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A History of Sea Power by Stevens and Westcott

The French navy performed its part decisively in action


While

Paul Jones was in Paris waiting for his promised command, he forwarded to the Minister of Marine a plan for a rapid descent in force on the American coast. If his plan had been followed and properly executed the war might have been ended in America at one blow. But this project died in the procrastination and red tape of the Ministry of Marine, and a subsequent proposal for an attack on Liverpool dwindled into the mere commerce-destroying cruise which is memorable only for Jones's unparalleled fight with the _Serapis_. Eventually the navy of France was thrown into the balance to offset that of Great Britain, and it is largely to this fact that the United States owes its independence; men and munitions came freely from overseas and on one momentous occasion, the Battle of the Virginia Capes, the French navy performed its part decisively in action. But on a score of other occasions it failed pitiably on account of the lack of a comprehensive strategic plan and the want of energy and experience on the part of the commanding officers.

It is true that the French navy had made progress since the Seven Years' War. In 1778, it possessed 80 good line of battle ships. To this force, a year later, Spain was able to contribute nearly sixty. But England began the war with 150. Thus even if the French and Spanish personnel had been as well trained and as energetic as the British they would have had a superior force to contend with, particularly as the allied

fleet was divided between the ports of Spain and France, and under dual command. But in efficiency the French and Spanish navies were vastly inferior to the British. Spanish efficiency may be dismissed at the outset as worthless. For the French officer the chief requisite was nobility of birth. The aristocracy of England furnished the officers for its service also, but in the French navy, considerations of social grade outweighed those of naval rank, a condition that never obtained in the British. In consequence, discipline--the principle of subordination animated by the spirit of team work--was conspicuously wanting in the French fleets. Individual captains were more concerned about their own prerogatives than about the success of the whole. This condition is illustrated by the conduct of the captains under Suffren in the Bay of Bengal, where the genius of the commander was always frustrated by the wilfulness of his subordinates. Finally in the matter of tactics the French were brought up on a fatally wrong theory, that of acting on the defensive, of avoiding decisive action, of saving a fleet rather than risking it for the sake of victory. Hence, though they were skilled in maneuvering, and ahead of the British in signaling, though their ships were as fine as any in the world, this fatal error of principle prevented their taking advantage of great opportunities and sent them to certain defeat in the end.

Thus it is clear that the sea power of France and Spain was not formidable if the English had taken the proper course of strategy. This should have been to bottle up French and Spanish fleets in their own ports from Brest to Cadiz. Such a policy would have left enough ships to attend to the necessities of the army in America and the pursuit of French and American privateers, and accomplished the primary duty of preventing the arrival of French squadrons and French troops on the scene of war. Here the British government made its fatal mistake. Instead of concentrating on the coast of France and Spain, it tried to defend every outlying post where the flag might be threatened. Thus the superior English fleet was scattered all over the world, from Calcutta to Jamaica, while the French fleets came and went at will, sending troops and supplies to America and challenging the British control of the sea. Had the French navy been more efficient and energetic in its leadership France might have made her ancient enemy pay far more dearly for her strategic blunder. As it was, England lost her colonies in America.


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