within support distance of shielding mine fields and submarines among which it would not be prudent for the British fleet to advance to attack. In addition it was the plan of Germany to institute raids for moral effect and also to endeavor to bring about such a division of the British fleet as might permit a locally superior German force to engage and destroy or damage a British detachment.
The major considerations that governed the conduct of the British forces are to be found in the following excerpts quoted from the writings of Admiral Jellicoe:
The Grand Fleet included almost the whole of our available capital ships. There was very little in the way of reserve behind it. . . . Neither in October, 1914, nor in May, 1916, did the margin of superiority of the Grand Fleet over the High Sea Fleet justify me in disregarding the enemy’s torpedo fire or meeting it otherwise than by definite movements deduced after most careful analysis of the problem at sea with the fleet and on the tactical board. The severely restricted forces behind the Grand Fleet were taken into account. . . . There was also a possibility that the Grand Fleet might later be called upon to confront a situation of much wider scope than that already existing. ... A third consideration that was Present in my mind was the necessity for not leaving anything to chance in a fleet action, because our fleet was the one and only factor that was vital to the existence of the empire, as indeed of the allied cause. We had no reserve outside the battle fleet which could in any way take its place should disaster befall it or even should its margin of superiority over the enemy be eliminated. (The italics are Admiral Jellicoe’s.)
After studying the courses open to the British and also certain advantages the enemy had in submarines, mines, armor Protection, torpedoes, water-tight subdivisions, explosive shell, fire-control apparatus, and accuracy and rapidity of gunfire, the British High Command was led to decisions that imposed caution; action Was to be sought in northern waters, the retiring fleet was not to be immediately followed either in direct retreat or to the flank because of possible submarine and mine traps; care was to be exercised to avoid the menace of destroyers; and chances were not to be taken such as would be involved in a night capital ship engagement. Because of these plans there was about as much chance of a decisive action at Jutland as there would be of a knockout if two prize fighters entered the ring each one determined not to hit the other unless he could do so without any risk of being hit himself.
To a certain extent chance did intervene on the day of Jutland, and both sides were caught off their guard several times. Some extremely hard blows were exchanged. Neither side followed these up with a pushed-home offensive and almost inevitably the predetermined plans of caution prevailed and made decisive results impossible.
The climax of the action was when Admiral Scheer, having once withdrawn from the battle by his simultaneous swing- around maneuver, felt he was in danger of being cut off from his bases and decided to make an assault in order to gain a better position for subsequent retirement. With his fleet well in hand, he turned and delivered a vigorous concentrated attack with battleships, cruisers, and destroyers against the British center. This attack was met and defeated by the British battleship line standing practically alone. British battle cruisers, light cruisers, and destroyers were so distanced from the center of activity that at the height of the battle they took insignificant part in the fighting. The German ships suffered considerable damage in this assault and Scheer again executed his maneuver of withdrawal. In the meanwhile, the British ships turned away to avoid torpedoes. Although the German advance was a limited offensive for a defensive purpose, it was a co-ordinated attack that resulted in the principal contact of Jutland.
At this time, in the late afternoon, the German forces were cut off from their bases. The British battle fleet in addition to numerical superiority in ships, guns, and torpedoes had the important tactical advantage of having the enemy outlined against the evening sky. This was the embodiment of “strength plus position.” The Germans did not choose to renew the attack and the British did not choose to press their advantage. Except for desultory fighting thereafter, this ended the Battle of Jutland.
So far as the individual ships were concerned, both in the day fighting and in the night fighting, Jutland was an impressive demonstration of naval strength, naval skill, and naval valor. It reverified the established principle that the line of battleships is the backbone of naval power.
As has been said, England had position by the fortune of geographic location. Her battleship strength enabled her to keep it almost without challenge. This explains the plan of caution adopted by the British at Jutland. Had the position of the two fleets been reversed, and had the German fleet been in control of the Atlantic entrances to the North Sea, then, with the trade routes at stake, England would have shown the same aggressive energy against Admiral Scheer as was shown against Admiral Spee at the Falklands. Or, as another hypothetical case, assume the one of a German victory at the Marne that would have resulted in a consolidation of Brest as a German naval base. On the day of Jutland had the High Seas Fleet possessed the Brest position from which to dispute control of the Atlantic trade routes, England would have been under compulsion to fight aggressively. With such position, Germany and not England would have been the side to choose the terms under which the action would be fought. England would have had to accept battle on Germany’s terms because refusal would have been tantamount to surrender of control over vital trade routes. Vindication of the British plan is to be found in the fact that eventually without risk the German Navy was sunk by the peace treaty of Versailles. Even so, certain reservations should be made before accepting the British plan of caution as utterly worthy and sound. Putting aside for the moment the somewhat cryptic remark of Admiral Jellicoe, “there was also a possibility that the Grand Fleet might later be called upon to confront a situation of much wider scope than that already existing,” after the German concentrated attack and final withdrawal aforementioned, the question arises just how much risk would the British have incurred had they pushed vigorously after the retiring German fleet and either forced action under the favoring twilight conditions or driven Admiral Scheer so far to the westward as to give British destroyers opportunity for night attacks and in addition frustrate his plan to reach the shelter of mine fields before next daybreak. Was not the British opportunity in that late afternoon just about as favorable as could have been desired? The destruction of the German fleet was a prize which would have carried with it decisive benefits. Baltic communications could have been opened to Russia, an ally then in desperate straits but not prostrate. A close blockade of German shores could have been instituted with a menace of mine and destroyer that would have made ingress and egress of submarines extremely hazardous if not impossible. All the German coast line without the protection of the High Seas Fleet would have been subject to the threat of invasion. The Grand Fleet would have been released for other projects such as the Dardanelles campaign. Under those conditions Germany could not have held out for any great length of time.
And what about the risk involved by neglect to take advantage of this opportunity at Jutland? At best, the general outlook then indicated a long and costly struggle. There is always risk in a needless prolongation of war. There was risk in giving the German submarines an opportunity to do their utmost. But for the intervention of the United States this might have brought about German victory. The Measure of “risk” is difficult and must always remain largely in the realm of opinion, but it would not be illogical to present as an opinion that on the day of Jutland the British forewent the lesser risk in order to incur the greater.
Since the World War, a view has been advanced that when and if modern fleets engage in battle overwhelming victory is impossible or extremely unlikely to result. There is a question, however, as to whether or not this estimation is supported by naval experience. The German victory of Coronel was won at almost no cost. The British turned the tables at the Falklands and suffered little in gaining a sweeping victory. In the opening phase of Jutland two British battle cruisers were sunk and a third damaged while the attacking German battle cruisers sustained slight injury. At the climax of the battle, the concentrated German fleet assault was turned back by a destructive fire from the British battleships while the latter were almost unharmed. From an analysis of World War engagements, it would appear reasonable to infer that when and if modern fleets engage in battle overwhelming victory is about as likely to result as was the case in the days when fighting ships were made of wood and under sail.
As the war progressed, allied sea power gradually tightened its hold. The distant blockade was made more and more effective as neutral rights gave way to belligerent needs. The political voice of Germany abroad became weaker and weaker as nation after nation fell into line for the allied cause. Sea power practically laid the outside world under contribution. Once more history demonstrated that he who controls the ocean trade routes commands the resources of the world.
In retaliation, under pressure of necessity, Germany launched an unrestricted submarine attack against commerce. The U-boat, a comparatively new weapon, could not break the blockade but it could pass under it and reach the trade routes. This attack, in nature, was a surprise. For a time it gained enormous successes. As the monthly toll of shipping mounted, allied anxiety increased and a crisis was approaching. Then the tide turned. Antisubmarine measures developed rapidly in effectiveness. The United States, outraged by disregard of her neutral rights, declared war against Germany. This contingency was foreseen but the consequences were miscalculated. Germany had counted on the unpreparedness of the United States.
Established rules in the application of the laws of war suffered some mutilation in the hands of both Great Britain and Germany. They were twisted and bent by England to serve the ends of her distant blockade. In reprisal Germany used the U-boats to sink ships of commerce without warning regardless of the flag under which they sailed. There was a wide difference in degree between the alleged violations of law by England and the violation of law by Germany. As a neutral the United States protested some of the British blockade measures. These, however, at no time endangered the lives of neutrals. Moreover, new weapons require new or modified rules for the practical application of the law and the rules already formulated were inadequate and still are inadequate to cover the exigencies created by the submarine and airship. Methods are open to discussion and modification. But the basic principles of the law are inviolable. Safeguarding neutral lives is one of these principles. Unable to break legitimately the grip that was slowly forcing her to submission, Germany disregarded the law and in so doing endangered and destroyed neutral lives and property. Diplomatic protests were of no avail and the only possible answer was war. Analogous conditions have developed in previous conflicts and they may turn up again in the future.
The United States once in the war lost no time in taking an active part. Huge sums of money were appropriated for military purposes. Regardless of cost, preparation was pushed forward at fever heat. An American army numbering two million men was raised, equipped, and promptly transported across the Atlantic to the western front of France. This was the culminating accomplishment of sea power and the final stroke that determined allied victory.
Here we see illustrated again the close association of policy, land power, and sea power, their inseparable inter-relation, their mutual dependence, and the results that attended co-ordinated effort. President, statesmen, and Congress, in answer to popular demand, declared war and supported military measures. Allied sea power with its strength and position transported army strength overseas and gave it the position required on the western front.
Respecting this event there is much to ponder. In 1912 such an invasion of the European continent by an American army would have been regarded as the wildest of dreams, as not only an improbability but also as an impossibility. But, as not infrequently has happened in time of war, the impossible was accomplished.
In view of what was done in the way of over-seas troop transportation in the World War, concentrating forces from Australia, Africa, Asia, and America on the fighting front in France, is it safe to assume that never in the future will such a feat of sea power be performed again? And who can foresee the direction or directions from which such a concentration might proceed or its objective fighting front? Modern facilities for communication and transportation by ship have transformed oceans from barriers against invasion into convenient means for effecting it. Realism tells us that history can repeat itself.
There was a time when mountain, desert, swamp, and forest constituted barriers difficult to pass between the Mississippi Valley and our two seaboards. Then the oceans were also barriers slow and difficult to cross between us and foreign lands. Just as train, automobile, and airplane have annihilated the former barriers so have airship and steamship overcome the latter. The United States does occupy an insular position between two oceans but in a practical sense this does not provide isolation.
To the fallacy of ocean barriers is joined the heresy of a Navy only for coast defense. Coast defense is a secondary naval mission. The real purpose is security for our commerce, our ships, and the lives of our people when engaged in their legitimate pursuits on the high seas and abroad. Who argues for a Navy only to defend our coasts pleads for the surrender of rights for which we have fought three wars. In the World War, what valued the coast defense navies of Germany, Austria, and Russia?
Since 1922, we have seen the abdication of United States sea power positions in the West Pacific and the decline of our relative naval strength. The question arises as to just how far it is safe and wise to go in this experiment of renouncing “strength plus position.” Realism counsels against placing too much faith in theories that lack ground hold in fact and experience.