A Big Fleet, the Channel School and Scuttling: Were Late Nineteenth Century Criticisms of the Royal Navy’s Mediterranean War Plans Strategically Sound?

 By Jonathan Noy



This paper will examine British Mediterranean naval strategy in the two largely overlooked decades prior to Admiral Sir John Fisher’s ascension as First Sea Lord and the widely held ‘modernisation’ of the Service. It will contend that far from being a staid and intellectually mired organisation, developments in the form of the Naval Intelligence Department, Navy Records Society and the advent of ‘scientific’ historical analysis as a basis to inform strategy allowed the comprehensive rebuttal of reactionary and strategically unsound proposals from ‘Scuttlists’ and ‘Big Fleet’ advocates, who were informed by a demonstrably false aggrandisement of the Jeune École threat.




1. Introduction, Context, Aims

From the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, Britain enjoyed the long peace of Pax Britannia, punctuated only by the Crimea (1853-56) and an assortment of colonial wars.[1] This period saw an exponential increase in overseas possessions and economic interests, primarily in Africa and South Asia. From the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869 the Mediterranean became the key waterway for oceanic trade to these regions, totalling some £122,893,000 by 1897 and representing over one third of the British Empire’s trade.[2]

Beyond hosting such commerce, the Mediterranean also held the key to the balance of power in Europe, with the Great Powers of Britain, France and Russia all exercising influence in the region. Moreover, sea power in the Mediterranean facilitated the rapid reinforcement of India’s North West Frontier, the suppression of French lines of supply and communication to Africa, and the application of influence to woo potential allies or discourage potential aggression.[3]

Accordingly, the Mediterranean fleet was the largest and most important on any foreign Station, with the majority of Britain’s newest battleships being posted there. Furthermore, the French – Britain’s most likely opponents – concentrated their main force at Toulon while maintaining large numbers of cruisers and torpedo-boats (TBs) on the North African coastline.[4] It was feared the Russians may capture the Bosporus with a new Black Sea fleet, thereby threatening Britain’s direct route to India.[5]

It was to this background in 1884 that William Stead published his inflammatory ‘The Truth about the Navy’, providing much of the initial impetus for the questioning of British naval superiority.[6] Combined with the French Jeune École achieving its zenith under Théophile Aubue’s ministry, three competing schools of thought emerged and attempted to influence Admiralty Mediterranean strategy and dispositions.[7] While the French navy underwent an operational transformation, the Royal Navy experienced an intellectual reformation which informed subsequent strategic decision making.

The period under consideration will conclude in 1904 with the accession of Admiral Sir John Fisher as First Sea Lord and the Entente Cordiale’s diplomatic negation of the French threat.

Accordingly, three areas will be addressed:

First, to determine to what extent the Jeune École was a creditable threat to British dominance and strategic interests in the Mediterranean.

Second, to demonstrate institutions such as the Naval Intelligence Department, Navy Records Society and the advent of ‘scientific’ historical analysis facilitated informed strategic decisions better serving British interests.

Third, to demonstrate that such methods and institutions allowed the navy to comprehensively rebuff reactionary and strategically unsound proposals from Scuttlists and Big Fleet advocates.

Such an approach marks a departure from the modern norm; secondary literature on British naval policy towards the Mediterranean is notably limited. This can be attributed to three factors; geographical focus; chronological focus; and a misperception of the period’s value.

The final factor exerts most influence. For many, the late Victorian navy is seen as an intellectually and strategically stagnant force; while the initial transition from oak and sail to steel and steam had been completed in the two decades following the Crimean War, the late Victorian naval officer remained resolutely conservative and insular within his own technical speciality.[8] This, combined with the lack of Great Power conflict outside the colonial periphery makes many assume study of Fisher’s six years as First Sea Lord from 1904 may yield greater insight.[9] Indeed, a recent thesis accurately described Fisher as having a ‘mercurial’ permeation over recent literature on the ‘modernisation’ of the fleet.[10]

Thus, assuming 1904 as the start of the ‘modern’ navy, the geographical focus is shifted from the Mediterranean to the North Sea and Baltic. Strategic rivalry between Britain and France ended with the 1904 Entente Cordiale and with Russia from the 1907 Anglo-Russian Entente, leaving Imperial Germany as the only creditable naval threat.[11] The resultant Great War has added further urgency and interest to the study of Royal Navy policy post-1904. Its impact can be more directly traced to the ensuing conflict, which in turn provides tangible metrics and data to evaluate particular policies and innovations beyond the exercises and written discourse of the final decades of the nineteenth century.

Despite this, a study of the period under consideration has much to offer. Firstly, it allows for the tracing of intellectual influences on the development of British naval strategy, fleet posture and composition. The adoption of the ‘masking’ or distant blockade that would eventually strangle Germany by 1918 was formulated as a result of studies undertaken in the 1890s.[12] Less positively, the failure to recognise the importance of convoy’s role in protecting merchantmen as well as troop-carriers contributed to the heavy tonnage losses of 1917.

Equally, the composition of the fleets at Jutland can be traced to the period in question.  The Navy League’s agitation for ever larger Estimates, coupled with a public interest in naval affairs dating from the 1880s, defined the numbers involved. The mix of capital units with cruisers and most notably torpedo-armed destroyers also dates back to the influence of the Jeune École and associated counter-measures.

Due to the comparatively scant study of the period in question, a resultant gap has appeared in the developmental chronology of the navy’s intellectual, strategic and planning capacity.[13] This paper should help emphasise that British naval thought was a continuous and healthy process that existed throughout the so called ‘Dark Ages’ of the Admiralty following the Napoleonic Wars.[14]

Finally, it may prove a useful reference and perhaps stimulate closer examination of what remains a richly sourced, influential but comparatively understudied period of naval development.


2. War in the Mediterranean: Responses to a New Threat

Britain’s position as a Great Power rested on her global reach. This afforded power projection in support of commercial, diplomatic and military interests. Stead’s article called into question the navy’s ability to fulfil this role.[15] The essential question was whether the navy possessed sufficient vessels to satisfy this role, or if the concentration required in some theatres dangerously denuded others.

Admiralty Standing Orders dictated the Channel Squadron would steam to Gibraltar and supplement the Mediterranean fleet in the event of war.[16] This sat uneasily with many who considered the French sufficiently strong to defeat in detail the two British squadrons.[17] These fears were compounded after the 1893 visit of the Russian fleet to Toulon, raising the spectre of a simultaneous Franco-Russian attack from the Eastern and Western Mediterranean.[18] Accordingly, much deliberation resulted regarding the fleet’s ideal strength and optimum base.

Three main schools of thought are associated with this debate. Supporting the Admiralty was the Channel School, and arrayed against it, albeit diametrically opposed to each other, were Scuttlists and those who backed a Superior or ‘Big Fleet’. The worrisome French strength at the debate’s centre largely arose from the Jeune École.

As such, before these schools of thought are surveyed, the seriousness of the Jeune École threat merits investigation.

2.1. The Jeune École: a Creditable Threat?

During the 1870s and 1880s, French naval thinking underwent a renaissance. Economically floundering in the post-Gloire (1860) arms race, and increasingly mindful of her Continental neighbours following the humiliations of 1870-71, France hoped technological innovation could provide a cheap, effective alternative to heavy guns and armour.

The torpedo-boat and self-propelled torpedo provided an answer. 1883’s initial popularisation stemmed from journalist Francis Charmes suggesting their use as autonomous seagoing warships within a guerre de course strategy.[19] Enthusiastically championed by Théophile Aube at the Ministry of Marine from 1886, the Jeune École was born.

Much of this was not new however. Britain had launched the pioneering torpedo-boat Lightning in 1876, joined two years later by torpedo-boat carrier Helca. Prior to this physical manifestation, Richild Grivel expressed essential tenets.[20] Contending France’s naval history demonstrated Mahanian encounters were inherently dangerous for the weaker fleet, they should thus be avoided and alternatives sought.[21]

The Jeune École evolved in two branches. Aube’s saw Britain as the most likely enemy. Grivel’s considered Britain and the Triple Alliance equally likely opponents.[22] A strategic divergence resulted, with Grivel proposing parallel battlefleet and commerce raiding forces be maintained. War with a superior power (Britain) would see the latter deployed, while war with an inferior power (Italy) would utilise the former.[23] Conversely, Aube solely favoured commerce raiding. This fragmentation made for inconsistent procurement policy, with the continued, albeit reduced, commissioning of battleships coupled alongside significantly increased torpedo-boat and cruiser production.[24] Compounding this, the manner of their intended use fluctuated depending on which school held sway at the Ministry.[25] This represented a fundamental Jeune École shortcoming – while successfully procuring much desired equipment, it proved unable to embed the corresponding strategic thought, contrasting unfavorably with the RNs successful defence of the Channel School.[26]

The Jeune École’s overarching strategic goal was the incitement of civil unrest through economic destruction.[27] These factors would then be leveraged to conclude a favorable peace. Aube contrasted Britain’s civic stability post-1660 with the social and political turmoil suffered by France post-1789, concluding colonial markets averted:

“…the menace of poverty… [ensuring]… the question of labour has not become, will not become for a long time in England, a social question.”[28]

Charmes hypothesised that denied these markets, economic and thus social instability would follow:

“…as soon as her factories stop, thousands of workers will be plunged into misery, and terrible economic crises will break out. Little by little, even famine will make itself felt with all its horrors, for the grain of America is no less necessary than the products of India.”[29]

There was historical precedent. Confederate commerce raiding during the American Civil War (1861-1865) saw shipping insurance rates soar, abating the increase in American commercial tonnage.[30] Moreover, British mills denied Southern cotton sharply decreased output, and thus employment. The Lancashire Cotton Famine would eventually lead to the Stalybridge riots, prompting legislation to ease the effects of unemployment and resultant poverty.

It was hoped this could be repeated, with insurances rates rendering seaborne trade financially infeasible.[31] Since repealing Corn Law tariff barriers in 1846, food imports increased steadily. Import dependence coupled with expensive shipping would inflate food prices. Combined with interdiction of raw materials depressing industrial output and reduced access to colonial markets stymieing exports, unsustainable price-of-living increases may lead to the hoped-for unrest.

The Jeune École’s impact would not be limited to the lower classes; in 1890 over half the world’s tonnage was British registered, much carrying third parties’ cargo.[32] The danger of interdiction and inflated insurances would make British flagged carriers unattractive. Feeding into the financial sectors, Britain’s balance of payments and exchange rate would be adversely impacted. The Jeune École reasoned such impact would encourage powerful lobbying in favor of peace.

However, the balance of evidence weighs against France’s ability to achieve such ambitions. Well illustrated by the Fashoda crisis, the French navy was found utterly unprepared, mirroring political, diplomatic, and industrial inconsistency and confusion.[33]

In turn, this was well exemplified by the confused state of French planning under Admiral Louis Besnard. British Mediterranean planning had consistently focused on French or Franco-Russian opposition, while France had Italy as her primary focus.[34] Indeed, as of October 1897 no plans contre Britain existed, yet planning against Germany was prioritised as late as July 1898, just as Franco-British tensions intensified.[35] While undoubtedly a reflection of France’s desire to avoid another 1871, such a deficit of planning shows at best sloth and at worst negligence.

Eventual plans emphasised the Mediterranean as the primary theatre of operations.[36] Brest’s Northern Fleet would pursue a ‘fleet-in-being’ strategy, allowing only a reduced Channel Squadron to steam south.[37] Three cruisers would sally forth to ‘perturb trade close to the British coast’ but ‘avoid combat against a superior force.’[38] This is notable as the only decidedly Jeune École aspect of the French plan, envisaged with cruisers rather than the much vaunted torpedo-boats. The Mediterranean plan depended almost entirely upon a core of six battleships.

These exposed French material shortcomings. Of 14 battleships in theatre, only six had sufficiently similar speed, armour and guns to feasibly operate as a single force.[39] Conversely, the Mediterranean Station could muster 16 prior to reinforcement from the Channel.[40] Accordingly, these six would form the operational core and cruise between Toulon and Algiers in an effort to prevent unification of British squadrons.[41] Destruction in detail was undoubtedly the aim, but ambitious for a squadron of six, reliant on British battleships being split between Malta and Gibraltar; unlikely given the emphasis placed by British schools on concentration.[42] Resultantly, such a squadron would likely achieve little, while itself being vulnerable to destruction by larger forces. Upon completion of the Channel-Mediterranean juncture, Besnard limply stated CINC-MED should ‘himself judge which decisions to take.’[43]

Admiral François Fournier used this judgment to formulate more realistic, albeit defensive war plans in November 1898.[44] However, these were equally vague at the critical juncture; fighting close to Toulon, French inferiority would be compensated for by tactical genius of an unspecified nature.[45]

Neither Basnard at the Ministry, nor Fournier in Toulon undertook thorough examinations of the RN, nor explored means to reduce the qualitative and quantitative imbalance.[46] Both ignored the most threatening scenarios and devolved responsibility to improvise detail to subordinates.[47] While such devolution of command is not inherently bad, and frequently a prominent feature of the pre-wireless era, the lackluster overarching operational and strategic thought effectively left the French directionless with no real hope of challenging Britain.

Édouard Lockroy attempted to implement a more cogent operational framework. Noting none ‘…until today studied [a naval confrontation with Britain] in a comprehensive and serious manner…’ he issued guidelines based on three points which broadly followed Jeune École ideals.[48]

Firstly, it was imperative to avoid a Mahanian clash; any attempt to engage could only lead to a French defeat.

Secondly, Britain’s dependence on maritime trade was her vulnerability. Accordingly, battleships would constitute a ‘fleet-in-being’ to tie down British capital units, while cruisers sally forth and interdict trade. Lockroy also held forcing British ships to maintain a blockade would accelerate mechanical fatigue and gradually reduce effectiveness while French strength was conserved under the protection of coastal artillery. Flag Officers considered this a double-edged sword due to morale and training deficits implicit during long periods of inactivity.[49]

Finally, Lockroy emphasised any war should be as protracted as possible. A prolonged maritime war would be more exhausting for Britain than France. This was a fair assessment with French oceanic trade valued at just 2.9% of the British total; £13 million compared to British Mediterranean commerce of £117 million, plus a further £330 million in the Atlantic.[50]

Accordingly, a reorientation towards to the Atlantic was mooted, which not only hosted more trade, but from Brest ‘one can hit England on her head… from Toulon one can only threaten her heel.’[51] Brest also had thrice the exits of Toulon, further complicating blockade.[52] Moreover, a naval concentration at Brest coupled with appropriate land forces would pose a creditable invasion threat, amplifying the feet-in-being effect and detaining more British vessels.[53]

Lockroy also reiterated the Jeune École tenet of carrying through commercial warfare ‘relentlessly and without mercy.’[54] Within France, criticism centred on the immorality, and since 1856, illegality of unrestricted commerce raiding.[55] Aubue retorted ‘war is the negation of law… everything is therefore not only permissible but legitimate against the enemy.’[56] Objections to international law were nullified on the basis that all powers equipped ships with mines, thereby demonstrating the right to their deployment was implicitly recognised.[57]

Ultimately however, the Superior Council recommended the battlefleet remain at Toulon and commerce interdiction be infrequent and the sole preserve of cruisers.[58] The Triple Alliance threat was too great for naval policy to be skewed exclusively towards Britain.

This tallies most closely with the Channel School, while simultaneously discrediting Big Fleeters by demonstrating the French were neither imminently planning nor particularly able to execute a sudden, overwhelming attack. This impression of unpreparedness and division of focus becomes further apparent when examining the creditability of the torpedo-boat threat.

It was widely feared the torpedo-boat would render the battleship obsolete. It was even mooted that the 12,590-ton Nile and Trafalgar would be the last of their size anywhere.[59] More tellingly, 1887 was the only year between 1860 and the 1922 Washington Naval Treaty that no Power laid down a battleship.[60] However, both French and British studies soon established the torpedo-boat case had been overegged. Their combat effectiveness, seaworthiness and subsequent endurance were all questioned.

For the French, this assessment followed the 1886 manoeuvres. Aube had his torpedo-boats transit from the Atlantic coast to Toulon before pursuing and harassing capital ships through the Straits to Brest.[61] This exposed the small boats to rougher Atlantic as well Mediterranean conditions, while simultaneously providing a navigational challenge. Both these would be significant factors in the conduct of torpilleur autonome operations central to Aube’s ideas. Sea-keeping qualities were found wanting:

“The crews were so worn out from sea sickness and the lack of warm food and sleep that there could be no question of their inability to fight at the end of the trip.”[62]

Despite these limitations, Ministerial reports emphasised the torpedo-boat’s seagoing qualities, blaming inexperienced crews.[63] Accordingly, these exercises are best viewed as proving torpedo-boats could operate in adverse seas, albeit not over extended periods. This suited counter-blockade operations, but boded poorly for the torpilleur autonome’s Atlantic application. This is supported by the torpilleur autonome being dropped in favour of localised flotilla operations. The guerre de course role passed to cruisers.

This operational realignment was tested when 22 torpedo-boats exercised against the rest of the fleet, representing 20 times the manpower and financial investment.[64] Focusing on breaking a blockade and attacking a force at sea, the exercises yielded several insights.[65]

The first revealed visibility’s impact on torpedo-boat operations. Initially detected at 5000 meters, the torpedo-boats were exposed to fire without effective reply, suffering accordingly. However, their position improved markedly when cover from the smoke of 12” battleship guns was accounted for.[66]

When sallying against a ‘masking’ blockade, more consistent, but still modest success was achieved:

“The torpedo boats made 126 appearances, 48 launchings of torpedoes, got within good range 21 times, and completely surprised the battleships in 8 cases.”[67]

This received high praise:

“The torpedo boat is par excellence the weapon of surprise… Its intervention makes it impossible to institute a blockade.”[68]

Ultimately, French exercises produced inconclusive results. Assessments varied from Aube’s view that torpedo-boats had performed well, and when available in greater numbers with better trained crews could credibly challenge British supremacy at a fraction of the cost associated with a conventional arms race.[69] Conversely, those hostile to the Jeune École summed up:

“Five torpedo boats out of twenty-one, harassed by fatigue, waterlogged, and probably incapable of firing their torpedoes, finally attacked the Squadron …simply confirm[ing]… [good] routines for surveillance. This odyssey in summer, on a friendly coast, may demolish the faith of the most dedicated believers in the autonomy, the absolute seaworthiness, the value of these so-called high seas torpedo boats, who lost three quarters of their effective strength in twelve hours.”[70]

Broadly analogous conclusions were drawn in NID orchestrated exercises, tied up with the on-going debate over blockade (see p.30).[71] The 1888 manoeuvres saw a ‘British’ force closely blockade two ‘French’, with the latter attempting to escape and interdict merchantmen.[72] One squadron escaped and raided successfully, obliging the blockade be raised. As the French discovered, torpedo-boat effectiveness over longer operations was hampered by punishing conditions leading to accelerated crew and mechanical fatigue.[73] However, torpedo-boats were ‘…a source of constant annoyance and anxiety to the blockading force at night.’[74] This reveals that torpedo-boats presence impeded the blockading force’s morale and perceived freedom of action, especially in darkness and poor visibility.

The ‘Three Admirals Report’ concluded torpedo-boats’ poor endurance and sea-keeping qualities rendered them of greater value to the defender – as the French invariably would be during a blockade – and ‘would inevitably prove a cause of embarrassment and anxiety.’[75] The role of ‘torpedo-boat catchers’, analogous to the destroyers of the next decade, was praised, and their production rose significantly along with commerce protection cruisers procured under the Naval Defence Act.[76]

The following year’s exercises saw ‘the methods of blockade adopted in 1888… modified in accordance with the experience thus gained.’[77] Accordingly, the previous format was repeated, albeit with a ‘masking’ instead of a ‘close’ blockade. A breakout was quickly achieved, but forced to retire when encountered by the masking force.[78] Despite breaking out with greater ease, the ‘French’ squadron’s subsequent operations were successfully forestalled by capital units acting on intelligence from inshore cruisers and scouts.[79]

Between 1890 and ’94, NID scenarios placed greater emphasis on the torpedo-boat issue.[80] The 1890 manoeuvres assessed British trade defence against Jeune École methods. This saw cruisers and torpedo-boats sortieing from Alderney successfully attack merchantmen in Plymouth Sound before being frustrated by a tactical withdrawal to the Scillies and roving cruisers which provided intelligence and harried the ‘French’ force.[81] This further demonstrated the Jeune École’s impact degraded with distance (force gradient) while being vulnerable to proactive trade protection countermeasures.

These conclusions were validated by 1891 manoeuvres examining torpedo-boats effectiveness against a balanced fleet of TB-destroyers, cruisers and battleships.[82] As suggested in 1888, TB-destroyers performed well. Moreover, the aggressive use of TB-destroyers to harass torpedo-boats close to their bases demonstrated poor defensive capabilities and the impotency of their primary armament, especially against other small vessels with small-calibre, quick-firing guns.[83]

In summation, France’s Jeune École navy was undoubtedly innovative but not the threat portrayed by the Navy League or championed by its own supporters. Inconsistent administration and rapid turnover within the Ministry of Marine, coupled with operational planning priories focusing too narrowly on Italy at the expense of Britain undermined effectiveness. Further shortcomings were evident in the technology and equipment employed. However, the Mediterranean situation lent itself more readily to torpedo-boat strengths than other theaters, and the validity of the torpedo was demonstrated to great effect the First World War, albeit when launched from submarines. These shortcomings were identified and compensated for by commerce raiding becoming the preserve of cruisers while torpedo-boats focused on counter-blockade operations. This at least demonstrates a French awareness of shortcomings and willingness to evolve. Ultimately however, the case for the Jeune École cannot be seen as anything other than overegged.


2.2 The Strategic Response: The Channel School or a Superior Fleet

It was to this, as yet uncertain background, the debate developed. The Channel School held the Station’s strength should not fluctuate with localised oscillations. Instead, a fleet only strong enough to carry out its broader strategic role of enhancing diplomatic and commercial interests should be maintained in the Mediterranean. Should the outbreak of hostilities seem imminent, the Channel Squadron could steam from Plymouth to Gibraltar and reinforce.[84]

This was strongly contested by proponents of a Superior or ‘Big Fleet’. They considered the Mediterranean Station under-strength to adequately fulfil the command’s peace and wartime duties.[85] To avoid the fleet’s destruction in detail, they urged the Station’s establishment be made sufficient to act against Franco-Russian threats without immediate recourse to reinforcement.[86]

The clearest advocate of the Channel School’s philosophy was Admiral Philip Colomb, Laughton’s replacement as lecturer on Naval Strategy at Greenwich. The two shared the historical research methodology underpinning much of the Channel School.

This significantly distinguished the Channel School from its detractors and informed its strategic advocacy. Based on the close working relationship developed between the Naval Intelligence Department (NID) and leading theorists and scholars such as John Knox Laughton and the Navy Records Society (NRS), it led to unique insights possible only through the crosspollination of current, judiciously analysed information and historical example.[87]

In this respect it can be seen as a counterweight to the popularist Navy League.

For Laughton, well-research and evidenced history held the key to the development of national policy and naval thinking:

“The commanding officer who hopes to win, not merely tumble into distinction, must… be prepared beforehand… The knowledge of what has happened already will not only teach him by precedent [but] also suggest to him things that have never yet been done.”[88]

His method was indirectly summarised:

“[The historian] must work to lay the foundation; when the foundation is once laid on the rock of research, a superstructure may be raised on it which may live through good many blasts and controversy… the house built on sand will presently crumble on itself, without needing any special blasts or storms to sweep it away.”[89]

Supported by the NRS since its 1893 conception, Laughton provided deep archival support to national naval policy. The physical embodiment of Laughton’s method, the NRS distilled source based historical research into contemporary strategy.[90] Always relevant, the Society’s first issue focused on the 1588 invasion crisis, with debates over fixed fortifications and provision of a large standing army being contemporarily active.[91]

Through the NID and NRS, the navy could formulate high-level strategy based upon historical example. The transcendent nature of lessons from the sailing navy allowed the NID to flesh a historical skeleton with contemporary information to facilitate thorough and perceptive strategic analysis.

Both the initial impetus for and intellectual heart of the superior fleet argument was William Laird Clowes.[92] Igniting the debate in October 1893, an article generously praised French vessels and organisation, enthusing:

“…lying there in commission ships sufficient… to go out and meet our entire Mediterranean squadron… with more than a reasonable chance of [success].”[93]

Clowes concluded French vessels were larger, faster, better armoured, better manned and generally capable of out-fighting their Royal Navy counterparts. Moreover, he alleged that while the Royal Navy had no reserves in the Mediterranean, France ‘…by way of contrast, has at Toulon, eight other ironclads, several of which can go to sea tomorrow if necessary.’[94]

The summation of Clowes’ article embodied the core Big Fleet message – Britain is disadvantaged, but the situation can be remedied through the permanent assignment of more vessels to the Mediterranean:

“France is much stronger in the Mediterranean than we… [and]… much more readier [sic]. We are happily in a position to promptly repair part of our neglect by despatching to Malta a force powerful enough to render our fleet beyond question once more supreme.”[95]

When conveying their points, the Channel School sought to influence policy makers rather than public opinion. This was evident from the composition of the NRS, membership being heavily weighted towards those of standing and influence within the Service and government. The only consistent support from the popular press came from James Thursfield in the Times. He attempted to maintain a balanced and nuanced view, collaborating in 1897 with Clarke on a work aiming to prevent a reactionary naval policy.[96]

In contrast, the Big Fleet campaign was very public. This can be accounted for by the School’s supporters comprising nearly all the Mediterranean commanders between 1884 and 1904, the British Navy League (BNL) and much of the Conservative-leaning popular press.[97] These provided considerable circulation for Navy League publicity and played a significant part in the cause’s longevity. Indeed, by 1901 the League boasted some 14,000 members, rising to 100,000 thirteen years later.[98]

The League’s broad appeal stemmed from a program engaging most interest groups. Commanders and officers in the Mediterranean were hungry for more ships, partly from earnest belief that the Station was undermanned, but undoubtedly also for the aggrandisement of their own command, and the promotional opportunities any expansion offered.[99]

Support of influential figures, notably the popular and much admired Admiral Hornby, enhanced the League’s profile by providing authoritative figures to cite as experts.[100] This added considerable weight to arguments and increased penetration into influential circles, while simultaneously grabbing public attention.[101] Further outlets for navalism included journals seeking to influence policy in a manner more direct than the popular press.

Once holding public attention, the League was not beyond scaremongering about the immediacy with which war might be declared and any possibility of starvation which may follow.[102] Their appeal to the working public was further enhanced by championing below-deck causes such as food quality, resulting in many trade unions aligning to the navalist cause.[103]

Before an examination of the School’s views on the core areas of contention, an examination of a ‘third way’ will be conducted, revealing much of the theatre’s strategic value.


2.3. A Third Way?: Scuttlism and the Abandonment of the Mediterranean 

The final school of strategic thought was that of ‘Scuttling.’ The mid-1890s saw several journalists and army officers debate the value of retaining Britain’s presence in the Mediterranean. For them it was strategically sound to close up the Inland Sea at Bab al-Mandab in the Red Sea and Gibraltar in the Western Mediterranean. They considered this defensive strategy more economic and effective than the current deployment of the fleet.

Notably, Scuttlism’s most prominent journalistic proponent was William Laird Clowes, who had earlier spearheaded the Big Fleet argument. Clowes now asserted that far from being an asset, the Mediterranean was ‘…a millstone around the neck of England.’[104] He attributed this to historical reasons for Britain’s presence having become invalid. Firstly, he contested the Jeune École’s threat to trade was insurmountable. Secondly, Britain had no reason to aid the Ottomans. Finally, maintaining a presence because Britain sought to ‘meddle’ in others business was false pride – Britain should hand over her Mediterranean possessions to the Vatican and Ottoman Empire. Clowes’ essential conclusion was therefore that the fleet’s peacetime support of diplomacy was unnecessary, while the protection of trade in war was impossible.[105]

Accordingly, greater economy of force and finance was achievable by ‘hermetically’ sealing the Mediterranean at the outbreak of war. The Franco-Russian threat would be contained by fleets stationed at Aden and Tangier, allowing ‘…Mediterranean Europe to settle its own affairs.’[106] Such notions had been previously mooted in 1888 and 1893, but Clowes’ vision of giving up Cyprus, Malta and Egypt took these early suggestions further still.[107]

Some support was forthcoming from the Army, particularly engineers. Elsdale, whose fortress perspective suggested defences on Malta and Egypt were insufficient to resist a determined French attack, which coupled to the fleet’s evident inferiority (as per Big Fleet agitators), meant neither could be guaranteed.[108] This tallied with Clowes’ argument that only Britain’s arrogance kept her in the Mediterranean and her precarious position dictated the only sensible course of action to be a peaceful recognition of her inferiority and immediate evacuation.

These fundamental underpinnings of Scuttlerism are demonstrably false. Examining the error of the theory demonstrates the Mediterranean’s true strategic value.

Rebuttals were swift and rife with condemnation.[109] The most succinct deconstruction was undertaken by another Royal Engineer, Sir George Clarke who undertook a point by point refutation of Clowes.[110] Unlike Elsdale, Clarke approached the question with a holistic view of national policy clearly influenced by Laughton’s approach to historical study. Contained within his refutation and further highlighted by Sir Julian Corbett were the core strategic principles that had kept Britain in the Mediterranean.[111] These principles are the same as those espoused in Admiralty Standing Orders and encapsulated in the Channel School’s position.[112]

Clarke took this careful and reasoned approach to history and used it to undermine Clowes’ claims by accusing him of misunderstanding the historical evidence before him, thus demolishing his ruling motive. Attacking a further cornerstone of Clowes’ article Clarke stated that rather than ‘meddling’ in Europeans’ business, Britain’s active role brought benefit to all Mediterranean powers. Trade was mutually beneficial, while maintenance of the balance of power had ensured a 40-year peace. Moreover, furtherance of British diplomacy, the defence of the realm and her trade were all actively enhanced by a Mediterranean presence.[113] Clowes’ reply to this historical critique was to state:

“…all commanders are creatures merely of their day, weapons and circumstances… the opinion of Nelson… concerning the importance to us of maintaining a permanent fleet in the Mediterranean is not necessarily any more valuable today than the opinion of my Uncle Toby.”[114]

Corbett simultaneously validated Clarke’s work and demonstrated the absurdity of the above quote by describing the actions of Elizabethan and Stuart fleets in the Mediterranean.[115] Evident throughout was the close relationship between the fleet’s actions and the furtherance of British diplomatic efforts in Europe. Moreover, the policy of command of the sea, protection of trade and exertion of influence through naval power were timeless:

“For I am bold to hope that by this means he will find in Stuart times a lamp that will light up much that is dark in later ages… and perhaps reveal more clearly why it is that our Mediterranean Fleet stands to-day in the eyes of Europe as the symbol and measure of British power.”[116]

Clowes’ failure to grasp the importance of history in the analysis of contemporary issues radically contrasts him with the work of Laughton, Colomb, and successive DNIs. Flagrantly incongruent is Clowes’ later assertion he was instrumental in founding the NRS, the physical manifestation of Laughton’s method.[117] Evidently ‘…a very imprudent lie’, it discredited Clowes for good within naval strategy circles, especially when coupled with the Scuttling affair.[118]

Secondly, having invalidated Clowes’ argument on historical grounds, Clarke addressed its political and diplomatic shortcomings. Clowes’ promulgated France and Spain geographically had more right to the Mediterranean, and Britain should not maintain a presence unless unassailable. Clarke replied with rather more nuance that Britain’s right derived from the £123 million of trade passing through the Straits.[119] He addressed the second point from a similarly nuanced and pragmatic viewpoint, claiming no nation is unassailable and abandoning the Mediterranean would jeopardise all the Empire’s interests east of Suez.[120]

Corbett concurred the Mediterranean’s abandonment was folly and contradicted a guiding principle of strategy. While Corbett believed diplomatic and military factors inseparable, but often conflicted, Clowes’ did not adequately comprehend the breadth or permeation of diplomatic factors in Mediterranean affairs. In fact Clowes almost wholly concentrated on the military, which was ‘…only a sub-division of strategy and …Strategy cannot be studied from the point of view of naval operations alone.’[121]

Thirdly, Clarke argued against the military tenets of the article. He stated the primary objective of a fleet was the enemy’s defeat, and the RN would be far more effective facing the enemy in the Mediterranean than the Atlantic. The British fleet should always be maintained in proximity to enemy concentrations. Furthermore, an RN presence in the Mediterranean threatened Franco-Russian enterprises directly, rather than indirectly as it would from the Atlantic or Red Sea:

“The policy of… Clowes is based upon the negation of an axiom of war. Now, as always the only true object of a navy is an enemy’s fleets. Where those fleets are the British navy must be, and the pursuit of subsidiary objects inevitably entails failure or disaster.”[122]

Clarke’s demolishing of Clowes’ argument on sea was followed by rebuttal on land. Clowes held that the fortification of the Straits of Bab el Mandab and the seizure of Tangier would offset the loss of Malta. Clarke demonstrated it was ridiculous to forfeit bases that would only fall if command of the sea were lost, and bases relying upon substantial land defences would share the inherent weaknesses Clowes claimed earlier against Malta. Moreover, they were inferior harbours.[123]

Finally, Clarke addressed the core issue transient through the whole Mediterranean strategic debate; should the Channel Squadron reinforce the Mediterranean? Clarke judged this a ‘…a pound-foolish makeshift.’[124] Emphasising the strategic necessities of any conflict to be unforeseeable, the fleet’s reinforcement was therefore a precaution, not a failure to act through lack of financial resources. Furthermore, Clarke noted the Mediterranean fleet had never been on a permanent war footing; a modern squadron could steam in four days to Gibraltar from Plymouth; and a war could not, and never previously had, broken out without prior warning.

The rebuttal of Clowes’ argument served to emphasise the continuing dominance of the principles of sea power. Utilising historical evidence and contemporary facts both Clarke and Corbett clearly demonstrated the Mediterranean fleet was more than just a military force. It represented an element within a larger strategy that defended the British Isles, protected trade and promoted British interests. Britain’s presence in the Mediterranean was not contingent upon a fleet of overwhelming force, neither were British interests so small that they could be effectively abandoned without cost. The correct strategy had always been to maintain a fleet capable of enforcing British policy in peace and capable of being reinforced in war to meet the enemy’s main fleet. The factors referred to in Standing Orders were served more efficiently by this strategy than by either abandonment or a vastly superior fleet.


3. Areas of Contention: What to Do and From Where?

Between these Schools, three primary fields of contention are discernible. The first related to how best ensure the continued passage of British Mediterranean trade should war be declared, and saw the Channel and Big Fleet Schools split along essentially Mahanian and Corbettian lines, while the Scuttlists preferred to close the Canal and reroute via the Cape. The second regarded how best to implement a blockade of French ports, with the Big Fleeters preferring a more traditional close blockade and the Channel School a more forward thinking ‘masking’ blockade. The Scuttlists radically promulgated simply closing the Mediterranean at the Straits and Red Sea. The final field of contention related to basing, with the choice between Malta and Gibraltar closely entwined with the fundamental issue of the Channel Squadron steaming south to reinforce the Mediterranean.

As such, these areas of contention encapsulate much of the contemporary debate and allow for significant insight into the actors and their contemporary priorities.


3.1. Convoy

Embedded within the Navy League’s mission of maintaining British naval pre-eminence was the vital, but underexplored issue of how to best protect seaborne commerce. In many ways the essence of sea power, Corbett demonstrated the contest for command of the sea was merely the means to the end of protecting the Empire’s oceanic trade.[125]

In the Mediterranean such trade transversed the Suez Canal before running between Malta and the Rock. Accordingly, the debate focused on merits of closing the Canal, diversion of trade via the Cape and exposure of steamers to torpedo-boats and cruisers sortieing from French North Africa. Notably, all CINC-MEDs during the period felt under-resourced to directly protect merchantmen.

Despite commerce protection’s fundamental nature, both for Big Fleeters’ interests and as a responce to the Jeune École, the debate featured prominently in neither the press nor journals when compared to the issue of the Station’s strength. This can be attributed to two factors.

Firstly, Mahan’s theorem exercised sufficient influence over the Admiralty and press that both considered sea control would naturally follow the decisive battle that would surely occur. Resultantly, commerce could pass freely by virtue of the Franco-Russian fleet being either destroyed or incapable of sortieing. Accordingly, frittering resources on protecting commerce directly would only dilute the massive concentration necessary to win command of the sea.

Secondly, and more pragmatically, commerce protection has never been glamorous.[126] This was magnified given the predisposition of the navalist press to court popular opinion, resulting in fewer published articles.

Of those supporting decisive battle to secure sea control, the Navy League took the lead. Wilson repeated that current tonnage in theatre was inadequate to protect trade as a secure blockade could not be ensured.[127] He promulgated merchantmen could not transverse disputed waters, citing the detrimental frigate shortage of 1804-05. Accordingly, Clowes concluded command of the sea was the only feasible means of guaranteeing the continued flow of commerce.[128]

Even those such as Thursfield who broadly supported the Channel School, argued command of the sea was a required prerequisite of commerce interdiction. Therefore attaining command of the sea was the surest defence against it.[129] Carlyon Bellairs argued similarly that commercial prosperity was dependent upon command of the sea. Moreover, he held France fielded insufficient cruisers to pursue a guerre de course while screening the main fleet. Therefore, he concluded that due to the importance of the decisive battle, France would not engage in commerce raiding until after such an encounter.[130]

The low priority afforded commerce protection becomes apparent when one considers a RUSI lecture as early as 1889 covered the above issues and reached the same conclusions; the safe passage of oceanic freight was dependent on command of the sea.[131] The argument had barely moved on and the fallacy of its conclusions continued.

As the vessel type most associated with commerce protection, such articles invariably concluded cruiser estimates should be increased.[132] This lobbying in journals and the press was mirrored by Navy Leaguers in parliament, with Beresford and Rollit frequently pressing for increased estimates, citing the aforementioned authorship as their authorities.

This must be considered the field in which advocates of a Big Fleet achieved their goals most completely, as not only did estimates rise, but even the ‘intellectual’ departments of the Admiralty were on side.[133]

Opposition to these prevailing views was limited but creditable. It centered on the Colomb brothers, with Sir John publishing in support of discussion on commerce protection as early as 1867.[134] Although stopping short of fully endorsing convoy, he reiterated in 1882 the need for better preparation and planning.[135] Both Colombs were closely linked to the NID’s work on commerce protection, but it remained a comparatively low priority despite the establishment of a specialist subdivision.[136] Tellingly, Sir John addressed the London Chamber of Commerce in 1902 stating there remained a dearth of information available on commerce protection. More importantly he stressed the admiralty needed to devote more funding so the NID could investigate such matters further.[137]

His brother Philip demonstrated convoy’s adoption to be the logical answer. He argued to prevent British trade being driven from the sea or forced to fly neutral flags, some form of convoy should be reinstated where necessary.[138]

Interestingly, although Mahan was held as the example negating convoy by Big Fleet advocates, his work on 1812 concluded that while command of the sea was important in destroying American trade, it was Britain’s implementation of convoy that saved hers.[139] Moreover, he demonstrated that captured merchantmen (1.5%), were invariably stragglers.[140] Clearly, this was either intentionally overlooked or miscomprehended by navalists in favour of the easier and more appealing notion that command of the sea was an end in itself.

The seminal work on convoy came in 1894 when Laughton drew the above elements together.[141] He combined the evident need demonstrated by the Colomb brothers and fleshed out Mahan’s example by further examining convoy under the sailing navy to determine historical precedents. Laughton’s style of reasoned evaluation forbade him from a dogmatic support of convoy; however, his article clearly demonstrated that convoy was preferable:

“It is very certain that a convoy, adequately protected, could in a modern war do all that convoy ever could do, and probably more.”[142]

Despite the continued and sustained influence of Laughton, Colomb and their associated method on the NID, convoy remained marginalised and its importance misunderstood, with lessons from the sailing navy lost. The insistence that only troop transports required escorted was catastrophically exposed during the First World War, and the decided inertia before the convoy system was implemented – with great success – in 1917, can be traced to the period in question.


3.2. Blockade

A significant subset of the Jeune École challenge was its impact on blockade operations. Blockade historically employed a squadron to observe and contain enemy vessels within a hostile port, engaging should they sally forth. It was used to great effect in the prosecution of the commercial war ensuing against Napoleonic Europe after 1805, and had remained standard practice since.[143] However, during the 1880s the advent of the Whitehead torpedo and torpedo-boat raised serious questions regarding the continued feasibility of close blockade.

This was of particular relevance in the Mediterranean, with the French concentration at Toulon complemented by bases along the North African coastline, notably Algiers.[144] The situation was further complicated by the threat of a Russian fleet steaming out the Dardanelles, thus creating a tri-directional threat axis.[145] Beyond the numerous ports that would require observation and blockade, issues for CINC-MED included the time any vessel could remain on station; protection available against torpedo attack; proximity of the blockade to an enemy’s port; and communications with the rest of the fleet and London.

The blockade debate overlapped navalist arguments on theatre strength, with successive CINC-MEDs feeling they lacked sufficient cruisers to simultaneously protect trade and blockade.[146] Furthermore, many also thought they lacked sufficient battleships to maintain the preponderance of force required for an effective blockade.[147]

Philip Colomb again came to the fore in this debate. He identified three types of blockade; close; masking; and observational.[148] He felt the first was the true blockade, but unlikely under modern conditions on the basis of increasingly effective torpedoes and the danger of night actions.[149] Instead, he asserted the most likely blockade would be a variation on either the masking or observational blockade. In either case the main battlefleet would be deployed a safe distance from the enemy’s coast and cruisers or destroyers would be employed inshore to observe the enemy.[150]

Despite evidence to the contrary (see pp.6-15), the belief in blockade continued. While Admiralty inertia to change such a cherished principle was undoubtedly a factor, more important was the influence of Laughton and Colomb upon the work of the NID. Laughton maintained that despite the manoeuvre results there was much to be said for Colomb’s assertion that blockade had never been a ‘hermetic’ seal.[151] Further weight was added by Sir Reginald Custance, who put little faith in manoeuvre results, believing them to be easily manipulated to provide the desired result, citing Fisher’s 1900-01 Mediterranean manoeuvres as a prime example. The results, he believed, being steered towards a recommendation for more destroyers and cruisers.[152]

Close blockade was abandoned in the early 1900s, but the ‘masking’ or distant blockade was retained, as Colomb predicted, and saw great success in the North Sea theatre during the Great War.[153]


3.3. Basing

Admiral Compton-Domville, CINC-MED 1902-05, emphasised concentration of force was paramount. He proposed that prior to the unification of Channel and Mediterranean squadrons, the French could be shadowed and denied the initiative. He further held that regardless of whether the French proceeded towards Egypt or the Atlantic, the fleet would be sufficiently strong to bring them to action. This aggressive stance should be coupled with a cruising force observing Toulon and any hostile raiders sallying forth should be engaged.[154]

Compton-Domville’s predecessor, Admiral Fisher, was the sole commander to simultaneously favour operating from Gibraltar while demanding between six and ten more battleships. Like Fisher, Admiral Hopkins favoured Gibraltar as a base, holding it was in the best strategic position to counter French sortieing east or west. However he did so without the proviso that more battleships be required. Believing the Canal’s commercial value necessitated it be kept open, cruisers could escort the merchantmen passing through or hunt in flotillas. Despite the fleet being at the other end of the Mediterranean, Hopkins considered holding Egypt, ‘…should not be difficult if we retain the command of sea. With our fleet unbeaten, even with Gibraltar as a base, Egypt should be safe.’[155]

Even Culme-Seymour recognised that concentration of the fleet was paramount. Culme-Seymour favoured Malta as a base until French intentions became apparent. While this may surrender the initiative, it was of little consequence as he believed the French would send an expeditionary force to Egypt, necessitating they steam past Malta.

The primary advantage of Malta was its central position, thereby reversing the 1894 Manoeuvers and forcing the French to operate on exterior lines.[156] For Culme-Seymour, the Canal, Egypt and Levant trade would all be protected by the fleet at Malta, while a fleet at Gibraltar would leave the Eastern Mediterranean dangerously exposed.

As aforementioned, a fleet based at Gibraltar did not inherently imply the abandonment of the eastern Mediterranean. However, the case for Malta as the strategic fulcrum was strong. It commanded the channels separating the eastern and western Mediterranean, threatened French North Africa and lay directly on the Suez-Gibraltar sea-lane.[157] Many commanders also intended to mask Toulon from Malta once the fleet had concentrated at Gibraltar.[158] The Admiralty also favoured Malta, encapsulated in the War Orders of 26th October 1898.[159] They suggested a concentration on Malta should be effected prior to the commencing of hostilities. Cruisers were to be employed against Toulon, Bizerta and Algiers, with the intention of preventing torpedo-boat squadrons from attacking Gibraltar. After this, the Channel Squadron would either join the fleet at Malta or operate independently. CINC-MED was instructed to ‘…have no hesitation in ordering it to follow up the Toulon fleet… or bring it to action in the Straits.’[160] Evidently, the Admiralty made it clear the commander was to be offensive and not refrain from engaging until overwhelmingly superior.

Richards’ evidently believed that despite a slight inferiority the Mediterranean fleet was capable of taking the offensive against the French. Notably, these War Orders were issued during the Fashoda Crisis, and should be seen in a twin context. Firstly, they disprove those asserting the fleet was incapable of offensive action. Secondly, they demonstrated the fallacy of the Superior Fleet School’s belief that the Mediterranean could not be reinforced prior to the outbreak of war.

At the height of the crisis, on 24 October 1898, the Channel squadron was ordered to proceed to Gibraltar, and arrived six days later. This was partly a result of the introduction of the Royal Sovereign and Majestic class battleships, boasting far greater endurance, in turn allowing increased average speed.[161] By 3rd November, six of the eight First Class battleships had concentrated at Malta, while cruisers and TB-destroyers watched Toulon and Bizerta.[162] Colomb approved of this, maintaining that it was a fruitless waste of resources to maintain a full fleet off French ports.[163]

Furthermore, cruisers were concentrating at Malta and Gibraltar ready to escort merchantmen. Accordingly, not only was the Mediterranean fleet demonstrably capable of acting aggressively, but the Channel Squadron could successfully reinforce before the outbreak of hostilities. Timely provisions for commerce protection could also be made

Regardless of periodic clamours in the press, both the Admiralty and commanders in the Mediterranean maintained a policy of reinforcing the fleet with the Channel Squadron. A large fleet was not required to fulfil the Station’s strategic roles of command of the sea, commerce protection and the protection, and the protection of British interests. As Clowes ably stated in 1894:

“Is there not danger that if the public urgency becomes too great, expenditure which is directly withdrawn from our general strength may go on its [Mediterranean Station] gratification? …. Great power of quick reinforcement from home is surely a safer policy to pursue than a detachment of force that we are not sure will be ultimately required. It is always good to enlighten the public by the discussion of [strategy]… the usefulness of demanding the adoption of particular strategic views by the Admiralty may not be so justifiable.”[164]

Marder claimed the majority of Mediterranean commanders subscribed to a superior fleet.[165] However, as has been shown, a demand for increased resources did not equate to a rejection of Admiralty policy; Marder misconceived demands for supplementation as vindication for Clowes’ and Wilson’s popular ideas. Ultimately, the Admiralty adopted the policy best suited to limitations of men and material; it neither bowed to pressure nor vacillated between policies. This continuity of policy should be seen as a hallmark of the clear strategic thought that was present at the Admiralty during the late Victorian era.


4. Conclusion: Vindication of the Admiralty and Historically Informed Strategy

This paper has charted the challenges faced by the Admiralty in the last decades of the nineteenth century. It has attempted to assess the strategic validity of these challenges against Britain’s core Mediterranean policy goals of secure oceanic commerce, the furtherance of diplomatic efforts and the successful prosecution of war should it arise. The overarching conclusion must be that the Admiralty and associated bodies achieved near universal success in countering such threats on both practical and intellectual levels.

The greatest practical challenge was the Jeune École. While clear its implementation was beset by administrative, planning and procurement reversals on account of inconsistent policy and lack unified direction, the impact of the technologies and concepts themselves in war is harder to determine. As no naval combat took place during the period in question it is necessary to examine later conflicts. Of these, only the Russo-Japanese War, and arguably the First World War are applicable.[166] Neither saw startling success for the surface-launched torpedo or torpedo-boat, but the destroyer – a vessel class arising as a direct response to torpedo-boats – came of age and played pivotal roles in both trade protection and huge actions such as Jutland. Such historical developments concur with contemporary manoeuvre results and subsequent arguments.

Beyond the Jeune École the Admiralty also faced domestic challenges to its Standing Orders. The most vigorous of these was the Navy League, embodied within the Big Fleet School. Of a briefer and more coincidental nature were the Scuttlists. Both provide good case studies for the service institutions such as the NID, NRS and the advent of ‘scientific’ historical analysis played in informing strategy. While the Big Fleet and Scuttling schools essentially relied on a collection of individual opinions, each with the inherent drawbacks of its espouser’s view and objective, the Admiralty was able to be far more systematic. Appreciation of historical precedent and transcendent lessons therein allowed a historical skeleton to be fleshed with contemporary information to facilitate a thorough and perceptive strategic analysis.

Perhaps most evident in the dismissal of the Scuttlist argument, it allowed for a clear relationship between policy goals and means to be established and placed in their broader context. Once the Mediterranean fleet was viewed as more than just a military force and represented an element within a larger strategy that defended Britain, her trade and her interests, the Big Fleet arguments could also be largely discredited as reactionary, narrow sighted and lacking in justification.

Accordingly, the overall conclusion must be that British naval thought was a continuous and healthy process that existed throughout the so called ‘Dark Ages’ of the Admiralty. This ensured that developments such as the Jeune École received an appropriate, effective and measured reaction, while strategically narrow and finically imprudent arguments espoused by the Big Fleet School were successfully countered. Beyond this, strong strategic and planning foundations were laid which stood the Royal Navy in good stead going into a half century of World Wars.




[1] Taylor, p.60

[2] TNA-ADM 1/7376B – L. A. Beaumont to Hopkins, 23rd February 1898

[3] The deployment of the fleet to the Dardanelles under Admiral Hornby in 1878 guaranteed Constantinople. See Lambert (2008), p.246

[4] Grimes, p.12

[5] Marshall, p.119

[6] Stead

[7] Sondhaus, p.139

[8] A ‘grotesque parody’, Lambert (2003), p.12; period well covered by Greenhill & Giffard

[9] Gordon, chs.10-15

[10] Grimes, p.1

[11] Taylor, pp.415-416, pp.442-448,

[12] Colomb (1887)

[13] Pre-1904 see Beeler; Schurman (ed. Beeler); Lambert (1985). Post-1904 see Halpern (1971); Halpern (1994). Andrew Lambert and to a lesser extent Donald Schurman have made headway, but it remains comparatively niche.

[14] Rodger

[15] Stead

[16] TNA-ADM 121/75 – Hopkins on reinforcement from the Channel, 05-04-1898

[17] TNA-ADM 1/7027 – minutes of Admiralty meeting, 04-12-1889

[18] TNA-ADM 121/75 – memo by Culme-Seymour on war with France, 1893

[19] Sondhaus, p.142

[20] Grivel

[21] Ibid., p.277

[22] Aube (1873), p.685; Aube (1884), p.58

[23] Grivel, p.277

[24] Compare TNA-ADM 231/34 – 1889 NID French fleet list to TNA-ADM 231/32 – 1900 NID French fleet list

[25] Rocksund, p.145

[26] See pp.16-20

[27] Charmes (1885), pp.139-140

[28] Aube (1884), pp.66-67; Ropp, p.163

[29] Quoted in Ropp, p.164

[30] Roksund, p.10

[31] Charmes (1885), p.142

[32] Rocksund, p.9

[33] Ropp, p.292. Typical of political squabbling was the vote reducing naval funding on the grounds of parliament being misled over efficiency – New York Times, 4th February 1898

[34] Rocksund, p.146

[35] Ibid., p.145

[36] Rocksund, p.146

[37] Ibid.

[38] Quoted in Masson, p.55

[39] Rocksund, p.146

[40] TNA-ADM 116-900B – October 1898 War Orders specifying such a union

[41] Rocksund, p.146

[42] TNA-ADM 116-3409 – Proceedings  When War is Imminent; TNA-ADM 116-942 – War Plans

[43] Quoted in Masson, p.55

[44] Rocksund, p.147

[45] SHM BB4-2473 – Fournier to Ministry of Marine, cited in Rocksund, p.147

[46] Rocksund, p.147

[47] Ibid.

[48] SHM BB8-2424/5 – notes of the navy’s Superior Council, ibid., p.150

[49] Rocksund, p.151

[50] TNA-ADM 231-16 – NID trade map, 1887; TNA-ADM 231-12; TNA-ADM 231-21 – NID trade value estimates; TNA-ADM 231-21 – NID distribution of trade, 1891

[51] SHM BB8-2424/5 – notes of the navy’s Superior Council, p.11, cited in Rocksund, p.152

[52] Ibid., p.10, Ibid.

[53] Ibid., p.15, p.53, Ibid., p.156

[54] Ibid., p.12, Ibid., p.153

[55] Sondhaus, p.142

[56] Ropp, p.165

[57] Rocksund, p.153

[58] Ibid., p.156

[59] Marder, p.125

[60] Sondhaus, p.142

[61] Rocksund, p.63

[62] Ropp, p.176

[63] SHM BB4-1452 – report by Lt. Cmdr. Marsi following fact-finding mission to Toulon, cited in Rocksund, p.65

[64] Ropp, p.176; Rocksund, p.68

[65] Rocksund, p.68

[66] Ibid., p.69

[67] SHM 1 CC 195 Aa 9 – ‘Strategy and Tactics of the French Navy’, p.352, quoted in Rocksund, p.69

[68] SHM BB4-1452 – report on the 1886 manoeuvres

[69] Rocksund, p.70

[70] SHM 1 CC 195 Aa 9 – ‘French Naval Strategy and Tactics’, cited in Rocksund, p.72

[71] Grimes, p.21

[72] Ibid., p.22

[73] TNA-ADM 231/14 – NID report ‘Naval Manoeuvers 1888’

[74] Ibid. – ‘Summary of Notes Taken by the Umpire’ in Appendix VII of ‘Naval Manoeuvers 1888’

[75] Grimes, p.23. See also Ropp, p.212; Marder, pp.107-110

[76] Ibid. For the destroyer evolution see Ranft, pp.33-34.

[77] Clarke and Thursfield, pp.74-75

[78] TNA-ADM 231/16 – NID report on ‘Manoeuvres 1889’

[79] Clarke and Thursfield, pp.79-81

[80] Grimes, p.24

[81] TNA-ADM 231/18 – NID report ‘1890 Manoeuvres’

[82] Grimes, p.24

[83] TNA-ADM 231/17 – NID report ‘1891 Manoeuvres’

[84] TNA-ADM 116-900B – October 1898 War Orders

[85] TNA-ADM 121/75 – Hopkins doubting reinforcement will be sufficient.

[86] TNA-ADM 1/7027 – minutes of Admiralty meeting, 04-12-1889

[87] Lambert (1998), p.149

[88] Laughton (1887), pp.149-150 quoted in Lambert (2003), p.68

[89] Freeman, ibid., p.86

[90] Lambert (1998), p.142 ff.

[91] Laughton (1895)

[92] Clowes (1893); Marder (1940), p.180

[93] Ibid., p.1028

[94] Ibid.

[95] Ibid., p.1030

[96] Clark & Thursfield (1898), p.52

[97] Times, Telegraph, National Observer and Morning Post were generally supportive, while Liberal papers such as the Daily Chronicle, Daily News and Manchester Guardian held intermittent concern, but generally opposed increased expenditure.

[98] Royal Navy Museum Library – Information Sheet #106

[99] TNA-ADM 121/75 – MacGregor emphasises there is no compelling evidence for more battleships

[100] Hamilton, p.38

[101] Ibid., p.40 – notes a letter of appreciation from Ramillies’ officers to Arnold White for his efforts in placing naval questions before the Commons

[102] Searle, p.514

[103] Ibid., p.514; Hamilton, p.40

[104] Clowes (March 1895), p.369

[105] Ibid., pp.372-373

[106] Ibid., pp.377-380

[107] Marder, pp.209-212

[108] Elsdale

[109] Marder, p.211; Times (29 March 1885); Clarke (1895)

[110] Clarke (1895)

[111] Corbett (1903)

[112] See pp.16-20

[113] Clarke and Thursfield, pp.230-231

[114] Clowes (May 1895) p.877

[115] Corbett (1903)

[116] Ibid., p.viii

[117] Clowes (1903), p.87

[118] Lambert (2003), p.143

[119] TNA-ADM 1/7376B – L. A. Beaumont to Hopkins, 23-02-1898

[120] Clarke and Thursfield, p.232

[121] Corbett (1988), pp.327-328

[122] Clarke and Thursfield, p.235

[123] TNA-ADM 1/7328 – demonstrates the defence of Malta to be dependent on land and sea operations.

[124] Clarke and Thursfield, p.238

[125] Corbett (1988)

[126] Contrast the Cruel Sea and Tora! Tora! Tora!

[127] Wilson (1896), p.61

[128] Wilson (1896); Eardley-Wilmot, pp.118-137

[129] Thursfield (1906), pp.53-72; Clarke and Thursfield

[130] Bellairs, pp.155-175

[131] Crutchly, pp.625-651

[132] TNA-ADM 121/75 – Hopkins, Richards and MacGregor all push harder for cruisers than battleships.

[133] TNA-ADM 121/36 – NID report considers Colomb before endorsing Mahan, pp.125-141

[134] Colomb, J. (1867)

[135] Ibid. (1882)

[136] TNA-ADM 231/39; 231/38; 231/35; 231/30; 231/35; 231/27; 231/22; 231/21; 231/12 –dossiers on trade volumes kept since 1886, full report produced 1901; Grimes, p.235

[137] TNA-ADM 231/36 – Colomb on ‘Our Ships, Colonies and Commerce in Time of War’

[138] Colomb (1887), pp.731-758

[139] Mahan (1905), p.319, 388

[140] Ibid., p.185

[141] Laughton (1894), pp.225-241

[142] Ibid., p.238

[143] TNA-ADM  1/6751-643 – blockade of the Red Sea during the Mahdist War (1881-1899)

[144] TNA-ADM 231/39; TNA-ADM 231/15 – NID reports on French bases and dispositions

[145] TNA-ADM 231/23 – NID report on Russian Black Sea units

[146] TNA-ADM 121/75 – Richards on the need for more cruisers, 13-12-1893

[147] Ibid.– MacGregor addresses concerns over capital ship number, 26-10-1898

[148] Colomb (1887), pp.733-758

[149] Ibid., p.739

[150] Ibid., p.745

[151] Ibid., p.735

[152] TNA-ADM 121/75, Fisher to Admiralty, 09/01/1900

[153] Colomb (1887), p.745

[154] TNA-ADM 121/75 – Compton-Domville to Admiralty, 18-11-1903

[155] Ibid.– Hopkins to Richards, 05-04-1898, pp.1-7

[156] TNA-ADM 121/75 – Clume-Seymour to Admiralty, 27-09-1893

[157] TNA-ADM 231/16 – NID trade map, 1887

[158] TNA-ADM 121/75 – Tyron to Hamilton, 04-12-1891; May to Culme-Seymour, March 1896; Hopkins to Admiralty, 04-04-1898

[159] Ibid. – Admiralty to Hopkins, 26-10-1898; TNA-ADM 116-900B for War Orders; TNA-ADM 116-942 for War Plans; TNA-ADM 116-3409 for Proceedings When War is Imminent

[160] TNA-ADM 121/75 – Admiralty to Hopkins, 26-10-1898

[161] Brown, pp.123-145

[162] TNA-ADM 50/389 – Hopkins’ Log, October-November 1898

[163] Laughton (1893), pp.1177-1179

[164] Colomb (1894), p.146

[165] Marder, p.210

[166] The 1891 Chilean Civil War also provides a minor case study.


5. Bibliography


5.1. Primary Sources


From The National Archives (formerly Public Record Office):

ADM 1                        -           Letters, documents sent to CINC-MED, FO papers sent to Admiralty

ADM 116        -           Secretariat Cases

ADM 121-75  -           Strategy 1890-1902

ADM 231        -           Intelligence Papers


5.2. Contemporary Journals


Anon., ‘The Question as to the Military and Political Situation in the Mediterranean Sea’, appearing in RUSI (XXXV, 1891)

Aube, T., ‘De La Guerre Maritime’, appearing in Revue des Deux Mondes (April, 1873)

Bellairs, C., ‘Commerce and War’, appearing in Brassey’s Naval Annual, (1904)

Brassey, T. A., ‘Principles of Imperial Defence’, appearing in Brassey’s Naval Annual (1897)

Brassey, T. A., ‘Manning the Navy in War Time’, appearing in Nineteenth Century (Vol. 4 1895)

Charmes, G., ‘La Réforme de la Marine II. La Guerre Maritime er l’organisation des Forces Navales’, appearing in Revue des Deux Mondes, (March, 1885)

Clarke, G. S., ‘The Naval Manoeuvres: A Further View’, appearing in United Services Magazine (1894-95)

Clarke, G. S., ‘England and the Mediterranean’, appearing in Nineteenth Century (April 1895). Reprinted in The Navy and the Nation.

Clarke, G. S., ‘The Limitations of Naval Force’, appearing in Nineteenth Century (Vol. 3 1895). Reprinted in The Navy and the Nation.

Clowes, W. L., ‘Braggadocio about the Mediterranean’, appearing in Nineteenth Century (May 1895)

Clowes, W. L., ‘Toulon and the French Navy’, appearing in Nineteenth Century (December 1893)

Clowes, W. L., ‘Toulon and the French Mediterranean Fleet’, appearing in Brassey’s Naval Annual (1894)

Clowes, W. L., ‘The Millstone around the neck of England’, appearing in Nineteenth Century (March 1895)

Colomb, J. C. R., ‘Naval Intelligence and the Protection of Shipping in War’, appearing in RUSI (XXVI, 1892)

Colomb, P. H., ‘Our Position in the Mediterranean’, appearing in Brassey’s Naval Annual (1894)

Colomb¸ P. H., ‘Blockades: Under Existing Conditions of Warfare’, appearing in Royal United Services Institute Journal (Vol. 31, Issue 141, 1887)

Commandant Z, ‘The Strategic Position in the Mediterranean’, appearing in RUSI (XXXVI, 1892)

Crutchley, W. C., ‘On the Unprotected State of British Commerce at Sea’, appearing in RUSI (XXXIII, 1889)

Eardley-Wilmot, S., ‘Colonial Defence and Commerce Protection’ appearing in Brassey’s Naval Annual (1893)

Elsdale, H., ‘Should we hold onto the Mediterranean in time of War?’, appearing in Nineteenth Century (February 1895)

Hamilton, Lord George; ‘Is Our Sea Power to be Maintained?’, appearing in National Review (December 1893)

Laughton J. K., ‘Recent Naval Literature’, appearing in RUSI (XXXVII, 1893)

Reveillere, Rear Admiral, ‘France and her Marine (Mercantile and War)’, appearing in RUSI (XXXVII, 1893)

Thursfield, J. R., ‘The Attack and Defence of Commerce’, appearing in Brassey’s Naval Annual, (1906)

Wilson, H. W., ‘Our Position in the Mediterranean’, appearing in United Service Magazine (1894)

Wilson, H. W., ‘The Protection of Our Commerce in War’, appearing in Nineteenth Century (February, 1896)

Commandant Z., ‘The Strategic Position in the Mediterranean’, appearing in RUSI (XXXVI, 1892)

Deutsche Heeres-Zeitung, England’s Position in the Mediterranean translated from Deutsche Heeres-Zeitung (8th February, 1893), appearing in RUSI (XXXVII, 1893)


5.3. Contemporary Books


Aube, T., A Terre et à Bord. Notes d’un Marin, (1884, Berger-Levrexult et Cie)

Clowes, W. L., The Royal Navy: A History From the Earliest Times to the Death of Queen Victoria, (1903, Low, Marston and Co.)

Colomb, J. C. R., The Protection of Commerce and the Distribution of Naval Forces, (1867, Harrison)

Colomb, P. H., Naval Warfare, (1990, Naval Institute Press)

Colomb, P.H., Essays on Naval Defence, (1896, W. H. Allen & Co.)

Corbett, J. S., England in the Mediterranean; A Study of the Rise and Influence of British Power within the Straits, 1603-1713, (1903, Longmans, Green & Co.)

Corbett, J. S., Some Principles of Maritime Strategy, (1988, Naval Institute Press)

Freeman, E. A., The Methods of Historical Study, (1886, Macmillan & Co.)

Grivel, L. A. R., De La Guerre Maritime Avant et Depuis les Nouvelles Inventions: Attaque et Défense des Côtes et des Ports. Guerre du Large. Étude Historique et Stratégique, (2011, Nabu Press)

Laughton, J. K., State Papers Relating to the Defeat of the Spanish Armada, (1894, Navy Records Society). Also as Laughton, J. K., ‘State Papers Relating to the Defeat of the Spanish Armada, Anno 1588’, appearing in Publications of the Navy Records Society, MDCCCXCV, Vol. II (1895)

Laughton, J. K., Studies in Naval History, (1887, Longmans, Green & Co.)

Mahan, A. T., Sea Power and its Relation to the War of 1812 (1905, Sampson Low, Marston & Company Ltd)

Mahan, A. T., The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, (1991, Naval Institute Press)

5.4. Modern Journals


Hamilton, W. M., ‘The New Navalism and the British Navy League, 1895-1914’, appearing in Mariner’s Mirror, (Vol. 64, 1978)

Rodger, N. A. M., ‘The Dark Ages of the Admiralty, 1869-1885’, appearing in Mariner’s Mirror (Vol. 62, Issue 1, 1975-76)


5.5. Modern Books


Beeler, J. F., British Naval Policy in the Gladstone-Disraeli Era, 1866-90, (1998, Stanford University Press)

Brown, D. K., Warrior to Dreadnought: Warship Development 1860-1905, (1997, Chatham Publishing)

Clausewitz, C. von (tr. Howard, M. E. and Paret, P.), On War, (1989, Princeton University Press)

Gordon, A., The Rules of the Game: Jutland and British Naval Command, (2005, John Murray)

Greenhill, B. and Giffard, A., Steam, Politics and Patronage: The Transformation of the Royal Navy 1815-54, (1994, Conway Maritime Press)

Grimes, S. T., Strategy and War Planning in the British Navy, 1887-1918, (2012, Boydell Press)

Halpern, P. G., A Naval History of World War One, (1995, Naval Institute Press)

Halpern, P. G., The Mediterranean Naval Situation, 1908-1914, (1971, Harvard University Press)

Hattendorf, J. B., Naval Strategy and Policy in the Mediterranean, (2000, Cass)

Kennedy, P., The Rise And Fall of British Naval Mastery, (2004, Penguin)

Lambert, A. D., Admirals: The Naval Commanders Who Made Britain Great, (2008, Faber and Faber)

Lambert, A. D., Battleships in Transition: The Creation of the Steam Battlefleet, 1815-60, (1985, Naval Institute Press)

Lambert, A. D., The Foundations of Naval History: The Career of Sir John Knox Laughton, (2003, Chatham Publishing)

Marder, A. J., The Anatomy of British Sea Power: A History of British Naval Policy in the Pre-Dreadnought Era, 1880-1905, (1940, Putnam & Company)

Marshall, A., Russian General Staff and Asia, 1800-1917, (2006, Routledge)

Masson, R., La Marine Française lors de la crise de Fachoda, 1898-1899, (1955, University of Paris)

Ranft, Bryan (ed.), Technical Change and British Naval Policy, 1860-1939, (1977, Hodder & Stoughton Ltd.)

Ropp, T., The Development of a Modern Navy: French Naval Polict, 1871-1904, (1987, Naval Institute Press)

Schurman, D. M., (ed. Beeler, John), Imperial Defence 1868-1887, (2000, Cass)

Schurman, D. M., The Education of a Navy, (1965, Cassell & Co.)

Searle, G. R., A New England? Peace and War 1886-1918, (2004, Oxford University Press)

Sondhaus, L., Naval Warfare 1815-1914, (2001, Routledge)

Taylor, A. J. P., The Struggle for Mastery in Europe, 1848-1918, (1971, Oxford University Press)


5.6. Newspapers and Miscellaneous


Ministry of Defence, BR 1806: British Maritime Doctrine, (2004, The Stationary Office) via da.mod.uk/colleges/jscsc/courses/RND/bmd/prelims.pdf [retrieved 22nd March 2013]

New York Times, Admiral Besnard Rebuked, (4th February 1898) via query.nytimes.com/mem/archive-free/pdf?res=F00E17F6395811738DDDAD0894DA405B8885F0D3 [retrieved 22nd March 2013]

Stead, W. T. (1884); The Truth about the Navy, appearing in The Pall Mall Gazette (15th September, 1884) via attackingthedevil.co.uk/pmg/navy.php#sthash.KIybMSeQ.5GdzEoHc.dpbs

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