Naval History and Heritage Command

Naval History and Heritage Command

The Naval and Military Record, Lessons of the Naval War

LESSONS OF THE NAVAL WAR

Source:  The Naval and Military Record. 4 September 1918.

     From its handiness, accuracy, effective range, and destructive power, the gun may be considered to be yet the principle weapon of sea warfare, though the astounding achievements of the torpedo and the immense possibilities of the aerial machine as a weapon of maritime offensive have revolutionized the tactical art, rendering well-nigh superhuman to bear the burden of fleet commanders. The battleship is not the “arbiter des batailles” to the same extent as before, for the reason that there will be no more encounters like Coronel and Falklands,1 in which the gun alone had a say. To-day no ship of the line puts to sea without an escort of torpedo satellites, and the relative value of the fleets is measured to no small extent by the number and efficiency of their torpedo flotillas. There is obviously some ground for the belief of many constructors here that the problem of the armour protection of the large surface ship is no longer susceptible of a satisfactory solution, and therefore that the pre-war super-Dreadnaught type will have to go, or at least to undergo revolutionary modifications. A number of ingenious substitutes have been designed, very pleasing on paper, but which are far from offering the substantial margin of safety which the line-of-battle-ship was held to possess before the war. Speed and big calibres are the assets aimed at, and, in short, Paris constructors are following once more the British lead, though they differ from them on the question of the number of heavy guns.

     As events have conclusively shown, victory goes to the side in a position to deliver the first effective hits, thereby surprising and half-disarming the enemy. In other words, victory is the reward of a superior utilization of the factor time. In this respect nothing has changed since the time Alexander the Great ascribed his triumph to “being in time and never delaying.” Nelson,2 with his sure eye, saw that “five minutes often made the difference between success and defeat.” To-day it is a matter of seconds. Now, as foreseen by Admiral Daveluy,3 the war has demonstrated the mistake of those who proclaimed that superiority in effective range – that is, aptitude to strike the first blows – was exclusively a question of calibres. At Coronel, Jutland,4 and in many destroyer encounters,ships have been sunk by opponents with inferior calibres but superior volume of fire. The longer the range the greater the volume of fire necessary to ensure quick hitting. An armament of only a few guns of monster calibres is nothing more than make-believe, in practice. All these considerations strengthen the case of those who prefer Normandie or a Pennsylvania (12) to a Queen Elizabeth (eight guns).

     But the novel and important fact is that a fleet may possess the advantage in both calibre and volume of fire and yet be unable to get the first blows at the enemy. The details of the Jutland affair and the developments that have taken place since clearly show that next time two great naval forces meet the first effective hits, likely to have much influence on the result of the contest, will be delivered by two sorts of fleet auxiliaries, viz., the submarine, which is the best weapon of surprise on account of its mobility and invisibility and consequent power to accurately strike at long range before being detected, and the bombarding sea-plane. In a relatively narrow area like the North Sea, the handling of the submarine and aerial flotillas will naturally be the first task of an admiralissimo imbued with the spirit of offensive and desirous of neglecting no opportunity to strike, gunnery being of secondary importance, though it will have the decisive say in the ultimate phase of the battle. All this points to the strides made since French naval men only troubled about the question of deciding whether a Commander-in-Chief ought to be a “cannonier,” or, on the contrary, a “manoeuvrier.”

     That the effect of surprise is wonderful; that it procures relative invulnerability has once more been demonstrated by the achievements of the Vindictive and other British cruisers, which ought to have been knocked to pieces and sunk long before attaining their object if statistics had anything to do with the result of desperate encounters. Bold attack is ever the wisest and safest policy; decision and speed the best weapon either for offence or for defence. Prudence in a chief is often synonymous with unfitness for command, inaptitude for the game of war. History is being repeated. Here is the secret of Nelson’s triumph at Aboukir and Trafalgar, of Suffren’s safe escape from La Praya, where he ought to have been captured by Johnstone if bold fighting spirit were not the most reliable asset of superiority,5 of the success of Farragut and Dewey, who both “damned” the torpedoes and succeeded,6 as will always succeed those true leaders born with the military instinct, and destined by Nature to play a role in war, which is essentially a game of risks and self-sacrifice.

|fn6:Adm. David G. Farragut (1801-1870) captured the Confederate port of Mobile Bay in 1864. The Bay was filled with “torpedoes” – the term then used for mines – and Farragut famously shouted “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!” before ordering his squadron to attack. Adm. George Dewey (1837-1917) won a massive American victory at the Battle of Manilla Bay in 1898, leading to the U.S. acquisition of the Philippines in the Spanish American War. For brief accounts of their respective accomplishments, see both men’s biographical sketches on the NHHC website: https://www.history.navy.mil/content/history/nhhc/research/library/research-guides/z-files/zb-files/zb-files-f/farragut-davidg.html and

 https://www.history.navy.mil/research/library/research-guides/z-files/zb-files/zb-files-d/dewey-george.html, accessed 28 December 2018.|

Source Note: D, DNA, RG 45, Entry 520, Box 413.

Footnote 1: The Battle of Coronel took place on 1 November 1914, making it among the first naval actions of World War I. The German victory initially stunned the British Admiralty, which was not used to defeat. A decisive British victory at the Battle of the Falklands on 8 December completely reversed the psychological damage of Coronel and put an end to the German fleet operating off South America. For accounts of these battles, see: Halpern, Naval History of World War I: 91-100.

Footnote 2: Adm. Lord Horatio Nelson (1758-1805), one of the most celebrated figures in British history. He won several major battles in the Napoleonic Wars, including the Battle of the Nile (1798) and the Battle of Trafalgar (1805) in which Nelson lost his life but succeeded in destroying a combined Franco-Spanish fleet.

Footnote 3: Marie Isidore René Daveluy, the French liaison officer with the Italian fleet during World War I.

Footnote 4: The Battle of Jutland on 31 May and 1 June 1916 was the largest naval battle of the war. Although technically a stalemate, the German fleet failed to break the naval blockade and remained bottled up in the North Sea, making it a strategic victory for the British. For detailed accounts of the battle, see: Halpern, Naval History of World War I: 314-328; Massie, Castles of Steel: 579-684.

Footnote 5: Adm. Compte Pierre de Suffren (1729-1788) was a prominent French naval officer in the Seven Years War (1756-1763) and American Revolutionary War (1775-1783). The specific action referred to here is Suffren’s 1781 defense of the Cape of Good Hope against an attempted capture by Commodore George Johnstone. For an account, see: Sam Willis, The Struggle for Sea Power: A Naval History of American Independence (London: Atlantic Books, 2015), 428-437.

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