CHAPTER XIV. CRITICAL DISCUSSION OF THE MARITIME WAR OF 1778.
The war of 1778, between Great Britain and the House of Bourbon, which is so inextricably associated with the American Revolution, stands by itself in one respect. It was purely a maritime war. Not only did the allied kingdoms carefully refrain from continental entanglements, which England in accordance with her former policy strove to excite, but there was between the two contestants an approach to equality on the sea which had not been realized since the days of Tourville. The points in dispute, the objects for which the war was undertaken or at which it aimed, were for the most part remote from Europe; and none of them was on the continent with the single exception of Gibraltar, the strife over which, being at the extreme point of a rugged and difficult salient, and separated from neutral nations by the whole of France and Spain, never threatened to drag in other parties than those immediately interested.
No such conditions existed in any war between the accession of Louis XIV. and the downfall of Napoleon. There was a period during the reign of the former in which the French navy was superior in number and equipment to the English and Dutch; but the policy and ambition of the sovereign was always directed to continental extension, and his naval power, resting on inadequate foundations, was ephemeral. During the first three-quarters of the eighteenth century there was practically no check to the sea power of England; great as were its effects upon the issues of the day, the absence of a capable rival made its operations barren of military lessons. In the later wars of the French Republic and Empire, the apparent equality in numbers of ships and weight of batteries was illusive, owing to the demoralization of the French officers and seamen by causes upon which it is not necessary here to enlarge. After some years of courageous but impotent effort, the tremendous disaster of Trafalgar proclaimed to the world the professional inefficiency of the French and Spanish navies, already detected by the keen eyes of Nelson and his brother officers, and upon which rested the contemptuous confidence that characterized his attitude, and to some extent his tactics, toward them. Thenceforward the emperor "turned his eyes from the only field of battle where fortune had been unfaithful to him, and deciding to pursue England elsewhere than upon the seas, undertook to restore his navy, but without reserving to it any share in a strife become more than ever furious... Up to the last day of the Empire he refused to offer to this restored navy, full of ardor and confidence, the opportunity to measure itself with the enemy." (1) Great Britain resumed her old position as unquestioned mistress of the seas.
- - 1. Jurien de la Graviere: Guerres Maritimes, vol. ii. p. 255. - -
The student of naval war will therefore expect to find a particular interest in the plans and methods of the parties to this great contest, and especially where they concern the general conduct of the whole war, or of certain large and clearly defined portions of it; in the strategic purpose which gave, or should have given, continuity to their actions from first to last, and in the strategic movements which affected for good or ill the fortunes of the more limited periods, which may be called naval campaigns. For while it cannot be conceded that the particular battles are, even at this day, wholly devoid of tactical instruction, which it has been one of the aims of the preceding pages to elicit, it is undoubtedly true that, like all the tactical systems of history, they have had their day, and their present usefulness to the student is rather in the mental training, in the forming of correct tactical habits of thought, than in supplying models for close imitation. On the other hand, the movements which precede and prepare for great battles, or which, by their skilful and energetic combinations, attain great ends without the actual contact of arms, depend upon factors more permanent than the weapons of the age, and therefore furnish principles of more enduring value.
In a war undertaken for any object, even if that object be the possession of a particular territory or position, an attack directly upon the place coveted may not be, from the military point of view, the best means of obtaining it. The end upon which the military operations are directed may therefore be other than the object which the belligerent government wishes to obtain, and it has received a name of its own, - the objective. In the critical consideration of any war it is necessary, first, to put clearly before the student's eye the objects desired by each belligerent; then, to consider whether the objective chosen is the most likely, in case of success, to compass those objects; and finally, to study the merits or faults of the various movements by which the objective is approached. The minuteness with which such an examination is conducted will depend upon the extent of the work which the inquirer proposes to himself; but it will generally conduce to clearness if an outline, giving only the main features unencumbered by detail, should precede a more exhaustive discussion. When such principal lines are thoroughly grasped, details are easily referred to them, and fall into place. The effort here will he confined to presenting such an outline, as being alone fitted to the scope of this work.