CHAPTER XIV. CRITICAL DISCUSSION OF THE MARITIME WAR OF 1778.
Of any maritime expedition two points only are fixed, - the point of departure and that of arrival. The latter may he unknown to the enemy; but up to the time of sailing, the presence of a certain force in a port, and the indications of a purpose soon to move, may be assumed as known. It may be of moment to either belligerent to intercept such a movement; but it is more especially and universally necessary to the defence, because, of the many points at which he is open to attack, it may be impossible for him to know which is threatened; whereas the offence proceeds with full knowledge direct to his aim, if he can deceive his opponent. The importance of blocking such an expedition becomes yet more evident should it at any time be divided between two or more ports, - a condition which may easily arise when the facilities of a single dock-yard are insufficient to fit out so many ships in the time allowed, or when, as in the present war, allied powers furnish separate contingents. To prevent the junction of these contingents is a matter of prime necessity, and nowhere can this be done so certainly as off the ports whence one or both is to sail. The defence, from its very name, is presumably the less strong, and is therefore the more bound to take advantage of such a source of weakness as the division of the enemy's force. Rodney in 1782 at Sta. Lucia, watching the French contingent at Martinique to prevent its union with the Spaniards at Cap Francais, is an instance of correct strategic position; and had the islands been so placed as to put him between the French and their destination, instead of in their rear, nothing better could have been devised. As it was, he did the best thing possible under the circumstances.
The defence, being the weaker, cannot attempt to block all the ports where divisions of the enemy lie, without defeating his aim by being in inferior force before each. This would be to neglect the fundamental principles of war. If he correctly decide not to do this, but to collect a superior force before one or two points, it becomes necessary to decide which shall be thus guarded and which neglected, - a question involving the whole policy of the war after a full understanding of the main conditions, military, moral, and economic, in every quarter.
The defensive was necessarily accepted by England in 1778. It had been a maxim with the best English naval authorities of the preceding era, with Hawke and his contemporaries, that the British navy should be kept equal in numbers to the combined fleets of the Bourbon kingdoms, - a condition which, with the better quality of the personnel and the larger maritime population upon which it could draw, would have given a real superiority of force. This precaution, however, had not been observed during recent years. It is of no consequence to this discussion whether the failure was due to the inefficiency of the ministry, as was charged by their opponents, or to the misplaced economy often practised by representative governments in time of peace. The fact remains that, notwithstanding the notorious probability of France and Spain joining in the war, the English navy was inferior in number to that of the allies. In what have been called the strategic features of the situation, the home bases, and the secondary bases abroad, the advantage upon the whole lay with her. Her positions, if not stronger in themselves, were at least better situated, geographically, for strategic effect; but in the second essential for war, the organized military force, or fleet, adequate to offensive operations, she had been allowed to become inferior. It only remained, therefore, to use this inferior force with such science and vigor as would frustrate the designs of the enemy, by getting first to sea, taking positions skilfully, anticipating their combinations by greater quickness of movement, harassing their communications with their objectives, and meeting the principal divisions of the enemy with superior forces.
It is sufficiently clear that the maintenance of this war, everywhere except on the American continent, depended upon the mother-countries in Europe and upon open communication with them. The ultimate crushing of the Americans, too, not by direct military effort but by exhaustion, was probable, if England were left unmolested to strangle their commerce and industries with her overwhelming naval strength. This strength she could put forth against them, if relieved from the pressure of the allied navies; and relief would be obtained if she could gain over them a decided preponderance, not merely material but moral, such as she had twenty years later. In that case the allied courts, whose financial weakness was well known, must retire from a contest in which their main purpose of reducing England to an inferior position was already defeated. Such preponderance, however, could only be had by fighting; by showing that, despite inferiority in numbers, the skill of her seamen and the resources of her wealth enabled her government, by a wise use of these powers, to be actually superior at the decisive points of the war. It could never be had by distributing the ships-of-the-line all over the world, exposing them to be beaten in detail while endeavoring to protect all the exposed points of the scattered empire.