A Startling Revelation

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A Startling Revelation

W. T. Stead (The Pall Mall Gazette, September 18, 1884)

The other day, being somewhat impatient with the endless polemic carried on between the two parties over a subject so vital to the national existence as the efficiency of the fleet, we asked, perhaps in somewhat peremptory fashion, for categorical replies to twelve searching questions which covered roughly the whole subject of our naval supremacy. We had not long to wait for a response.

We publish this morning, at a length which although fully warranted by the importance of the subject is entirely without precedent in the history of this journal, a detailed statement of what purports to be the truth about the navy made by one who is in a position, to know the facts, although for obvious reasons we withhold his name. So startling are his disclosures, so alarming the net effect of his expose of the weakness of our defensive position that we hesitated at making it public before submitting his statements to the examination of some of the most competent and careful authorities in the service in both its branches, administrative and naval. Without pledging themselves to all the details of the calculations and the figures of our contributor, those to whom we referred “The Truth about the Navy” agreed entirely with the general accuracy of the writer’s representation of the facts. We then subjected his statement to a careful and minute comparison with the published Estimates and the speeches, in the House and out of it, of the official representatives of the Admiralty. Not only were none of his general statements challenged, but this remarkable fact was brought into clear relief: in his description of the state of the navy he has in almost every case followed very closely the figures of those who are generally denounced as official optimists. His totals of the displacement of our ironclads, for instance, correspond exactly with those given by Sir Thomas Brassey in his speech at Portsmouth, which has been derided by every “alarmist” in the service as being a preposterous exaggeration of our naval resources. Another remarkable fact that was brought out in examination is that in no single case does he base his disquieting revelations upon the assumption that the present Board of Admiralty have made a single mistake either in armour, guns, or any other department of our naval administration. In the comparison of rival ironclads and their armaments he applies no standard of efficiency to which Lord Northbrook, Lord Hartington, Mr. Campbell Bannerman, and Sir Thomas Brassey have taken exception in their public utterances. Yet, notwithstanding all that, he sets forth one of the most gloomy pictures of the condition of our navy that has probably ever been published in an English newspaper, and one which, unless its substantial accuracy can be promptly disproved, must arouse the nation to energetic and immediate action. For that we need not rely upon the “proud instincts of an Imperial race” – the instinct of self-preservation is at once stronger and more constant.

Into the details of the twelve “definite replies” which we have received we do not propose to enter. They may be battled over hereafter by rival experts, and it may easily turn out that he has miscalculated a fraction in an average, omitted a torpedo boat, or under-estimated the value of the fortifications of one or more of our great commercial ports. The gravity of his description of the inadequacy of our naval armaments will not be affected in the least by any such flaws. The salient feature of his striking exposition of the actual condition of our navy is the proof which he affords of the fact that we no longer hold that unquestioned supremacy over the fleets of other Powers which we enjoyed in 1868. No amount of special pleading can get over the fact that, whereas fifteen years ago, we spent as much on our navy as was spent on the combined navies of France, Italy, Germany, and Russia, we are now spending eleven millions against their fifteen. Equally indisputable is the fact that in these fifteen years our territorial and commercial responsibilities have increased enormously, even if, as we have no right to do, we leave Egypt altogether out of the question. Every year an increasing number of our population depend for their daily bread on grain brought over sea. Never before, therefore, has there been a time since England was a nation when the unchallenged command of the seas was so indispensable. Living as we do from hand to mouth on imported food, we are an enormous natural fortress never victualled for a siege, but drawing two-thirds of its food from a base which, if our naval supremacy were to be even temporarily destroyed, would be outside the enemy’s lines. When England was self-contained, if she lost the command of the seas one month she was sure to regain it the next, and no great mischief was done. Now that we are victualled from over sea, we cannot afford to face even a temporary interruption of our communications. To prevent all possibility of that, as Mr. Cobden declared when our foreign food supply was comparatively insignificant, we should be ready to spend if need be a hundred millions sterling. Unless we are prepared to live on sufferance — and such States are seldom long suffered to live at all – we must make up our mind to face an immediate and a very considerable addition to our naval expenditure.

No words are too strong to express the repugnance which we feel to any such demand. But, unless the facts and figures which we print to-day can be authoritatively demolished, the case for such a vote is irresistible. We are loath indeed to offer fresh sacrifices before the shrine of Mars, and we would gladly reduce rather than increase our expenditure on powder and shot. No one in whose ear is ever ringing that almost unnoticed monotone of wailing want which fills our under world can refrain from shuddering at any proposal to add even a straw’s weight to the burden of taxation. But what is the alternative? What is this England, whose very existence is in peril, that we have a right to expose her thus to risk of a fatal overthrow? England is not merely our country and the teeming mother of new Englands beyond the seas, she is the Power which with all her faults yet leads the progress of the world in civilization – pacific, industrial, and free. Alone among the Great Powers of the older world, England stands for liberty – liberty of conscience, liberty of trade, liberty of association, and for the free Government of freemen by their own voice and vote. That great experiment is too valuable for the peace and progress of mankind to be lightly exposed to risk of absolute destruction for the sake of a penny on the income tax. But what is our present position? It is like that of a galleon from one of those golden argosies which used to bring the wealth of the New World to replenish the coffers of Spain which had gradually fallen behind its escort, while ever on her flank gathered in increasing numbers the hungry buccaneers. We go on heaping up wealth and ever more wealth in these islands, and simultaneously decrease the numbers of those who man the first and only line of our defence. This cannot last. In the scramble for the world that is now going on around us the richest prize of all will not long be overlooked. If France is rich enough to pay for her glory, is England not rich enough to pay for her insurance?