What is the Truth about the Navy?

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What is the Truth about the Navy?

W. T. Stead (The Pall Mall Gazette, September 15, 1884)

The scramble for the world has begun in earnest. In face of that phenomenon, how far are we able to prevent our own possessions being scrambled for by our neighbours?

The answer to that question depends upon the condition of our navy. If it is as strong as it ought to be, we have nothing to fear. If, on the other hand, it is no longer in a position of incontestable superiority to the navies of the world, we are in a position of peril too grave to be capable of exaggeration.

Not only our Imperial position, but the daily bread of twenty millions out of the thirty millions of our population depends entirely upon our dominion of the sea. If that is lost, or even endangered, our existence is at stake.

We have no desire to follow Lord Henry Lennox on the one side or Lord Northbrook on the other into a bewildering comparison of what has been done or left undone by Liberals and Conservatives. Both assailants and defenders darken counsel by figures employed for mere purposes of party. The public beholds with unconcealed disgust our Capulets and Montagues carrying their feuds into the very heart of the arsenals and dockyards of their country. The navy as much as the Crown should be above party, for its efficiency is the condition of our existence as an independent State. No one, however, can ignore party rivalries, if only on account of the influence they exert on the condition of the Services, and it is well this question has come up when the Liberals are in office. Conservatives, rightly or wrongly, are “suspect” in all matters relating to warlike expenditure, and if the Navy is to be increased, the Liberals can do it much more easily than their opponents. Nor is that by any means the only advantage of the present distribution of power. The party now in office is the party of Free Trade, and Free Trade without the command of the seas is death. That is to say, a system by which two-thirds of all the bread eaten in England has come to be grown over the sea can only be defended on the assumption that the ocean highway is as secure as the Great Northern railway. The maintenance of an undisputed and indisputable ascendancy on every sea is the indispensable corollary of the abolition of the Corn Laws. This was clearly recognised by Mr. Cobden, whose antipathy to expenditure on the Services was notorious. In a well-known passage, which Mr. Morley quotes with undisguised admiration, Mr. Cobden assured Lord John Russell in 1860 that; so far from wishing to place his country at the mercy of France, “I would, if necessary, spend one hundred millions sterling to maintain an irresistible superiority over France at sea.” It is, therefore, an axiom of the Liberal free traders that our superiority at sea must be “absolutely irresistible,” and that our hundred millions sterling must, if needs be, be spent cheerfully rather than that our irresistible superiority should be challenged by any possible combination of hostile Powers. It is the fashion to speak of Mr. Gladstone as an obstacle to the execution of the policy so courageously defined by Mr. Cobden. There is no doubt that the Prime Minister would shrink with natural horror from any proposal to increase the Estimates. But those who are perpetually taunting him with his Midlothian orations might at least remember that nothing figured more prominently in that famous campaign than declarations of a determination to maintain our supremacy by sea. Lord Beaconsfield had seized Cyprus to guard our road to India. Mr. Gladstone denounced that act with vehemence, and propounded, as the true alternative policy, the maintenance of our naval supremacy. With withering scorn he denounced the utter folly of keeping out of view this supremacy at sea, which he declared was the true mode of guarding the road to India, in opposition to the multiplication of garrisons and military posts. Mr. Gladstone’s policy, therefore, is that of naval supremacy as distinguished from that of military conquest, and on Midlothian principles he could not for a moment hesitate to demand even the hundred millions named by Mr. Cobden if it were clearly demonstrated that our naval supremacy was not absolutely irresistible.

What then is the truth about the navy? To answer this question it is not enough to prove that it is as good or better than it ever was. What we want to know is, what is its comparative strength when the navies of other Powers are taken into account?

Has its efficiency been increased in corresponding ratio to the increase of our commerce and our responsibilities over sea, and is it at present competent to cope with the possible contingencies springing out of the present disturbed condition of affairs? It seems utterly idle to hope for a clear comparative statement of the available naval force of the different nations, but there are several questions to which it seems to us it ought not to be difficult to furnish definite replies.

  1. Our war risks have enormously increased. Has our navy, which is our national insurance, been correspondingly strengthened?
  2. Can we or can we not demonstrate beyond all gainsaying our “irresistible superiority” in armour, guns, speed, and coal-carrying capacity over any combination of fleets which it is reasonable to believe could be brought against us? 
  3. If at this moment we are in this position, how will it be five years hence, when the ironclads now building are in commission?
  4. Have repairs been sacrificed to building, or are our ships in commission really serviceable?
  5. If our ironclads are superior in hull, is their armament up to the mark ? Is it or is it not true that both the French and Italian navies are armed with heavier guns of greater precision and more convenient for handling than are our own ships?
  6. In case of a Sudden outbreak of war with any naval power, have we at this moment a fighting ship on each of our foreign stations better than the best that the enemy could send against us?
  7. Have we sufficient store of fast ocean cruisers to scour the seas in search of the innumerable vessels which in case of war would at once be let loose upon our commerce?
  8. Are our coaling and telegraph stations secured against the sudden descent of a hostile ship?
  9. Are our own seaports in a state of defence, and our own harbours adequately protected?
  10. If an ironclad were disabled in any part of the world, have we provided docks wherein it could be refitted within reasonable distance of the scene of action?
  11. Have we sufficient trained sailors and gunners, first, to man our ships and, secondly, to supply the wear and tear of service in time of war?
  12. And, lastly, if all these questions can be answered in the affirmative, have we a sufficiently numerous mosquito fleet of torpedo boats, steam launches, and picket boats to fend off the attacks of an enemies torpedoes and save our gigantic ironclads from sudden destruction?

That is a rough but fairly comprehensive summary of the questions to which the nation has a right to have accurate answers. If the Lords of the Admiralty can say that on all these points they are satisfied with the position in which they have placed the country it will be an easy matter for them to set forth in plain, broad outlines the salient features of the condition of affairs. If, on the contrary, they have to confess that upon all or any of these vitally important points the condition of the navy is unsatisfactory, they have again only to set forth what is wanted and no party in this country will refuse them as many millions as is necessary to put things right. Mr. Cobden in such a matter was ready to vote a hundred millions, and the instinct of self-preservation is not less powerful in Englishmen now than it was in the great apostle of Peace and Free Trade. But first of all let us know the facts.