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1898 - Spanish American War

The navy of Spain received a serious setback in the Spanish-American War, about half the fleet being lost. Never, since the days of the Armada, had Spain's navy been famed for good seamanship. Her people, as was said, did not possess the mechanical ability that was proverbially an American characteristic; and in handling so complicated a piece of machinery as the modern warship a lack of intelligent care was speedily ruinous to efficiency. During the three years prior to the Spanish American War her vessels had suffered many mishaps, and four had actually been lost- one being the cruiser Reina Regente, which went down with all on board off Cape Trafalgar in 1895.

Spain's naval power, on paper, was quite equal to that of the United States; but the navy lists did not bear this out. Her total number of vessels in service was given as 137, against 86 in the American navy; but such figures meant nothing. Of armored men-of-war-the ships that win sea fights - she had in commission six, against seven, and her vessels were individually inferior. In its second line the United States had thirteen good modern steel cruisers - besides the New Orleans, bought just in time for the war; Spain had only five that could be classed as such. The rest of her navy consisted mainly of old iron and wooden vessels and of small gunboats used in patrolling the Cuban coast. Of her six first-rates, only one was a battle ship - the Pelayo, a steel vessel of 9,900 tons, launched at La Seyne (Toulon) in 1887 and since fitted with new boilers. Another battle ship, the Emperador Carlos V, launched at Cadiz in 1895, was at Havre taking her armament aboard when the war began. In June 1898 she was hurried off with Camara's squadron, her equipment still incomplete. Spain had no other ship of this class in service or building.

The fighting strength of the Spanish navy lay in its armored cruisers. Nine of these were listed, but two of the nine were unfinished, and two - the Numancia and the Vittoria - were iron ships more than thirty years old, very slow, and practically useless for distant work. The other five cruisers were fine modern vessels. Four - the Almirante Oquendo, the Infanta Maria Teresa, the Princesa de Asturias, and the Vizcaya - were sister ships, built in the Spanish yards, mainly by British constructors, over eight years. Each was of 7,000 tons, with a speed stated at twenty knots an hour, and costing three million dollars. The fifth was the Cristobal Colon, built at Sestri, Italy, as the Giuseppe Garibaldi II, the purchase of which was reported by the American newspapers, in March, 1898, as part of Spain's hostile preparations. As a matter of fact the Colon was bought in 1897, an order being placed with the same builders for a sister ship, which was never delivered.

At the Spanish yards - the most important are those at Cartagena, Cadiz, Ferrol, and Bilbao - some other ships were building. Two were the unfinished cruisers Cardinal Cisneros and Cataluna, similar to the Vizcaya class. Another, the Isabel la Catolica, a 3,000-ton cruiser, was to be paid for by a fund raised in Mexico; a third small cruiser, the Rio de la Plata, was building at Havre, as a gift from the Spaniards of South America. None of these could be made ready for service, but two swift torpedo cruisers had just been completed in Thomson's yard, at Glasgow. In bringing them south their Spanish crews ran afoul of the Irish coast, and one was badly damaged.

The war training of the Spanish Navy was thoroughly defective. Gunnery was an almost unknown art ; manoeuvres were never held ; even drill and evolutions were neglected, as Captain Sigsbee of the Maine recorded that during some weeks stay in Havana harbor he saw "very little drilling of any kind on board the Spanish men-of-war."

The maintenance of a modern fleet in good and serviceable order is a very expensive matter, and Spain, being desperately poor, exhausted by the protracted struggle with the Cuban insurgents, and by the war with the Philippine rebels, had not the funds to provide her ships in peace time with the proper material for war. Her dockyards were without stores and appliances required by the fleet. " We are extenuated, absolutely penniless," writes Admiral Cervera in his tragic correspondence with the Madrid authorities. "In this Arsenal [Cadiz] we have not been able to coal, and at Barcelona and Cadiz we could obtain only half the biscuit we wanted, and that only because I had ordered 8000 kilos [about eight tons] to be made here." This was in February 1898. He noted further a want of charts of American waters. There was an extraordinary lack of ammunition, and of machinery for its manufacture.

And thus the paper comparisons of the two combatant Navies were useless and worthless. There could be no comparison between the two. Whenever an American ship met a Spanish ship of anything like her own size, the American ship was almost bound to win. A well-organized, modern force, vastly superior in numbers, had not the slightest cause to fear a disorganised mediaeval force, weak in every imaginable respect.

To aggravate the weakness of the Spanish Navy, no plan of operations had been prepared beforehand, nor 'was any carried out during the war. Everything was done at haphazard, in obedience to popular clamor. No scheme for the re-coaling of the fleet, or of its scattered ships, was worked out. Harmonious co-operation between the Army and Navy had also to be arranged. Nothing of this had been done by the Spanish General Staff. When war came the bases, whether at home or abroad, were without stores, provisions, ammunition and coal, and the commanders without orders or instructions. What ships were in commission were scattered.

The Spanish authorities, as we have seen, had made no preparations or calculations. The first question for them must necessarily have been, whether what ships they possessed should be hazarded at sea or kept in port, as were the German ships in 1870, and the Russian ships in 1854-6, and again in 1877. Such a policy of inactivity may be masterly where the strength of the inactive force is wholly inadequate-as the Spanish fleet actually was- but can rarely be carried out except where there is some strong governing element which does not fear public opinion. Such there was in Prussia in 1870, and in Russia in 1854-6 and 1877. in Spain, with its pseudo- democratic form of government and its weakly-planted royal house, there was no backbone to resist popular clamor.

The retention of the Spanish fleet in harbour was the course for which Cervera and Captain Concas, a distinguished Spanish naval officer, commanding the Maria Teresa, pleaded. Neither so much as suggests raids against the American coast-line, the object of each being evidently to keep as far away from the Americans as possible, yet they expect the American Navy to expend all its energy in such raids. With their inner knowledge of the utter rottenness of the Spanish Navy the course which they recommend can be understood. But it is strange that neither mentions the bombardment panic which was at this time very prevalent on the seaboard of the United States, or considers that if public opinion would compel the recall of the Spanish squadron did an American fleet appear off the Spanish coast, it might equally be expected to compel the recall of the American fleet did the Spanish squadron appear off the coast of the United States.

How far such raids were possible remains an open question. The only Spanish ships capable of effecting them on the outbreak of war were the Maria Teresa, Oquendo, and Cristobal Colon, and two of these were, as we have seen, not properly supplied with ammunition. The Vizcaya, in the same plight, was too foul to steam fast. Among the ships not ready for sea was the Carlos V. Had the expeditionary squadron waited till the middle or end of May, she would have been fit for service ; the Vizcaya could have been docked, the Colon could have been furnished with her big guns, and fresh supplies of ammunition for the ships might have been obtained.

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Page last modified: 16-01-2013 19:02:15 ZULU