What Will the Great Navies Do?
By A Naval Officer
[The Independent, August 17, 1914]
This study of the strength and probable course of the contestants in the clash between the first and second navies of the world comes to us from an expert who in nearly half a century of service held several most important commands and reached the highest existing rank. His position is such that we are not at liberty to use his name.—THE EDITOR.
The simplest explanation of the incredible state of affairs today in Europe is that the Kaiser has suddenly become insane, and that it were better for all concerned to place him in a madhouse rather than in command of fleets and armies.
While not admitting this explanation to be wholly justified or satisfactory the fact that he has surely lost his head introduces a disturbing element of uncertainty into one's speculations as to what can happen. We may readily imagine what a prudent man would do under given circumstances, but what an arbitrary ruler suffering from megalomania and blinded by an unexpected check to his unbounded ambition will essay it is difficult to foresee. For this reason the role of prophet bristles with possibilities of error.
While Austria has a few battleships and while her cruisers may make an occasional raid on French and English shipping in the Mediterranean, it is not at all likely that stirring naval events will occur in that sea. The French, aided by England's wholly competent squadrons in those waters, will see to it that commerce there is not interfered with, and that Austria's fleet remains safely sheltered behind the forts at Pola and Flume. If Italy sides with Austria in this struggle a wide and interesting vista of possibilities will open up, for she is not to be contemned as a naval power—but this eventuality is so improbable that to discuss it would be a waste of time.
A brief summary of Germany's interests on the water and across the seas will be helpful in focussing attention upon the naval aspects of the war now being waged. In the first place, what has Germany to gain by victory on the ocean? In a general sense, the answer must be—nothing. Without having had to burn an ounce of powder, she has developed the second largest mercantile marine in the world. This she owes to the equality of opportunity enjoyed with British shipping even in British home and colonial ports. More than what she now has in this respect she could have obtained, if at all, thru the medium of peace. If she seeks to acquire more colonies it is pertinent to suggest that she has not known what to do with those she has already in her possession. The desire to smash Great Britain's fleet and to dictate terms of peace at Westminster is really un secret de Polichinelle—something which everybody knows. Thoughtful Germans whom I have met have not hesitated to tell me they shared it. These terms would doubtless include the cession of certain British colonies which Germany (or the Kaiser, the expressions are absolutely identical) has long coveted. Permanent occupation of England may be dismissed from our minds as entirely out of the question.
On the other hand, what has she to lose if defeated by Great Britain? Whatever course the war may take on the land, that on the seas must be defensive in its nature, at least, in the beginning. A consideration of what Germany stands to lose, taken in conjunction with her numerical inferiority in ships of war, should lead us to some interesting and even plausible inferences.
There is, first and foremost, her magnificent merchant navy. Many of its members will be captured—many will pass under other flags—we can be sure that England will let none escape save those already safe in neutral ports. When the war is over England will, without doubt, impose port and tonnage dues on German merchantmen heavy enough to hamper for years the activities and growth of her most formidable rival.
The list of Germany's colonies is surprisingly great. In Africa she owns Togo, Kamerun, German West Africa and German East Africa, 931,460 square miles of territory and over 13,000,000 inhabitants. In Asia there is Kiau-Chau, some 200 square miles and 168,900 inhabitants, with the best harbor on the coast of China north of Hong Kong. In the Pacific she has part of New Guinea; the Bismarck Archipelago, the Carolines, Pelews, Mariannes, Solomons, Marshalls, with Savaii and Upolu In the Samoan group, in all 96,160 square miles with 357,800 inhabitants.
While the majority of these possessions are of little worth, their loss would be a severe blow to Germany's prestige and to her policy of colonial expansion. To incur the risk of ceding these and of damaging irreparably her maritime prospects for a very doubtful chance of success but emphasizes the Kaiser's folly, since to protect the former against the attacks of the navies of Great Britain and Australia is quite impossible. Such of them as England may desire she will seize and hold. The Chinese are not likely to neglect so favorable an opportunity of canceling the ninety-nine year lease of Kiau-Chau or the British and their allies, Russian and Japanese, to pluck this thorn from China's side and their own. The problem then in Africa, Asia and the Pacific solves itself automatically. Remains the larger one in northern European waters.
Never has the advantage of an interior line of communications been more clearly manifested than today. By means of the Kiel Canal, Germany can concentrate her naval force at will in the North Sea or in the Baltic, thus menacing enemies in both. Moreover, she will inevitably block with mines the various passages leading from the one sea into the other, thus preventing a junction of the British and Russian fleets. It is idle to presume that so high-handed, unscrupulous a power will respect the neutrality of Denmark thru whose territory run the Great and the Little Belt, or of Sweden, which owns one side of the Sound, Denmark owning the other. These waterways are so narrow in places as to be very easily blocked.
It is a safe prediction that Germany will at once endeavor to get at the Russian fleet, to which she is vastly superior not only in ships but in the morale and training of her crews, or that Russia will keep her ships behind the fortifications of Kronstadt. We may look for merciless bombarding of all Russian towns and cities on the Baltic. Libau and Riga will be sacrificed to the mad lust of destruction. So will Helsingfors and Wiborg unless the Finns profit by the moment to rise in rebellion against the Czar and thus ensure immunity from German shells. Even Sweden may suffer in this manner unless she yields to the Kaiser's demand to "be with us." No permanent good will flow from these baneful acts. It is barely possible that the Kaiser, lost to all reason, will order his battleships into the North Sea there to grapple with the British fleet under Sir John Jellicoe and so play into his enemy's hands.
I am not among those who place in parallel columns ships, guns, armor and speed, assigning the victory to the heavier total. So far as the vessels themselves are concerned, the British have much the better in the comparison; but, in my judgment, they enjoy the advantages of excellent training (whether more perfect than that of the Germans no one knows), and what is of especial value the "sea habit," a thing wherein their adversaries are distinctly deficient. The English man-of-war's man is a sailor to whom his ship is home and to whom voyages long in either distance or time are habitual. His German rival is frequently but a drafted recruit who has spent the greater part of his time in port. What that difference means was seen in the Napoleonic wars when Collingwood was at sea, I am quite sure, for two years and Nelson eighteen months without once anchoring. I think the chances of such a naval action are decidedly with the British, holding, as I do, the opinion that ceteris paribus, the British seaman is markedly superior to the German.
The more probable course on Germany's part is to keep her fleet out of the reach of the British, who will be forced to establish a blockade of the mouths of the Elbe, Weser and Jahde, quite close together. The bulk of the vessels there will be off the Elbe, the exit to the Kiel Canal. Heligoland will be taken and used as a station for flying machines for scouting. Its insular position renders it peculiarly valuable for this purpose. A second fleet will cruise in the Kattegat to blockade the channels into and out of the Baltic. The Kiel Canal looms very large in this connection, enabling Germany, as it does, to move her strength to either end at pleasure—-that is to say, to the Elbe or to the Baltic. For this reason, England may make a supreme if unpromising effort to wreck the locks at the western end to prevent egress of Germany's ships and to enable her to proceed to the Baltic in full force there to defeat the German navy, which has been so long a menace, not only to her, but indeed to the peace of the whole world. I rather doubt this attempt.
The two blockades just mentioned may be confidently expected. Neither will extend over a long stretch and both will be exposed to attacks from submarines concerning whose real value in warfare we may learn much. Of bomb dropping we shall hear a little. To me it seems a futile proceeding. The true role of the aeroplane is scouting. I pay slight heed to battles in the air. Encounters aloft there may be, but more thrilling in the lurid accounts of newspaper men who do not see them than effective in their results. It is the battleship which will determine the issue—just as it has in all naval history since gunpowder and cannon were invented. If the Germans prove superior to the British in the rapidity and accuracy of their shooting, they will have achieved a difficult and notable preëminence, for the British have worked wonders in this respect, having trebled or even quadrupled the number of hits within the past ten years.
Since the war correspondent no longer exists, it is to the official reports given out by either side that we must look for intelligence which in some cases will be misleading and in others most unsatisfactory. The statements and rumors printed in the daily papers except when marked "official" may be believed or not, according to the fancy of the reader. Whatever be the results of the first clash of arms the ultimate outcome cannot be doubted. The perseverance and grim determination of the British nation, forced against its will into the most unholy war of which we have any knowledge, will in the end prevail, leaving the Kaiser, to mourn over the ruin of the vast and noble structure of his seemingly miraculous development of Germany's commerce and industries. To exchange this splendid record for the doubtful chance of being known as a second Napoleon or Frederick the Great evidences either poor judgment or a disordered mind.
Of one thing we may be certain, that while all Christendom will have to share the burden of distress it is upon Germany that the larger part will fall in useful lives extinguished, in financial misery, idle shipping, closed factories.
That this is all due to the insane growth of armies and navies stimulated, yes, necessitated by Germany's practise, no one can deny. This war is not a bolt out of the blue. It has long been recognized as unavoidable and it bears the earmarks of deliberate planning. Nothing was lacking but a good excuse. And this excuse has been found, or manufactured, as you please. It is right that Germany should pay heaviest.
Let us hope the plea for bloated armaments as essential to national safety may never again be heard. We now perceive what they lead to. And let us hope that victory may rest with the British who, as a hundred years ago, are fighting in the cause of human progress and world-wide peace against the tyranny of personal, arbitrary government.
© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013
If you appreciate the articles, read the e-novel informed by them —
THE HEADLONG FURY
A Novel of World War One
By J. Fred MacDonald