by Spenser Wilkinson

NOTE: This essay by Wilkinson appeared in The Morning Post, 3 August 1909. It is essentially an attack on Julian Stafford Corbett's interpretation of Clausewitz and on Corbett's influence on the Royal Navy. 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.

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by Spenser Wilkinson

"The Command of the Sea: What is it?" This is the question set for the naval prize essay by the Royal United Service Institution last year, and an essay by Lieutenant Fisher, R.N., which received honorable mention from the judges, is published in the Journal of the Institution for July. The essay is so thoughtful, so fresh, and so well written that it deserves serious criticism, especially as on some points it departs widely from the views held by the best known writers on naval strategy.

Lieutenant Fisher begins by theoretical and historical discussion, the history which he recapitulates being the history of the Dutch War and of the Seven Years War. He seems to take the Seven Years War as a type of a British war, and his historical conclusions from it are that England's power in that struggle was directed first, to the provision of a fleet of capital ships, adequate, but not more than adequate, to contain the capital ships of the enemy; secondly, to the development of a large fleet of cruising ships; and last but not least, to the formation of a military striking force smaller than, but comparable to, the field armies of other Powers and capable of inflicting severe injury upon them.

Before applying these deductions to present conditions Lieutenant Fisher reviews the changes that have taken place in maritime warfare. Among these he considers as important the rise of great maritime Powers outside Europe and the increase in the number and power of the neutral maritime States. This view merits examination. I am inclined to think that the rise of Naval Powers in distant seas affects rather the extent of the consequences of victory than the means of gaining it. He points out that the general effects of railway is to diminish the influence of sea power by reducing the importance of the coasting trade, by reducing the effect of blockade and by facilitating the assembly of troops to repel raids. From these general ideas he proceeds to discuss the hypothesis of a war between Great Britain and Germany. He thinks that Great Britain by her situation has an advantage, because German ships must pass the British Isles on their way to the ocean. He thinks that England with a slight margin of superiority of capital ships can contain the German Navy, "even though these capital ships lie snug and secure in some commanding English port." He also thinks that the torpedo has increased the importance of this geographical situation; accordingly he thinks "that an attitude of Laissez faire on the part of our capital ships, combined with moderate activity of cruisers and flotilla, will serve the main end of naval force," and from this he infers "that the onus of first movement is thrust on to the German Fleet." "The real work of sea command," he says, "will fall to the cruisers, assisted in the narrow seas by the flotilla." Here, I think, a distinction must be drawn. The command of the sea must be won by fighting, which is the work of the main fleet. Its utilization may, no doubt, in part be effected by cruisers. "It is impossible to exaggerate the importance of the flotilla in the narrow seas" is an opinion to be accepted with reserve. The doctrine that the command of the sea can be secured or maintained by "an attitude of laissez faire on the part of our capital ships" appears to me to rest on a profound misconception, which it may be worth while to examine the origin and the nature.

It is to be feared that the able essayist has imbibed the ideas of strategy expounded a year or two ago by Mr. Julian Corbett in his otherwise valuable volumes on the Seven Years War, ideas regarded by many strategists as erroneous. The essayist sets out to define the Command of the Sea. The expression to be defined is a technical term and its definition is not a matter of dispute amongst students of naval war, to whom the command of the sea mans the possession of a fleet which has gained so decisive a victory or series of victories as to render hopeless the renewal of the struggle against it. Mr. Fisher, under the influence of the false doctrines now countenanced by the Admiralty, is not content with the accepted definition and asserts that he cannot define the command of the sea unless he has a clear idea of the purpose which it is to serve. In other words, he will not recognize that the command of the sea is simply the advantage given by a crushing naval victory over an enemy who by that victory has been so weakened as to be obliged to abandon the conflict on the open sea. He supposes that there can be different kinds of command of the sea in a number of different kinds of naval war and suggests the following definition: "The bringing about of such a state of affairs on the sea as will allow of one belligerent developing its full national power towards the attainment of the object for which war is waged." To propose this definition is to propose to substitute the effect for the cause­­the end for the means. Whatever the cause for which a war is fought the means employed are the same­­the destruction of the enemy's forces by the act of fighting. Of course, if the enemy will let you have your way without resistance you can dispense with fighting, but this does not affect the general principle just laid down.

Mr. Fisher, following Mr. Corbett, adopts a distinction drawn by Clausewitz between two kinds of war, that in which both sides have only a limited object in view and will therefore run no very serious risks for its attainment, and that in which one side or the other is in deadly earnest and will make a supreme effort to carry out its purpose. In the second case the risks run by both sides are very great. Mr. Fisher uses for these two kinds of war the terms "limited" and "unlimited" wars, but his application of these terms will hardly bear close examination. He considers that the Franco­German War of 1870 was unlimited, and the late Russo­Japanese War limited. But there was little difference between the two from the point of view of the risks run. The Japanese certainly thought that they were engaged against Russia in a struggle for existence, and I imagine that if the Japanese Navy had been defeated the power of Japan would have sustained at least as great an injury as that suffered by France in 1870. No doubt the Russian Government thought it was running slight risk in provoking Japan, but the event proved that the risk was greater than the Russian Government supposed, for defeat has been followed by a crippling of the power of the Russian Empire of which the effects will be felt for a long time to come. Mr. Fisher follows Mr. Corbett in regarding the Seven Years War as a limited war which became unlimited, but in truth it was a very different thing; it was a war into which one at least of the Governments entered under a mistaken impression as to the nature of the risks incurred. Mr. Corbett and his disciple appear to me to have completely misunderstood the meaning of the doctrine expounded by Clausewitz, whose fundamental idea was that it is very dangerous to go into war with the idea that you will not have to fight, that once you are engaged in a fight there is no safety short of knocking your opponent down, and that the most dangerous mistake you can possibly make is to assume in advance without very substantial reason that there is any limit to the risks you run. I will quote two passages from the Prussian theorist to show how much importance he attached to this view. They are taken from the second chapter of his first book: "If one of the two belligerents is determined to follow the path of great decisive battles, he had a great probability of success, provided he is sure that the other does not mean to follow this path but intends to make for a different goal. Any belligerent who sets up for himself such different goal can rationally do so only in so far as he presupposes that his opponent is as little anxious of great decisive battles as he is himself."

"We have seen that in war there are many kinds of ways to the goal, that is to the attainment of the political purpose, but that battle is the only means, and that therefore the one supreme law is that of decision by battle; that where the opponent seeks this decision it can never be denied him."

"We cannot omit here at the outset to insist that the firstborn son of war is the bloody solution of the crisis, the effort to destroy the enemy's forces. It may be that where the political aims are trifling, the motives weak, the tension of forces slight, a cautious commander will try every way of sneaking to a peace without great crises or bloody decisions, relying upon the particular weakness of his opponent in the field and in Council; we have no right to blame him if the assumptions upon which he acts are based upon solid grounds and justify his hope of success; but all the same we must demand of him that he should be well aware that lie is following bypaths on which the God of War may catch him; that he should keep his eye on the opponent, lest when the enemy draws a sharp sword he may find himself with nothing but a dress sword in his hand."

Mr. Corbett, it will be remembered, thinks that Byng's objective was Richelieu's Army, not the French Fleet, and Mr. Fisher, accepting this, thinks it would have been hard to expect any admiral to "fly in the face of the then accepted opinion that at all times and seasons the enemy's Fleet is the objective." Whatever was the accepted opinion in Byng's day every strategist in Europe and America today, except those of the British Admiralty, holds that the objective of a Fleet is the enemy's Fleet. Whether or no "it must be attacked at all hazards" is quite a different question. A wise admiral will not seek to bring a battle which he does not see his way to win. The objective of a Fleet cannot be an Army which the Fleet cannot attack.

Mr. Fisher's history required some scrutiny. In discussing the Dutch wars he comes to the conclusion that military operations are of less importance than economic conditions in shaping the destiny of nations, but he appears entirely to forget that the great weakening of Holland was due not merely to her maritime wars with England, but to the fact that she had to carry on at the cost of prodigious exertions a land war against France in the height of her power.

Another doctrine which Mr. Fisher borrows from the Prussian theorist is that the offensive is the weaker form of war. This is undoubtedly true, but it requires to be correctly interpreted. What Clausewitz meant by asserting that the offensive is the weaker and the defensive the stronger form of war was simply that the offensive required a great superiority of force. The real difference between offensive and defensive is this: the offensive is the course proper to the Power or the command who wished for a prompt decision; the defensive for that state or that general to whom delay will bring some advantage. But in this respect there is all the difference in the world between land war and war at sea. On land the actual ground is an important factor, because on land the defender can shelter himself by the aid of the ground in what it called a "position," while the assailant must expose himself in advancing to attack that position. Moreover, an Army is dependent upon particular roads by which it must receive its supplies and these communications are its most vulnerable part. An Army taking the offensive leaves behind it a lengthening chain of communications which it has to protect. On the open sea there are no positions and no such difference as exists on land between attack and defence. A Fleet carries all its necessaries with it and is not in the same way as an Army dependent upon definite lines of communications. There is, however, another great difference between land and sea war; there is no territory at sea, the whole sea area is mere roadway. Accordingly the Navy which seeks a decision, takes possession at the outset of the whole roadway and endeavors so to place itself that is the enemy is willing to risk his fate he must fight a decisive battle. If the enemy loses the battle or fails to seek it he leaves the whole roadway under the control of the Navy that has taken the initiative. This is the reason why in any naval war Great Britain must take the initiative­­must take immediate possession of the roadway and must from the first moment be ready for the decisive battle.

Mr. Fisher is so thoughtful, and, where he relies on himself, so lucid and so full of good sense, that the influence upon his essay of the new Admiralty teaching is the more to be deplored. It is to be feared that, unless a great change is made at the Admiralty, the British Navy in the next war will be ruined by strategical false doctrine. The misfortune is the greater because there is no lack in the Navy of strategists as well qualified as those of any other nation to give sound instruction.

See also: SPENSER WILKINSON, "STRATEGY AT SEA," The Morning Post, 12 FEB 1912.

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