Vercingetorix’s Army I

‘In Gaul there are factions not only in all the states, and in all the cantons and their divisions, but almost in each family, and of these factions those are the leaders who are considered according to their judgment to possess the greatest influence, upon whose will and determination the management of all affairs and measures depends. And that seems to have been instituted in ancient times with this view, that no one of the common people should be in want of support against one more powerful; for none [of those leaders] suffers his party to be oppressed and defrauded, and if he do otherwise, he has no influence among his party. This same policy exists throughout the whole of Gaul; for all the states are divided into two factions.’

[Caesar, The Gallic War, VI. 11]

When we try to understand the form of Vercingetorix’s army, we are faced with a number of problems. Documentary records provide some descriptions, but not even Caesar describes Vercingetorix’s army in detail. On the whole, the information sources for Gallic society and warfare are problematic: they mainly come from ancient authors who rarely provide us with the type of perspective we require to place the Gauls correctly in context. Often the sources themselves are not first-hand, being repetitions of other authors or uncritical retellings of travellers’ stories. However, Caesar’s Gallic War, along with other ancient sources, provides us with some useful descriptions of the Gallic peoples, although we must be wary of accepting his descriptions in too unquestioning a manner.

Caesar had his own reasons for writing his works: they promoted his image and presented Roman actions positively. In addition, Caesar gained much of his information on the battlefield or in the political arena – hardly the place to discover the nuances of a nation’s culture. And so, like other authors before him, he resorted to using previous works to fill in the gaps of his experience. The physical appearance of ‘Celts’ given by Caesar matches authors such as Strabo, Diodorus Siculus, and Pliny. These all focus on the remarkable aspects of the Celtic appearance that were unusual to Mediterranean eyes: fair skin, hair and blue eyes. The descriptions of Gauls are often derived from those peoples closest to Roman provinces and show little of the range and complexity of the Celtic societies further away. By portraying the Gauls as ‘barbarians’, the Romans could focus attention on certain Gallic attributes for their own purposes, sometimes to contrast how well the Romans behaved, sometimes to show how badly. There was a certain contradiction in this, as the Romans sometimes ridiculed behaviour in the Gauls that the Romans themselves engaged in.

‘These [nobles], when there is occasion and any war occurs (which before Caesar’s arrival was for the most part wont to happen every year …), are all engaged in war. And those of them most distinguished by birth and resources have the greatest number of vassals and dependants about them. They acknowledge this sort of influence and power only.’

[Caesar, The Gallic War, VI. 15]

Vercingetorix’s army was based on the ad hoc accumulation of willing participants organized along tribal lines, in contrast to the Roman army’s formal standing armies with strict military structures. One way to understand how Vercingetorix’s army functioned, therefore, is to understand the structure of wider Gallic society. A problem when attempting to reconstruct Vercingetorix’s army in this context is the fact that Gallic society had little homogeneity. At the time of Caesar’s invasion, Gallic culture was still rooted in prehistoric religious and tribal customs, which differed from tribe to tribe. The role of the ‘king’ is a good example. It sometimes commingled the role of leader with that of high priest. In many tribes, however, attempts were made to keep these two roles separate. Religion still played a dominant role in Gallic life and priests took the role of wise arbitrators seriously, attempting to balance military and civilian leadership by halting the unrestrained power of either. By Caesar’s invasion, kingship in some tribes was starting to be replaced by elected positions, much like the process that had happened previously in classical Mediterranean civilizations. The Aedui (whose capital at Bibracte was used as the focal point of the Alesia Campaign) seem to have been one of the most advanced along this process, although many other tribes were also developing similar mechanisms. At the time of the Alesia Campaign the Aedui had developed a constitution and had an elected magistrate called a vergobret, who functioned in the role of king. Separate from this civilian magistracy there was also a growing military magistracy. In charge of these was a military chieftain – a role that separated the military and political functions of the leaders, thus preventing the concentration of power in a single person’s hands. A larger group formed solely from the nobility of the villages formed a ‘senate’ that would decide the grander fate of the tribe as a whole, such as whether it went to war or the election of magistrates. Nobles tended to come from kin groups with a long history of noble or renowned ancestors and marriage between these noble families helped maintain their status. Vercingetorix’s attempt to unify Gaul was therefore seen by some Gauls as an attempt to circumvent the new structures and revive a system of hereditary kings that would place him foremost.

‘the commonality is held almost in the condition of slaves, and dares to undertake nothing of itself and is admitted to no deliberation. The greater part, when they are pressed either by debt, or the large amount of their tributes, or the oppression of the more powerful, give themselves up in vassalage to the nobles, who possess over them the same rights without exception as masters over their slaves.’

[Caesar, The Gallic War, VI. 13]

Although social divisions were clearly demarcated, the struggle for power within these groups was inevitable. Even within noble families, members would compete with each other for support in order to gain supremacy. However, Gallic clientage was where the real social power was held and this was based on how many supporters an individual could accumulate. This system enabled wealthy chieftains to extend their control over large numbers of followers with little regard to social standing, tribal boundaries or definitions. Honour was a major feature of this relationship and this meant commoners had to be protected by their leaders. If they failed, they lost their honour and also their clients. This was a mutually beneficial system whereby wealthy individuals would protect their ‘clients’ and, in return, would be supported by them. Caesar makes note of this system, describing it as an ancient Gallic custom, but it was also very similar to Roman practice. So long as a leader could guarantee support and protection to his clients he would be maintained as leader. These social distinctions exhibited in the political system were apparent in the military system. At Alesia, the tribal leaders used this relationship to gather bands of warriors, calling upon those who owed them allegiance.

The Gallic tribes, like all ‘Celtic’ peoples, had a society based on warrior ideals. War was not only seen as destructive, but also productive. The necessary hierarchies required for military combat reinforced the social ties and structures they were formed from. In order to fight, a Gaul had to have achieved puberty and be wealthy enough to own his own arms. This mechanism guaranteed that each warrior had a stake in the successful outcome of the battle. At the top of the social pyramid was the military chieftain, a post that was annually elected and maintained only a controlling position over the ‘armed council’ that decided matters of warfare. These were made up of the nobility, who held the most prestigious place in battle, due in part to their ability to furnish themselves with both horse and complete panoply of the best quality armour. At the bottom were various levels of commoners who were mainly consigned to the ranks of the infantry, although they were not confined to that status – the possibility was always open to them to improve their position. In times of social upheaval it was not unknown for commoners to be a central part of societal transformation. Commoners retained their rights as freemen, whether they were well off and landed or part of the underclass. On the other hand, slaves were non-citizens with no rights. Often either captured or bought outsiders, their role was servile. Although their position could be changed and their lowly status was not always passed on to their offspring, only in extremis were slaves allowed to fight.

At the outset of hostilities the council called together an assembly of all the warriors, usually at a central place in the tribal region. During the Alesia Campaign, the hill fort at Bibracte was used as the focal centre, not only for the Aedui tribe, but also for the whole of the rebellious tribes of Gaul. With all of the available warriors armed and drawn together, the armed council could assess the state of readiness of the army.

These events could also be an opportunity for intertribal competition through the display of prowess and equipment, showing their readiness and willingness for war. Weapons were not only used for war but also could signify an individual’s status within society. The type of weapon a warrior had and how elaborate or decorated it was influenced how others interacted with him.

‘The nation of all the Gauls is extremely devoted to superstitious rites; and on that account they … who are engaged in battles and dangers, either sacrifice men as victims, or vow that they will sacrifice them, and employ the Druids as the performers of those sacrifices; because they think that unless the life of a man be offered for the life of another man the mind of the immortal gods cannot be rendered propitious, and they have sacrifices of that kind ordained for national purposes.’

[Caesar, The Gallic War, VI. 16]

Before battle it was not uncommon for rites and rituals to be performed and augurs to divine the fate of the battle. The Gauls had a range of gods forming an organized system of belief, depending on tribal preference. Many of the Gallic gods were directly associated with sky gods, the war god being one of the greatest. Usually the war god also had a male and female appearance and these often had positive and negative characteristics, which manifested as constructive or destructive traits. By the Roman invasion of 58BC, the Roman and Gallic gods were very similar in general terms, showing something of their shared Indo-European origins. After the assimilation of Gaul into the Roman Empire, these shared origins led to the relatively easy incorporation of the Gallic gods within the Roman pantheon.

‘Mars presides over wars. To him when they have determined to engage in battle, they commonly vow those things they shall take in war. When they have conquered, they sacrifice whatever captured animals may have survived the conflict, and collect the other things into one place. In many states you may see piles of these things heaped up in their consecrated spots; nor does it often happen that any one, disregarding the sanctity of the case, dares either to secrete in his house things captured, or take away those deposited; and the most severe punishment, with torture, has been established for such a deed.’

[Caesar, The Gallic War, VI. 17]

Particularly common war gods were Teuates, Esus and Taranis; these gods usually had a physical manifestation, particularly on the battlefield.

War gods also tended to be bloodthirsty and some writers suggest that they were only appeased with human sacrifice. Examples of such sacrifices were the drowning of a man in a tub to appease Teuates, hanging a man from a tree and pulling him to pieces to encourage Esus and encasing several people in a hollow tree and burning them to satisfy Taranis. Rites attributed to war gods often focused on the ritual deposition of war booty and sacrifice of captives.

‘According to their natural cruelty, they are impious in the worship of their gods; for malefactors, after that they have been kept close prisoners five years together, they impale upon stakes, in honour to the gods, and then, with many other victims, upon a vast pile of wood, they offer them up as a burnt sacrifice to their deities. In like manner they use their captives also, as sacrifices to the gods. Some of them cut the throats, burn, or otherwise destroy both men and beasts that they have taken in time of war.’

[Diodorus Siculus, Historical Library, II]


Vercingetorix’s Army II

Gallic gods were worshipped in religious sanctuaries often cut off from the outside world by large walls and ditches filled with ritual offerings. At Beauvais and Amiens, enclosures have been found with 30–50m-long sides surrounded by palisades, ditches and banks. A wooden temple in the centre of the enclosure was decorated with paintings, sculptures and weapons. Caesar and Livy both suggest that temples were used to display human and animal trophies of war until they decomposed and then were ritually destroyed in enclosure ditches. Animal bone and human sacrifice have also been discovered in these enclosure ditches. One of the largest was at Ribemont-sur-Ancre in the Somme, where remnants of over a thousand individuals aged between fifteen and twenty years old were found. They were probably sacrificed, possibly to war gods, and their bones were stacked criss-cross in a pile.

‘They [the druids] wish to inculcate this as one of their leading tenets, that souls do not become extinct, but pass after death from one body to another, and they think that men by this tenet are in a great degree excited to valour, the fear of death being disregarded.’

[Caesar, The Gallic War, VI. 14]

This treatment was not confined to sacrificial victims. Warriors also were given sacrificial treatment. Community ossuaries are known, where dismembered bodies were laid on the ground and skulls detached and treated ritually. These practices may be connected with cult practices and much of the skeletons show evidence of wounds that do not suggest a natural death. One ancient author, Nicander of Colophon, noted that the Celts practised a form of divination at tombs of dead warriors. In the south of France, a whole range of stone sculptures from sanctuaries reveals that the development of a hero cult was widespread in the centuries before the Roman invasion. Entremont, Roquepertuse and Glanum, all in Provence, are some of the best known Celtic sanctuaries in the world, due mainly to the cult of the head found at these places. Headhunting seems to have occupied a curious place in Gallic religion, and commonly occurs in art as carved stone severed heads with half closed eyes. There are historic accounts of how Gauls collected human heads and hung them from their horse’s necks or nailed them up as trophies. An explanation has yet to be found for the practice, although the cult must be linked with the concept of the spirit residing in the head and may even be linked to the ritual wearing of a torc necklace.

‘Their hair was of gold, their clothing was of gold and light stripes brightened their cloaks. Their milk-white necks had gold collars around them, a pair of Alpine spears glinted in each warrior’s hands, and their bodies were protected by tall shields.’

[Virgil, Aeneid, VIII. 659–62]

Certain warriors would wear chunky neck rings called torcs, usually made of gold or bronze and very rarely of silver, and these would reflect the noble status of the individual. Torcs represented the epitome of the Celtic craftsman’s skill and are well represented in Gallic and Classical art. After the Gallic Wars, many torcs were taken from the defeated warriors. In the Roman military torcs came to be used as a symbol of rank and achievement, finally being incorporated into the military decorations of the Roman army. Clearly the torc was a significant part of the Gallic warrior’s dress. So important, in fact, that some Gallic warriors wore only the torc. For religious reasons these warriors, called gaesatae, went to war naked. However, it is unlikely gaesatae were present at Alesia because Caesar would have mentioned them given their specific religious connections and unusual appearance.

‘For they [the Gauls] were most excellent fighters on horseback, and were thought to be specially superior as such …’

[Plutarch, The Parallel Lives, 6]

In ancient sources the Gauls were famed for their excellence as cavalry and the quality of their horses. It is likely that they carried small shields, in either geometric shapes or simply round. Although the cavalry wore no clothing specific to their rank, we can assume that their higher status meant that their equipment was of better quality. Excavation at Alesia has revealed the advanced nature of Gallic horsemanship. Two types of horse bit were found, one a simple snaffle-bit of a common form used across Europe at the time. The other, a complex curb bit, is a form invented by the Celts only a hundred years before the Battle of Alesia and would have given the rider complete command of the horse with one hand. The Gauls were also credited with inventing spurs, although of the six spurs originally discovered at Alesia only two remain, one of iron and one of bronze. The Gauls were also notable for having developed an ingenious form of saddle, one reason for their renowned cavalry skills. Unfortunately no saddle remains have been discovered at Alesia, but contemporary examples show they had four pommels that held the rider on the horse without the need for stirrups.

‘The Gauls are tall, with moist white flesh; their hair is not only naturally blond, but they also make artificial efforts to lighten its colour by washing it frequently in lime water. They pull it back from the top of the head to the nape of the neck … thanks to this treatment their hair thickens until it is just like a horse’s mane. Some shave their beards, others let them grow moderately; nobles keep their cheeks clean shaven but let their moustaches grow long until they cover their mouths … they wear amazing clothes: tunics dyed in every colour and trousers that they call bracae [breeches]. Their pinstriped clothes in winter and light material in summer, decorated with small, densely packed, multicoloured squares.’

[Diodorus Siculus, World History, V. 28. 30]

This description from a Roman source gives a general likeness of the Gallic men. Some of these characteristic features are mentioned by other authors and so are likely to be applicable to Vercingetorix’s army as a whole. Long hair seems to feature strongly, often as a wild swept-back mane or lime washed and drawn into a horse-like mane. Likewise, with this long hair comes a long curving moustache, often covering the mouth and sometimes with a small beard. In the main, the Gallic warrior’s dress was similar to peoples across northern Europe at the time, consisting of tight breeches with a long shirt with sleeves, and slits on the sides to help movement. Light cloaks were also worn, sometimes fastened by bronze brooches with elaborate decoration and coral or enamel inlay. Clothing was usually manufactured from woven wool and when different dyed wools were used this would produce attractive multicoloured plaid or striped patterns. This could be enhanced with embroidery and belts with gold and silver ornamentation. In wartime the wealthier members of Gallic society would have worn coats of mail. Unfortunately, not even the smallest scrap of mail has been recovered from Alesia, although a number of mail coat fasteners have been recovered, confirming they were in use, no doubt this was because of their high value.

‘Meanwhile the King of the Gauls espied him, and judging from his insignia that he was the commander, rode far out in front of the rest and confronted him, shouting challenges and brandishing his spear. His stature exceeded that of the other Gauls, and he was conspicuous for a suit of armour which was set off with gold and silver and bright colours and all sorts of embroideries; it gleamed like lightning.’

[Plutarch, The Parallel Lives 7]

Weapons found at Alesia provide us with excellent examples of late La Tène (first century BC) metalwork. Unfortunately, the location of the weapons recovered from Alesia were not recorded to modern standards, being simple lists attributed to ditches without any complex stratigraphic analysis. However, on the basis of coin dates, from more recent excavation it has been shown that these ditches are contemporary with the Battle of Alesia. Regrettably, only the ironwork from the Gallic warrior’s assemblage of equipment survives, as the wood and leather has long since decomposed in the moist soils. Nonetheless, taken as a whole, the weapons provide a useful cross-section of the iron weapons used at Alesia.

‘These are the creatures who assail you with such terrible shouts in battle, and clash their arms and shake their long swords and toss their hair.’

[Appian, History of Rome: Gallic Wars]

The ideal Gallic warriors were, above all, swordsmen. Their swords were long, often close to a metre in length, and were not used for thrusting but for a slashing style of fighting. The ferocity of these assaults meant that Roman legionaries had to be trained to overcome the fear that these wild charges created. By the late La Tène period swords were becoming shorter than they had been in the past, but swords as long as 0.75m were common. These longer blades have been attributed to the cavalry, but this is not necessarily the case as earlier Gallic swords had much longer blades. The Gallic peoples liked elaborate metalwork, and so swords and scabbards have been found with ornate patterned and inlaid designs. At Alesia, twenty-one swords have been found, in some cases still in their original sheaths. In general, these swords are typical of other European examples from the late La Tène period. The swords have blades with either rounded or pointed tips, with the wider examples having acid-etched decorations on them. Examples of sheaths show they originally had oval U-shaped fittings on one side, for attachment via straps to the belt. There they would be worn on the right hip. These belts could be made of linked iron rings or loops, but more commonly would be simple leather straps. Sword handles were wooden and so now are lost, but their bent W-shaped guards still occur, usually made of iron, but sometimes made of bronze. The parts of twenty-one swords found at Alesia present a broad spectrum of sword evolution, indicating they were in use over a long period of time, perhaps representing their prior use as heirlooms or the desperate use of any weapon available, even if it was old and damaged. Remarkably, two more unusual types of sword were uncovered deliberately intertwined with a sword sheath and buried in a ditch. This behaviour hints at possible ritualistic practices that were carried out after the battle, the ditches of the circumvallation perhaps being seen in Gallic eyes as enclosure ditches around the sanctuary of Alesia, a place where so many Gauls had sacrificed themselves.

‘[The Gauls] … wear bronze helmets with large projecting figures which give the wearer the appearance of enormous size. In some cases horns are attached so as to form one piece, in others foreparts of birds or quadrupeds worked in relief.’

[Diodorus Siculus, History, 30.2]

Gallic helmets came in a variety of forms, from simple bronze bowls to elaborately decorated tall bronze helmets with coloured inlays on them. The more simple helmets were plain bronze bowls with short protruding neck guards, called ‘Montefortino’ or ‘Coolus’ types, after the place of their original identification. More elaborate versions had decorative edges and domes and cheek pieces decorated with multiple circular bosses. Sometimes the wealthiest individuals would have taller pointed domes to their helmets, enhanced with pink coral or red enamel inlays, ornately decorated horns, statuettes or horsehair plumes. None of these more elaborate helmets were discovered at Alesia, presumably because such expensive items would only be attainable by a few commanders and as such would be too valuable for Roman soldiers to leave behind. A further type of helmet was developed in the late La Tène period, which was made of iron. This ‘Agen-Port’ form of helmet became the forerunner to the imperial Gallic helmet that was popular in the Roman army for the next 200 years. Agen-Port helmets had corrugated reinforcements and wide strengthening brims. The Gallic helmets found at Alesia are of a very similar form that was widespread in Gaul. Indeed, their importance is such that they were named the ‘Alesia’ type. The inner domes of the helmets were discovered to have the remains of organic materials still adhering to their sides, indicating that leather or wool was used to pad them out. Twenty cheek pieces, some highly elaborate, suggest that some of the helmets were richly decorated and probably belonged to noble warriors. Only tribal chiefs and cavalrymen are likely to have worn these helmets.

‘[The Cimbri] … wore helmets, made to resemble the heads and jaws of wild beasts, and other strange shapes, and heightening these with plumes of feathers, they made themselves appear taller than they were. They had breastplates of iron, and white glittering shields; and for their offensive arms, every one had two darts, and when they came hand to hand, they used large and heavy swords.’

[Plutarch, Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans, 25]

Sculptural and archaeological evidence points to the Gauls using long wooden shields about one-half to three-quarters the length of the body. These could be oval, round or geometric in shape, with iron bosses covering the handgrip, and, more rarely, iron edging strips. Parts of shields that have been discovered suggest they were made of a tough wood like oak, about 1.2m long and 1.2cm thick at the centre, with the addition of a thick wooden spine. Roman shields of this type date to about 300 years before the first Gallic examples, so it is likely that the Gauls adopted the shield form after their invasion of Italy in the fifth century BC. It is thought that in rare cases the fronts of Gallic shields were decorated in elaborately decorated bronze sheet with inlays. Although nothing like this has been found at Alesia, this is no surprise, as richly decorated shields would have been removed as booty. Most Gallic shields of the period had either round or ‘butterfly’ bosses, made from a single piece of beaten iron. Seventeen dome-shaped shield bosses were discovered at Alesia, all conforming to these descriptions. Although the wood does not survive, the iron shield bosses, nails, edging strips and ornamentation have been discovered. The bosses are typically Gallic, occurring in a wide circular form with large attachment nails and a butterfly form with small nails. We have no evidence of the colours that shields were painted, but sculptures hint they were very ornate, which seem to match the Gallic love of intricate design as manifest in their beautiful metalwork.

‘The spears of the Gauls were not like javelins, but what the Romans called pila, four-sided, part wood and part iron, and not hard except at the pointed end.’

[Appian, History of Rome: Gallic Wars, 1]

Although the Gallic warrior is described by the ancient sources as predominantly a swordsman, for the poorer Gallic warrior the most fundamental part of his equipment was his spear. A warrior would be able to obtain a spear before a shield, sword or helmet. Spears tend to be split between the heavier forms and lighter throwing spears or javelins. The larger spears can range up to 2.5m long, the heads being almost 0.5m alone. Smaller spears are assumed to be throwing javelins. Almost 400 fragments of weapons have been found at Alesia, 140 of them being javelins and 180 being spears. The huge number of missile weapons discovered suggests that this form was the predominant weapon used at Alesia. Often the ends are bent and the edges are damaged by cut marks. Similarities in the manufacture of these weapons mean they could be Gallic, but they could also be Roman or German in origin. This is particularly the case with the leaf-shaped blades that are 15cm to 30cm in length. The larger acid-etched and wavy bladed spears are probably Gallic, although some of these may also be German in origin. The identifiably Gallic spears are of the long thrusting type, with a heavy median vein for strength. The concave section of the blades at the tip, along with many traces of cut marks, indicate that these weapons were used for thrusting as well as cutting. The majority of these larger blades have some form of acid etching, either circles, triangles, zigzags or lattice designs. With these decorated spearheads, comes a series of wavy edged spears, which would inflict particularly grievous wounds. Some spears also have cross guards towards their sockets. These guards led excavators working for Napoleon III to think of them as small stabbing swords. It is likely, however, that the cross guard was part of the offensive use of the spear, enabling a shield to be pulled down before the spear was thrust into its victim. As such, these are very similar to medieval spears of similar form. Pila have also been found at Alesia, and although usually attributed to Romans, some authors have suggested that they could also be of Gallic origin, as a few examples have been discovered in Gallic oppida. This is not too far-fetched, as it is known that the Germans at the time used a similar type of weapon, and so the Gauls may also have been employing related forms. The truth is that in a time of need, all forms of weaponry, whether indigenous or foreign, were put to use.

The Gauls were not famed for their archery but Caesar mentions Vercingetorix found archers for his army. Presumably these archers were made up from the lower classes of Gallic society, although their presence in the battle played a more significant role than this rank would suggest. More than forty examples of arrowheads have been recovered from Alesia, with either one or two barbs, and many can be paralleled by examples coming from other Gallic oppida. It is clear that the Gallic army also contained bands of slingers, but as yet evidence of their presence at Alesia is yet to come to light. This may be because their shot was usually simple rounded stones and so their presence elsewhere has usually only been confirmed by the occurrence of large piles of such material.

Antisubmarine War WWI – Mediterranean 1916-17

Kaba departing Ryojun, 1925. She was deployed in the Mediterranean in WWI.

Japanese cruiser Akashi in drydock. Rear-Admiral Kōzō Satō commanded the “Second Special Squadron” with Akashi as flagship with the 10th and 11th Destroyer Units (eight destroyers) based at Malta from 13 April 1917. He was reinforced by the 15th Destroyer Unit with four more destroyers from 1 June 1917 to carry out on direct escort duties for Allied troop transports in the Mediterranean.

The Allies had abandoned exclusive use of patrolled routes in the Mediterranean shortly before the Germans adopted unrestricted submarine warfare. The Germans declared the great majority of the Mediterranean a Sperrgebiet (prohibited area) except for the extreme western portion off Spain, including the Balearics, and initially, the 20-mile-wide corridor to Greek waters. The Austrians promised to assist the Germans outside of the Adriatic. Their smaller submarines as they became available would now operate against Allied shipping between Malta and Cerigo. In the early part of 1917, the situation in the Mediterranean was deceptively favorable to the Allies, for in January the greater part of the Mediterranean U-boat flotilla was under repair and refit at Pola and Cattaro after the heavy demands of 1916. In January sinkings fell to 78,541 tons, only 24 percent of the total of 328,391 tons sunk in all theaters. It was the lull before the storm, for by 10 February the Germans had 10 U-boats at sea in the Mediterranean, along with an Austrian submarine, and that month submarines sank 105,670 tons of shipping. This, however, represented only 20.3 percent of the 520,412 tons sunk in all theaters, for with the introduction of unrestricted submarine warfare, the Mediterranean percentage of total sinkings inevitably declined. The successes of the Mediterranean U-boat flotilla declined again in March to 61,917 tons, just under 11 percent of the total of 564,497 tons in all theaters. April 1917 turned into a record month for the Mediterranean flotilla, just as it was a record month for U-boats in all theaters. The Germans had 14 U-boats at sea at the beginning of the month, joined by 2 Austrians. They sank in the Mediterranean 254,911 tons (3,724 tons by submarine-laid mines), or 29.6 percent of the 860,334 tons sunk in all theaters. The Austrians contributed another 23,037 tons.

The Admiralty were so alarmed by the heavy losses along the coast of Algeria, which they naturally attributed to the ineffectiveness of French patrols, that they ordered British shipping to abandon the coastal route in favor of hugging the Spanish coast from Gibraltar to Cape San Antonio and then use dispersed routes to Malta. The French, however, complained that they were using more than eighty patrol craft of all sorts on their patrolled routes in the western Mediterranean whereas the British were escorting all British troopships or ships with valuable cargoes and following routes entirely different from the French. Furthermore, the French charged that the British used their destroyers to escort troopships, leaving trawlers on the patrolled routes through British zones. These trawlers often lacked wireless receivers and could not be counted upon to divert ships from threatened areas. Admiral Gauchet, now French commander in chief, described the situation on the Malta-Cerigo route as “every man for himself.”

Allied merchant ships deliberately made use of Spanish territorial waters. This proved to be correct, if not very heroic, and it naturally added to the length and duration of a voyage. German U-boat commanders were ordered to observe the Spanish 3-mile limit, and, in fact, to avoid mistakes they were normally to observe a 4-mile limit unless there was a particularly valuable target in the fourth mile and they were quite sure of their position. On the whole, German U-boat commanders respected Spanish territorial waters and the Allies made extensive use of them. The Allies suspected the Germans were violating them, but careful analysis of sinkings generally established that the ships had strayed out of those waters when they were sunk. It was not hard to do; navigation so close to the coast could be difficult and hazardous, and merchant ship captains often were inclined to take a shortcut across the curve of a bay, which made them legitimate targets for the Germans. U-boat commanders were not angels; they obviously found more than enough targets in the Mediterranean without having to violate Spanish waters.

The Mediterranean situation could not be ignored by the Allied leaders by the spring of 1917. In early April General Sir William Robertson, chief of the imperial general staff, asked Jellicoe about a joint statement from the British naval leaders as to what reductions at Salonika would be necessary if the British were to continue the war in 1918. Jellicoe was a strong partisan of abandoning the Salonika expedition because of the strain on shipping and naval resources to support it. He recommended the immediate reduction or withdrawal of the British contingent, and he advocated a complete withdrawal if the cabinet expected the war to continue beyond 1917. This would then allow the British to recover a number of patrol craft for safeguarding commerce in home waters, free a large amount of shipping to build up a reserve of food and supply the French and Italians with coal and other necessities, and permit the British to give better protection to the sea communications with the army in Egypt. The French could be expected to strongly oppose what in their eyes was a British attempt to abandon the Salonika expedition, where France was preponderant, in favor of the pursuit of imperial gains in Palestine. An Allied conference with the Italians at St. Jean de Maurienne on 19 April took no decision on Jellicoe’s proposal, and one is inclined to believe that if the Allies did not succeed in mastering the submarine danger the issue was likely to be moot. It would then be a question of whether or not the British could continue the war.

The conflicting policies in the Mediterranean had made it obvious that another international conference was necessary. The Corfu conference took place during the crisis of the naval war. It was held in Gauchet’s flagship Provence at Corfu 28 April to 1 May. The Allies unanimously decided they would not return to the discredited system of patrolled routes created at Malta in 1916. They would navigate only by night and along coastal routes whenever possible, and those coastal routes would be patrolled along with certain strategic straits. The conference made a major change in procedure: on routes that ran far from the coast, ships would be protected by convoys and escorts following dispersed routes, that is, routes chosen by a routing officer at the port of departure according to the circumstances of the moment.

The Corfu conference had really created a hybrid system rather than one of general convoys or ships sailing independently. All ships entering the Mediterranean were now required to stop at Gibraltar for instructions and formation into convoys before proceeding to Oran, although the authorities sometimes allowed ships to navigate independently without escort if there was no submarine danger. Ships followed the patrolled coastal route between Oran and Bizerte, but they were not necessarily escorted in those waters. Ships were formed into convoys again at Bizerte for the remainder of their voyage eastward. Ships bound from Gibraltar to Marseille or Genoa continued to follow Spanish coastal waters as long as the Germans respected them.

The most important decision of the Corfu conference as far as its implications for the future were concerned was the establishment of a “Direction Générale” at Malta, which was composed of officers delegated by the different navies and was charged with the direction of everything concerning transport routes and their protection. The idea was proposed by Admiral Gauchet, but the British managed to turn it to their own advantage, for they proposed that, without modifying the present system of a French commander in chief for all the Mediterranean, all the British naval forces be placed under a single commander. The British commander in chief would have an officer of flag rank charged with protecting transport routes who would be the British representative on the Direction Générale that Gauchet had proposed. The effect of this would be to give the British the predominant role in the antisubmarine campaign. Gauchet remained the theoretical commander in chief with the largest number of dreadnoughts, seemingly preoccupied with preparing for that major naval encounter with the Austrian fleet.

The French and the Italians had by far the preponderance in capital ships, but the real action in the Mediterranean by this date was the antisubmarine war, and here the balance had quietly swung decisively toward the British. In May 1917 the total of patrol vessels of all sorts in the Mediterranean, from destroyers to sloops, from trawlers to small torpedo boats, was: British, 429; French, 302; Italian, 119; and Japanese, 8. The British had really learned that the Mediterranean was too important to be left to the French. British interests, whether they were shipping or overseas expeditions, were extensive, and they could not rely on others who, with the best will in the world, were apt to lack the resources to do the job. The British were forced to assume the leading part in the antisubmarine war.

The Japanese contribution needs a word of explanation. The British had long been anxious for Japanese assistance. The Japanese had been reluctant to send forces to European waters, although they had, as we have seen, provided considerable assistance in the opening months of the war and later in the search for the German raiders. In mid-April Rear Admiral Kozo Sato arrived at Malta with the Tenth and Eleventh Japanese destroyer flotillas, eight 650-ton Kaba class. Sato flew his flag in the cruiser Akashi, which served as headquarters ship. In August 1917 the Fifteenth Flotilla arrived with four of the new 850-ton Momo class and the armored cruiser Idzumo, which relieved the Akashi. The Japanese were nominally independent, but actually carried out whatever orders they received from the British commander in chief at Malta. The Japanese in fact worked very closely with the British, particularly in escorting troopships. They soon gained an excellent reputation. Their ships were new and well-handled, and the British paid them the ultimate compliment by turning over two of their own H-class destroyers to be renamed and manned by Japanese crews for the duration of the war. This Japanese contribution of fourteen destroyers at a critical moment in the war against submarines has been largely forgotten, but under the circumstances it was far from negligible.

The decisions of the Corfu conference were only recommendations; they naturally had to be accepted by the respective governments. The Admiralty, however, acted fairly quickly, and the Malta-Alexandria convoy was introduced on 22 May with four ships escorted by four trawlers. It proved a success; only two ships were lost between 22 May and 16 July. The French on 18 June formally established a special directorate for the submarine war. The Direction générale de la guerre sous-marine was to a large extent the result of pressure from the French parliament, where there were strong suspicions that the French naval staff had been too tradition-bound and had not paid enough attention to submarine warfare.

Admiral the Honorable Sir Somerset Gough-Calthorpe, second son of the seventh Baron Calthorpe, was appointed British Mediterranean commander in chief. He had formerly commanded the Second Cruiser Squadron and had been second sea lord in 1916. Calthorpe was hardly one of the household names of the war and was deceptively mild mannered. He apparently had a certain amount of difficulty getting his authority accepted by the other commands, but he grew in assurance as time went on. He also possessed good judgment, although he was unfortunately somewhat backward about realizing the value of convoys. At the end of the war he was destined to play a considerable role in negotiating the armistice with the Turks and subsequently became high commissioner in Turkey and the Black Sea. One of his staff officers considered him a man who never sought greatness but had it thrust on him.

The introduction of convoys into the Mediterranean proved difficult. The route structure was complex and the entire Mediterranean was considered a danger area, unlike the situation in the Atlantic where only about 350 miles required special protection for convoys. The British Isles naturally received priority in the allocation of escorts, and the Admiralty added to their own difficulties by insisting that convoys must remain small. There was also the problem of dealing with Allies, notably the Italians. The Italians proved extremely recalcitrant about contributing destroyers and escorts to the common cause, that is, convoys from Gibraltar, and Calthorpe really had no authority over their antisubmarine operations. The Italians insisted they were the only one of the Allies close to the enemy battle fleet, for Pola was only a few hours steaming distance from Venice. They therefore had to retain a significant destroyer force for the protection of Venice and needed their other antisubmarine forces for the protection of Italian traffic in the Tyrrhenian or on the routes to and from Albania and Libya.

French Airpower 1918 Part I

World War One Aviation: French Two-Seaters 1918

World War One Aviation: French Fighters 1917

World War One Aviation: French Experimental Aircraft

World War One Aviation: French Bombers

In the 14 February La Guerre aérienne, former undersecretary of air Daniel Vincent advocated forming a doctrine for aviation, a “chain linking the past to the future.” Early in the war, he recalled, aviation had lacked organization and doctrine, and had thus fallen into the excessive individualism of “sporting” aviation, with “as many principles as chiefs.” At GQG Gen. Henri Pétain and Gen. Maurice Duval planned for the French air service to achieve a new level of organization, doctrine, and operations in 1918. With sufficient resources to form larger formations, it planned to annihilate enemy aviation and gain definitive aerial mastery in tactical offensive operations. GQG’s 11 February and 2 March orders prescribed aviation’s principal role to be the destruction of enemy aviation.

Pétain, emphasizing the importance of concentrating aerial forces, ordered the formation of combat and day- and night-bomber wings. The day bomber, however, with its relatively small bomb load, would serve mainly to force enemy aviation into battle with its fighter escort. Pétain wanted to wield aviation en masse against the coming German attack. “The action of the cannon will be extended by all disposable aviation,” he advised on 15 February. “With bombs and machine guns our planes will set upon columns in march, convoys, bivouacs, and parks day and night. . . . Army group commandants will assure the concentration of aeronautical means necessary to demoralize troops destined to lead and feed the attack.” Massive, concentrated, and precise bombing attacks on carefully selected military and industrial targets behind the front would aim primarily at material destruction, although GQG expected the attacks on troops to affect principally their morale. In the 2 March directive to combat aviation, Pétain advised that its concentrated assault on enemy aviation to secure aerial superiority and mobility over the battlefield would be one of the land operations’ conditions of success. Pétain’s air chief, General Duval, would serve under the direct orders of the general commanding the armies. By March GQG had thus formulated the doctrine and command arrangement for using mass aviation in future battles.

In late February French military intelligence noted a German aviation buildup in preparation for the coming battle. The French air service, which had increased aircraft supply 17 percent between November 1917 and March 1918, was equal to German aviation by itself. Since October 1917 the French had forced fighter and bomber production at a feverish pace, and by the beginning of the German offensive on 21 March they had 11 fighter groups, 5 day-bomber groups, and 7 night-bomber groups. Compared to the September 1917 2,870-plane program and the October 4,000-plane program, on 1 April the army had 2,750 planes at the front (1,400 observation and 1,350 combat planes), while the aviation reserve had 581 planes on 21 March. The fighter and day-bomber wings were equipped with Spad 7s and Spad 13s and Breguets, a combination that would simplify production, repair, and training.

In the March 1918 battle, Pétain used airplanes to deter the German offensive. In constant operations over the battle zone between 21 March and 12 June, 400 bombers dropped 1,200 tons of bombs, over 200 tons greater than in 1916 and 1917 operations combined. During the German assault from 21 to 31 March, fighter aviation supported the ground forces and did not seek air combat. From 1 April to 14 May, General Duval emphasized the aerial battle and would not let fighter reserves be used for the observation planes’ immediate protection. The wings entered action on 2 April, when a fighter wing and a bomber wing, named after their chiefs Philippe Féquant and Victor Ménard, formed a combat group. In the raids on the attacking German army, coordinating fighter escort with the bombers proved difficult, and Féquant’s fighters sometimes seemed disinterested in bomber escort. By 5 April complaints from the armies reminiscent of the 1916 and 1917 offensive abounded. The air reserve’s liaison with the armies lessened; sweeps behind enemy lines did not help the front; patrols were too high to attack low flying enemy aircraft and unable to protect reconnaissance airplanes near the lines.

The GQG’s next organizational measure, which marked a significant milestone in the concentration of French aviation, was forming the autonomous Aerial Division (Division aérienne) under General Duval on 14 May. The division was not a strategic arm, as GQG considered strategic aviation premature, but rather a tactical one. It included all the day bombers and half the fighters, the other half going to the armies. For bomber escort the division gradually replaced single-seaters with heavily armored and armed three-seat twin-engine Caudron R11s or Breguets, and it shortened the distance of the raids when German Fokker D7 fighters appeared. Ultimately, on 15 June the first and second aerial brigades were formed, the first under the command of Major de Goÿs, who had escaped from Germany after more than two years of imprisonment, the second under Féquant.

The Aerial Division’s critics, such as A. P. Voisin, judged that the airplane still lacked the offensive capacity to be more than an auxiliary to the ground forces. The division did not wreak much destruction on its land targets, while the Germans did not necessarily challenge the fighters. In general, the Aerial Division could not simultaneously fulfill the two contradictory demands of a combined fighter and bomber offensive and an air reserve to reinforce the armies’ air units. Voisin’s guiding assumption remained that the air arm serve as the army’s immediate auxiliary protecting army cooperation planes, while Pétain and Duval intended the Aerial Division for wider-ranging duties in support of the army.

Between the spring and summer the air arm and, more crucially, the proportion of its newer-model aircraft, grew. Sen. Gaston Menier, visiting Féquant’s second group at the front on 23 April, detected improvements since 1917: fewer unusable planes, reinforced frames and better motor-mount attachments that decreased the Spad’s engine vibrations, and better-trained pilots. On 25 April, however, Pétain noted that the implementation of the 5 April 1917 2,870-plane was not yet completed, while the 8 October 1917 4,000-plane program had not yet begun. He still needed more new fighters and observation planes, as Sopwiths and ARs still served in frontline squadrons. By the summer these circumstances improved. In April the air arm had 797 fighters, 1,605 artillery and army corps planes, and 413 bombers; in July it had 1,090 fighters, 1,733 artillery and army corps planes, and 438 bombers. The force in April comprised 1,723 modern and 1,092 obsolescent types, and in July it had 2,827 new types and 434 old models, an increase in modern types from 61 to 87 percent.

As the French army took the offensive that summer, in the 12 July Directive number 5 the air arm described its principles of attack, which emphasized simplicity, audacity, and rapidity to gain tactical surprise. After secret preparations, the preliminary artillery and bomber strikes would be as brief and violent as possible to enable tanks to rupture enemy lines. Aviation would thus assure aerial superiority. This document also emphasized the importance of air-artillery cooperation, but did not envisage liaison between tanks and airplanes. When Allied commander Gen. Ferdinand Foch stated the necessity for better communication between the Aerial Division and the army on 23 July, Duval blamed inadequate liaison on the army commanders, who had made no effort to improve communication with the division’s small staff, gave his officers no information, and did not respond to his liaison efforts. The army commanders did not understand the division’s purpose, General Duval concluded, and viewed it merely as a reservoir of reinforcements to protect their observation planes, rather than understanding its offensive mission in connection with the armies. General Duval believed that the army commanders wanted to control the division and use it to protect their observation planes. Army commanders also ignored the division’s efforts. In July Gen. Charles Mangin complained to a visiting parliamentary deputy about the insufficient use of bombers during the intensive bombardment of battlefield targets. Despite the criticisms and problems, the Aerial Division continued its offensives in 1918 and later formed the nucleus of Billy Mitchell’s 1,400-plane force in the fall Saint-Mihiel offensive.

If Commander Foch had concerns about Aerial Division liaison, he was pleased with the quality of aerial reconnaissance for the high command. The Weiller group—three squadrons of Breguets commanded by Paul-Louis Weiller—served directly under Foch as of 28 July. Each day they flew over the lines in groups of three at altitudes of nearly 8,000 meters to take a photographic map of enemy territory from 20 to 100 kilometers behind the rear. Every evening at GQG Foch used these photos to choose targets. For his unit’s work, Weiller was awarded the légion d’honneur, becoming one of its youngest recipients.

In August observation units theoretically comprised Breguets, Salmsons, and the Caudron R11. However, inadequate Salmson and Breguet-Renault engine production left Petain six squadrons short of the 2,870-plane program, while 24 of 53 Breguet squadrons were equipped with Fiat engines that were inferior to the Renault. Consequently, on 20 August, of 142 observation squadrons only 29 were equipped with Renault Breguets and 55 with Salmsons; two-seat Spads continued in service as a stopgap. During another visit to army corps squadrons on 13 August, Senator Menier observed that while army corps planes were supposed to protect themselves, they in fact required fighter protection over the German lines and did not always receive it; though pilots were skilled, gunners and mechanics tended to be inexperienced. At least the Breguets and Salmsons, valued for their strength and performance, gave army corps crews a chance against German fighters.

In bomber aviation, inadequate Breguet deliveries caused large gaps in the 15 day-bomber squadrons. Two Caproni night bomber squadrons needed refitting, while production of the Farman F50 night bomber, which already equipped two squadrons, needed to be stopped until the planes could be perfected. By September a Breguet with a 450-hp engine was under test. General Duval advised Dumesnil that the Caproni giant with 900 total horsepower was nose heavy, carried a small bomb load, and was not ready for wartime service. Most critically, exhaust flames from the engines threatened to set the gas tanks on fire. Night bombers remained a weakness of French aviation to the war’s end, but it was clear that the air arm was obtaining more and better tactical aircraft for daylight operations throughout 1918, though not as quickly as desired.

The emphasis on mass aviation required substantial expansion of training to increase aircrews and to replace losses. The French trained 6,909 pilots in 1918,21 and although they claimed that in 1919 they would be training 1,000 pilots a month, the number breveted annually from 1914 to 1918 (134 in 1914, 1,484 in 1915, 2,698 in 1916, and 5,609 in 1917) suggested that the rate of increase had peaked in 1917. French casualties in the war’s last six months, from May through October, totaled 2,327 killed, wounded, and missing at the front and in the rear. Combat casualties at the front reached 1,324, while 632 casualties were from accidents at the front and 371 were from accidents in the rear. Casualties peaked in June at 470, after which they declined steadily to the war’s end.

For massed tactics in aviation, the French fighter force had to relinquish some of its individualism to function effectively in 1918. In January Daniel Vincent advised that “the extreme individualism that gave aerial mastery in 1915 is no longer useful today.” This sentiment was echoed later by Jacques Mortane, editor of La Guerre aérienne, when he indicated that aviation was no longer a sport but an “arm” with rigid discipline and prepared operations similar to an infantry assault. Vincent attributed the change to the sense of discipline brought by newer recruits from other branches, although he might have acknowledged the importance of GQG’s leadership. However, individualism was too ingrained to be eliminated, and Mortane’s article was probably intended as much to remind pilots of the new order as to show the modification of tactics.

French ace of aces René Fonck exemplified the continued emphasis on individual tactics. In 1918 he firmly established himself as Guynemer’s heir in victories. He had 19 confirmed kills at the end of September 1917, 32 by the end of March 1918, and ultimately 75 by the war’s end, although he claimed 127. He twice shot down six planes in one day. Fonck continued to prefer individual combat, although at the war’s end he acknowledged that German group operations “compelled us to do one thing that was formerly exceptional, that is to fly in groups of generally four fighters. A lone encounter against ten would be too unequal.”24 In 1918 the Germans and English were operating in units of far more than 10 airplanes.

French bomber aviation emerged in 1918 as a tactical arm. At a conference with the British on 22 December 1917, General Duval had disagreed with the British policy of bombing enemy industrial centers and warned that the French did not intend to join British operations. He feared German reprisals and contended that neither Britain nor France had sufficient forces to conduct an effective strategic bombing campaign. The French revised their bombing scheme on 18 November 1917 and 5 January 1918, noting that their ideas were a “result of evolution during action, rather than a strategic plan.” Attempting to curtail railroad traffic in iron ore from the Saarbrücken and Lorraine basins, the French designated nine railroad stations within 45 miles of the line as targets. In January, following German simplification of their rail network into two independent traffic systems, economic and strategic, the French decreased the number of targets to four stations in the more vulnerable economic network to blockade the iron ore.

In May debates with the British, the French opposed both strategic aviation and aviation’s autonomy. General Duval commented on 31 May that “if we are defeated on land, the bombardment of Cologne is without interest.” Duval continued to judge Allied aviation insufficient to act both strategically and tactically at once and thus emphasized the tactical role in subordination to land forces. The French, though dismayed about Trenchard’s independent bomber force, were willing to provide it with airfields. However, when the Supreme War Council established an Inter-Allied Independent Air Force on 24 September, they insisted that requirements for land operations take precedence over any independent operations.

In 1918 French bomber crews in Breguets, usually carrying 24 10-kg bombs, aggressively raided across the lines in massed formations. Protected initially by single-seaters and later by a few heavily armed and armored Caudron R11 three-seaters or Breguet 14 escorts, the Breguets manned by skilled crews, their gunners armed with twin Lewis guns and carrying six circular drums of 97 cartridges for each gun, were not easy prey, even when alone. Gunner Sergeant André Duvau, at age 32 often called “Père Duvau” by squadron mates, had spent nearly 10 months in the back seat of Sopwiths and then Breguets. Returning from a raid in mid-July, he and his pilot lost their squadron in clouds. Duvau spotted five German fighters climbing to meet them, warned his pilot, who then did a climbing banked turn to give Duvau a clear shot at them. As German bullets struck the Breguet, Duvau fired only seven shots in two short bursts at the leader, who spun and then plunged earthward, while the others turned away. Duvau survived those raids without incident, but he recalled the risks—of frostbite, antiaircraft fire, German fighters, accidents—and the fears engendered by witnessing the fate of other aircrew, fears of crashing in flames just off the field and of being badly burned.

During the spring and summer Pétain and Duval apprised Undersecretary Jacques-Louis Dumesnil of their rapidly escalating goals for aviation. On 24 April, emphasizing the necessity for more and better airplanes, Pétain proposed a 6,000-plane air arm of new types, including 300-hp fighters, night bombers, two-seat fighters, three-seat battle planes, improved Breguet day bombers, and armored Salmson observation planes. They would require 26,000 personnel, including 800 officers and 9,000 trained technicians.

On 24 May Pétain asked for the following aircraft types: high- and medium-altitude single-seat fighters; a long-range reconnaissance plane to penetrate 200 kilometers into the enemy rear; a well-armed, fast, high-altitude, medium day bomber that could operate from unprepared airfields to extend the artillery by attacking railroads and troops; a medium night bomber; and a long-range heavy bomber to attack German industrial centers as far as the Ruhr. The last was intended to “paralyze the economic life of Germany and its war industries by methodical, massive, and repeated action against principal industrial cities, important marshalling yards, and to weaken the morale of its population by giving them a feeling of insecurity in a zone extending as far as possible into enemy territory.” Pétain’s priorities, in order, were to obtain new model two-seat combat planes, heavy and medium night bombers, armored assault planes, and three-seat combat planes, and to perfect present single-seat fighters and then day bombers.

On 24 August Pétain insisted, as “an absolute necessity,” that he have the 148 squadrons of Renault-Breguets and Salmsons with more powerful engines by 1919’s first trimester. He hoped to use the Breguet models and more powerful 200-hp Capronis as night bombers.

Fulfilling these requests depended on either unpredictable technological progress or increased production. For the latter, however, the French also had to consider the Allies’ air arms. Although the War Committee on 27 May determined to assure that Allied requests for materiel did not injure French interests, on 17 September Dumesnil contended that they would have been able to realize the 4,000-plane program if they had not had to deliver large amounts of equipment to the Allies. The United States, given the same priority as the French army, received 1,430 first-class planes (Spads, Breguets, and Salmsons) between 1 April and 16 September. If the United States were self-sufficient by early 1919, the French could achieve the 6,000-plane program, which they had initially intended for 1 April 1919.

Another reason for France’s failure to achieve the 4,000-plane program on schedule was the underestimation of aircraft losses. The expected 33 percent monthly wastage of bombers had reached at least 50 percent in recent battles, and replacements dominated the supply. By late September supplies sufficed to create the new units, since Renault-Breguet production increased.

French Airpower 1918 Part II

Close Quarters, by Russell Smith (SPAD XIII & Fokker DVII)

In 1918 German fighter aviation’s progress required simultaneously increasing craft quality and quantity. Several excellent 300-hp single-seaters were likely to appear in 1919. By mid-September 300-hp Nieuports and Sopwith Dolphins were in production; the prototype Spad Herbemont had recently completed “extremely brilliant” tests; and the Béchereau airframe showed great promise. The 2,870-plane program had stipulated 60 Spad squadrons by spring 1918; the 4,000-plane program required 84 by 1 October, which seemed unlikely since in mid-September fighter aviation had only 64 squadrons. Two-seat types were undergoing final tests in the fall. Two-seat fighters—the SEA (Société d’études aéronautiques) with a 375-hp Lorraine engine, the Breguet with a 450-hp Renault or Liberty, and the Morane with a Bugatti 420-hp engine—were under development, but in 1919 fighter aviation’s fate depended entirely upon future developments. Only in November would the army begin to receive the first Hanriot and Spad Herbemont two-seat fighters, with another (the first machine of the new firm SEA created by young designers Henri Potez and Marcel Bloch) offering further prospects. On 19 September GQG determined its needs based on a 4,200-plane program.

Aviation’s politics and administration stabilized considerably in 1918. Daniel Vincent’s February article posited that the press constantly raised public concern about aviation because the air arm lacked a doctrine of industrial production. Jacques Mortane followed Vincent’s editorial with a call for an air ministry, noting that Britain had an air ministry and Germany possessed a “dictator of the air” in Hoeppner. The call for an air ministry would make no progress during the war. The political clamor for change remained focused on the lack of strategic bombers, though some key air advocates implied the need for an air ministry by attributing all deficiencies to the absence of unified control.

While 1918’s battles confirmed the French high command’s use of bombers against battlefield objectives and enemy transport, the GQG still faced vigorous and persistent criticism in parliament and the public arena from advocates of strategic air power. Premier Georges Clemenceau and Minister of Munitions Louis Loucheur supported the high command before parliament. On 5 April Loucheur, emphasizing the importance of strafing enemy columns, asserted that French and British aviation had retarded the enemy’s arrival on the battlefield by one to two days, while Clemenceau on 3 June gave bomber attacks on the battlefield partial credit for halting the recent enemy advance. On 3 August, after the first summer offensive, Loucheur stressed the importance of demoralizing the Germans by bombing their rear.

Still, parliamentary deputy Pierre Etienne Flandin continued to advocate strategic bombardment in 3 July and 18 September reports. Clemenceau had written him that concentration of forces was essential to victory, and that operations against enemy cities, though possibly of economic and morale importance, were only secondary. Flandin criticized the limited scope of France’s military chiefs and the “narrow doctrine of conduct of the war” that attributed only moderate importance to attacking the industries that produced war materiel. All parliamentary deputies and the high command as well, as General Pétain’s requests indicated, regretted the industry’s inability to perfect a long-range bomber. The deputies, however, had placed top priority on the bomber, but for the high command the long-range bomber was only one of many desired types.

In the military administration of aviation technology and production, 1918 was the era of the technocrats. Martinot-Lagarde of the aero-engine section and Legras of the propeller service—both graduates of the École Polytechnique—were joined in 1918 by another polytechnician, 38-year-old Albert Caquot, whom Colonel Dhé and Dumesnil appointed director of the STAé on 11 January 1918. In 1914 Caquot, a bridge builder, specialist in reinforced-concrete construction and aviation, and an advocate of organizational solutions to problems, had designed a stationary observation balloon, whose streamlined form made it superior to the German Drachen in its ability to remain steady in high winds. After having created an observation balloon for the British fleet in 1916, Caquot had been sent to Britain in 1916 to direct the British fleet’s use of captive balloons against submarines. Caquot balloons formed barrages above London and Paris to protect against German bombers.

At STAé Caquot now dealt with airplanes, at a time when the inability to perfect new materiel threatened to compromise the Allies’ opportunities for aerial supremacy. The problem lay, as it had in 1917, in the Spad 13 and its 220-hp Hispano-Suiza engines. The prototype engine had passed its tests, but some 10,000 production engines had failed their 10-hour acceptance tests, usually through a seizure that left a “salad” of connecting rods or destroyed the crankcase. Caquot ordered the tests of 10 engines. He stopped the first after one hour, the second after two, and so on, to open the crankcase and dismantle the moving pieces. After four hours the cause of the problem became apparent. The oil pipe in the crankcase had broken under pressure, though the engine continued to run for a time.

Caquot attributed the difference in performance between the prototype and the series to weather. The prototype had been tested in warm weather, while the series appeared in the winter. The viscosity of the oils used in 1917 varied greatly with the temperature, and their thickening in the winter led to excessive pressure in the Hispano-Suiza’s oil-circulation system. Technicians had to decrease the oil flow to limit its pressure to a level that the pipe could withstand. After Caquot designed a simple, inexpensive safety valve for the end of the oil pump, Hispano-Suiza production continued.

Caquot’s solutions did not always work. His addition of bracing struts to correct the Morane fighter’s weakness in dives reduced its performance so that it was relegated to training. Yet in most crucial situations, his genius for diagnosing a problem and finding a simple solution benefitted the air arm. When the front complained about excessive Breguet 14 modification, Caquot settled on a mass production aircraft, which was then license produced by large manufacturers such as Michelin. Caquot’s transmission of U.S. propeller research to French manufacturers enabled them to improve their airscrews. Ultimately, Caquot generously surrendered all his rights to the French state at no charge and received medals from all the major Allied powers and gratitude from the French government.40

Caquot praised Minister of Munitions Loucheur’s further mobilization of aviation. Between three and five times a week the directors of the technical and production sections met with Dhé, Duval, and Loucheur or Loucheur’s adviser, engineer Ernst Mercier, to plan the air service’s development. They then met with the industrialists once a week to set production schedules. By May an editorial in La Guerre aérienne, “L’Arme à deux têtes” (the arm with two heads), praised the division of labor between the undersecretary and the munitions ministry. The undersecretary, as the client, selected and perfected types and then, in consultation with GQG, determined the quantity needed, while the ministry, as the supplier, managed serial production. From the spring to the war’s end La Guerre aérienne tended to praise the rear’s organization. An editorial in early June lauded the STAé’s efforts in converting theoretical programs from the front into technical specifications for engineers and builders and asserted that the STAé had clearly outdone its less organized German counterpart and a German industry that was more dispersed and less standardized than the French. In an early August editorial it recognized that fundamental to aviation’s “new phase of its evolution”—collective effort as opposed to individual action—was the French industrial effort, which enabled the new doctrine. In September the journal concluded that quality and quantity determined the command’s aerial tactics, which had left the realm of improvisation and had now become part of a methodical plan, in which aviation was indispensable as an arm of military intelligence and destruction.

In 1918 Loucheur and the aviation agencies attempted to control prices and increase licensed production. In mid-April he considered the aviation service’s contract justifications absolutely insufficient to determine whether prices were too high and insisted that the contract service under Commandant Guignard be placed under Colonel Weyl in the munitions ministry, who would collaborate with Guignard. The prices of Hispano-Suiza 200-hp engines dropped from 18,000 to 22,500 francs at the end of 1917 to 17,500 to 18,000 in mid-1918.

A report in October 1919 contended that the Hispano-Suiza should have cost 8,500 francs, allowing for a net engine cost of 4,500, 15 percent profit, a 10 percent allowance, and 150 percent for general costs and labor. Yet such postwar calculations appear unrealistic, and Dhé justified the prices with the state’s wartime need to develop aero engine production. Builders had used their profits to remunerate capital invested in the enterprise and to expand plant capacity, while continually rising material and labor costs made such calculations of net cost purely theoretical. The aviation service could not requisition engines or militarize factories because it lacked qualified technical personnel to assure production at commandeered factories, so the directorate had emphasized engine quantity and quality above all else. While the French airplanes lacked the finesse of the German Fokkers with their thick cantilever wings, Capt. Albert Etévé of the STAé emphasized the quality, officially called rusticité, characterized by the adoption of very simple construction procedures allowing numerous airframes to be built quickly and cheaply.

With further increases in licensed manufacture, in 1918 subcontractors played a decisive role in aviation production. They reaped 61.9 percent of the total business in 1918, up from 27.3 percent in 1916 and 35.1 percent in 1917. In airframe manufacture the subcontractors’ market share rose from 16.2 percent in 1916 to 43.7 percent in 1917 to 61 percent in 1918. In engine manufacture, it declined from 32.9 percent in 1916 to 27.2 percent in 1917, because of Hispano-Suiza’s introduction of its 200- to 220-hp engine and Salmson’s launching of its 200- to 260-hp series engine, but then it rose to 62.7 percent in 1918. Thus, in 1918 the dominant or parent manufacturers had 38.1 percent of the market: the aircraft producers and engine manufacturers had 39 percent and 37.3 percent of their markets, respectively.

Circumstances within the industry varied. Hispano-Suiza built 14.8 percent of its 25,741 engines in 1918; its 14 subcontractors, which included Peugeot, constructed 85.2 percent. The parent firms Spad and Blériot reaped 17 and 26 percent of the profits respectively on Spad production in 1918, and their subcontractors gained 57 percent. Breguet earned 13.7 percent of the profits from Breguet 14 production in 1918; its subcontractors, which included Michelin and Renault, obtained 86.3 percent. Firms like Renault and Salmson, however, did not subcontract their production.

The aircraft industry remained centered in Paris and its suburbs, where 90 percent of French planes were built, despite limited decentralization in 1918 during the German advances toward Paris. Among the largest factories were Farman, with some 5,000 workers, and Nieuport, with 3,600 workers. The general condition of the factories was good, and most of them were entirely or partially fireproof. The larger companies had assembly plants, and the smaller ones had assembly shops. Women painted, varnished, stretched cloth over frames, and did light woodwork. Assembly rooms were well ventilated to release varnish fumes that could cause eye inflammation, headaches, or stomach trouble, and employees who worked in the varnish room fortified themselves with milk. Large factories had surgical stations staffed by trained nurses. The ordinary working day was 10 hours. Employees were paid 1.5 to 3 francs an hour or by piece, while foremen and staffs were paid monthly. Generally, the number of engines obtainable determined production. French standardization and coordination of production impressed American attaché H. Barclay Warburton in July as offering the potential for large-scale inter-Allied standardization of Spad production, despite enormous difficulties with political and industrial interests.

In 1918, of 41,336 engines manufactured in France through November, 29,461 were stationary engines (V types or in-lines), 5,526 were radials, and 6,349 were rotaries, a dramatic change from the 1917 proportions, in which rotaries and stationary-engine deliveries were nearly comparable (10,757 to 11,395) and radials were relatively scarce (1,223). As orders for rotary engines declined, Gnome and Rhône shifted to producing the Salmson Canton-Unné radial.

In August it took an average of 6.29 workers per month about 250 hours to manufacture a Hispano-Suiza engine. The Hispano-Suiza was one of the most easily constructed wartime engines, since in its parts design Birkigt had been preoccupied with ease of production and had created special machine tools and machines to produce complicated and delicate parts. In 1918 15,108 Hispano-Suiza 200- to 220-hp engines were delivered, only 956 by the parent company; the largest numbers, 4,451, 2,239, 1,784, 1,470, and 1,410, were delivered by Peugeot, Mayen, Brasier, Fives Lille, and Delaunay, respectively. Another 2,166 300-hp engines were delivered in 1918, 814 by the parent company.

In 1918 Renault doubled its engine production from 2,470 in 1917 to 5,050 and nearly trebled its aircraft production from 290 to 870 in its second year of aircraft assembly. From 1 October 1917 to 30 September 1918 Renault’s sales of aero engine and airframes came to 29.3 and 5.5 percent respectively of its total business.

Even with the most successful aviation production apparatus in the world, the French still needed imports in certain categories. France needed more Breguets than Renault could deliver engines and secured Fiat A12bis 300-hp engines from Italy, although the Fiat Breguet was inferior to the Renault-Breguet. France received some 2,200 Fiats. The undersecretary in late August was still seeking a firm agreement on an order of 1,800 Fiats placed the previous month, although France had only delivered 800 of the promised 4,200 tons of raw materials to Italy in return. English and U.S. competition for the Italian engines, since Italian firms were already preparing for peacetime, made arrangements difficult. In September Martinot-Lagarde was in Italy to secure more Fiat A12bis engines as quickly as possible and to remedy the engine’s defects. Aircraft expert Dorand looked to Italy and England as potential sources for Caproni and Handley Page night bombers respectively.

Yet the search for engines indicated a temporary decline in powerful-engine production, not a lack of their development. At the Armistice the French were introducing the next generation of lighter, more powerful, mostly water-cooled engines: the 300-hp Hispano-Suiza V8, 450-hp 12-cylinder Renault, and the 400-hp Lorraine-Dietrich, as well as a 16-cylinder, 450-hp Bugatti, and a 500-hp Salmson twin-row radial.

In 1918 the French aviation industry produced 24,652 airplanes and 44,563 engines. Its monthly aircraft production rose from 1,714 in January to 2,362, its peak, in October. Its monthly aero engine production increased from 2,567 in January to a high of 4,196 in October. In November 1918 it employed 185,000 workers. Twenty-three percent were women, who were most numerous as textile workers in the airframe factories, where they composed a third of the work force. At the Armistice the production service, which had grown from fewer than 20 officers before mobilization to 540 officers and 3,000 personnel, was delivering a plane, completely equipped, armed, and with replacement parts, every 15 minutes, day and night, and a motor, complete with all accessories, every 10 minutes.

On 19 November parliamentary deputy D’Aubigny assessed the state of French aviation at the Armistice. He charged that France had not fulfilled its promises to the United States, which had only 642 planes in line at the Armistice, 50 percent fewer than promised for 1 July. In October France had only 2,639 planes at the front, all of them what he termed obsolete Spad 7s and Spad 13s and obsolescent Breguet 14s. The absence of heavy bombers to perform reprisal raids on German territory particularly annoyed him, since the army subcommission had long advocated them. The quality of French observation planes was inferior, with no hope for improvement in 1919. The new Nieuport and Sopwith fighters did not fully benefit from the 300-hp engine, while the Béchereau frame was still not ready. His previous 3 May report had criticized the absence of unified direction for aviation, and he now attributed all of aviation’s problems to its lack of guidance. The politicians of the aviation commission, still dissatisfied with France’s failure to develop strategic airpower, thus ended the war on a negative note.

Yet D’Aubigny’s assessment was excessively negative. Perhaps the service lacked unified leadership, perhaps its aircraft were not as modern as the politicians and General Pétain desired. Still, its procurement apparatus had obtained more materiel from its industry than any other country. At the 11 November Armistice, French aviation comprised 247 squadrons with 3,222 aircraft on the Western Front (France’s Northeastern Front): 1,152 fighters, 1,585 observation planes, 285 day bombers, and 200 night bombers. The Aerial Division had 6 combat groups of 432 Spads, 5 bomber groups of 225 Breguets, and 4 squadrons of 60 long-range escort Caudron RIIA3s, for a total of 717 planes. Independent combat units comprised 42 squadrons of 720 Spads, 5 night bomber groups totaled 200 bombers, mostly Voisins, and 148 squadrons of 1,585 observation planes included 645 Breguets, 530 Salmsons, 305 two-seat Spads, 30 Caudrons, and 75 Voisins. The air arm had fallen 348 fighters and 575 bombers short of the 4,000-plane program, which anticipated having 1,500 fighters, 1,000 bombers and 1,500 observation planes at the front. Yet in depots there were nearly 2,600 airplanes waiting in the General Aviation Reserve. On all fronts the French air service had 336 squadrons, operated by 6,417 pilots, 1,682 observers, and 80,000 nonflying personnel. In air strength it was the world’s largest air force.

The War of the First Coalition, 1792–1797

The Battle of Valmy was a decisive victory for the French revolutionary army.

The French Revolutionary Wars are customarily defined as the struggles between France on the one hand and the First and Second Coalitions on the other, between 1792 and 1802. The First Coalition initially pitted Austria and Prussia, with the partial engagement of the Holy Roman Empire, against France in 1792, but by the spring of 1793, it had embraced Britain, the Netherlands, Spain, Piedmont-Sardinia, Naples, and Portugal. The coalition had fallen apart by October 1797 after one ally after another was either overrun by the French, or made a separate peace to secure the best possible terms, leaving only the British to fight on alone. Yet there was no respite for the continent, for in the summer of 1798 the war was reignited, the very geographic scale reflected in the membership of the Second Coalition, embroiling the Ottoman Empire and Russia alongside Britain, Austria, Portugal, and Naples. After its early victories, this alliance also broke apart. So exhausted were both sides that even France and Britain made peace in 1802 at Amiens, a treaty marking the end of the French Revolutionary Wars.

In the opening campaign in 1792, the calculations of the Austrians, that the French armies were a rabble, seemed to be borne out: the poorly trained volunteers broke and ran at the first encounter with the disciplined fire-power of the Austrians. As Prussia joined the war on 21 May, well might King Frederick William II’s aide-de-camp, Johann von Bischoffwerder, have reassured some officers that ‘the comedy will not last long. The army of lawyers will soon be crushed and we shall be back home by the autumn.’ The Austro-Prussian armies began their slow but relentless advance into France in the summer, provoking the first major political crisis in the French Revolution linked to the war. The sans-culottes, the popular militants of Paris, rose up and, supported by National Guard units (the citizens’ militia created in 1789), overthrew Louis XVI on 10 August 1792, a republic was proclaimed on 22 September 1792, and the King was guillotined on 21 January 1793. ‘They threaten you with Kings!’ thundered the great revolutionary orator Georges-Jacques Danton. ‘You have thrown down the gauntlet to them, and this gauntlet is a king’s head.’ Yet the reality was that, for all the incandescent rhetoric on both sides, the more traditional impulses driving the war were revealed after the first French victory at Valmy on 20 September 1792.

The French army made its stand against the Prussians astride the road to Paris, a hundred miles from the capital. Fought on muddy ground, sometimes knee-deep in places, Valmy was primarily a lethal artillery duel, in which some 20,000 cannonballs were fired. The ragged French volunteers just held their nerve, a resistance that persuaded the Prussians, ravaged by dysentery, to retreat. In the despondent gloom later that evening, the great German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe gave some Prussian officers cold comfort by telling them that ‘From this place, and from this day forth, begins a new era in the history of the world, and you can all say that you were present at its birth.’ At first, Goethe’s predictions seemed to come true: a second French victory, over the Austrians at Jemappes on 6 November, left Belgium open to French invasion. Intoxicated by this sudden reversal of fortune, the National Convention, the new republican assembly in Paris, issued the Edict of Fraternity on 19 November. This declared the Convention’s intent to export the French Revolution, promising ‘fraternity and help’ to ‘all peoples who wish to recover their liberty’, meaning the overthrow of the existing order.

Yet, as French armies surged across the Low Countries, poured into the Rhineland, and, in the south, swept into Savoy (a duchy ruled by Piedmont-Sardinia which, with unfortunate timing, declared war on France the day after Valmy), the revolutionaries quickly set their principles aside. The occupied countries were too tempting a source of supplies and money for the French armies to leave simply to their own destinies. On 15 December, the Convention abolished the old regime in these territories, but in return the population were told to pay for the military costs of their liberation. The exploitation of conquests to fuel the French war effort was thus established at the very start, but such a ruthless policy could neither continue forever, nor resolve the problem of the people’s political future. The revolutionaries soon articulated their objective: a defensible frontier, particularly in the north. It was Danton again who found the rhetorical flourish in January 1793: ‘The limits of France are marked out by nature, we will reach them in the four corners of the horizon: the Rhine, the Ocean and the Alps.’ On the suggestion of Dutch radical exiles in Paris, those territories overrun beyond these ‘natural frontiers’ would be converted into ‘sister republics’, exploitable satellite states allied to France.

Yet these conquests ensured that the war spiralled outwards. ‘Natural frontiers’ meant the annexation of Savoy, the Rhineland, and Belgium, plus a southern slice of Dutch territory. The logic of this last point meant war with the Netherlands, but the French invasion of the Low Countries also tensed to breaking point France’s relations with the British, already strained by the overthrow of Louis XVI and by the Edict of Fraternity, which politicians feared might be applied to Britain, where there was an articulate and organized radical opposition. The French reopening to shipping of the River Scheldt, closed by treaty since 1648, also posed a direct strategic threat to the British Isles. If the French were to overrun the Netherlands, with its long North Sea coastline and boasting the fourth largest fleet in Europe, then the Royal Navy’s capacity to defend home waters would be severely stretched. It was the French who actually declared war on both Britain and the Netherlands on 1 February. To make matters more desperate, they also opened hostilities against Spain on 7 March, effectively formalizing a rupture which already existed in fact: the Spanish had mobilized their forces in August 1792 (wisely pulling back from the brink after Valmy), but had then vigorously denounced the execution of Louis XVI (King Charles IV of Spain was also a Bourbon). The immediate consequence of the French victory in Europe was therefore to bind together one crisis—in relations between France and the German powers—with another long-term problem: the maritime rivalries of the western European powers, ensuring that the war would have a global impact across the world.

The most important of such repercussions were felt in the Caribbean, particularly Haiti. This, the most prosperous of all of France’s colonies, burst into flames when its African slaves rose up in August 1791, well aware that government authority and the racial hierarchies of the French Empire had been fatally weakened by the Revolution. With the European conflict now engulfing the overseas empires, the Haitian Revolution became part of the global struggle: Spanish officials in neighbouring Santo Domingo immediately began supporting the insurgents as auxiliaries, while the British chose instead to back the white planters, who promised to submit to British authority in return for a restoration of slavery and protection against the insurrection. The French response was momentous: recognizing the reality that the Haitians had effectively liberated themselves, the Republic’s commissioners in Haiti proclaimed the abolition of slavery, an act confirmed for the entire French Empire by the Convention in Paris on 4 February 1794. Slowly, cautiously, the Haitian revolutionaries, including one of their most charismatic leaders, Toussaint L’Ouverture, came over to the French side. The Spanish and the British, who invaded Haiti in September 1793, were driven back, the latter evacuating in 1798.

Back in Europe, the French Revolution was on the brink of collapse under the combined weight of the allied powers by the early spring of 1793. France was invaded across every frontier, north, east, and south. The Convention took the fateful step of imposing conscription, provoking open counter-revolution in western France in March, most notoriously in the Vendée, where, in a brutal civil war which did not end until 1800, the number of dead on both republican and royalist sides may have reached a horrifying 400,000. To war and counter-revolution were piled on the pressures of hunger, inflation, and the looming threat of popular insurrection in Paris. Overwhelmed, the Girondins were toppled by their Jacobin opponents in a coup d’état on 2 June 1793. France exploded into civil war, which the Jacobin government in Paris managed to crush and exact bloody retribution, but not before the French rebels in Toulon—the home of France’s Mediterranean fleet—handed over their port to the British in August 1793. The young Napoleon Bonaparte commanded the artillery which finally drove them out in December. The Jacobins were able to master this intense crisis only through Terror, involving the arrest of ‘suspects’; the trial and execution of people accused of treason; the summary execution of people found openly rebelling against the Republic; strict economic controls, backed up by draconian penalties; and, above all, the empowerment of the government to prosecute the war to the utmost. The levée en masse of 23 August requisitioned all adult males and all the country’s resources in the first modern attempt to wage ‘total war’: there were close to a million Frenchmen under arms by the end of 1794, of whom perhaps three-quarters were combat-effective.

The war’s dysfunctional pendulum finally swung back the other way on 26 June 1794, with a decisive French victory over the Austrians at Fleurus. A crushing British naval triumph over a French fleet in a battle remembered by the British as the ‘Glorious First of June’ could not dampen the renewed French impetus on the continent. With the tide of war turning, the Jacobin dictatorship was overthrown on 27 July 1794 (the Thermidor coup) and the Terror was over. Over the following year, the Convention drafted a new constitution, creating the Directory, which would govern France from October 1795: Bonaparte, still an artillery officer, prevented the Directory from being still-born, since his ‘whiff of grapeshot’ helped crush a royalist insurrection in Paris that month. He would destroy the same regime four years later.

Capture of the Dutch fleet by the French hussars.

Meanwhile, French armies had surged forward on all fronts, pouring into Belgium, the Rhineland, and northern Spain. In the deathly cold winter of 1794–5, the blue-coated hordes even managed to sweep into the Netherlands, since the waterways which usually provided the country’s natural defences were frozen solid. So thick was the ice that in January the French cavalry thundered across the frozen sea to capture the Dutch fleet anchored at Texel: ‘the first and last time—it can safely be assumed—that a naval engagement has been won by cavalry,’ writes Tim Blanning. The balance of forces was tilting in France’s favour. Prussia signed a peace treaty at Basel in April 1795, the Netherlands was turned into France’s first ‘sister republic’ in May, and Belgium was formally annexed by France in October. Spain signed a peace treaty, also at Basel, in July 1795 and then this devoutly Catholic monarchy went so far as to enter an alliance with the godless French in August 1796. Spain, always caught in the crossfire in the Franco-British rivalry, saw in France the best hope of security for its extensive overseas empire. The French could now combine their fleets with those of the Dutch and the Spanish, while French control of the entire coastline from the Frisian Islands to Galicia strained the capacities of the Royal Navy. The British moved quickly to neutralize the most dangerous of these threats: the Dutch colony on the Cape of Good Hope, which was, the British commander who led the assault explained, ‘a feather in the hands of Holland, but a sword in the hands of France’, since it was the pivot of the sea route between India and Europe.

Yet the French were approaching a high-water mark in their success against Britain. In December 1796, an attempted invasion of Ireland was foiled when the French fleet was scattered by a storm. In February 1797, the danger still seemed so serious that there was a run on the Bank of England. The panic was becalmed that month when Admiral Sir John Jervis intercepted and destroyed a numerically superior Spanish fleet off Cape St Vincent as it was trying to link up with the French Atlantic fleet at Brest. The crisis was not over: in March, the French managed to land a motley band of deserters and adventurers on the Pembrokeshire coast. Although this, the last invasion of mainland Britain, was quickly mopped up, March and June saw mutinies break out in the Royal Navy at Spithead and the Nore, primarily over pay, rations, and conditions. These were suppressed with a mixture of executions and concessions, but it illustrated just how precarious Britain’s situation was. The French and their allies tried to combine again in October 1797 when the Dutch fleet put to sea, but ran into Admiral Adam Duncan’s ships off Camperdown: the dogged Dutch resistance only broke after nine ships of the line were taken. France’s problems were compounded when the struggle for the sea spiralled into an undeclared naval war with the United States.

The war in Europe had strained French relations with the Americans, theoretically allied to France since 1778, when the old regime entered the American War of Independence. The United States, however, declared its neutrality in 1793: its armed forces were tiny and the British were the young republic’s most important trading partner. Moreover, President George Washington was angered by the over-zealous French ambassador, Edmond Genêt, who armed privateers to sail from American ports against British shipping and who tried to whip up American public support for France. Yet the Americans also had grievances against the British: they harassed American shipping as they tried to throttle French commerce and seized sailors whom they suspected of desertion from the Royal Navy. The two countries nearly slid into war, until both sides pulled back from the brink in November 1794, when they resolved their differences in the Jay Treaty (named for the American diplomat involved), which effectively tore up the Franco-American alliance. The aggrieved French immediately launched privateering raids against American merchantmen: by June 1797, they had carried off some 316 ships. Although the two republics never formally declared war, they did exchange plenty of shots in anger on the high seas. An American effort at negotiation fell apart when it was learned in April 1798 that the slippery French Foreign Minister, Charles-Maurice Talleyrand, had tried to extract a bribe from the US envoys, who were approached by three agents known only as ‘XYZ’. The quasi-war raged on.

Napoleon at the Battle of Rivoli, 14 January 1797.

If the French were frustrated at sea, they triumphed on land. A French assault in Germany floundered in 1796, but this was offset by a lightning strike into Italy by Bonaparte, now a general. Piedmont, its army outmanoeuvred and overwhelmed, sued for peace before the month was out. Bonaparte then moved against the Austrians, defeating them at Lodi on 10 May and entering Milan, the centre of Austrian power in Italy, five days later. The French had moved so quickly that they had easily outrun the other French thrust against Austria through Germany, so while waiting to strike northwards, Bonaparte raided central Italy, forcing Parma, Modena, and Tuscany to disgorge their hard currency. The Pope was not spared: the French invaded the Papal States—the Papacy’s territorial domains in central Italy—and, at the Treaty of Tolentino in February 1797, forced the pontiff to yield some of his territory to France’s new Italian sister republic, the Cisalpine, as well as some of his most cherished artworks, which were carted off to France and deposited in the Louvre. Then, having repulsed no less than three Austrian counter-attacks in the north, Bonaparte crossed the Alps and struck into Austria itself, entering an armistice at Leoben in April 1797. The peace treaty was finally signed at Campo Formio in October. The Austrians agreed to the French annexation of the left bank of the Rhine, the hard-won ‘natural frontier’, and recognized the Cisalpine Republic, in return for which Bonaparte, showing an almost casual regression to old regime balance of power ways, allowed Austria to annex Venice. The War of the First Coalition was over.

This was not a peace, but a stalemate: British and French negotiations in the summer of 1797 collapsed when a coup d’état in Paris in September (the Fructidor coup) purged the legislature and the Directory of moderate republicans and of real or suspected monarchists. The coup was a military intervention which set a dangerous political precedent—not least because it was Bonaparte who had provided the troops. The Directory was now led by hard-line republicans determined to pursue the war with more vigour and in this they had the wholehearted support of the generals. In the first months of 1798, the northern French ports saw a build-up of an ‘Army of England’ commanded by Bonaparte for the long-awaited descent on Britain. Yet the French could not control the Channel for long enough: the most they managed was to land 1,000 men in Ireland, in support of an insurrection which had erupted in May against British rule, arriving too late to make an impact.

By then, the war had thundered eastwards and engulfed another long-term challenge, the expansion of Russia. The Russian occupation of Poland in May 1792 and the Second Partition in 1793 naturally provoked Polish patriotism. After trying in vain to secure French support, Tadeusz Kościuszko proclaimed Poland in insurrection in Kraków in March 1794. After some early victories, the uprising crumpled under the sheer weight of Russian numbers. As the Russians closed in on Warsaw, the Prussians disengaged from the war against revolutionary France, which was not the easy ‘promenade’ they had expected, and instead sought a share of the territorial spoils in Poland. Even the Austrians, more committed than Prussia to the war in the west, were determined to have a slice of the conquests: they withdrew 20,000 troops from Belgium for operations against Poland, which both German powers invaded in June. After a slaughter which made the French Terror look amateurish (20,000 Poles were massacred in a single day on 4 November), the Russians took Warsaw. In the Third Partition between Russia, Austria, and Prussia, Poland was wiped off the political map in the New Year.

The Royal Navy and the Lessons of 1914–1918 Part II

There is substance in Lieutenant-Commander D. W. Waters’s assertion that ‘virtually every surface and air anti-submarine lesson of the first submarine war had to be, and ultimately was, re-learnt in the second at immense cost in blood, tears and treasure’. One would have thought that the entire Service knew that the most important lesson of the First War was that the U-boat attack on the merchant fleet was Britain’s most serious danger, and that it was only the introduction of convoy in 1917 that had saved the day. But the anti-submarine lessons of the war, which had never been fully understood anyway, were quickly forgotten after the war because there was no serious attempt to study the larger meaning of the U-boat campaign of 1917–18. During the interwar years, consequently, the convoy system was understood imperfectly at best. Although Captain Roskill was off the mark in stating that in 1919–39 there was not a single exercise in the protection of a mercantile convoy against air or submarine attack, the fact is that the Navy paid all too little attention to convoy work between the wars.

Ignorance was doubtless the chief explanation of the indifferent attitude towards convoy during much of the interwar period. The Admiralty’s German Navy expert, who was in charge of the captured German naval archives, has written:

A point that has emerged with startling clarity from all our researches into British and German records since the end of the Second World War is that no historian writing between the two wars (either British or German) drew the full and accurate conclusions from U-boat operations of 1917–18. The principal reason for this omission was that in those between-war years the full records of both sides were never available to any one historian, as they are available today. In this country the fact that we had eventually defeated the U-boats, and the advent of asdics shortly after the end of the First World War combined to produce in many officers an attitude of overconfidence in regard to any resurgence of the U-boat menace. In Germany, on the other hand, the researches of Admiral Spindler (the historian of the 1914–18 U-boat operations) were never completed. His work only went as far as 1917, and therefore did not include many of the lessons of U-boat operations against convoys.

Contributory causes of the failure to profit fully from war experience were (1) the old obsession with the battleship and fleet actions, which will be dealt with below; (2) an over-confidence, particularly in the 1930s, in asdic, the device that had been developed since 1917 as the answer to the problem of locating submarines; (3) the antipathy of many senior officers to what was falsely regarded as a defensive, to say nothing of a generally dull and monotonous, measure. Concerning the last, Admiral of the Fleet Sir Caspar John (among many others) bears out my contention: ‘You are very correct in writing that Convoy protection was regarded with martial antipathy by the Navy-it was too defensive in outlook for peacetime training–and, anyway, unlike battleships, there was never a visible convoy to “protect”.’ This attitude is borne out by the fact that in general the commands of fleet destroyers rather than of convoy escorts were regarded as the plums. Consequently, although, of course, there were some brilliant exceptions, the best officers were with the Fleet and the second team with the convoy escorts. Nor did it help that until the last prewar years it was the assumption that Japan would be Britain’s principal enemy in a war, not Germany, and the problem here was how to get at Japan across the world, not how to escort merchant ships across the Atlantic.

I do not want to leave the impression that progressive thought on convoy was entirely absent. The President of the Naval War College at Greenwich during 1934–7, when over a hundred officers went through the war course, recalled that ‘neither staff nor courses had any doubt on this subject. It was in fact Common Doctrine that convoy had rescued us in the first war and that it would be necessary in the future. So I cannot understand the Financial Secretary’s speech. It certainly had no effect on our teaching and as we were in close touch with the Admiralty we should have known if they thought differently.’ All that I maintain is that there was always a body of naval opinion which, through a failure to analyse the U-boat war of 1914–18, or for one or more of the other reasons mentioned above, preserved an anti-convoy outlook. The remarks of the Parliamentary and Financial Secretary of the Admiralty, Lord Stanley, speaking in the House of Commons on 14 March 1935, sum up the views of the Board and the Naval Staff at that date and are a reiteration of all the standard objections of the anti-convoy school of thought (or prejudice):

I can assure the House that the convoy system would not be introduced at once on the outbreak of war. Even the right hon. member for Swindon [Dr. Addison] would admit that the convoy system has very great disadvantages, and it certainly would not be welcomed by the trading community until conditions had become so intolerable that they were prepared to make the necessary sacrifices. In the first place, you would get delay at each end. You would get delay while the ships assembled at the starting point to be taken up by their convoy. You would get delay by the ships arriving at the same port at the same time. You would also have the difficulty of the faster ship having to go at the same pace as the slower one. Therefore, the convoy system will only be introduced when the balance of advantage is in its favour and when sinkings are so great that the country no longer feels justified in allowing ships to sail by themselves but feels that for the protection of their crews the convoy system is necessary.

(Dr. Addison:) Am I to understand the Noble Lord to suggest that the Admiralty would wait before instituting the convoy system until so many ships had been sunk that the country would not stand it any longer? Surely, they are not going to wait until such conditions arise as occurred on 17th April, 1917, when 34 ships were sunk one night. Are they going to let us get to that pitch before they start the convoy system?

(Lord Stanley:) Certainly not, but it will not be introduced in the first place. You will not know in the first place whether the ships are going to be in any great danger. It may be that it will be safer for them to sail by themselves. They will be a smaller target. The enemy ships would not know where they were to be found. If raiders were about we should have to institute the convoy system at once. It is simply a matter of expediency. We should be ready to put the scheme into operation but we should wait until we thought that the proper moment had arrived. Having got to the point when it is considered that the ships ought not to sail by themselves but should be protected by an escort, we have to decide what is the best form of protection for the convoys, and I think it is agreed by everybody that what is known as the general convoy is the best system. That is the convoy which has an escort ready to protect its ships from surface attack, from submarines and possibly from the air….

Therefore, we must put the provision of sloops into its proper order of priority. In doing that, I would ask the House to remember two things, first, that our anti-submarine defences and devices for finding out exactly where submarines are are so very much better than they were during the War that we should want fewer protective vessels in the convoy. Secondly, that as convoys will not be needed immediately on the outbreak of war it will give us time to improvise protection by destroyers and trawlers whilst orders are given to build the sloops which we shall eventually require.

The Naval Staff did not realize that, due to the closure of dangerous routes for days at a time, independent sailings had entailed even longer delays in 1917–18, while convoys guarded by escorts steamed directly to their destinations. Although it is true that Naval Staff officers had by 1935 come to favour convoy in principle, they did not think that it would be needed, at first, anyway, since the enemy, afraid to alienate neutral opinion as in 1917, would not launch unrestricted air or U-boat attacks on shipping. I should also mention that Germany was a signatory to the Submarine Agreement of 1936, which prohibited unrestricted submarine attack. Of course, we now know that Hitler’s word was worth nothing, but that could not be assumed at the time, at least openly. To proclaim a convoy system would have been to imply that the treaty was being, or would be, deliberately broken! The Air Staff, on the other hand, opposed convoy, using the discredited argument of 1917 that the massing of ships in convoy would only invite air attack and heavy losses. Criticism forced a modification of policy. In 1937 the Naval and Air staffs came to an agreement that convoy should be instituted at the outbreak of war. In March 1938, to satisfy naval opinion, the Admiralty undertook to make all preparations for convoy (for instance, Naval Control Service Officers were dispatched to all shipping ports), but not necessarily to institute it in the event of restricted submarine warfare. As the Deputy Director of Plans observed early in the war: ‘Our pre-war A/S plan was to attack U-boats with hunting groups until it became necessary to go into convoy …’ Ships were to continue to sail independently, if the enemy confined himself to restricted warfare -that is, stopping prospective victims and giving them time to evacuate passengers and crew. Having made this decision, the Admiralty neglected to provide the necessary convoy escorts for unrestricted warfare, under which ships were sunk without warning. All doubts were cleared up almost immediately upon the outbreak of war: Athenia torpedoed (against Hitler’s orders) on the first day, 3 September 1939; first convoy sailing, 6 September.

However, despite Britain’s stronger navy, assisted by Canada and the United States, it took nearly four years (i.e. not until May 1943) to overcome the German submarine menace. There was an insufficiency of escorts, unsuitable types, and inadequately trained groups, a diversion of anti-submarine vessels in the early part of the war from escorting convoys to futile offensive action by ‘hunting groups’, and a lack of air power on the convoy routes, particularly very long-range aircraft and escort carriers. (It was 3½ years after the outbreak of war before there was a single true escort carrier on the North Atlantic convoy route.) All this was in part a reflection of the low esteem in which convoy was generally held between the wars and indeed into the early stages of the Second War. It should be pointed out that Western Approaches Command did a great job with the materiel and personnel available, and that its C-in-C (1941–2), Sir Percy Noble, was against the ‘hunting group’ concept.

As regards air power, forgotten in the interwar years was the highly successful role of naval aircraft as a convoy escort in 1917–18, when a mere five ships were sunk in convoys with a surface and air escort. There were virtually no aircraft available for convoy when war came, since the responsibilities of naval aircraft did not include the protection of merchant shipping. One cause of this deplorable state of affairs was the fact that the last volume of the official history of British airpower in World War I (The War in the Air), which clearly showed the importance of aircraft in commerce protection, only came out in 1937, much too late to influence policy. Similar results to the First War were obtained in the Second War once suitable aircraft were made available for use as convoy escorts and supports, but this was not until 1943. It can be argued, and has indeed been vociferously argued by the Navy ever since, that the RAF’s obsession with the ‘wasteful and largely discredited’ policy of bombing Germany indiscriminately deprived the Fleet of the aircraft required for convoy and other sea work, while achieving no significant reduction in Germany’s war potential. The issue is not of a black-and-white sort, however. The bomber offensive, the airmen have replied, was not always what it should have been (this was the first real air war and much had to be learned), yet, in the words of the Official Air Historians, ‘both cumulatively in largely indirect ways and eventually in a more immediate and direct manner, strategic bombing and, also in other roles strategic bombers, made a contribution to victory which was decisive’.

Valuable experience of 1914–18 was disregarded in other respects as concerns convoy. Until 1943, when Professor P. M. S. Blackett produced some interesting statistics about ocean convoys and changed the staff view on convoy escort, it was Admiralty gospel that ‘the larger the convoy the greater the risk’. Had the convoy statistics of 1917–18 been analysed after the war, and the printed results of the mathematical research on comparative escort strength by an acting commander, RNVR (Rollo Appleyard) early in 1918 been studied, the Admiralty would have been aware of ‘the law of convoy size’: ‘The escort strength requires to be measured, not in terms of the number of vessels in convoy, but in terms of the total area comprised within the boundary formed by lines connecting all outer vessels.’ Appleyard went on to prove mathematically that the ratio of the torpedo attack area around the convoy perimeter to the number of escorts directly watching it is ‘a more correct numerical measure of the escort strength of a convoy than is the ratio of the number of ships in convoy to the number of close escorts’. It is sad that operational research was not understood in the interwar years; it needed someone of the standing of Blackett to show what could be done in this field.

Another instance of how the postwar failure to study with care the U-boat campaign of 1917–18 exacted a heavy penalty was the refusal of the Admiralty in the interwar period to believe the U-boats would make surface night attacks. Although by the end of the First War nearly two-thirds of all submarine attacks were being made at night and on the surface–to be sure, they proved unrewarding–the Second War found the Navy unprepared for a repetition of these tactics, this time successfully. The evidence was available, but it took the Admiralty a year (August 1940) to realize that the majority of the ships sunk by U-boats since the start of the war had been sunk at night–by, of course, surfaced U-boats. When, in 1940, the U-boats in the Atlantic, organized in ‘wolf packs’, attacked convoys at night while on the surface, the Admiralty had no immediate answer. It was, as a joint Admiralty-Air Ministry statement of 1946 misleadingly claimed, ‘a new and unheard of German tactic’. The problem was not mastered until 10-centimetre radar was fitted generally to convoy escorts. The turning of night into day with ‘snowflake’ flares and other pyrotechnics also played an important role in the defeat of surface attacks. There is no excuse for the Admiralty not having learned by 1939 that U-boats might attack on the surface at night. Whether the use of ‘wolf packs’ could have been foreseen from a study of the First War is another matter.