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Camille Pelletan - Minister of the Marine 1902-1905

France's Minister of Marine, Charles Camille Pelletan (1846-1915), was appointed in June 1902 professing not to know 'what ironclads really are'. Under the Combes Cabinet, Pelletan had the audacity to postpone indefinitely the building of warships voted by the Parliament. With the Government of M. Combes and of the Radicals of the narrowest observation came a period in French history during which mere words were treated the most respectfully, and views were sufficient food for the minds of politicians. War appeared as a barbarous impossibility, and the chief preoccupation of the Ministers of War and Marine was to civilize the army and navy, turn ships and barracks into institutions for the civic perfecting of young Frenchmen and, in short, prepare the world for universal peace. Socialists in France and Germany bragged that no fratricidal duel would henceforward be suffered where they had their word to say.

A French politician, son of P.C.E. Pelletan, he was born in Paris, studied at the Ecole des Chartes, and entered the political press with boldly republican attacks on the Empire. At the age of twenty he became an active contributor to the press, and a bitter critic of the Imperial Government. After the war of 1870-71 he took a leading place among the most radical section of French politicians, as an opponent of the "opportunists " who continued the policy of Gambetta. He became editor of La Justice with G. Clemenceau in 1880 and in the following year was elected to the Chamber of Deputies, where he voted with the Radical Left. In 1881 he was chosen member for the tenth arrondissement of Paris, and in 1885 for the Bouches du Rhone, being re-elected in 1889, 1893 and 1898. He was an active opponent of Boulanger. During the Nationalist and Dreyfus agitations he fought vigorously on behalf of the Republican government and when the coalition known as the "Bloc " was formed he took his place as a Radical leader.

US Admiral Bradley Allen Fiske later wrote "... the socialist, Camille Pelletan, who had been minister of marine of the French Navy, and who in four years did it such damage that somebody remarked that if the French Government had given Pelletan a salary of a million dollars a year, and had kept him away from the navy, the Government would have made $100,000,000 by the operation. I do not know whether Camille Pelletan was sincere or not. I have heard from many sources that he was a very amiable man, and that he was very popular with many people in France. The people liked his "democratic manner" and sympathized with his attitude in trying to democratize the French Navy; but I doubt if even the people who liked him most would have liked him at all if they had realized that he was ruining the navy, which was the left arm of the defense of the republic, and which they were taxed heavily to maintain. Instead of being a friend of the people, as so many French people thought, Camille Pelletan by his course was more dangerous to them than all the German spies in France put together. Camille Pelletan' s course did more to break down the defense of the French Republic than a half a million German troops could have done."

Pelletan was made minister of marine in the cabinet of M. Emile Combes, June 1902 to January 1905, but his administration was severely criticized, notably by M. de Lanessan and other naval experts. During the great sailors' strike at Marseilles in 1904 he showed pronounced sympathy with the socialistic aims and methods of the strikers, and a strong feeling was aroused that his Radical sympathies tended to a serious weakening of the navy and to destruction of discipline. A somewhat violent controversy resulted, in the course of which M. Pelletan's indiscreet speeches did him no good; and he became a common subject for ill-natured caricatures.

Until 1902 the executive head was the chief of the naval general staff, but this was changed, and the chiefs of bureaus were directly subordinate to the Minister of Marine, the chief of the staff sinking to the level of a bureau officer. The sections or bureaus of the department were: (a) General Staff; (b) Office of the Minister of Marine; (c) Personnel; (d) Material; (e) Ordnance; (f) Submarine Defenses; (g) Hydrography; (h) Central Control (financial inspection); (i) Accounts; (j) Pensions. There were in addition six consultation or advisory boards: (a) Superior Naval Council; (b) Board of General Inspectors; (c) Council of Works; (d) Commission on Equipment ; (e) Commission on Machinery and Plant; (f) Board to Classify Officers for Promotion.

M. Pelletan's theory was that the days of big battleships were over, and that France should rely on her under-water fleet and torpedo boats. The Admiralissimo was certainly successful in sending more ships to the bottom than any of his predecessors at the Rue Royale, thus confirming his opinion that the future of France lay not upon the water, but below it. From being the second naval power in the world, France fell to the fifth place, below Japan; but M. Pelletan could still console himself with the thought that his country occupied the same naval plane as Chili and Brazil.

Pelletan informed the Chamber of Deputies on 6 February 1903 that, although no-one could foresee the course of a future naval battle, "what we do see is that in anticipation of this great battle we Frenchmen are in a manifestly unfavorable position." The French Mediterranean Squadron was reduced to eleven battleships in 1903 (five of which were in reserve) and nine the following year (with three in reserve). Pelletan came near causing international complications because of his ill-advised speeches in which he foreshadowed a great war of conquest for France. On the fall of the Combes ministry Pelletan became less prominent in French politics.

The theories of the Pelletan school had more than the average amount of truth in them. Their disadvantage was not merely their revolutionary character, but the indifferent fashion in which they had been thought out. The underwater craft popularized by M. Pelletan were too small for their work. Again, M. Pelletan's method of conducting his State department was scarcely reassuring. A doctrinaire, unfortified by professional experience, he permitted disorder to reign at headquarters and seemed to take a boyish delight in putting spokes into the administrative wheel. Arsenal hands and lower deck ratings were encouraged to bring their grievances to the Rue Royale, over the heads of authority. People, who remembered their history, thought that revolutionary days had come again, when the lower deck discussed orders with the captain, and this anarchy, they recalled, was responsible, in part, for Nelson's victories.

The great principle formulated by Admiral Aube regarding torpedo vessels was, invisibility, divisibility and number ; from this it came to pass that small torpedo vessels were built to obtain invisibility, to increase their number, and because they are less costly ; their number gave an idea of their value, and coincided with the policy that the navy is made for the ports and not the ports for the navy. Also, with many torpedo vessels it is possible to favor many private building yards, and satisfy certain municipalities and certain deputies, whose influence is measured by the number of whose influence was measured by the number of million francs that the Government is induced to accord to their fellow-townsmen.

When he was at the Ministry of Marine, M. Pelletan (who had retarded the construction of submarines) ordered in ten months, from November 1903, to August, 1904. 72 torpedo boats of 90 to 100 tons and 26 knots, at a cost of more than thirty million francs (1,200,000). At this time no other Navy was building torpedo boats of less than 200 tons.

At the beginning of the twentieth century the French fleet was, without doubt, the next strongest in the world after our own ; but in the intervening period of years her policy of marking time left her behind the United States and pressed very closely by Germany. This was the position she took on the reckoning of materiel ; if the efficiency of the personnel was taken into consideration France dropped at least to the fourth, and possibly to the fifth, place among the naval Powers of the world. To Pelletan's critics, socialistic doctrines were necessarily destructive of efficiency in a fighting force, where discipline is the very first essential. Liberty, Equality and Fraternity were very good ambitions in the abstract, and would be to-day, as they were a hundred years ago, excellent battle-cries for a mob ; but not one of them is consonant with the maintenance of a disciplined force, be it civil or military, and to this fact is due the chaotic state of the French Navy to-day. The whole force was seething with incipient mutiny, of which inefficiency is the prolific product, to such an extent that a recapitulation of its material strength gave a wholly exaggerated idea of its fighting worth.

The French Navy was as eaten into as any by the 'steam yacht' element. Perhaps because France was a republic it took its own peculiar form. A wealthy junior officer of good family in a French warship was by far the most important person on board : even his captain being subservient to him. Ease and luxury were the first considerations in the French fleet. It was often difficult to discern fitness to win or its absence in the days of peace, but it was hard to see any use for French warships save for the giving of balls and acting as mark boats at regattas. There was not the slightest doubt in the world that in a war between France and Germany the French fleet would be crumpled up and destroyed far worse than were the French armies in the war of 1871. There were brave and brilliant officers in the French Navy but the 'steam yacht' swamped them utterly.

French politicians and statesmen had declared over and over again that their navy should be capable of dealing with that of Germany ; but although France still maintained a small numerical superiority afloat over her northern neighbours, the contrast between the personnel of the two fleets was such that even with something considerably less than her material strength Germany could reasonably hope for victory in the event of a conflict.




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