Hans Wehberg.

Capture in war on land and sea online

. (page 1 of 15)
Online LibraryHans WehbergCapture in war on land and sea → online text (page 1 of 15)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook
















Translated from
Das Beuterecht iin Land- und Seekriege







1 i i '

' <" . ) 3 , , ) .

• V

1 3 J

> 5 3 3

-> -lis
> > l>
> * >

' 1 ' >

' •> 9



J > )

> 1 ^ » tf -)

) >

O »

> > > J ) > 3 1

1 5
> 1

J J » J 1 >






AU Rights Reserved


« c e

« t

c c « c c «








The appeal made by the valuable work of

Dr. Wehberg to British readers may be said

^to direct itself mainly to one of the two

great classes into which, as regards military

matters, they may be roughly divided. On

m one side is the multitude, still lamentably

-^ large, whose reflection on the problem of

militarism begins and ends in sheer pride

in the parade of power. Such minds have

a brilliant exponent in Mr. Rudyard Kipling,

3\vhose zest in all the paraphernalia as well

;-as the psychology of carnage is such that

_^the hope of international peace appears to

^bt for him, as for Von Moltke, " not even

^a. beautiful dream." To such intelligences,

the life of training for slaughter is " the

lordliest life on earth " ; and the spectacle

of drilled hosts and monstrous fleets is

_ a source of keener pleasure than they can

^derive from any ideal of a reign of peace

g and reason. Further, they are ministered

S to by the simple dialectic of Tennyson, to

the effect that the evils of the life of peace

are somehow mended or minimised by vast


explosions of the brutality and misery of
war. With most of that order of thinkers
it is scarcely worth while to debate. Their
bias is fixed.

In another great division may be classed
not only the active strivers for peace between
nations — not even now a very large body —
but, happily, the mass of reasonably-minded
men, who, realising how frustrative of social
good and how menacing of international evil
is the enormous and ever-increasing expen-
diture of the nations on armaments, wonder
perplexedly whether nothing can be done
to stay it. It may be hoped that this mixed
body of non-militarists is the larger mass
of the two specified; and that the limitation
of the political eloquence of one of our
political parties, in respect of this problem,
to the theme of " need for defence " does
not mean a universal preference in that
party for the attitude of armed distrust over
one of rational understanding. Outside
of Sir Edward Grey's own party, there
appears to be not a little acquiescence in his
avowal that, unless the growth of the burden
of universal militarism can be arrested,
civilisation must break down under the
strain. It is to men who realise the danger,
while unable to see their way to remove it,
that the work of Dr. Wehberg offers its
pregnant suggestion.

That suggestion is, in brief, that naval


armaments in particular are largely the out-
come of the risks and the consequent fears
set up by the continuance of the principle
that in naval warfare the belligerents are free
to capture each other's commerce. Herein,
as his book will make clear to the reader,
naval warfare has failed to undergo the
control now laid by common consent upon
land warfare. In the latter, booty for
booty's sake is disallowed by the military
codes of all the civilised Powers. It is
important to have the fact made generally
known ; for the brilliant author of " Sea
Law and Sea Power," Mr. T. G. Bowles,
continues to make the misleading assertion
that in war on land private property is " at
the absolute mercy of any military com-
mander," and that those who propose the
abandonment of booty-right at sea lay
down their doctrine only for sea-wars. The
anomaly lies exactly the other way. The
civilised Powers are under agreement to
respect private property in land wars. An
army may take food, stores, and bullion where
it needs these for its maintenance ; but
it may not seize the goods of non-combatants
by way of mere plunder. With navies it
is different. Naval warfare is latterly so
rare that the usage is not present to the
common consciousness ; but if a war should
break out in these days between two or
more Sea Powers, they would at once


proceed to capture each other's merchant
ships and retain or sell them and their

It is naturally upon this ground that
the appeals of the British and German
Navy Leagues for more warships are
mainly founded ; and the first step towards
any rational understanding on the subject
must be the recognition by the reasonable
public in both countries that each has ground
for apprehension. True, Germany need not
under any circumstances fear an invasion by
Britain; while insular Britain, with her small
army, may fairly plead a special need for
naval defence. But as regards commerce,
the situation is pretty even. Even if Germans
were not spontaneously concerned to defend
their growing commerce, the avowals of
English statesmen no less than the vaunts
of English warmongers would awaken them
to the fact that a war between them and us
would mean the risk of the capture of their
merchant marine. Thus the German Dread-
noughts are as perfectly justified as the
British Dreadnoughts which preceded and
have followed them. They are defences for
the German ports and for commerce in the
North Sea ; and to regard them as built
for purposes of aggression is to substitute
fantasy for common-sense.

Britain, on the other hand, may well
claim on the same principles to be guarding


no less her commerce than her shores.
As our Navy League thinks it necessary
annually to remind us, our food supply
is largely sea-borne ; and the interception
of that would mean our subjugation.
Hence the monster fleet, and all the rest
of it. Britain, in fact, runs by far the
greater risks in naval warfare, and has
proportional need for armaments. German
supplies of both food and war material
could in war be mainly land-borne. But
of course submission to such restriction
would in itself be a hardship which no
strong nation would willingly undergo.

Yet, great as is the danger entailed upon
herself by the principle of booty in naval
warfare, Britain, singularly enough, has been
of all the naval Powers the one which has
most constantly and stiffly resisted every
proposal to give up the theory and the
practice. It is difficult to see in this
persistence anything better than official
adhesion to a tradition which begins in
the old anti-Dutch claim of England to
supremacy in the Channel. In the Napo-
leonic period England claimed further to
capture not only all goods under the enemy's
flag, but enemy's goods under a neutral flag ;
and the war with the United States in 1812
originated in her claim to search another
Power's ships for deserters. By the Treaty
of Paris, 1857, these claims were reduced to


the extent of respecting neutral flags as
regards all save contraband of war ; but
the appeals of other nations, dating from the
joint action of Prussia and the United States
in 1785, for entire abandonment of booty-
seeking in naval war have down till the
other day been steadily repelled by our

That our officials have been inspired
rather by a tradition than by calculation is
suggested by the fact that, despite British
naval superiority in the seventeenth and
eighteenth centuries, Britain's losses in
maritime commerce were usually far heavier
than those of her opponents. English
writers sometimes accuse Frenchmen of
omitting to mention French defeats in their
school histories. However that may be,
British school-books are at least as sedulously
silent upon the wholesale captures of British
commerce by French and other privateers in
the naval wars of the last two centuries.
Duruy tells his readers faithfully enough of
the destruction of French fleets and com-
merce by the English in the Seven Years'
War ; but he could also tell how the priva-
teers of Dunkirk alone, in the war which ended
at the Peace of Ryswick (1697), captured
Dutch and English prizes which they sold
for twenty-two million livres (francs) ; and in
the next war thirty millions' worth ; the
enemy's loss being calculable at twice or


thrice the town's profit. He might have
added that even in the Seven Years' War,
where we had all the naval glory, we had by
far the heavier bill of losses. And he could
and did further tell how, in the Revolution
wars, at the end of 1793 the French privateers
had captured 410 English ships against 316
lost by France ; though he does not add
that they took on an average about 500 in
every year from 1804 to 181 3 inclusive. It
would be hard to find mention of these
facts in English school-books. Yet they
are not disputed ; and the generalisation
holds good for many years of war.

It is needless to ask whether larger fleets
and modern developments could avert the
repetition of such losses in a new naval war.
Some of our authorities are convinced that no
enemy could now do much harm to our naval
commerce, for lack of facilities for putting
asvay prizes. On this question the " experts,"
as usual, are hopelessly at variance. One
school, oblivious of the whole technique
of their own vocation, tell us how in certain
seas an enemy could take our merchant
ships by the score (securing them, appar-
ently, without manning them, or else destroy-
ing them and their crews in defiance of all
international law and practice) ; while Mr.
Bowles confidently assures us that "to close
the sea around and adjacent to the British
Isles so as to prevent access to them is a


task impossible to perform." ^ On this view,
most of our Navy League propaganda is
vain scare-mongering. On any view the fact
remains that the necessity of defending our
commerce, and above all our food supplies,
imposes on us an immense and ever-
increasing burden ; and that this burden
might in large part be removed by the
surrender of a claim which we have hitherto
maintained against all appeals. The crucial
question is, Have we anything to gain from
the maintenance that can be plausibly set
against the risks and the cost of it ?

The grounds upon which our Ministers
have hitherto defended it and held by it
are briefly these : — (i) That we, as a naval
Power, can only by naval means bring to a
conclusion a war with any Great Power ; and
that if we abandon the right of booty we
could never force to a finish any naval war
at all. In that case we should be under-
going the hardship of an indefinitely pro-
longed " state of war " in which there was no
fighting, since the enemy could keep all his
warships in port at his own convenience.
(2) Apart from booty, the seizure of an
enemy's mercantile marine is the only way of
interdicting to him the free use of the ocean
highway. On both grounds, then, we as a
naval Power must refuse to let the code

* "Sea Law and Sea Power," 1910, p. 34.


of land warfare be applied to war at sea.
On this view, it is implied, it is worth our
while to bear an immense and ever-increasing
burden of outlay in order to have the power
of bringing quickly to terms an eventual
antagonist, the alternative being the "incon-
venience " of a war without any fighting.

It is difficult to take quite seriously such a
plea. In the terms of the case, neither com-
batant would be suffering any loss or
molestation, since our commerce would be as
immune as the enemy's ; and, the war being
purely a naval one, our fleets would have
nothing to do but guard our shores from a
possible sally. (If the war were not purely
naval, the plea falls, for in that case naval
operations could not suffice to conclude it.)
Such a " state of war " is hardly a contin-
gency worth guarding against by a vast
expenditure. But, as it happens, the official
British plea no longer stands in the way of
an understanding as to reciprocal restraint
of armaments. Within the past two years,
both Sir Edward Grey and Mr. McKenna
have intimated that they no longer stand to
their negative positions ; and that they are
ready to consider the appeal for the abandon-
ment of " booty right," provided only that the
concession be taken as a basis for an inter-
national agreement as to limitation of naval

Can we be sure that the common-sense of


the nation will stand to this change of
policy ? There is every reason to believe
that it will. The argument that capture of
an enemy's commerce is a means of bringing
a war to an end was never a good one, and
is weaker now than ever. In not a single
historical case can it be shown to hold good.
The successes of Blake against the Dutch in
1653 did not end that war : Cromwell offered
peace on general grounds of policy. The
objects of the war with Spain which followed
were attained only by the land operations at
Dunkirk. Dutch successes against us in
1667 did not force the Treaty of Breda in
that year ; and Dutch naval successes in
1672 and 1673 did not force the treaty of
1674, of which the motive on the English
side was resentment against France. Our
naval victory over France at La Hogue in
1692 had no effect on the land war: peace
was not made till 1697 ; and, as before
noted, the French privateers looted an
immense amount of English commerce.
Naval operations counted for nothing in the
later war between England and Louis XIV.
A high authority has indeed pronounced that
the end of the Seven Years' War was brought
about by the successes of England at sea ;
but the chief of these had been won as
against France in 1759; and Spain, which
was similarly worsted in 1762, gained in the
peace of 1763 more territory than she lost.


It is impossible to show that France, finan-
cially exhausted by ruinous wars on land,
came to terms on the score either of her
sea-borne commerce or of the hardship
caused by its cessation. The battle of the
Nile, in 1798, did not even stop Napoleon's
Syrian campaign ; and it was the state of
affairs in France that forced him home in
1799. The battle of Trafalgar, in 1805, gave
Pitt no sense of support when it was fol-
lowed by Napoleon's triumph at Austerlitz ;
and to maintain that it " prepared " the final
fall of Napoleon is to admit that only land
operations forced him to surrender.

Contrary assertions, of course, continue to
be made ; but they are unsupported by
relevant evidence, and will bear no investiga-
tion. Mr. Bowles thinks it sufficient to
point out (i) that at Bayonne and at Paris
about 1 813 the price of brown sugar had
risen to 65. a pound, and of coffee and tea
in a similar proportion, by reason of the
stoppage of French sea-borne commerce ;
and (2) that in 1810 there was immense
distress and pauperism in France, in order
to prove {3) that it was " by the stoppage of
their sea trade and the severing of their sea
communications, and by the terrible distresses
thus caused, that Napoleon's allies were
detached from him one after the other, and
he himself finally reduced to submission."
Mr. Bowles's eloquence cannot conceal from


any thoughtful reader the complete fallacy of
his entire argument. Most of what he says
of the state of France in 1810 — much
pauperism, much land out of cultivation,
fields cultivated by women, commerce at an
end, enormous prices — had been said of it in
1802, after the Peace of Amiens.^ In that
year the English traveller found the French
people '' sick of the very name of war " ; but
that did not prevent its resumption. Mr.
H. W. Wilson, surveying the whole question
of the " Command of the Sea : 1803 — 15,"
sums up against the theory of conquest by
arrest of sea-borne commerce. '' Metternich
in 1810 speaks of the French people as
' ruined by the entire destruction of their
commerce ' ; but this was an exaggeration,
as France enjoyed internal prosperity and a
considerable export trade by land. Between
1802 (a year of peace) and 181 1, when the
Continental System was at its height, French
exports increased slightly, while British
exports declined." ^ Even as regards sugar,
the beetroot process was well on the way to
success in 1812 ; and the low prices of 181 1
and 18 12 in London were really the results of
a great glut and an extreme depression in
commerce. Further, there was home-grown
chicory then as now.

1 " France in 1802 : Letters of H. Redhead Yorke," edited
by J. A. C. Sykes and R. Davey, 1906, pp. 5, 19, 20, 22, 23,
24, 27, 28, 35, 184, 185.

2 "Camb. Mod. History," Vol. ix., "Napoleon," p. 242.


It is true that, on the other hand, '' the
allies of France suffered lamentably " from
Napoleon's suppression of their commerce
under the Continental system ; but to say
that it was this that detached them from him
and so overthrew him is pure mystification.
In the first place, it was not the supremacy
of Britain at sea that distressed the allies,
but the retaliatory system of Napoleon.
Napoleon's allies were so under compulsion.
Already in 1802 their resentment of the
burdens he had laid upon them was such as
to help to move him to make the Peace of
Amiens ; and even then the terms of peace
were so favourable to France as to turn the
first British joy over the peace news into
indignation. " The treaty was far more
advantageous to France than to England."
Prussia, coerced into the commercial blockade
in 1806, immediately revolted to the British
side, was promptly beaten down by Napoleon,
and, together with Russia, made the Peace of
Tilsit in 1807, losing in territory and popula-
tion vastly more prestige than she could
have lost by stoppage of trade.

The ruin of Napoleon, by his own account,
began with his fatal intervention in Spain in
1808, an act sufficient to "detach" any
allies who lacked other inducement. Austria
at once attacked him anew, counting on the
effect of the absence of his best troops, and
was once more beaten ; and still Prussia and

c.w. b


Russia lay still. Holland, indeed, suffered
so much by the stoppage of trade that she
systematically took to smuggling ; and King
Louis, when definitely commanded by his
brother to stop it, abdicated ; whereupon
Napoleon annexed the kingdom, and the
smuggling was driven further east. It is
true that Napoleon's refusal in 1810 to let
Russia trade with the United States helped
to detach Alexander from him ; but the effect
was clearly produced rather by the political
tyranny than by the commercial hardship ;
and when the quarrel broke out in 181 2,
Napoleon, passing through Dresden, found
the monarchs of Austria, Prussia, Bavaria,
and Saxony, all assembled to do him homage.
Plainly, the signal for the final coalitions
against him was the crushing disaster of his
Russian campaign. Upon the stupendous
losses of that enterprise followed the further
ruinous losses of the terrific German wars
of 1 81 3. Two great armies had been in two
years devoured by famine, capture, and
slaughter ; what were left of valid troops were
pent in fortresses ; and even after that the
mighty captain could achieve, with raw levies,
the wonderful campaign of France in 1814.
He finally fell because France was drained
of fighting men, and surrounded by a vast
coalition with six times her resources. To
say, in the face of all this, that what ruined
him was the high prices of certain goods set


up in France and among his " allies " by the
British command of the sea, is to suggest
the politics of opera bouffe.

This theory of military causation, oddly
enough, is held by Mr. Bowles in conjunction
with the conviction that wars will never
cease. We are asked by him to accept the
two-fold conception that wars will always
occur from time to time, but may always be
stopped by making coffee and sugar enor-
mously dear for one of the belligerents. So
sanguine can your pessimist be of the suasive
powers of his own policy. It is all of a piece
with the simple logical circle in which the
militarist mind loves to revolve : " (i) Wars
are inevitable ; (2) If you repine at the cost
of armaments, remember that large expendi-
ture on these is the way to prevent wars ;
(3) Ergo, by spending money enough to
prepare for inevitable wars you avert war
altogether ; (4) So we must conclude that
war is inevitable." The political philo-
sophers who propound these pleasing
formulas, and who rely on the psycho-
politico-economic doctrine of Mr. Bowles
about coercion through dear sugar, must
try to realise that they really do not dispose
of common - sense criticism, or validate
their own vast assumptions, by calling
their opponents, as does he, " excellent,"
" humane," and " respectable." These
withering epithets recoil upon the naive

h 2


psychologist who uses them ; for Mr. Bowles
is strictly respectable, scrupulously humane,
and doubtless " excellent," whatever the
latter term may mean. What he lacks is
plausibility. His argument about dear sugar
and coffee is fitted chiefly to add to the
gaiety of continental nations, who now
make their own sugar from beetroot, are
well inured (by tariffs) to "coffee substitutes,"
and are vastly less dependent on imported
food and raw materials than we.

In the twentieth century, obviously, Britain
could not hope to force any first-rate
European Power to come to terms by mere
naval successes. Continental importers of
food and raw material could import them
over land, through neighbour States ; and
whatever might be the inconvenience of that,
it would be much less to-day, with modern
railway developments, than it was a hundred
or more years ago. The "force-to-a-finish "
formula, in short, is now practically aban-
doned by English statesmen because it is
seen to be invalid. The question comes to
be whether the Powers which in the past
have demanded the abolition of booty-right
will, now that we are ready to accede, be
ready on their side to come to the agreement
which should naturally coincide — to restrict
their naval armaments on a reciprocal plan.
Italy and the United States have reciprocally
renounced booty-right since 187 1 ; but that



treaty cannot affect the armaments even of
the Powers concerned, since other nations
do not copy it. It is in seeking to bring
about a general international agreement, or
even one between the two principal naval
Powers in Europe, that we realise the full
extent of the harm done by past British
persistence in the old claim.

In the face of that claim, step for step
with the modern expansion of world-
commerce, there has grown up a vast
aggregate of war-fleets, the construction
and maintenance of which constitute vested
interests with immense influence. A halt
which could have been made with compara-
tively little difficulty thirty years ago is now
extremely difficult, because of the mere
acquired momentum of expenditure. Were
the nations invited to-morrow by their
Governments to agree to a concerted restric-
tion of naval armaments, all the sinister
interests concerned would resist. The
general line of argument would be — will be,
when the question comes to the front — that
"the other" Power is laying a trap. Since
Britain must still maintain the larger fleet,
German expansionists will argue that she is
merely throwing Germany off her guard,
intending to resume booty-right as soon as
an opportunity for war occurs. In Britain, as
it is, the common answer to proposals for
the abandonment of booty-right is that "in


war such a treaty will not be respected."
Many Germans will naturally reason in the
same fashion.

Now, this objection would obviously be
valid as against a proposal that any country
should singly begin to curtail its armaments
after a general agreement to give up capture
of commerce. But it has no validity what-
ever against a proportional restriction fol-
lowing on such an agreement. Supposing
any two or more naval Powers to make such
a conditional treaty, and war to follow among

1 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15

Online LibraryHans WehbergCapture in war on land and sea → online text (page 1 of 15)