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COMMAND OF THE SEA

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Originally appearing in Volume V24, Page 531 of the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica.
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COMMAND OF THE SEA, a technical term of naval warfare, which indicates a definite strategical condition. (For its difference from " sea-power," see the separate article on that subject.) The term has been substituted sometimes for the much older " Dominion of the sea " or " Sove- reignty of the sea," a legal term expressing a claim, if not a right. It has also been sometimes treated as though it were identical with the rhetorical expression, " Empire of the sea." Captain A. T. Mahan, instead of it, uses the term " Control of the sea," which has the merit of precision, and is not likely to be misunderstood or mixed up with a form of words meaning something different. The expression " Corn- mand of the sea," however, in its proper and strategic sense, is so firmly fixed in the language that it would be a hopeless task to try to expel it; and as, no doubt, writers will continue to use it, it must be explained and illustrated. Not only does it differ in meaning from " Dominion or Sovereignty of the Sea," it is not even truly derived therefrom, as can be briefly shown. " It has become an uncontested principle of modern international law that the sea,' as a general rule, cannot be subjected to appropriation " (W. E. Hall, Treatise on International Law, 4th ed., 1895, p. 146). This, however, is quite modern. Great Britain did not admit the principle till 18o5; the Russians did not admit it till 1824; and the Americans, and then only tacitly, not till 1894. Most European nations at some time or other have claimed and have exercised rights over some part of the sea, though far outside the now well-recognized " three miles' limit." Venice claimed the Adriatic, and exacted a heavy toll from vessels navigating its northern waters. Genoa and France each claimed portions of the western Mediterranean. Denmark and Sweden claimed to share the Baltic between them. Spain claimed dominion over the Pacific and the Gulf of Mexico, and Portugal over the Indian Ocean and all the Atlantic south of Morocco (Hall, pp. 148-9). The claim which has made the greatest noise in the world is that once maintained by the kings of England to the seas surrounding the British Isles. Like other institutions, the English sovereignty of the sea was, and was admitted to be, beneficent for a long period. Then came the time when it ought to have been abandoned as obsolete; but it was not, and so it led to war. The general conviction of the maritime nations was that the Lord of the Sea would provide for the police of the waters over which he exercised dominion. In rude ages when men, like the ancients, readily " turned them-selves to piracy," this was of immense importance to trade; and, far from the right of dominion being disputed by foreigners, it was insisted upon by them and declared to carry with it certain duties. In 1299, not only English merchants, but also " the maritime people of Genoa, Catalonia, Spain, Germany, Zealand, Holland, Frisia, Denmark, Norway and several other places of the empire " declared that the kings of England had from time immemorial been in " peaceable possession of the sovereign lordship of the seas of England," and had done what was " needful for the maintenance of peace, right and equity between people of all sorts, whether subjects of another kingdom or not, who pass through those seas " (J. K. Laughton," Sovereignty of the Sea," Fortnightly Review, August 1866). The English sovereignty was not exercised as giving authority to exact toll. All that was demanded in return for keeping the sea safe for peaceful traffic was a salute, enforced no doubt as a formal admission of the right which permitted the (on the whole, at any rate) effective police of the waters to be maintained. The Dutch in the 17th century objected to the demand for this salute. It was insisted upon. War ensued; but in the end the Dutch acknowledged by solemn treaties their obligation to render the salute. The time for exacting it, however, was really past. S. R. Gardiner (" The First Dutch War," Navy Records, vol. xiii., 1899) maintains that though the " question of the flag" was the occasion, it was not the cause of the war. There was not much, if any, piracy in the English Channel which the king of England was specially called upon to suppress, and if there had been the merchant vessels of the age were generally able to defend themselves, while if they were not their governments possessed force enough to give them the necessary protection. Great Britain gave up her claim to exact the salute in 18o5. The necessity of the foregoing short account of the " Sovereignty or Dominion of the Seas " will be apparent as soon as we come to the consideration of the first struggle, or rather series of struggles, for the command of the sea. Gaining this was the result of England's wars with the Dutch in the 17th century. At the time of the first Dutch war, 1652-54, and probably of the later wars also, many people, and especially seamen, believed that the conflict was due to a determination on her part to retain, and on that of the Dutch to put an end to, the English sovereignty or dominion. The obstinacy of the Different from sovereignty or dominion, &a Attempts , to gain command. Dutch in objecting to pay the old-established mark of respect to the English flag was quite reason enough in the eyes of most Englishmen, and probably of most Dutchmen also, to justify hostilities which other reasons may have rendered inevitable. The remarkable thing about the Dutch wars is that in reality what England gained was the possibility of securing an absolute command of the sea. She came out of the struggle a great, and in a fair way of becoming the greatest, naval power. It is this which prompted Vice-Admiral P. H. Colomb to hold that there are various kinds of command, such as " absolute or assured," " temporary," " with definite ulterior purpose," &c. An explanation that would make all these terms intelligible would be voluminous and is unnecessary here. It will be enough to say that the absolute command—of which, as Colomb tells us, the Anglo-Dutch wars were the most complete example—is nothing but an attribute of the nation whose power on the sea is paramount. It exists and may be visible in time of peace. The command which, as said above, expresses a definite strategical condition is existent only in time of war. It can be easily seen that the former is essential to an empire like the British, the parts of which are bound together by maritime communications. Inability to keep these communications open can have only one result, viz. the loss of the parts with which communication cannot be maintained. Experience of war as well as reason will have made it evident that inability to keep open sea-communications cannot be limited to any single line, because the inability must be due either to incapacity in the direction of hostilities or insufficiency of force. If Great Britain has not force enough to keep open all the communications of her widely extended empire, or if—having force enough—she is too foolish to employ it properly, she does not hold the command of the sea, and the empire must fall if seriously attacked. The strategic command of the sea in a particular war of campaign has equal concern for all maritime belligerents. Before Strategic seeing what it is, it will be well to learn on high authority command, what it is not. Mahan says that command, or, to use his own term, " control of the sea, however real, does not imply that an enemy's single ships or small squadrons cannot steal out of port, cannot cross more or less frequented tracts of ocean, make harassing descents upon unprotected points of a long coast-line, or enter blockaded harbours. On the contrary, history has shown that such evasions are always possible, to some extent, to the weaker party, however great the inequality of naval strength " (Influence of Sea-Power on History, London, 18go, p. 14). The Anglo-French command of the sea in 1854-1856, complete as it was, did not enable the Allies to intercept the Russian ships in the north-western Pacific, nor did that held by the Federals in the American Civil War put an early stop to the cruises of the Confederate vessels. What the term really does imply is the power possessed from the first, or gained during hostilities, by one belligerent of carrying out considerable over-sea expeditions at will. In the Russian war just mentioned the Allies had such overwhelmingly superior sea-power that the Russians abandoned to them without a struggle the command of the sea; and the landing in South Africa (1894-1902), more than six thousand miles away, of a large British army without even a threat of interruption on the voyage is another instance of unchallenged command. In wars between great powers and also between secondary powers, if nearly equally matched, this absence of challenge is rare. The rule is that the command of the sea has to be won after hostilities begin. To win it the enemy's naval force must be neutralized. It may be driven into his ports and there blockaded or " masked," and thus rendered virtually innocuous; or it must be defeated and destroyed. The latter is the preferable, because the more effective plan. As was perceptible in the Spanish-American War of 1898, as long as one belligerent's fleet is intact or at large the other is reluctant to carry out any considerable expedition over-sea. In fact, the command of the sea has not been secured whilst the enemy continues to have a " fleet in being " (see SEA-POWER). In 1782 a greatly superior Franco-Spanish fleet was covering the siege of Gibraltar. Had this fleet succeeded in preventingthe revictualling of the fortress the garrison would have been starved into surrender. A British fleet under Lord Howe, though much weaker in numbers, has not been de- feated and was still at large. Howe, in spite of the instances. odds against him, managed to get his supply-ships in to the anchorage and to fight a partial action, in which he did the allies as much damage as he received. There has never been a display of higher tactical skill than this operation of Howe's, though, curiously enough, he owes his fame much more to his less meritorious performance on the 1st of June. The revictualling of Gibraltar surpassed even Suffren's feat of the capture of Trincomalee in the same year. In 1798 the French, assuming that a temporary superiority in the Mediterranean had given them a free hand on the water, sent a great expedition to Egypt. Though the army which was carried succeeded in landing there, the covering fleet was destroyed by Nelson at the Nile, and the army itself was eventually forced to surrender. The French had not perceived that, except for a short time and for minor operations, you cannot separate the command of the Mediterranean or of any particular area of water from that of the sea in general. Local command of the sea may enable a belligerent to make a hasty raid, seize a relatively insignificant post or cut out a vessel; but it will not ensure his being able to effect anything requiring considerable time for its execution, or, in other words, anything likely to have an important influence on the course of the war. If Great Britain has not naval force enough to retain command of the Mediterranean she will certainly not have force enough to retain command of the English Channel. It can be easily shown why it should be so. In war danger comes less from conditions of locality than from the enemy's power to hurt. Taking up a weak position when confronting an enemy may help him in the exercise of his power, but it does not constitute it. A maritime enemy's power to hurt resides in his fleet. If that can be neutralized his power disappears. It is in the highest degree inprobable that Great Britain could attain this end by splitting up her fleet into fragments so as to have a part of it in nearly every quarter in which the enemy may try to do her mischief. The most promising plan—as experience has often proved—is to meet the enemy when he shows himself with a force sufficiently strong to defeat him. The proper station of the British fleet in war should, accordingly, be the nearest possible point to the enemy's force. This was the fundamental principle of Nelson's strategy, and it is as valid now as ever it was. If Great Britain succeeds in getting into close proximity to the hostile fleet with an adequate seeking force of her own, her foe cannot obtain command the of the sea, or of any part of it, whether that part be enemy's the Mediterranean or the English Channel, at any rate sheet. until he has defeated her. If he is strong enough to defeat her fleet he obtains the command of the sea in general; and it is for him to decide whether he shall show the effectiveness of that command in the Mediterranean or in the English Channel. In the smaller operations of war temporary command of a particular area of water may suffice for the success of an expedition, or at least will permit the execution of the preliminary movements. When the main fleet of a country is at i°operations. smalier ~' a distance—which it ought not to be except with the object of nearing the opposing fleet—a small hostile expedition may slip across, say the English Channel, throw shells into a coast town or burn a village, and get home again unmolested. Its action would have no sort of influence on the course of the campaign, and would, therefore, be useless. It would also most likely lead to reprisals; and, if this process were repeated, the war would probably degenerate into the antiquated system of " cross-raiding," discarded centuries ago, not at all for reasons of humanity, but because it became certain that war could be more effectually waged in other ways. The power in command of the sea may resort to raiding to expedite the formal submission of an already defeated enemy, as Russia did when at war with Sweden in 1719; but in such a case the other side cannot retaliate. Temporary command of local waters will also permit of operations rather more considerable than mere raiding attacks; but the duration of these operations must be adjusted to the time available. If the duration of the temporary command is in-sufficient the operation must fail. It must fail even if the earlier steps have been taken successfully. The command of the English Channel, which Napoleon wished to obtain when maturing his invasion project, was only temporary. It is possible that a reminiscence of what had happened in Egypt caused him to falter at the last; and that, quite independently of the proceedings of Villeneuve, he hesitated to risk a second battle of the Nile and the loss of a second army. It may have been this which justified his later statement that he did not really mean to invade England. In any case, the British practice of fixing the station of their fleet wherever that of the enemy was, would have seriously shortened the duration of his command of the English Channel, even if it had allowed it to be won at all. Moreover, attempts to carry out a great operation of war against time as well as against the efforts of the enemy to prevent it are in the highest degree perilous. In war the British navy has three prominent duties to discharge. It has to protect the maritime trade, to keep open the communications between the different parts of the empire and to prevent invasion. If Great Britain commands the sea these duties will be discharged effectually. As long as she does that, the career of cruisers sent to prey on her commerce will be precarious, because command of the sea carries with it the necessity of possessing an ample cruiser force. As long. as the condition mentioned is satisfied her ocean communications will be kept open, because an inferior enemy, who cannot obtain the command required, will be too much occupied in seeing to his own safety to be able to interfere seriously with that of any part of the British empire. This being so, it is evident that the greater operation of invasion cannot be attempted, much less carried to a successful termination, by the side which cannot make head against the opposing fleet. Command of the sea is the indispensable preliminary condition of a successful military expedition sent across the water. It enables the nation which possesses it to attack its foes where it pleases and where they seem to be most vulnerable. At the same time it gives to its possessor security against serious counter-attacks, and affords to his maritime commerce the most efficient protection that can be devised. It is, in fact, the main object of naval warfare. Authorities for the above may be given as naval histories in general, placing in the first rank the well-known works of Captain A. T. Mahan, U.S.N. The book which must be specially referred to is Vice-Admiral P. H. Colomb's Naval Warfare (3rd ed., London, 1900). See also the article NAVY. (C. A. G. B.)
End of Article: COMMAND OF THE SEA
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