Review of The Jeune Ecole: The Strategy of the Weak
For the past several centuries, with the fleeting exceptions of the pre-WW1 German Navy and the late Soviet Navy, the French navy - the marine nationale, or la royale - has been the second strongest naval fleet in Europe, and often the second strongest naval fleet in the world. Unfortunately, "second strongest naval fleet" leaves the minor problem in that there happens to be somebody who is the strongest naval fleet, and France has had the unfortunate status of that generally being the Royal Navy of the United Kingdom, which is located a near stone-throw across the English Channel. Even more unfortunately, France and Britain have often been rivals, which means that the problem has been an obviously one: how do you defeat a fleet which is significantly larger, from a country which can dedicate a far larger share of its resources to its fleet due to being an island? It was just this question that the French navy faced towards the end of the 19th century, but even worse, after having just gotten out of a catastrophic defeat against Prussia in 1870, there were even less resources than normal to throw into building a navy to attempt to challenge the United Kingdom. Their ideas materialized in the Jeune école the "young school", which contemplated rejecting entirely attempting to match the Royal Navy in slugging matches between battleships for control of the seas, and instead focusing on a fleet of torpedo boats, cruisers, gunboats, and later submarines, which would be able to defend the French coasts and destroy the perceived part of the British economy, its vulnerable merchant fleet and sea lanes, effectively crippling the United Kingdom and securing victory without ever challenging its serried ranks of battle ships. Such a strategy however, has not been particularly well treated by historians, and has received little in depth scholarly attention. The Jeune Ecole: The Strategy of the Weak by the Norwegian rear-admiral Arne Roksund rebuts this in defending the Jeune école as a cogent strategy, looking at archives and the historical record to present a more positive view of its strategy and to understand how it worked and how it structured the French navy during the period of its influence.
The introduction to the book lays out the French strategic situation, as the French navy sought to rival the Royal Navy on a limited budget, thus developing a new strategy of offensive use of torpedo boats and cruisers called the jeune ecole, against a traditional fleet composed of battleships, cruisers, and lighter vessels. This has been poorly received by many naval historians, who have either condemned it or tried to distribute blame for its failings, but the author’s contention is that this ignores the realism behind the policy, which needs to be examined from more than just a tactical perspective.
Chapter 1, “The Strategic Foundation of the Jeune ecole”, covers the context into which its ideas had developed, as international trade became more and important, leading to Théophile Aube and Gabriel Charmes to propose that building a fleet designed specifically to counter it would be the best use of France’s limited naval resources. Not only would even small damages cripple the United Kingdom, with its huge but seemingly poorly protected fleet, but it also fit French traditions of commerce raiding in the past, which had happened when the French fleet was of insufficient size to challenge the Royal Navy in the ocean. This fleet would be composed of small torpedo boats, which they claimed could travel on the open sea to sink enemy commerce. Its critics were much more doubtful about this, for legal reasons - increasingly restrictive international laws restricted attacks on commerce and the rules under which it could be carried out. Much of the difference between the Jeune école and its opponents was not a technological one, but rather a legal one - the former believing that war would be total and its laws abandoned, the former emphasizing their restrictions on the conduct of a guerre de course, a commerce raiding war.
Chapter 2, “The Jeune Ecole in Office” discusses what happened when Aube entered office as Minister of the Marine in 1886, firing off a battery of maneuvers intended to see whether torpedo boats could be useful high seas combatants and raiders. Although these had to ostensibly focus on Germany and/or Italy as the enemy, Aube continued to structure them around a war against Britain. The results were neither as positive as hoped or as negative as have been portrayed, and the result was that concessions were made to a more balanced fleet, but one which had increased focus on commerce raiding as the Jeune école had desired.
Chapter 3, “The Legacy of the Jeune Ecole” details at first French operational planning against Italy and Germany, and how this was influenced by the French fleet composition. Jeune école writers continued to view commerce raiding as one of the most important tools in the French arsenal in this war, and stressed an aggressive and merciless style of war. The Jeune école did evolve in the 1890s, focusing more on cruisers for commerce raiding and coming up with a variety of different fleet reconstruction plans, and it moderated in focusing on more conventional cruiser warfare and being less willing to break international norms in commerce warfare.
Chapter 4, “The Fashoda Crisis and the Development of a Modern Navy” covers how French naval doctrine evolved following the shock of the Fashoda crisis when the French faced the possibility of war with the UK. It was revealed that the navy had no real plan of how to conduct this war, and even at the height of the crisis it continued to view Italy as the principal enemy - probably as a way to justify its traditional strategy of battle fleet operations. It was only afterwards that a new doctrine, a hybrid of traditional strategy and Jeune école thinking, was developed, focusing on dispersal of units, torpedo boat littoral forces, more bases, and expanded cruiser forces, which would be able to fight the UK. In doctrine terms it represented a major shift for a European navy
Chapter 5, “The Revitalization of the Jeune Ecole” deals principally with the development of submarines and the leadership of Camille Pelletan, head of the navy from 1902 to 1905, a poor naval minister who the book aims to absolve of connection to the Jeune ecole. Submarines were an important part of Jeune école thought and one which was pushed by its thinkers and developers, seeing them in many ways in the same positive light as they had seen the torpedo boat decades earlier - a weapon which would decisively technologically change the face of naval warfare, a deadly weapons against battleships and an invaluable weapon for smaller fleets; France led the world in submarine development, but unfortunately their progress was partially blocked by Pelletan. Roksund makes the case that Pelletan’s naval ministry, which has often been seen as a successor of the Jeune école and which disorganized and harmed the French navy, was actually little interested in Jeune école thought, principally using it as cover for its political action, and that real Jeune école thinkers and strategists were oft opposed to its actions, such as cutting back on offensive submarines, training, and small torpedo boats which the Jeune école had lost interest in long ago.
A conclusion discusses why the Jeune école has not attracted as much attention as Mahanian naval thought, and compares it to other naval strategies and doctrines, such as noting that the First World War as fought by the German Navy ultimately fell in line of many of the ideas which the Jeune école had proposed, decades earlier.
Arne Roksund is a rear admiral in the Norwegian navy, and he can write with an authoritative stance upon the competences and facets of Jeune école naval doctrine. Although not an exceptionally long book, not greatly exceeding 200 pages, he manages to lay out what it was efficiently during this time period, discussing what its evolving tactical and operational doctrine was, the fleet that it wished built, its most important proponents, the results of its maneuvers and operations, operational features of the navy and its ships (such as ports and their status in resisting blockades, or the usage of torpedo boats), and has a much more nuanced perspective of the role of Jeune école thinkers in office than simply viewing them as bad, good, or adversarial, instead focusing on how they interacted and compromised with the rest of the naval establishment. There is a very subtle and detailed description of the changing norms of war and how they interacted with naval planners and how they had to respond to questions of international law, which incorporates very extensive usage of primary sources from Jeune école thinkers about how they planned to fight a commerce war. The doctrine is not simply lowered deus ex machine into analysis, but rather is tied to a broader history of French naval thought, which has often stressed commerce raiding as a way for its limited fleet to be able to still accomplish national goals in wars against England, and the ways in which the Jeune école was similar and different to this history receives its position in the spotlight. This is particularly important for an era where military thinkers attempted to fit their ideas into the national “character”, to analyze their history and the believed psychology of their people to arrive at military ideas to suit them (more often of course, in practice this is generally the reverse, rewriting history and designating what a national character is to suit ideas of what military doctrine should be). Definitely, the book makes a strong defense of the Jeune école, and conclusively proves that it was not simply a starry-eyed wondrous attitude towards technology, but rather a rational and operational attitude towards the challenges of French defense in difficult strategic conditions. In fact; it conversely can be seen as an attempt to return to a focus on operational matters and actual war fighting, as compared to the prestige fleet which had been built up under Napoleon III and proved to be very good at conducting impressive naval reviews, forming beautiful battle squadrons, transporting French troops to fight in overseas colonies, and dismal at actually fighting and winning a war against Prussia during France’s hour of greatest need. Although the Jeune école never actually had to fight the war it envisioned, it was a more realistic and possible idea than its rivals were for such a battle.
At the same time there are limitations to the book. To start with, the book deals very little with who exactly the Jeune école theorists and strategists were, what context they operated in, and how politics impacted it. Given that he makes note that the French naval system was heavily politicized, this seems strange - was there a link between the traditionalist, Catholic admirals and their support of battleships, which was important in Pelletan opposing them beyond any actual military reasoning, or was it simply coincidental? How did Jeune école thinkers get into office - Théophile Aube’s actions as naval minister might be very well covered, but how he actually became naval minister is not. What sort of social demographic of the French navy subscribed to the thought of the Jeune école - what made one into a colonialist who viewed the enemy of the future as the United Kingdom? This part is particularly important for understanding the French Navy’s continued focus on opposition to the British navy, even after rapprochement and the entente cordiale - Roksund displays why they were absurdly focusing on Italy at the height of Fashoda, but he doesn’t explain why their attention continued to be drawn to Britain after Germany became the principal threat to French interests. What were the dynamics which led to this? In fact, the Jeune école’s influence after 1898, other than in regards to the submarine, has very little attention at all - how did it continue to impact and condition the thinking of the French fleet, other than in regards to submarines and serving as a political shield for political maneuvers on behalf of Pelletan?
Furthermore, how did the French parliament react to the ideas of the Jeune école? In particular, how did broader society respond to the ideas that the Jeune école put forth concerning merciless commerce raiding? This political point represents the more grievous part of this problem. Roksund’s book is an excellent depiction into the internal politics and strategies of the French navy, but after all, a navy can only be judged in the context in which it operates, its objectives, and against who it fights. The most important problem for the Jeune école was how to reconcile military efficiency - ruthless commerce raiding - and international law, which placed strict rules on operations against merchant ships, authorized a host of different tools which could be used by a power under attack to protect its ships such as shifting their ownership to neutral nations, and favored stronger navies which controlled the seas against weaker navies fighting a guerre de course campaign of raiding. The Jeune école advocates were able to resolve to their satisfaction that international law could be ignored, but that is frighteningly irrelevant: imagine if any lawbreaker could simply decide that the law was irrelevant? What matters is not their opinions, but rather the opinion of the international community upon commerce raiding and the legality of their actions. Roksund neglects to mention how the broader community of nations might have reacted to a French guerre de course campaign and what their stance was upon such French actions: given the example of the First World War where German submarine warfare led to multiple nations intervening against Germany in response to the sinking of their ships, one might assume “not very well” would accurately describe their response.
Similarly, the response of other navies receives little attention. What did the Royal Navy consider of the French interest in torpedo boat operations? Did they know about it? How did they plan to go about responding? There is some note upon their attention to French cruiser programs, but principally from a political and budgetary angle, and much less so concerning their actual military plans to respond to French cruisers. Submarines do receive attention from how the Royal navy wished to not encourage their development, but there is vanishingly little about how, once created, it would go about responding to them. And for the post Jeune école Lanessan navy, devoted to fighting the Royal navy and relying upon dispersed lighter forces for a sophisticated coastal defense scheme and naval fleet cooperation, commerce raiding from a range of improved and fortified naval bases, and battle fleet units gaining local superiority thanks to the actions of other forces, there is nothing at all said about how the Royal Navy might have responded, except for its note of the difficulties of conducting a blockade. And finally, the positive reception of ideas of the Jeune école, such as in Austria, its similarities in Germany, and the Franco-Japanese connection in the days before the Sino-Japanese war. The positive aspect of the Jeune école is also ignored internally, for surely the French thinkers did not operate in a vacuum, and incorporate naval thought from abroad to their own plans?
Fundamentally, Roksund is very good at reporting what the Jeune école was, but he fails to place it into the context of how it would have performed - something which, as a rear admiral in the Norwegian navy (at least at the time of the book’s writing) he would have been singularly well placed to do.
This is in my opinion, no minor flaw, but rather a serious deficit. However, it does not take away from the author’s convincing thesis of the Jeune école being a reasoned response to the superiority of the Royal Navy, that legal aspects - something rarely discussed elsewhere so far as I can tell - of the Jeune école were of utmost importance and the principle shackle upon it, and that victory or defeat in the next war, a total war, against the United Kingdom would constitute France’s destiny as an independent great power or not. It cogently discusses the operational factors at play, how the doctrine evolved, how the navy constituted itself, and what the experience of the Jeune école was both in and out of office. For these reasons, the book does rise above the limitations that it has, but it is simply unfortunate in that with some additional material, it could have presented a much broader and well rounded view of the Jeune école to complement its excellent military analysis. Still, it remains a very useful book for those interested in French naval history, naval doctrine, naval warfare in the 19th century, naval history, changing norms of war in the 19th century, and naval technological developments in the late 19th century. Although it could have been much improved, it still is a very sophisticated and good work.
© 2018 Ryan Thomas