Hampson, J.N. (1898) Great Britain vs. France and Russia

navyleaguemapJ. N. Hampson (1898) Great Britain vs. France and Russia. National Review, Vol. 31, June 1898, London, Allen & Co.

An award wining essay sponsored by the National Review and the Navy League to identify Britain’s weaknesses in the case of war.

THE student of history can hardly fail to be struck by a certain resemblance between the general political situation at the time of the outbreak of the late war with France and Russia, and that which obtained in 1778 when, during the American War of Independence, France made war against England, and was in the following year joined by Spain. The addition of Holland to our adversaries in the earlier war, in 1780, need not be taken into account, as that country was forced into war by England for her own purposes, and added nothing to the strength of the Allies. The resemblance between the general course of events in the two wars, and between the results, is less marked than that between the antecedent situations; but in each case the war was indecisive, England holding her own on the sea, though it needed the exertion of her utmost strength to enable her to do so. It is true in 1900 England was not engaged in a struggle with any of her Colonies, but the position of affairs in South Africa, and the growth of racial antagonism between the English and Dutch elements throughout that country, in addition to native troubles, were such as to give the Government grave anxiety, and to necessitate the detention of a considerable number of troops in Cape Colony and the neighbouring British territories.

 ……………….  In the event, however, the casus belli arose in none of these quarters. In April the British authorities on the north-west frontier of India arrested a Cossack officer, who had been travelling in the country, on a charge of espionage and of inciting the natives to rebellion. The Russian Government instantly demanded his release ; but the evidence against him admitted of no doubt of the truth of the charge, and he was imprisoned in a fortress, the English Foreign Secretary intimating to the Russian Ambassador that the demand of his Government could not be entertained. It was a curious coincidence that at the time the Russian demand was made the Baltic Fleet, including twelve battleships, was paying a visit to Brest. Here all the battleships of the French Northern Fleet, with those stationed in the Bay of Biscay, and their reserves, amounting to eighteen in all, were concentrated in honour of their guests. On the British Government rejecting the Russian ultimatum, this fleet of thirty battleships, in addition to cruisers, steamed out of Brest without any previous declaration of war. The Allies hoped to obtain complete command of the Channel, while we were still unprepared, and, by shutting up the several portions of the British Channel Squadron in their ports, to land an invading army on the English coast without let or hindrance. The Admiralty, however, had not been altogether blind to the suspicious movements in French and Russian ports, and as soon as the arrest of the Cossack officer was reported orders were given that the Channel Squadron, which had lately returned from its spring cruise, should concentrate at Spithead, while the guard ships and the reserve ships in home ports were to be in readiness to join it, those in the more distant ports of the British Islands being at once quietly moved to the Channel. Notices were also served upon all Naval Reserve men at home to hold themselves in readiness for immediate mobilization ; and the surrounding seas were patrolled by cruisers and destroyers.nationalreview1898_2

A Review [The Daily Telegraph, Issue 9215, 14 July 1898, Page 4]:


Impelled by the present ” wars and rumors of wars,” and actuated by a desire to locate exactly Great Britain’s weakness, and thus to prompt wise foresight and provision by her naval authorities, the Navy League and the National Review recently joined in offering a prize of £50 for the best essay or story “giving a forecast of the probable effect upon the United Kingdom of an indecisive war against two first-class Powers, it being borne in mind that ocean cables would probably be cut before war was declared, and that the price of bread would rise to at least one shilling per loaf.” The successful essay, written by Mr J. N. Hampson, appears in the National Review for June, and takes the form of an account of the war and a summary of its results.

The year fixed for the straggle is 1900, the combatants being Great Britain and the allied forces of France and Russia. The situation, in the opinion of the essayist, revealed a remarkable similarity to that obtaining in 1778, when Prance and Spain made common cause against England. The anxious position in South Africa, the unrest in India, the difficulties in the Nile Valley, and the necessity for constant watchfulness in the Far East, involved a scattering of the British forces and a consequent weakness of which the rival naval Powers were not slow to take advantage. But by far the most important feature of the situation was the fact that Great Britain’s vast population was almost entirely dependent for its food supply on imported wheat and provisions.

The immediate cause of the war was the arrest of a Russian spy on the north-west frontier of India, an event which occurred at a moment when the Russian Baltic Fleet were visiting Brest, and the whole of the French northern fleet were assembled in honor of the visit. The combined fleets, comprising thirty battleships with a number of cruisers, left Brest without a declaration of war, intending to command the Channel and land troops on the English coast whilst the Admiralty were still unprepared. They had reckoned, however, without their host ; for the British lion was by no means asleep, and had assembled some thirty one battleships at Spithead. This fleet sailed to meet the allies, who retired on seeing the opposing numbers, and the only result was a running tight between the fastest English ships and the rear of the allies. After the loss of three ships of the allies, and two of the British fleet, the enemy kept in safe quarters at Brest under the watchful eyes of the British squadron, Four more British battleships being now available, the Admiralty despatched eight, with a number of cruisers, to the Mediterranean, leaving twenty-five in charge of Brest.

The position in the south of Europe was more difficult for Britain. Only some fourteen ships were there available, whilst the combined fleet numbered twenty-nine ; nor could news be sent to the Admiralty of the position of affairs, the cables having been cut. The Russian Black Sea squadron had joined their Mediterranean fleet in the Levant, and the combined force of ten ships was making for Egypt. Accordingly a couple of British cruisers were sunk in the Suez Canal, and the Mediterranean Admiral determined to attack the French fleet at Toulon before it could carry out its evident determination to join the Russians in the south-east. The Battle of Spartivento was drawn, the British losing six ships and the French eight, and the British were unable to prevent the French transports from reaching Egypt. The allies accordingly took Alexandria and Port Said, and landed in all 50,000 troops. The British had by this time sixteen vessels in the Mediterranean, the allies having a similar number ; but only half of the enemy’s ships were fit for service, whilst Britain had twelve undamaged. The neutral European Powers had now entered into an armed neutrality, distinctly opposed to British interests, two of the terms of inclusion being the non-use of British shipping, and the imposition of prohibitive duties on British goods.

In West Africa both combatants were on the alert, and no special advantage was gained by either. In East Africa, whilst British interests were protected by Abyssinia, great watchfulness was required, and the Suez Canal obstruction was almost the sole preventive of disaster. In India the position of the Empire was menaced by a Russian force in the north-west, and by the French in Upper Burmah, and the Indian Government could spare no forces to act otherwise than on the defensive. In the far East the position would have been lost to Britain had the allies acted together and with promptitude. Prance, however, devoted her’ attentions to Hong Kong, leaving Russia to oppose the British Eastern squadron, reinforced by cruisers from the Australian station.

An indecisive battle off Chefoo enabled Britain to blockade Port Arthur, whither the Russian fleet had retired, and four of the British ships, with four cruisers from the Pacific squadron, sailed to relieve Hong Kong, only to find it in the hands of the French. The garrison had not surrendered without destroying the docks and defences, nor until two-thirds of their number were lost. Being unable to bring the French to action, the British fleet cruised in the neighborhood to protect the shipping, blockading Hong Kong at the same time. Contrary to expectations, Japan, instead of availing herself of the opportunity of settling old scores against Russia, remained strictly neutral. In Australian and American seas little was done except in the direction of harassing commerce. Britain, however, made an unsuccessful descent on the New Hebrides, and afterwards captured the French West India islands, Guadeloupe and Martinique.

In Europe, meantime, affairs were progressing. The combined fleet had managed to escape from its close quarters at Brest, and made for the Mediterranean, hoping to join with the allies there and destroy the British squadron. Timely warning enabled the Channel fleet to follow on their heels, and meet the squadron at Minorca. The allies making for Egypt were followed by the British, who obtained a decisive victory off Port Said. The enemy at once retired to the Black Sea, being assured of safety there by the fact of Turkey’s hostility to Britain.

The recapture of Cyprus, which had been in the hands of the allies, and the reopening of the Suez Canal, enabled the British to cut off the forces in India from all hope of assistance. This practically ended the war. Neither party were in a condition to continue operations, and proposals for peace on a basis of mutual restitution were made by the allies. They demanded, however, that Britain should not reoccupy Egypt. Eventually, by pointing out the superiority of her position, and relying on the probable future assistance of the United States and Japan, Britain succeeded in obtaining her own terms, which included the acknowledgment of Egypt as part of the Empire, and the abrogation of the French fishing rights in Newfoundland, Peace was signed about six months after the commencement of hostilities.

The condition of the British population during the war had been nothing short of terrible. Five-sixths of the food supply in 1900 was imported, and the first consequence of war was a rise in the price of all food-stuffs, bread immediately rising to 1s per quarter loaf, and fluctuating during the greater part of the war between 2s and 2s 6d. The cutting of all cables prevented rapid communication with the colonies and the States, and the demand for vessels for war purposes increased the difficulty of obtaining supplies. The importation of raw material for manufacturing purposes became almost impossible, whilst almost all the available iron and coal were absorbed in the manufacture of vessels and munitions of war and in J supplying war vessels with steam power. The consequent employment was only in a slight measure relieved by the increased employment in dockyards and arsenals. Discontent and rioting were therefore inevitable, although, on the whole, the people bare their hardships patiently. The larger towns in Ireland were the scenes of the greatest disturbance, but the authorities put down the rioting with a firm hand, and the general determination to be victorious at all costs prevented very serious internal trouble.

By far the most important consequence of the war was the crippling of the British carrying trade, due principally to the terms of the armed neutrality, bat also in part to the fact that a large proportion of the merchant shipping crews consisted of foreigners, who, at the outbreak of war, either deserted or took their vessels into hostile or neutral ports. Germany, preparing as she had been for so long to dispute British supremacy in commerce, had displayed a rare wisdom in her manoeuvred neutrality. The United States had, of course, benefited considerably by the crippling of the British merchant service ; but it was Germany which profited most, and, judging by historical precedents such as the case of Holland at the end of the seventeenth century, and that of the Northern States in the American War of Secession, the commercial position so lost by Great Britain would not easily be recovered. The exclusion of the products of the League of Neutrals, and the expulsion of aliens from her shores as a retaliating measure, could in no way help Great Britain to retrieve her losses.

But the war had good results in addition to these so disastrous to her future. The commercial relations of Mother Country with the colonies became closer by reason of their greater independence, and a real Imperial federation became not only possible, but a probability of her near future. The friendly neutrality of the United States also indicated a probability of closer relations, dependent chiefly on commerce, which might possibly lead to a Pan- Anglo-Saxon federation. Thus, with considerable judgment and might, has Mr Hampson outlined the probable course and results of the next great war. And his conclusions merit thoughtful consideration. Germany, with her present effective military system, and her determination to possess herself of commercial supremacy, is unquestionably the Power with whom the race is now to be run. And Great Britain’s retention of commercial and maritime supremacy depends on the care with which she watches her sources of food supply, and arranges for the effective protection of her merchant shipping. More than any Power she requires a strong and perfectly equipped navy, and her isolation imperatively calls for the combination and consolidation of her colonies, and a real, firmly based friendship with America.