by Spenser Wilkinson
The Morning Post, 19 February 1912
EDITOR'S NOTE :This essay by Wilkinson appeared in The Morning Post, 19 FEB 1912. It is a review of Julian Stafford Corbett's Some Principles of Maritime Strategy (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1911). It serves as one demonstration that the pre-World War I debate concerning the implications of Clausewitzian theory was a good deal more energetic than most standard treatments of the issue would indicate. Wilkinson's debate with Corbett is discussed in a larger treatment of Clausewitz's role in pre-WWI British naval theory, pp.94-103 of Bassford, Clausewitz in English.
Early in the Eighteenth Century a French general of great experience, Puysegur, expressed the opinion that war could not be successfully carried on without the aid of principles, and from that time until now the best thinkers about war have been trying to formulate principles by the aid of which war can be rightly understood and conducted. Napoleon constantly expressed his faith in principles, and the great military writers, the Archduke Charles, Jomini, and Clausewitz, have written treatises in which they have expounded what they believe to be sound principles. During the last twentyfive years a number of qualified naval officers have done their best to ascertain and expound the principles of naval warfare. In England the late Admiral Colomb, Admiral Sir Cyprian Bridge, and Admiral Sir Reginald Custance have published works of which the value has long been recognized. Their teaching is substantially identical with that of Captain Mahan, of the American Navy, and accords with that given to the French Navy by Captain Daveluy, and to the German Navy by the late Admiral Batsch, by Captain Stenzel, and more recently by Admiral von Maltzahn. Mr. Julian Corbett, a few weeks ago, published a volume entitled Some Principles of Maritime Strategy, of which I have been asked by the editor of the Morning Post to attempt an appreciation. I do so with great reluctance, partly because not having the experience of a naval officer I have never ventured in naval matters upon lines of thought which departed in any way from the principles upon which the pioneers were agreed. It seems to me that in the absence of the personal experience which would justify an independent judgement, one must hold to the maxim quod semper, quod ubique, quod ab umnibus. For this reason I am unable to follow Mr. Julian Corbett, whose instinct seems to lead him on paths of his own. He seems to me to assume that the teaching of the strategists whose names I have mentioned are to be regarded as of doubtful value, and that he must begin de novo. He seems to question the conclusions which they regard as firmly established. My impression is that if Mr. Corbett's volume is read by young naval officers it must have a disastrous offset upon the Navy for it cannot but leave their minds in doubt upon every one of the principles which the strategists of the four great navies of the modern world are agreed as regarding as fundamental.
In a review of which the length is necessarily limited it is quite impossible to justify in detail the general impression which I have described. I must content myself with showing in regard to one or two important matters why I am compelled to protest against Mr. Corbett's ideas. Captain Mahan said: "If the true end is to preponderate over the enemy's navy and so control the sea, then the enemy's ships and fleets are the true objects to be assailed on all occasions." Admiral Colomb says: "It is unavailable to attempt to obtain the command of the sea by any other means than by fighting for it, and that is so tremendous an undertaking that it will not bear consideration side by side with any other object." Mr. Corbett at the outset shows himself in doubt about this fundamental principle; he says: "It may be that the command of the sea is of so urgent an importance that the army will have to devote itself to assisting the fleet in its special task before it can act directly against the enemy's territory and land forces; on the other hand, it may be that the immediate duty of the fleet will be to forward military action ashore before it is free to devote itself wholeheartedly to the destruction of the enemy's fleet." Again, in another connection, Mr. Corbett writes: "If the object of naval warfare is to control communications then the fundamental requirement is the means of exercising that control. Logically, therefore, if the enemy holds back from battle decision we must relegate the battle fleet to a secondary position, for cruisers are the means of exercising control."
In these passages I understand Mr. Corbett to imagine a naval commander deliberating, first; between the relative importance of beating the enemy's fleet and transporting his own troops across the sea, and, secondly, between the relative importance of beating the enemy's fleet and cruising on the sea routes. I think that the naval strategists would say that there should be no such question, that the naval commander ought never to allow anything but the enemy's naval forces to occupy the first place in his mind, and that until he has thought out his arrangements for dealing with the enemy's fleet he ought not to consider either the transport of troops or the operations of cruising. But they would admit that, provided the arrangements for dealing with the enemy's fleet were entirely satisfactory, the other operations might be undertaken, and might even come first in the order of time. The point is that the one operation is vital and fundamental, the other is secondary and dependent upon the success of the first.
Mr. Corbett rejects the logic of the strategists, and devotes his first part to justifying this course by reviving and, as it seems to me, misapplying a distinction which he found in the work of Clausewitz on War. The Prussian strategist, in a paper left with the manuscript of his book "On War," said that he should like to have revised his work in order more clearly to bring out the difference between two kinds of war, "that of which the purpose is to overthrow the enemy, either with a view to his political ruin or merely with a view to make him defenseless and to compel him to any peace we please, and that in which we merely wish to make a few conquests on the borders of our dominions, either to keep them or to use them as useful matter for an exchange in the peace negotiations." This distinction between two sets of war is explained by Clausewitz in the third chapter of his eighth book in a passage of much importance:
"Since Napoleon, then, war has assumed a quite different nature by becoming, in the first instance for the one side, and afterwards for the other side too, once more an affair of the whole people. We ought, indeed to say that in process it has approached very closely to its true nature and its absolute perfection. The resources employed for it had no visible limits, for the limitations were removed by the energy and the enthusiasm of the government and of its subjects. The energy with which war was conducted was unusually increased by the extent of the means employed, by the wide field of possible success, and by the strong excitement of men's spirits. The goal of the act of war was the overthrow of the opponent; until he lay helpless on the ground there was no thought of pausing, or of being able to come to a mutual understanding.
"Thus the element of war, freed from all conventional limitations, had broken loose with all its natural force. The cause was the participation of the peoples in this great affair of State, a participation which arose partly from the conditions which the French Revolution had produced in the internal affairs of the countries, partly from the danger with which all peoples were threatened from the French.
"Whether it will always remain so, whether all future wars in Europe will be waged with the whole weight of the States, and consequently only about great interests closely concerning the peoples, or whether by degrees there will again arise a separation between Government and people, would be hard to decide, and we shall certainly not assume to determine this point. But it will probably be admitted that we are right in asserting that limitations, which to some extent consisted only in not being aware of what is possible, if they have once been removed, cannot easily be set up again, and that at any rate every time that great interests are at stake the mutual hostility will discharge itself in the same way as it has done in our days."
Clausewitz, then, thought that the military historian must distinguish between national wars, fought out with all the energy of which two hostile peoples were capable, and dynastic or diplomatic wars, in which the interests at stake were small and the energy with which each side would pursue its ends, could not be very great. Subsequent writers, with the experience of the Nineteenth Century behind them, have held that national war, with its tendency to the utmost possible energy, is the more important of the two types described by Clausewitz, and that it is to this type rather than the other that future wars are most likely to belong. This opinion was expressed years ago by Baron von der Goltz the ablest of recent German writers on war, and the most independent and original of French military historians, Commandant Colin, in his "Transformations de la Guerre," says: "It seems then that the distinction drawn a century ago by Clausewitz between the absolute offensive and the offensive with a limited object can no longer be pressed, at any rate in regard to European wars."
Mr. Corbett thinks he has found a new application for the distinction which the military strategists believed to have lost its importance. He points out that in the Seven Years' War, in which England conquered Canada from the French, it was impossible for France to develop fully her military resources on the other side of the Atlantic, because of the English Fleet; therefore the English, with limited military exertions, were able in due time to gain possession of the French territory in North America. Accordingly, Mr. Corbett suggests that the case in which a Power holding the command of the sea conducts a military expedition, or attempts the conquest of transoceanic territory belonging to a European Power at war with it, is a case of "limited war." This may be true so far as the transmarine expedition is concerned, but it has only a local truth, and does not apply to the war as a whole of which the expedition is merely a part. Mr. Corbett's desire to resuscitate this part of the theory of Clausewitz throws his whole view of war out of perspective. Throughout his book he tends to assume that in any case of conflict England would have the command of the sea and that her adversary will necessarily be thrown upon the defensive. Every Englishman, of course, hopes that this may prove to be the case, but nothing can be more dangerous and misleading than to assume it, for every great Continental State understands modern war as national war, which must be waged with the whole resources of the nation, and which aims at the overthrow of the adversary in order to dictate terms. This object cannot be sought without such preparations, and such resources as justify a trial of strength, on the issue of which national existence must be tasked.
Clausewitz makes it very clear that the condition of limited war is that it should be limited on both sides, that nothing is more fatal than entering into a war under the impression that you can carry it on with a part of your strength if your adversary intends to throw his whole energy into it. Yet it is evident that it would be suicidal for any Power to go to war with Great Britain without the hope of wresting from her the command of the sea. A war with England undertaken by a Continental Power has no meaning except as a challenge to what is called England's maritime supremacy. Every modern navy and every modern naval staff perfectly understands this. The preamble to the German Navy Act, without saying it in so many words, certainly implies it, and if Mr. Corbett has read the writings of Admiral von Maltzahn he will find there the dots put upon the "i's." The German Fleet aims at a decisive battle on the high sea. About what that means there is not the slightest doubt; it means to take the greatest risks for the highest stakes.
Clausewitz in his very first chapter, the only part of his work which is finished to his satisfaction, examines the conditions which tend to prevent a conflict from attaining that extreme degree of continuous, neverpausing violence which logically should mark its absolute unlimited form. If war be as absolute as the abstract theory suggests, how comes it about, asks Clausewitz, that there can ever be a pause in the operations? The interest of the one side, he says, is theoretically always the opposite to the interest of the other. If it is the interest of one side to fight a battle because he is strong enough to expect to win it, it must be the interest of the other side to avoid the battle because he must expect to lost it. This opposition of interests tends to drive war to the extreme form of continuous, uninterrupted violence, in which the strong must win and the weaker must go to the wall. "If there were only one form of war, namely, to fall upon the opponent, and accordingly there was no defence, or, in other words, if there was no distinction between attack and defence, if attack were distinguished from defence only by the positive motive which the one side has and the other lacks, so that the fight was always one and the same, in that case in this fight every advantage of the one would always be a corresponding disadvantage of the other. But the act of war has two forms, attack and defence, which are very different and are of unequal force. If one commander would like the decision later the other must desire it sooner, but only in the same form to fight. If it is A's interest to attack his opponent not now but four weeks later, then it is B's interest to be attacked by him not four weeks later but now; but it does not follow that it is B's interest to attack A now, which is clearly a very different thing." This difference between attack and defence is, according to Clausewitz, the explanation of those pauses in the act of war which make it less continuous, less absolute than the theory would suggest. But the distinction does not exist in the case of battles on the high sea. No doubt at sea near a coast there are positions resulting from the configuration of the land or from the impediments of navigation created by shoals, but in blue water there are no positions, and the difference between attack and defence is reduced to the "positive motive which the one side has and the other side lacks" Accordingly in naval warfare one of the elements which dilutes the intensity of warfare on land is absent. Naval warfare, therefore, tends to be more decisive than land warfare, and approximates more to that absolute form towards which all warfare is driven so soon as it becomes national. Mr. Corbett appears to me to have mistaken the difference between the centre of gravity and the periphery of a given war for the difference between two degrees of strength in the motives and energy with which war is carried on. In the Seven Years War the centre of gravity was in Europe, and the vital point for England was in the control of the sea. If the British Government at the beginning had thrown all its energies into the destruction of the French Navy and refrained from dispersing its military forces on unsuccessful pinpricks in Europe, the conquest of Canada would have been easier than it was. Thus a doubtful theory of the strategy of the Seven Years War has been generalised into a foggy view of the nature of war.
Mr. Corbett struggles against the notion of making the armed forces of the enemy, and not his territory, the main objective. It is for him beyond doubt that in 1805 Napoleon made the hostile capital, and not the enemy's main army, his objective. He thinks that the Austraian main army was that of the Archduke Charles in Italy. This is surely a misunderstanding. In 1805 Napoleon, fighting a coalition, made his objective the centre of gravity of the coalition, which he rightly thought to be England. The moment he saw that he could not touch England he truned to the Continental combination. Here the centre of gravity was in the AustroRussian Alliance, with the possibility of its being joined by Prussia. The enemy's main army was the force to be composed of Mack's army and the Russian army, which was to join it. Napoleon threw his own army between them and beat them in detail, and the army of the Archduke Charles, thought it was larger than Mack's, had to be withdrawn, and to defeat Massens as a preliminary to its retreat.
I have gone somewhat fully into the reasons why I think that military strategists will reject the bases of Mr. Corbett's theories. As regards his naval doctrines I must be content with touching on one or two points where he seems to me to depart from sound tradition. Cruisers, according to Mr. Corbett, are the eyes of a fleet, and are also the instruments for patrolling the sea communications in order to deny their use to the enemy and to preserve it for ourselves. Cruisers having these two functions, he thinks the vital question is what proportion of our cruiser force must be devoted to our battle fleet. He quotes an instance in which, according to him, Nelson, with a limited number of cruisers, had to use some of them in the protection of communication and others as the eyes of the fleet. He had not enough for both purposes, and the result was that a hostile fleet which he was observing with a view to fighting escaped his observation. The admiral's dilemma was caused by the insufficiency of the number of the cruisers at his disposal. Therefore the true inference to be drawn from this seems to me to be that it is a vital problem for a Government to decide what proportion of the money devoted to its Navy must be given to cruisers, vessels built either to be the eyes of a fleet or to patrol the communications. It would conduce to clearness if these two functions were distinguished and the word "scout" used for the one and "cruiser" for the other. One of Mr. Corbett's deductions from the case he cites seems to be that if the enemy should refuse battle and retire to his fortified base you may deprive the fleet of its eyes in order to carry on commerce destruction and commerce protection. That would be to play the enemy's game, because by blinding your own fleet you give the enemy the best chance he is likely to find of compensating for his inferiority of force by getting the benefit of surprise. Mr. Corbett's discussion on cruisers appears to me to be as confused as the Admiralty policy of the recent scrapping period. He writes: "The latest developments of cruiser power have finally obliterated all logical distinction between cruisers and battleships." If this means anything it destroys Mr. Corbett's own theory of cruisers for control and cruisers for observation. He goes on to say "We have armoured cruisers organized in squadrons and attached to battle fleets, not only for strategical purposes, but also with as yet undeveloped tactical functions in battle? No one knows. I suspect that translated into English this means that armoured cruisers are too strong for an admiral to send away either as scouts or as protectors of communications, and that admirals, therefore, must use them instead of battleships, but have not yet found out how to do it. In other words, the late Admiralty built armoured cruisers without having thought out the purpose for which they were to be used.
Mr. Corbett discourses with much show of reason about a "Fleet in Being," but here again his historical criticism is doubtful. He says: "In spite of Torrington's being forced to fight an action at the wrong time and place his design had so far succeeded. Not only had he prevented the French doing anything that could affect the issue of the war, but he had completely foiled Tourville's plan of destroying the British Fleet in detail." This misses the point. What Torrington wrote about "a fleet in being" referred to the effect which his fleet would have had if he had not been obliged against his own judgement to fight and get beaten. In that I believe that Torrington was right, but Mr. Corbett's sentence refers to Torrington's beaten fleet, and attributes to it results which I attribute to the French admiral's failure to make the most of his victory.
*Support ClausewitzStudies.org by making all of your Amazon purchases through the Amazon/ClausewitzStudies.org connection!
US • UK • France • Germany