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Jeune École

In the sea power arena, Alfred Thayer Mahan was one of the most famous strategic theorists. An American naval officer, Mahan argued that navies existed to protect friendly commerce and interrupt that of their enemies. The way to do both was to gain command of the sea. For Mahan, the essence of naval strategy was to mass one's navy, seek out the enemy navy, and destroy it in a decisive naval battle. With the enemy's navy at the bottom of the ocean - that is, with command of the sea - your merchantmen were free to sail where they pleased, while the enemy's merchantmen were either confined to port or subject to capture. Diversion of naval power to subsidiary tasks like commerce raiding (a favorite U.S. naval strategy in the early years of the republic) was a waste of resources.

Another school of sea power was the Jeune Ecolé, popular on the continent from the early 1880s through 1905. Its primary advocates were Admiral Théophile Aube of the French Navy and publicist Gabriel Charmes. The forerunner of this school was Baron Richard Grivel, whose De la Guerre Maritime was published in 1869. Old-school traditionalists -- the Vielle Ecole, or to one German scholar, the Alte Schule -- advocated continuing emphasis on sea battle and blockade.

History has not been kind to the Jeune École; historians of the French Navy have generally neglected it. The Jeune École is often described as an example of how not to conduct a military transformation - too much technology, not enough strategy. The history of the Jeune École's has been misunderstood. Skeptics suggest that the Jeune École failed for many reasons, but primarily because it attempted to do too much, was unwilling to accept criticism or allow dialogue, and misjudged the pace of change in warfare.

The first, and predominant, view holds that Aube and his followers were misguided in their overemphasis on technology; The second school of thought is that the Jeune École offered truly valuable and innovative ideas but that for technical, tactical, and strategic reasons they could not be implemented. James J. Tritten is critical of the significance of the Jeune École: "The Jeune École did not represent mainstream naval thought and should be interpreted as a temporary sidetrack resulting from the introduction of, and opportunities afforded by, new technologies in an austere fiscal environment." Michael Vlahos sees the Jeune École advocates as technocrats : "Aube's and Charmes' promotion of the wrong weapons resulted in the utter stagnation of the French navy." Stephen Biddle makes the less popular case that the Jeune École was revolutionary but premature: " visionary, forwardlooking thinkers who decided a revolution was at hand when it was not."

The Jeune École must be understood in the context of French history, and the history of the French navy. Primarily a continental power, France made only intermittent attempts under the Old Regime to posture as a peer competitor to the British navy. With Britain the dominant maritime power, France did as Britain had done when faced with Spainish maritime dominance, using asymmetric tactics and techniques against main forces, and engaging in commercer raiding. When the Royal Navy sought the weather gague, the French obliged, the more readily to break off the engagement. Asymmetric competition took new forms in the 19th Century, as France embarked on a technological arms race at sea, being the innovator in steam, the screw propeller, explosive shells, and armor.

The Jeune École was simply a new expression of long standing French naval strategies of assymetric competition, technological innovation, and commerce raiding. Towards the end of the Second Empire, some French naval officers began to look toward new concepts of warfare and technology. They were inspired by the success during the American Civil War of the Confederate raider Alabama. Britain in particular appeared to be a prime target for such a strategy of commercial warfare, having become, since the elimination of its Corn Laws (protectionist measures restricting the import and export of grain), highly dependent on maritime commerce for food and raw materials.

The Jeune École in France sought to exploit an emerging weapon, the torpedo, to contest British sea control with small, cheap torpedo boats for commerce raiding and coastal defense. Their attempt to create a new warfare area led to a decade of doctrinal uncertainty in naval warfare but failed by the turn of the century owing to the ineffectiveness of the primitive torpedoes and torpedo boats, the rising influence of Adm. Alfred Thayer Mahan, and the emergence of the Anglo-French entente.

The coming of the automobile torpedo and the swift torpedo-boat showed that the defence of big ships against such attacks could not be entrusted entirely to the heavy guns. A new school of thought, which described itself as the Jeune Ecole, was gaining weight in France, under the leadership of Admiral Aube. According to its adherents, the battleship had seen her day. The Jeune Ecole held to the doctrine that that the torpedo-boat and the cruiser had taken the place of the battleship, and that speed was everything. They attached much importance to commerce-destroyers and bombardments.

Public interest in the construction of submarines and small swift vessels was increased by the writings of the jeune ecole, who strongly condemned the continued construction of armored 'mastodons.' Swarms of torpedo-boats would forbid the use of the sea to her, and a multitude of fast commerce-destroyers would cut the communications of the Power which rashly trusted to the command of the sea for its safety.

The stored naval wisdom of the British Admiralty forbade assent to such views, plausible as they might seem. The orthodox view among French naval officers at that time was essentially Mahanian. The development of the torpedo-boat destroyer showed the first hope to be illusory, while the second could only be realised if the ports were left clear of watching squadrons. Besides, whatever success might be achieved in denying the use of the sea to the enemy, the theory of ihejeune ecole gave no promise of securing the use of the sea for itself.

France was the home of guerre de course theories, and her naval policy was always tinted by these theories. Hence the long adherence to coast-defence battleships which are small and cheap, little able to engage big sea-going battleships, but eminently fitted for long-range bombardments and coast operations generally.

Captain Baron Louis-Antoine-Richild Grivel, the ideological forefather of the Jeune École, wrote a book in 1869 describing how new technology and inventions could help make commerce raiding (guerre de course) an effective anti-British strategy. Vice-Admiral Aube, French Minister of Marine, expressed the opinion that twenty fast well-found cruizers would suffice to ruin England's commerce. Gabriel Charmes recommended sending out cruisers to prey on England's commerce in every sea, and ultimately starve the country out.

Unlike the theories of either Mahan or Corbett, which were intended for major naval powers, the Jeune Ecolé was a classic small navy strategy. It was a way for land powers to fight sea powers. Advocates claimed that a nation did not have to command the sea to use it. In fact, modern technology made gaining command of the sea impossible. And one certainly did not have to have a large fleet of capital ships or win a big fleet battle. Rather than capital ships, one could rely on torpedo boats and cruisers (later versions would emphasize submarines). The naval strategist could either use those smaller vessels against the enemy's fleet in specific situations like countering an amphibious invasion, or more commonly against his commerce (to deny him the value of commanding the sea). Either use could be decisive without the expense of building and maintaining a large fleet or the dangers inherent in a major naval battle. The Jeune Ecolé was an asymmetric naval strategy. Its advocates probably chuckled knowingly during World Wars I and II as submarines executed their pet theory without the benefit of a name other than unrestricted submarine warfare. It is still available as an asymmetric approach to war at sea.

The French Jeune Ecole (young school) have been derided as "technological determinists" who believed that modern weapons such as the torpedo had rendered the battleship obsolete. But the combat experience of the Great War tended to vindicate this view. They preached the "Guerre de Course" -- relying on commerce raiding to defeat the enemy, and this, rather than Mahan's Guerre de Main was the primary focus of the war at sea during both World Wars.

According to one view, two events led to the decline of the Jeune Ecole. The first was the British Naval Defense Act of 1889, which embodied the "Two Power Standard". And the other was the publication in 1890 of Mahan's first book, The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660-1783. But this is surely wrong, since Camille Pelletan, who was Minister of the Marine from 1902 through 1905, was one of the most vigorous practitioners of the Jeune Ecole's hostility towards battleships and enthusiasm for torpedo boats.

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Page last modified: 11-07-2011 03:01:20 ZULU