Part I Chapter VII [The Australian Crisis, by C.H. Kirmess, 1909]

[Editor: This is a chapter from the novel The Australian Crisis by C.H. Kirmess.]

Chapter VII

Naval power and world politics

“The supremacy of the British Navy [1] is the safety of Australia, and this supremacy is absolute.” That was the conviction in which the people of the Commonwealth, in spite of occasional warnings, placed their entire trust, and with which they justified before themselves and to the world, their shocking neglect of the first principles of defence. But while they were somnolently enjoying the fancied security, the world moved and Japan acted. It is easy to perceive, in the light of later events, the real meaning of the stupendous maritime armaments into which the Far Eastern Power launched out immediately after the successful war against Russia. Its policy aimed at nothing less than the creation of a war fleet, strong enough to overawe even the Mistress of the Seas at a given date, under special conditions, which had been foreseen by the astute statesmen of Japan, who had fully mastered the axiom that victory, diplomatic or otherwise, belongs to the side which can concentrate most power at the critical point. In the present crisis they knew that they would gain all if they could gain time. Whatever might be the extent of British indignation at first, it did not matter as long as it was kept in check by a sense of danger. Patriotic fervour cannot be bottled up. The Imperial authorities would soon come to see that Japan was still necessary to them as friend and ally. Then it might be reasonably expected that the problem of peopling the empty Northern Territory would be left in the hands of those best able to solve it, regardless of the clamours of others who had shirked the question, and owned no battleships to back them up. Tokio, indeed, had built the foundations of its stupendous intrigue upon hard rock.

In April, 1912, Japan possessed six battleships of the latest type, each superior to the famed English Dreadnought; another monster of yet improved design was being equipped for sea at Nagasaki dockyard, to be ready for service within three months. Three armoured cruisers of over 18,500 tons, with two more of 19,000 tons, rapidly approaching completion, rounded off the strictly modern armaments. But in addition there were the older vessels, which had given such excellent account of themselves in the late war, and the former Russian ships which had been captured and repaired. The mosquito fleet was far superor, both in quality and number, to the one which had some years ago proved the terror of the enemy. For crews the navy could draw largely, in the event of war, upon the veterans who had braved the horrors of Port Arthur and Tsushima, the only naval corps extant which had actually been through battle, and was yet available for another round. That was probably Japan’s greatest, and quite unique, advantage. These old hands would not be racked by soul-destroying nervousness if they should come face to face with death again, a nervousness sure to play havoc with the efficiency of adversaries who had never passed the ordeal, courageous and well-trained though they might be. Behind the veterans surged on the younger generation of sailors, all fired by fanatic patriotism and by the ambition to enable the achievements of the former, still fresh in everybody’s mind, not far-off memories of traditional feats of glory which had happened under conditions quite unmodern. Position, too, favoured the Japanese. Sheltered behind the length and width of the Old World group of continents, they would be able to choose their own battle-ground, and any enemy attacking them had to do so in their centre of power, where they could make the decisive stand in narrow, dangerous seas, familiar only to them, and in conjunction with coastal fortifications and submerged mines.

Great Britain’s first fighting line consisted of the original Dreadnought and of twelve battleships of a similar, improved type, and of eight other vessels of nearly equal strength and much greater speed, which were classed as cruisers. Four more leviathan crafts were in course of construction, but they could not be made ready for sea before 1913. There was also an enormous host of battleships and cruisers of older designs, many of them superior to anything the Japanese could oppose in those classes. In high sea destroyers and torpedo boats England outnumbered its ally by two to one.

The naval resources at the command of the Imperial authorities offered, therefore, material enough for a combination equal to the task of blowing the Japanese fleet out of the water. There were, however, several points of grave importance to be considered. The evolution of the Dreadnought type had revolutionized the theories of maritime warfare. Enthusiasts maintain that one vessel of her design could sink a whole assortment of older battleships without much risk to herself, by reason of her immense superiority in gun-fire, armour, and speed. This opinion had been somewhat modified, but the new principle had been left untouched, that a Dreadnought could only be matched by a Dreadnought, but not by any number of less up-to-date craft, the success of which, if possible at all, would depend on the incalculable quality of leadership. Accordingly, Great Britain, to discount the risk attendant on war, would have had to place in the fighting line at least one more Dreadnought than Japan could bring forward, besides providing for decided preponderance in the other classes. That meant that twelve or thirteen of the largest and most modern battleships and cruisers, at least twelve older first-class battleships, as many older first-class armoured cruisers, and a cloud of mosquito craft would have had to be despatched to the other side of the globe, 13,000 miles away.

The proposition was impossible of execution, simply because the portion of the British Navy remaining in home waters, after the departure of such a fleet to the Far East, would not have been strong enough to guarantee the safety of the heart of the Empire against the ambitions of European rivals. Both France and Germany would have been given the one and only opportunity for which the fiery patriots of both nations had been waiting in vain for generations, the chance of attempting the invasion of England with more than forlorn hopes of success.

France happened to be on terms of close intimacy with Great Britain. But its people looked with perfect composure at the discomfiture of the Commonwealth, which had prevented the annexations of the New Hebrides by the Republic, and was frankly impatient of its presence in the South Seas at all. The warlike Gallic spirit was certainly decaying steadily under the ever-increasing pressure on its north-eastern frontier. Yet there was no telling that it might not be resuscitated in sight of such a unique opportunity, either of its own accord or under the influence of outside promises and promptings.

But even if France might be trusted, beside it rose a far more dangerous and relentless rival — Germany. This “narrowly confined, yet unbounded” nation, restless, unfathomable, firmly believing in its own glorious future, lifted on the highest crest of the universal wave of prosperity, teeming with a rapidly multiplying population, could not be trusted under temptation. Its forward, enterprising policy was confronted at every turn by the Empire, which had fathered most of the desirable places of the earth before the birth of modern Germany. The latter, therefore, had to play the part of the ambitious, ever watchful Jacob, out after a British Esau, too cunning to barter away his rights of primogeniture. In the immediate past Imperial diplomacy, backed by the Japanese alliance and by the entente cordiale with France, had outwitted Teutonic policy in several fields, and sixty-six million Germans were still resenting the supposed humiliation. Would they not see the finger of God in an occurrence which removed the impenetrable naval screen from between their armies and the English shores? Even official assurances of friendship could not have been worth anything under the circumstances.

Germany had seven improved Dreadnoughts in active service, and two more were so far advanced in equipment that they could be got ready for war within three or four months. The keels of yet another four had already been laid. There were also four very powerful cruisers, and two more building. Its fleet of older battleships and cruisers was maintained in a state of highest sea-worthiness, and its mosquito craft was both numerous and efficient. The crews, like the fighting machinery, had never been tested in grim earnest. But they were drawn from the seafaring population, conversant with the intimate ins and outs of their narrow, treacherous waters, and thoroughly trained. What they lacked in tradition was richly made up for by fierce rivalry with the army, the glory of which they did not despair to emulate and to surpass.

The menace of this huge concentration of naval force within 500 miles from London had to be neutralized before the Empire could risk the hostility of Japan. A new British alliance with another great maritime Power, if possible, might have checkmated Germany. Some openings may have suggested themselves. There was France, for instance, still mourning the loss of provinces forfeited forty years ago to the Teuton. A treaty binding the Empire to assist in their recovery within stated time-limits, as the price of immediate naval support, might have been accepted. Unfortunately, even an Anglo-French alliance would not have been a sure check on Germany, which might not consent to wait until a dispute was agreeable to all parties, but might crush the Republic under the weight of numerical superiority while Great Britain was engaged elsewhere.

Russia had no fleet. It did not love the English, whose flirtation with the little brown men was responsible for the collapse of Muscovite expansion in Asia. Its army was nominally formidable, but the task of propping up the tottering autocracy absorbed all available energy and might have become too difficult if the German neighbour should decide to aid secretly the transport across the frontier of war material and explosives for the revolutionaries. Official Russia recognized that friendly relations with the two allied monarchies over the western border were its supreme necessity.

There remained another grand possibility: the enlistment of the United States of America in favour of the British Empire. The Great Republic owned a splendid navy, a large part of which, stationed in the Pacific, could be thrown straight against Japan, while the Atlantic squadron, joining the English home fleet, would render the United Kingdom secure against invasion. Here was a task worthy of a great statesman. If there really existed an Anglo-Saxon community of interests, as expressed in the famous phrase, “Blood is thicker than water,” now was the hour to unfurl its banner in the cause of the white race.

But America did not move. It was not forgotten that, a few years back, when its western fringe was in danger of being overrun by an aggressive influx of Japanese subjects, public opinion in Britain had sympathized demonstratively with the latter. America had triumphed over that organized attempt only by strong measures which led to the verge of war, and it could, therefore, afford to watch quietly, as an appreciative spectator, while similar tactics were directed from the same quarter against an English dependency. Besides, there were other potent considerations which inclined Washington to adhere to a policy of masterly inactivity. Japan had set up as self-appointed Mentor of China, and was patiently instilling a taste for the material benefits of Western civilization into a population of 400 millions, whose needs, once aroused, would overtax the comparatively small resources of the teacher. Then would come the turn of wealthier nations to act the disinterested friend towards China, to find capital for the development of the country, and to reap, in exchange, commercial advantages. And the United States were determined, in spite of temporary unpleasantness, to secure the lion’s share, to which they were entitled by position and resources. To this end it was necessary to regain the confidence of the Asiatics, who were deeply offended by forcible exclusion from America. There was only one way of doing it: by treating them with marked respect everywhere else, to prove that colour distinctions did not extend beyond the border.

The British Empire was America’s one dangerous competitor in the fight for domination of the Far Eastern markets, and, therefore, to be distrusted. Its alliance with Japan increased its influence, and a quarrel with the ally must weaken its whole position. Great Britain, however, was justified in quarrelling, for even hair-splitting Orientals could hardly raise objections against its defence of a colony by all means, fair or foul. But America had no such motive. If it allowed itself to be drawn into an entangling alliance at this moment, Asia would believe that it was actuated by racial hatred. And in the end, England’s refined diplomacy might foist upon the partner all the blame for regrettable necessities, which were bound to occur in such a controversy, and thus divert Mongolian fury and resentment from itself. In that case it would probably succeed in keeping the United States out of the Far Eastern trade altogether. There is no gratitude in business or in politics.

The naval armaments of smaller friendly Powers did not count in this crisis. Japan had chosen the right hour and the right place; indeed, the stars in their courses seemed to fight on its side. Its experiences in the struggle against Russia had first suggested to its ally the evolution of the Dreadnought type, which created new conditions in maritime warfare, and practically consigned the older classes of battleships to the scrap heap. Incidentally, this development resulted in a distribution of sea power, which for one fateful moment, at a point which had escaped notice, rendered ineffective British naval supremacy. It was just for a short time. In the course of a few years overwhelming numbers of battleships and cruisers of latest design would have been flying the Union Jack. But the reflection is useless; the need of Empire demanded immediate action, and it could not be risked.

[1] AUTHOR’S NOTE. — I have been careful not to overstate the case against British naval supremacy in 1912. According to the latest available information, Great Britain will have 12 ships of the Dreadnought and Invincible class afloat at the end of 1911 (quasi official), Germany 13 (official), Japan, about 10 or 11 (European estimate). It is, of course, recognized everywhere that England will take steps meanwhile to prevent such an eventuality. I have assumed that she will double her average constructive expenditure for the next three years, though it does not seem likely at present that she will make such a tremendous effort. Further, that both Japan and Germany will not be able to execute their programmes fully within officially foreshadowed time-limits, which every expert will consider a bold assumption. The actual naval position of Great Britain in 1912 will therefore most likely be much less favourable than shown by me.

C.H. Kirmess. The Australian Crisis, George Robertson & Company, Melbourne, 1909

Editor’s notes:
Dreadnought = the main type of battleship used in the early 20th century, a type built with an “all-big-gun” armament design and powered by steam turbines, named after the first of its kind, the HMS Dreadnought (launched in 1906 by the United Kingdom); an advantage of using guns of just one calibre was that the gunnery officers avoided the problems in estimating the range of where shells were hitting, which occurred when ships equipped with both small and large caliber guns were firing and ranging difficulties arose when it was unclear which splashes were from which guns

entente cordiale = a friendly agreement or working relationship between countries (French for “cordial agreement” or “cordial understanding”); the Entente Cordiale between Great Britain and France was based upon three agreements, signed on 8 April 1904, which resolved several matters of contention between the two countries (over issues regarding their colonial interests) which marked the end of centuries of antagonism and conflict between the two powers (however, the entente was seen as a blow to German foreign policy interests)

The Australian Crisis
[next chapter]

Speak Your Mind