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Gabriel Charmes

Gabriel Charmes (1850-1886), though little known today, was a prolific writer on diverse subjects. One of the most brilliant of French journalists of his time, he was destined to die relatively young from tuberculosis. While starting a career in the journalism of politics and foreign affairs, Charmes had the first symptoms of tuberculosis and moved to live and travel in the Near East. Charmes was an indefatigable critic of English policy in Egypt. Of his numerous books on the region and North Africa, only two appear to have been translated into English: Five Months at Cairo and in Lower Egypt (1880) and Naval Reform (1886). Other titles include: L'Egypte: Archaeologie, histoire, literature (1883); L'Avenir de la Turquie: La Panislamisme (1883); Voyage en Palestine: Impressions et souvenirs (1884); La Tunisie et Tripolitaine (1885); Les Stations d'hiver de la Mediterranee (1885); and, published posthumously, Une Ambassade au Maroc (1887); Voyage en Syrie: Impressions et Souvenirs (1891).

M. Gabriel Charmes, the authorized exponent of the views of Admiral Aube, wrote in his work La Eeforme do la Marine : "It would be a wise policy in shipbuilding, for the purposes of war, to put aside the complicated ironclad built to perform several functions, costly, yet possessing but limited speed, and to build a large number of special vessels, gunboats and cruisers, all designed to use with the greatest effect one weapon only, and all having the greatest possible speed. In pursuing such a policy we shall improve results and reduce expenditure."

M. Gabriel Charmes supported his views by numerous extracts from the writings of officers of other navies. He quoted the opinions of Russian officers. The tactical exercises of their fleet in the Baltic, under Admiral Boutakov, have been conducted with marked ability. In his lectures on tactics, Lieutenant Semechkin, aide-de-camp) to Admiral Boutakov, in describing the impressions derived from recent experiences, insists again and again that the nation which has the advantage of numbers will be certain to win.

M. Gabriel Charmes most uncompromisingly maintained that the days of ironclads were past ; that to build more was a waste of labor and money ; and, in fact, that the best thing that could be done with those already existing would be to break them up and sell them for old iron. The large guns shared the same verdict : they were useless and costly encumbrances. With regard to these, indeed, the question was rather a curious one ; for over the previous fifteen years, naval opinion, in the United Kingdom at least, had continued to repeat its profound mistrust of the policy of limiting the armament of a ship to two, or four, or any very small number of monster guns. The waging war at sea by a countless number of torpedo-boats was waht M. Charmes called "La Reforme Maritime". What he proposed was nothing less than a complete and absolute revolution. The pamphlet and articles in which he propounded this system were written with an ease and fluency of language, and with an offhand assumption of infallibility or incontrovertibility, which tempted the careless reader to yield a startled assent to the propositions put before him.

M. Charmes's idea is not altogether original, and that the manner of war which he has so glowingly described is compounded in nearly equal portions of the historical practice of the Iroquois and the fabled achievements of Major Gahagan. The practice of the Iroquois ; for the horrors of war are to fall principally on the undefended and the defenceless, on women and children : the achievements of Major Gahagan ; for success is to be won with the minimum of force against countless odds, always, however, with the proviso, that the minimised force is French ; the English, so far readers were able to gather, were quite unequal to such warfare.

According to this theory, the first and moat important element of strength is weakness ; and war was to resolve itself into a series of ambuscades, night attacks and explosions, in which size, armor, armament, numbers, and watchfulness, so long as they were English, were to be at the mercy of the enemy, small, unnoticed, and bearing a torpedo, if only it was French. In presence of the tsetze fly of France, the English bull can no longer exist. It is necessary to specify the nationality of the giant and the giant-killer, for M. Charmes, scarcely considered the possibilities of naval war except as between France and England ; and the ideal navy which France would oppose to England, was to consist entirely of torpedo-boats, gunboats, and cruisers : the former are to destroy British ships of war ; the latter are to destroy British merchant ships and undefended towns. There was to be no fighting ; merely destruction : for, from M. Charmes's point of view, ships of war, merchant ships, and open towns, provided only that they were English, were equally incapable of offering any resistance.

It is thus he describes part of his scheme : - "On our cruisers, as on all our other ships, everything approaching to armore is to be done away with. There is no question of equipping them for fighting, but simply and solely as scourers of the sea, meant only to attack the weak and defenceless. They have no need of heavy guns: two of 14 c.m. (5-inch) are sufficient, and as many Hotchkiss guns as possible. For defence, in case of emergency, they will carry also two torpedo tubes. Everything is to be sacrificed to speed, which is indispensable, no less for flying from an armed enemy than for pouncing on an unarmed one. In sea-going trim they must be able to steam twenty knots at least. They are not fighting ships ; they will have no armored deck - as proposed by M. Gougeard - but will carry the weight of it in additional coal ; their field of action and detraction will thus be extended ; they will have little or no need of entering port to refit. They will supply their wants from their prizes, and, after taking out of them their provisions and coal, will sink them without pity, so as not to encumber themselves with their captures. The crews they can turn adrift from time to time as opportunity offers. But they will take especial care not wilfully to expose themselves to danger. If attacked by torpedo or gun boats, they will seek safety in flight ; and on no account will they be guilty of the imprudence of coming within reach of any fortified place on shore. Such ships will be our blockade-runners, our "Alabamas," but "Alabamas" resolved not to repeat the folly of their glorious model by accepting battle. They will each cost something more than two millions (80,000) Fortunately, it will not be necessary to have many of them, for the great ocean highways are not more than ten in number, and it is on these only that our cruisers are intended to act."

M. Gabriel Charmes wrote that : - " There are a few trade routes, along which passes the wealth of the world, and on which is developed the very life of that immense world-wide British Empire. These routes, to some extent, correspond to the arteries. There are five or six, at the most ten. It would be an easy matter for us to scour them continually. True it is that formidable fortresses, such as Aden, Malta, and Gibraltar, afford some protection, but it is not under the guns of these fortresses that our cruisers would perform their exploits. They should avoid every known or avoidable risk. A warfare directed against the commerce of an enemy has its rules, and one must have the courage to formulate them exactly. The rule we would lay down should be this : Mercilessly attack the weak ; without shame fly before the strong."

Leaving on one side the international difficulties which might result from the wholesale destruction of possibly neutral property : still, from the purely naval point of view, skeptics thought that there were many merchant ships which should be quite equal to contend with and overpower enemies such as these cruisers are described : that, besides, ships' bottoms do, in course of time, get foul ; and the speed of twenty knots might very well be found, at a critical moment, to have dwindled down to fifteen, to twelve, or even to ten. Again, accidents will happen ; machinery will get out of order ; coal and provisions will run short ; and prizes, adequately supplied, may be shy.

Another phase of maritime war which M. Charmes contemplated was the destruction of undefended towns, for the mere sake of destruction. This is to be effected by gunboats of great speed and small draught of water, armed also with 14 c.m. guns. He says : - "We propose to employ these only for the bombardment of open towns, commercial cities, points not fortified, off which they will appear suddenly and unexpectedly to perform the work of destruction, ready to fly at once if the defence should be too well provided for. It may, however, be necessary to blockade the naval ports, or even to seek to pass in, so as to immure or destroy the enemy's ironclads. By boldness and resolution the attempt may be successful. It is, indeed, impossible to enforce a blockade against fast cruisers or gunboats, but to prevent the egress of heavy ironclads by cruising off the port is a much easier operation. Some shot must, of course, be risked, but from the small size of the torpedo and gun boat the chances are that no damage will be done. If, on the other hand, it is wished to force a passage in, this will be done by torpedo-boats of great speed, and withal so diminutive as to slip uninjured past the fire of the forts, whilst the gunboats apply themselves to silence these forts by lucky shots through the embrasures, or else spread dismay and confusion in the town by shelling the arsenal, the storehouses, and the private dwellings."

Leaving on one side the morality and the manliness of such an attack on open towns, or of the wanton and unprovoked destruction of private dwelling-houses, and the certainty with which such outrages would recoil in terrible reprisals on the heads of the perpetrators, critics thought it is worth noting that this blockade of a port, this passing into a fortified harbor, even this bombardment of the coast, was only to be considered an easy matter when the assailants were French, and the harbors or coasts were prospectively English. Should the parts be reversed, no enemy's ship would be able to live near the Coast ; torpedoes, sea-mines, and shore batteries, would at once end her brief career. M. Charmes appeared unable to realise that English harbors and English coasts might possibly be defended in the same way.

M. Channes dwelled at considerable length on the grave defects of the existing French system of coast defence, insisting in the most earnest manner that the whole should be entrusted to one service - in preference, to the navy. In France, as in England, the arrangements for coast defence were principally entrusted to the army, the navy having a share in the defence of the naval ports, but only to a limited extent. As it was, being divided between the navy and the army, the probability is that, in time of danger, misunderstanding and confusion would arise. His contention was that the three coasts of France, the north, the west, and the south, should be allotted to three vice-admirals, who should have entire command and control over all defensive forces and arrangements ; that the mines, torpedoes, and torpedo-boats should be in the hands of sailors, and that the forts should be manned by seamen-gunners or marine artillerymen.

"To discharge the torpedoes, to support the torpedo-boats, to take advantage of their success, and to keep the enemy at a distance, sailors must be employed. Similarly, for the defence of the commercial ports, sailors will have to be drafted from the merchant ships. Both in men and armament the nautical element will necessarily preponderate and ought to be subject to naval authority."

Unquestionably the most interesting subject of which M. Charmes treated was the recent and very marked developement of the Whitehead torpedo, a weapon which was first brought into notice about the year 1870. At that time its uncertain, often eccentric, course, seemed to show that it was by no means impossible for it to attack a friend instead of an enemy, and its slow speed deprived it of any special tactical significance. It is only by the mid-1880s that these difficulties had been fully removed. The immediate answer to the torpedo-boat was the machine gun, which itself was each day becoming more murderous and more powerful. By day, the boat will have to advance against a ship under a hail of iron or lead ; by night, it will have a beam of electric light thrown on it and be equally a target for the machine guns.

To his critics, M. Charmes seemed delightfully free from all sense of doubt or difficulty, and was prepared with an immediate solution to the problem. According to him, the torpedo-boat was the mistress of the situation. No enemy's ironclad or other large ship can remain afloat in its neighbourhood ; its deadly attack can be neither resisted nor avoided. Nets he ignored ; hut torpedo-catchers, machine-guns, or electric lights were equally of no avail. The boats were too small and too fast to be easily hit, or even seen, if they approach under cover of mist or night. And they were not to attack alone. Two gunboats, four torpedo-catchers, and four torpedo-boats, ten in all, will form a group of attack which is to be counted as the equivalent of an ironclad. On sighting the enemy they will spread out, surround the fleet, and, under cover of night, destroy it; they will come in from every point of the compass, and their success was certain.

But in the last war between Russia and Turkey the Russians did use a very large number of torpedoes and torpedo-boats. They failed in every instance to destroy a Turkish ship, with the exception of two small wooden gunboats, which were blown up in the Danube. Hobart Pasha was of opinion that the value of the fish torpedo, as then made, was greatly exaggerated ; that the effective use of it was in the highest degree capricious and uncertain ; and that it was not difficult to ward off its attacks.

Mortar fire from a vessel was not a new idea in Prance, for there was laid down during the ministry of Admiral Aube, in 1886, a boat (the Gabriel Charmes) designed for the especial purpose. She was named in October 1886, following Gabriel Charmes' untimely death. She was of 74 tons displacement and similar to a torpedo boat, but instead of a torpedo tube there was mounted a 5.5 Breech Loading Rifle [B.L.R.] about 26 feet from the bow, the boat being especially strengthened to withstand the shock of recoil. However, the experiments were not considered satisfactory and she was transformed into a regular torpedo boat.

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