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Guerre de Course

To every nation with a sea-borne trade the defence of commerce is an acute question. Attacks on commerce are part of the program of the guerre de course [literally, war of race]. The guerre de course is not, and perhaps was never intended to be, a recipe for victory, but is simply the scheme which promises best to the weaker side which, accepting "grand war" would accept inevitable and rapid defeat, whereas by a guerre de course it prolongs operations very considerably and knows that before going under it will do some damage. It is naturally an absurd strategy for the stronger side to adopt. The essential to a successful or partially successful guerre de course is that its infliction of greater losses than have been anticipated, shall so break up and disconcert the stronger sea Power trying to overcome it, that the weaker naval Power shall be able to use its battle fleet with some prospect of success.

Ancient history did not record any characteristic guerre de course : the grand battle sufficed for the ancients' simple aspirations. Combatants of those days were fully persuaded of the advisability of that doctrine, of which Captain Mahan was the modern apostle, that all sea dominion depends upon the issue of the grand battle. The Peloponnesians beaten by the Athenians, simply collected another fleet and tried again. Romans and Carthaginians almost always did the like ; aud it is only to the Roman operations against the Illyrian pirates that we can torn to find any conspicuous conflict between the grand war and the guerre de course.

It is to the sailing ship days that one must look for other instances. The most remarkable war from the amount of commercial interests involved was the Anglo-Dutch conflict of 1665-1667. Both sides had great commercial interests, indeed the destruction of commerce was an objective to both to a degree that had never been witnessed before.

A more serious guerre de course was carried on by the French in their war with England in 1702-12. The Channel and North Sea were covered with privateers, which, however, were unsupported by big fleets and so very liable to capture. Yet the damage done to British shipping was very great indeed. Again in a later war the same policy was pursued. In the four years ending in June 1760, 2,500 English merchantmen had been captured with the loss of 242 privateers. Approximately the 'life' of a privateer was ten British ships. The English in the war with France carried on a vigorous campaign against the privateers with little mercy and much hate.

In the careers of the Confederate Alabama and her consorts a total of 261 Northern merchant ships were captured and American trade practically destroyed. This was done on purely piratical lines, that is to say there was no guerre de course having subsequent action by an inferior battle fleet as its objective, but a guerre de course, bent only on sheer mischief, and consequently less dangerous. Yet it annihilated the American merchant marine. This was practically accomplished by half a dozen steamers, for a full half of the corsairs did very little harm indeed. Six ships, therefore, belonging to an absolutely minor naval power (the Confederate States), accomplished a practically permanent destruction of the mercantile marine of a relatively very strong naval power (the Northerners).

Down to the end of the 19th Century, the real guerre de course had never been attempted. A corsair war having results such as the Southern War against commerce would be absolutely fatal to the United Kingdom.

In strict International Law a captured merchant ship must be taken to a port of the capturer, where lawyers will argue at great length as to the exact definition of the word contraband, the legality of the capture and half a dozen other things. Were there any guarantee that all such formulse would be strictly observed, then lawyers would be almost as useful and valuable as cruisers, and the problems of commerce defence much simplified. There is not, however, the slightest prospect that any nation at war is going to tie its hands with legal questions more than it is absolutely compelled to do.

In a well-conceived guerre de course the capture of British merchant ships for gain will be quite a secondary object. The destruction of British commerce in order to produce financial straits and popular agitation will be the prime objective - and if there exists any Eternal Truth about the strategy of this form of war the prospects of British commerce going the same way as American commerce would be very strong. Commerce war is not what it was, and the nation that undertakes it on the grand scale will be embarking on an enterprise the limits and dangers of which it can never measure.

Commerce must not only be protected from destruction: it must also be so defended that it can be carried on with comparative impunity. In the popular view there was only one way in which commerce can effectively be protected. This way consisted in covering the seven seas with cruisers patrolling the trade routes. But there were two ways by commerce may be defended. The first by a vigorous offensive on the hostile fleet and a blockade so severe that very few commerce destroyers or cruisers can get out and fewer still return. Combined with this system a few powerful cruisers, easily able to destroy any corsair met with, would perhaps be stationed off certain points upon which the trade routes converge, but there would be no patrols stationed along the trade routes and the minimum of division of forces. Those who advocated the small cruisers on patrol were really no more logical than he who would suggest that instead of destroying the nest individual hornets should be slain on the wing.

Convoys in the old days were rarely very successful : the principal problem being the difficulty of keeping the merchantmen together. To Fred T. Jane writing in 1906, that difficulty seemed probably still greater. "Moreover, unless the enemy's ports are sufficiently blockaded to prevent the egress of anything but isolated ships, a convoy merely offers in these days of telegraphs and full information a splendid prize already prepared for the enemy. The trade loss of waiting for convoy is also probably considerable - convoy must, therefore, be regarded as a very heavy insurance."




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