United Service (continued)

United Service (continued)

21 minutes, 52 seconds read
Free to view
14 Jul 22

By The Late Sir Julian S. Corbett

Part Two

By the Editor: Sir Julian Corbett concludes his 1904 article on interservice and diplomatic cooperation, what we today would described not only as Jointness (Multi Domain Integration, if you prefer) and national strategy, but as the British way of war itself. With an eye towards cultivating an appreciation of British maritime strategy through historical study, Corbett concludes with examples drawn from the Seven Years War, demonstrating that the successful Cabinet wars of the past were won only after periods of military, naval and political relearning where, in every case, initial reversals preceded eventual victory.

To elaborate further this view of what is the essential principle of war strategy for a maritime power is impossible here. But nowhere in the world, ancient of modern, has the great principle of coordination of the services been written so large or clear as upon the history of the British Empire. Anyone who has any familiarity with the story of its growth, will recall numberless instances where diplomacy has barred the true line of action for the fighting forces, and where it has had to give up what they have indiscriminately won. Equally will he recollect how, again and again, diplomacy has pointed out the place for the army to strike with sudden effect, while the navy, absorbed in its special preoccupation, has condemned it to immobility, and how again and again diplomacy has cried for the harvest which the navy has prepared, and the army not been available to reap. How often does it seem we can put our finger on a point where, if only there had been in time a little organised adjustment, those long wars must have been shortened, and with the saving of untold blood and treasure. And yet the thing was done. At the cost of exhausting failures and prodigious loss of time, the inter-action of the national forces in each successful war adjusted itself and the Empire grew. But never once in all the long and bitter struggle did it occur to anyone, so far as we know, to suggest, still to devise, any permanent machinery by which the necessary adjustment might have been studied and prepared in peace and the whole capacity of the nation set in harmonious motion from the moment war broke out.

Here, then, we have the paradox in its higher form. The expansion of the island into the Empire depended primarily on a right coordination of the national forces, and without any visible machinery to secure that coordination, the expansion took place. The happy result is all the more striking when we remember that it was no mere question of successive conquests beyond the seas. It was there across the oceans, that the harvest lay; but it was at home in Europe, where our rivals in the field were located, that the hardest and most complex efforts had to be directed. The whole process was entangled in the shifting system of European alliances, where friends and foes, some naval, some military, some existing mainly by desperate diplomatic shifts, had to be considered, and from war to war it was often impossible to tell how they would be grouped, who would be neutral and who our allies. Surely never did a growing nation need more urgently a brain to balance its restless limbs, and we can only wonder that more of its blows were not wasted in the air.

How then was it done? It is a mystery on which our ordinary histories throw little or no light, and by our naval and military chronicles, where the unparalleled story lies shabbily entombed, it is entirely ignored. It is only by patient search in the correspondence of minister and great commanders that a solution is to be found, and the tale they tell is this. That no permanent machinery, such as has recently been devised, ever existed is certain. Each time we found ourselves face to face with a new war we were at once confronted with the fact that nothing could be done without a nice cooperation of the national forces, and that there was no means at hand by which such cooperation could even be considered. Accordingly, after our incurable manner, a kind of department was hastily organised to supply the vital want.

At the outbreak of all our great wars, sometimes on the eve of them and sometimes after hostilities had actually commenced, an inner “secret” or “small” committee of the Cabinet was formed under the Prime Minister or the high officer of State who was then his equivalent. When fully attended, it contained several additional members, who were not in the Cabinet or even ministers at all, and perhaps it would be more correct to call it an inter-departmental committee rather than a committee of the Cabinet. For besides the one or two statesmen whom the Prime Minister chose to summon as men on whose sagacity or devotion he particularly relied, it was attended by both the Foreign Secretaries, one or more representatives of the Treasury and of the administrative branches of the Admiralty and the War Office, together with the First Sea Lord and the Commander-in-Chief, or the officers who represented them, if they were on active service abroad.

This full Committee, however, was obviously too large to preserve secrecy and secure rapidity of decision, and it would appear to have been generally concerned with receiving and officially sanctioning the resolutions already taken by a smaller and more secret committee. This as a rule consisted, besides the Prime Minister and his most trusted advisers, of the First Sea Lord, the Commander-in-Chief, and the chief Foreign Secretary. Such was the machine by which it was sought to bring some kind of coordinated action to bear upon the war, and as experience grew, and the members came to understand each others’ business, it was fairly successful. But at first it had everything to learn. For in truth it was no department at all! It was a mere deliberative group without officers, tradition, records or experience; each time it was formed everything had to be begun from the foundations, and capable men wholly unused to strategical thinking had to do their best to grasp as quickly as possible the reasons and difficulties of their expert colleagues, who themselves had never perhaps looked at war seriously except from the deck of a flagship or the headquarters of an army in the field. The result was at first that, partly from a keenly felt diffidence, and partly from a delicate sense of etiquette, no one cared openly to question the professional dictum of an expert, however narrow-minded it might appear; and but too often, the Committee never got further than linking the national forces together instead of wielding them into a single weapon. There was really no time for the various members fully to grasp each other’s point of view, and it was not till some such man as Marlborough or Pitt had gradually dominated the Committee by his genius, his force of character or passion for hard work, that anything like real homogeneity was attained. This once secured all went well; but in the meantime, how many serious mistakes had been committed, how many false trails had been followed and abandoned, how many opportunities had been lost!

This disheartening tale recurs again and again with wearisome repetition of incident, and it is here we find the reason of that endless prolongation of our old wars, which it is now so difficult for us to understand. The truth is that owing to there being no provision for continuity in these improvised Committees of Defence and consequently no previous training in their complex functions, we trace through all their action a period during which they were learning what cooperation between army and navy meant, a second period in which they were learning how to make such cooperation effectually possible, and finally a third when the hard-gained and expensive lesson was put in action with drastic effect.

Are we always to tread the same broken road to success? Are we always to be held back by the same wilful courting of failure? There is hope at least that our eyes are opening, that after a period of honest, if not too sagacious effort to learn from our neighbour, we are drawing in again on our own instinct and seeking to build anew upon foundations and for conditions that are peculiarly our own. In the recent reconstitution of the Committee of Defence, and above all in the establishment of its permanent secretariat, there is evidence that amongst statesmen at least the right spirit is re-awakened. It tells us that they have recognized the need of coordination, that they have set themselves to lift the services from the narrow continental view of their respective functions that they have permanently installed the necessary machinery and have taken steps both to keep it in working order and to make themselves experts in its manipulation. Nor is this all. By the establishment of the permanent secretariat they have rendered possible the founding of a sound tradition and the perpetuation of sound reasoning in national defence. No longer will the work have to be started afresh with every recurring occasion, no longer need the right way be found by blundering to a standstill or a fall upon wrong ones, but from Government to Government, it will be possible to advance to increasing perfection upon definite lines that each newcomer may pick up with a few weeks study. Among many signs of how sound and vigorous the instinctive life of the nation still is at bottom, there is nothing more enheartening than the formation of this new body.

But of itself it can avail little. However securely statesmen may grasp the lesson of the past and the imperial needs of today and tomorrow, the good will not come unless the services are ready to respond. Statesmen may see the need of strategical coordination and of tactical cooperation, but it is only soldiers and sailors who can show how their creed can be put into action. Unless the army and navy set themselves loyally and patiently to soften the lines that divide their modes of thought and action, their etiquette and their traditions, unless each sets itself candidly to master the other’s ideals and methods, little good can come and the most sagacious and well-designed combinations will break down in practice.

The dark and the little known background of failure out of which our great successes shine is filled with examples of this truth. For one of singular clearness, we may turn again to the Seven Years’ War in which the Empire first took shape. The main bone of contention in that war lay in America. It was there the casus belli had arisen, and it was there rested the great prize of victory. But to win territory in America was useless unless Hanover could be secured in Europe. For if Hanover fell into the hands of France or her allies it would remain a security for the restitution of all the best that our sea power could give us. It was at first the desire and hope both of France and ourselves that the war should be naval and colonial, but the military vulnerability and diplomatic value of Hanover rendered it impossible from the first, and the war found its centre in Europe. For since we had no army available for operating on the continent, the safety of Hanover depended on the success of our Prussian ally in keeping France out of Germany, and then again, on the extent to which we could restrain his enemies France, Austria, Sweden and Russia. The first and obvious move therefore of a well coordinated strategy would have been to send a fleet to the Baltic to secure the Prussian rear from Russia and Sweden. And this was what Frederick the Great urged. But before Frederick had thrown himself into the widening struggle, our navy without any due coordination of the military aspects of the war, had become so deeply involved in indiscriminate adventure that no ships could be spared for a Baltic fleet. This is just one of those points already referred to, where it would seem that if our naval strategy had been framed with due regard to its most vital object – that is military action ashore – the war must have been drastically concentrated and possibly shortened by half its length.

As it was, so much of the fleet as was not being exhausted in distant and for the most part premature or unnecessary operations, was absorbed in commerce protection in home-waters, in trying ineffectively to prevent reinforcements leaving France for America and to intercept her convoys, but mainly in guarding the Narrow Seas against a threatened invasion which the most elementary study of combined naval and military action and its conditions must have revealed at once as a mere feint. This was the state of affairs when Pitt came to power. He immediately grasped the radical vice of the situation. He found himself condemned by his predecessor in office to a widespread offensive beyond the seas and a nervous defensive at home. Neither could be abandoned, and yet he saw that some show of offence at home was absolutely necessary if Frederick was to be able and willing to continue his efforts. It was Frederick himself who found the way. Satisfied that his request for a fleet in the Baltic could not be granted, he suggested that an expeditionary force should be formed to make or at least to threaten diversions upon the French coasts. Pitt saw at once how the idea hit the situation. Such a move must draw down troops from Frederick’s front, while at the same time, if directed against the enemy’s naval ports, it would materially assist the home fleet in the work in which it was absorbed. The threat would also extend to the North Sea ports, from which, if the French advanced into Hanover, their line of communication lay open to disturbance.

With all this offensive advantage, the defence would not be abandoned and public opinion at home might regain confidence in the knowledge that, even if the French attempted a counter-stroke on the British coasts, there was always a mobile force at hand to sweep down upon the point attacked. The complete idea both of Frederick and Pitt was that the expeditionary force should be kept permanently on foot with a fleet of transports always in attendance; and this was done, so that for the remainder of the war the French had to frame their campaigns with the knowledge that at any point from the Elbe to the Garonne, and at any moment, this disturbing element might suddenly have to be dealt with. Nothing could have been better designed, nothing could more clearly emphasise the peculiar strength and versatility of our position. The naval port of Rochefort was the first objective tried, and had the attempt succeeded we should probably not again have lost sight of the idea which the greatest soldier in Germany rediscovered for us in his need. The moral effect would have been incalculable; but since the first attempt failed there is no doubt that the expeditionary force lost much of its terrors for French strategists. And why did it fail? We now know that every condition of time, place, force and surprise was all that could be desired. The French themselves regarded their escape as a miracle.

But the cause was not miraculous. It was simply because soldier and sailor did not know how to act together. They were wholly ignorant of each other’s ways, each was blinded with his own dignity and tradition, and each was no less jealous of his own sphere of command than he was scrupulous against making so much as a suggestion in the other’s. Each was pedantically careful not to assume any responsibility which theoretically belonged to the other, and the whole operation was cramped and spoiled by the rigidity with which naval and military questions were considered apart in separate councils of war. Thus the decision not to enter the road the same day the expedition arrived was taken by the admiral from a purely naval point of view, regardless of whether the vital military importance of surprise did not justify the unusual risk being taken. Similarly the question of a landing was left to the military council of war regardless of its dependence on conditions that were essentially naval. But for the general to intervene in the one case and the admiral in the other was to assume a responsibility that was not his and to interfere in matters that he was presumed not to understand. So to the end, for the general the fleet was mere transport, and for the admiral the army was cargo. For these and for no others reasons the attempt to destroy Rochefort failed and the technical failure came to cover the general idea with a ridicule that has unhappily clung to this form of hostility ever since. But Pitt persevered, and the expeditionary force was kept on foot and in subsequent campaigns, as knowledge and mutual understanding between the forces increased, it did better. The resulting disturbance to French strategy and increase of popular confidence at home are undeniable, while the experience and harmonious action that the school produced can be traced in the clearest way in the final triumphs at Quebec and Havana.

Space will not permit of tracing the steps by which the harmony gradually grew up out of the experience gained in putting Frederick’s idea into practice. It must suffice to recall that it was at Rochefort that Wolfe, as Quartermaster-General, first learned how such combined expeditions should not be conducted, and gained that insight into the right way which made him perhaps the greatest master of such work our annals can show. The first effect in his mind we may see clearly in a letter which he wrote to an intimate friend on his return, to unburden his mind. “I have found out,” he said, “that an admiral should run into the enemy’s port immediately after he appears before it; that he should anchor the transports and frigates as close as he can to the land; that he should reconnoitre and observe it as quickly as possible and lose no time in getting the troops ashore; that previous directions should be given in respect to landing the troops and a proper disposition for the boats of all sorts, appointing leaders and fit persons to conducting the different divisions. Nothing is to be reckoned an obstacle to an undertaking of this nature which is not found so upon trial; that in war something must be allowed to chance and fortune, seeing that it is in its nature hazardous and an option of difficulties; that the greatness of an object should come into consideration as opposed to the impediments that lie in the way… The famous Council of War sat from morning till late at night, and the result of the debates was unanimously not to attack the place they were ordered to attack, and for reasons that no soldier will allow to be sufficient.”

How completely all the conditions which should regulate the conduct of such a joint enterprise had been neglected the letter clearly shows. No provision had been made for joint organisation and when “the option of difficulties” came to be considered, the risks were viewed separately as naval and military risks with no conception of how greatly these risks are respectively diminished when an army and a fleet are handled with boldness and judgement as one force. Such knowledge can only come by study and experiment, and it was fortunate for Pitt’s policy that as the British genius for war is dull to prepare success, so is it quick to learn by failure. It was thus the lesson learned in the Seven Years’ War; but to learn so is to learn like children, and surely now the nation is older we might learn like grown men. To carry out such instruction in peace time under full service conditions is no doubt impossible, but that is no reason why the alphabet of cooperation should not be learned and still less why the spirit of cooperation and mutual understanding between the services should not be fostered. If the spirit is there the rest will follow, and there is every indication that the spirit is already stirring.

A cardinal feature of the last scheme of army reorganisation is the provision of just such a force as that with which Pitt brought the army and navy into joint action for their common ends. In that we may surely see a promise that professional opinion is once more alive to the unique strategical advantages of which Frederick the Great in his darkest hours of distress had to remind us. Judging solely by the teaching of history, it would seem that nothing we have ever devised affords so just an expression of both our needs and our capacities. Whether we regard them from the point of view of our small Imperial wars or of what in a great European war our allies would expect and our enemies most fear from us, the proposed standing expeditionary force is just what is required. Nor is this all. For in this new force we provide not only the peculiar weapon of our birthright, but also the means of bringing about that intimate harmony of land and sea that should inspire the whole system of our national defence. Rightly trained for the special purpose for which it is formed, this force would inevitably become the special bond of union with the sister service, and the point of contact at which army and navy would interlock. It is a heaven-sent field on which soldier and sailor might meet and begin to break down the false barriers that have too long divided them, where each service might learn to tolerate without impatience or contempt the special methods of the other which neither can ever completely lay aside, where commanding officers may get to know each other’s personal equation, and all concerned might rub down those corners which in combined expeditions have so often prevented anything like a close-fitting joint and made disastrous friction inevitable. For if it is to be a success the new force must be trained with one foot in the water, the breath of the sea must be its esprit du corps, otherwise it will fail and miss its effect as surely as did the first attempts of Putt.

As for the navy, its advance to meet the army in its seaward movement should be even more simple and natural. The character of its work has always tended to bring home to it, much more than to the army, the need of duality. From very early days it has felt how one-handed it is without a military force acting in conjunction with it to drive home its blows, and so real was the need, that seeing how completely the army was divorced from it, it was driven to providing a military force of its own. We see the happy result in the undying achievements and high efficiency of the Royal Marines, and we see the same tendency still struggling for fuller expression in the more modern efforts to make every bluejacket as far as possible a soldier fit to serve ashore. So far indeed have the sailors gone back to that old amphibiousness in which their glory was founded, so keen is their growing sense of the unity of British warfare, that it would probably require but a little work in the right spirit for them to welcome the new force as part of themselves and to cherish it as their right hand. This once done the end would practically be achieved. The spirit already so strong in the navy would soon spread like leaven from the expeditionary force to the whole army. The sense of unity, and mutual support, of brotherhood, and interdependence, would become the moving spirit of both services in all ranks, so that in good time soldier and sailor would feel their highest confidence when serving together and no general would care to design a campaign without an admiral at his elbow.

The gain to the country would be no less great than the gain to the services. No longer would the question of national defence be confused to the extent to which it is now, with the difficulty of reconciling the conflicting claims, duties and ideas of the two services, nor would the country have to pay for so much of the work being done twice over along those lines where, from the very conditions of our national existence, it is impossible that the functions of an acutely differentiated army and navy should not overlap. Furthermore, an end would be put to that vain competition with the great military systems of the continent which have led to nothing but confusion and useless expense, to mistrust at home and contempt abroad. It has always been from within that have come the great reforms in method, and organisation, both in the navy and the army, which have led us to our most resounding success, and which have raised out reputation for war to its highest points. Let us, then, turn in again upon ourselves for guidance, let us take our stand once more on the inherent conditions of our existence and seek to develop for ourselves with a single eye to our peculiar needs and advantages that unity of land and sea upon which an island power and maritime Empire alone can rest unshaken in peace or war. Above all, we should be on our way to changing an army which the people feel instinctively is an imitation of something we do not require and cannot use, into a force which like our navy, no one but ourselves possesses and whose incalculable power of offence and disturbance no continental power could regard with indifference.

Sir Julian Corbett