Thursday, June 11, 2020

Thoughts on Disbanding the Police


Photo: David Ryder/Getty ImagesThere has been talk of late of “Disbanding” or at minimum de-funding the police in many municipalities throughout the United States in the reactions to the apparent death by police of George Floyd in Minneapolis MN. Although there are already numbers of voices making themselves heard though the cacophony of the Internet, I thought that I would add a few words, perhaps of wisdom, to the discussion in the hopes of making people think these ideas through.

First and foremost, I have been a critic of police overreach for decades. Police have been violating their oaths of office for years, and the transformation from “peace officer” to “law enforcement officer” has not led to any improvements in the actual policing of municipalities.

For a bit of history as to why police forces use violence as a method of dealing with miscreants, let me make note of a few things. To begin with, modern police forces are indeed “modern”, and have their origins in the 19th Century. On one hand you have Sir Robert Peel’s “Peelers”, aka “Bobbies”, who were meant to police Metropolitan London to keep a handle on the rougher crowd, and to protect citizens and businesses from those crowds’ excesses. Peel had hard and fast rules of engagement, and polite interactions with citizens was one of the hallmarks of the operation (see addendum). On the other hand, you have, in the United States, the mid-19th Century slave patrols, which were organized for the purpose exposed in their name: to catch slaves who were quite literally “off the plantation”. From these origins come our modern police with both the good and bad intermixed.

Since the argument is all about how to solve the problem of police abuse of power, under which I would place the term “Police Brutality” along with a host of other equally problematic issues, I will begin with suggestions as to how to actually solve the problems. Here they are, in what I believe to be the order of importance:

1. Remove the “Qualified Immunity” which police enjoy from their positions. Let them be subject on all matters to the exact same laws and regulations which govern every other citizen. If they shoot someone, they must not only go before a police review board (after having had several days to ponder their answers) but go through the exact same process that a normal citizen must go through if he has fired a weapon at someone. Immediate questioning by police (other than their own department, and persons unknown to him), questioning by the prosecutor, and a Grand Jury investigation if warranted. No more “He was in fear of his life, and wanted to go home safely at the end of his shift”. That’s right up there with “I was only following orders”. Heck, everyone wants to go home safe, and if they are threatened, deal with the problem in any way they see fit. But if I’m not allowed to do it as an average citizen, neither should be the cop.

2. Make the superiors, up to and including the Mayor, responsible for the actions of their employees. If a cop shoots someone under unreasonable circumstances (or, say, strangles them), it is due to poor leadership, poor hiring practices, and poor training. All of these things are the direct responsibility of the Chief of Police and the Mayor. If massive injustice is done, then the Chief should be cashiered (without pension) and the Mayor forced to resign. Responsibility must be imposed where it belongs, at the top. A related concept is that responsibility flows downward, while loyalty flows upward. This is something Medieval kings understood, but that has been lost in our modern society. Take responsibility for the actions of your people, and you’ll get loyalty from them. Avoid it, and you get none. Sort of like what is happening in New York City right now (Spring of 2020).

3. Demilitarize the police. Right now, enormous amounts of military hardware is flowing to the armories of state and local police departments, making them de-facto military occupational forces. Dressing your police in military uniforms (black, just like the SS) rather than in more subdued clothing and colors, only intensifies the differences between “Police and Civilian”. In fact, the very terminology is designed to create a gulf where none ought to exist: Police ARE Civilians! (See Peel’s 9 Rules for Policing, in the notes below.) Unless they are actually military forces, they ARE civilian, and if they are not, then they are military occupational forces, and must be dealt with in that way. Be forwarned, though: Military justice is a bit more straightforward than civilian. Remove the “Qualified Immunity” from cops, and make them subject to the UCMJ and things will also change, for better or worse. But they will become more clear.

4. Stop recruiting directly from the military. Military veterans make up a large number of modern police, and if society wants them to be different, society must change the way police are hired. The lesson of Empire is that the lessons learned in governing one’s conquered lands are always brought home and practiced on the home population, with the predictable results of the population looking at their heretofore “protectors” as an occupying force. If you want Detroit to be Fallujah, this is the way to accomplish it. I’m not saying that veterans are more likely to be “brutal cops”, I’m saying that they bring with them the lessons learned on occupation duty. If you don’t want that, then hire straight from the civilian market.

5. Eliminate or drastically change the civil forfeiture laws. For police to confiscate any property they deem “suspect” in any possible illegal dealings, and then keep the profits for themselves without having to prove any illegal activity is begging for corruption. The confiscated funds or property should either go to a state general fund (such as in New Mexico, where such cases have been reduced considerably), or the laws should be stricken from the books entirely.

I believe that, with these changes, the problems associated with the police that are presently in the news will, for the most part, be solved without tossing out the baby with the bath water. There are plenty of other issues, such as prosecutorial misconduct, judicial misconduct, and massive corruption within the criminal justice system (and I don’t mean just money either, lots of problems come under the heading of “corruption”) that are too all-encompassing for me to address here, but I believe that these would be a good start on the problem.


As for the idea of completely disbanding the police forces throughout the country, though there are several arguments in favor of it, let us look at situations where the system of governmental Monopoly of Violence has been lifted. Before we get into the above, however, let’s take a short look at just what “Monopoly of Violence” actually is, and where it came from.

Western cultures have been fairly content, for the most part, to hand over the use of violence in the keeping of society’s rules to professionals for the past thousand or so years, and with a bit of a break after the fall of the Roman Empire, for several thousand years prior to that. The King, and through his authority the various Dukes, Counts and Lords, as well as the county Sheriffs (“Shire Reeve”) were given the monopoly on the use of violence in order to curb the otherwise excessive uses of violence by means of blood feuds, tribal warfare, and raiding back and forth between groups. With the enforcement of “The King’s Peace”, roads could be made safe for commercial traffic, seas could be made safe from piracy (thus the creation of national navies) and disputes between neighbors could be adjudicated by an outside, more-or-less uninterested third party. Certainly not the optimum answer, but far preferable for the peaceful existence of the vast majority of the population than the alternative.

With the ossification of the “old regime” came corruption, and the response was usually revolution of some sort. Peasant revolts, civil wars, and outright violent overthrows of kingdoms were usually the answer. Wat Tyler’s rebellion, the English Civil War, and the French Revolution are good examples of these. Often the cure is worse than the disease, but the threat of these sorts of “cures” was often enough to keep the upper crust from becoming too corrupt, and at least watching out to some extent for their subjects in a form of “noblesse oblige”. Actual police forces were usually unknown, for if there were problems, the local lord or sheriff would call out the local militia, who were bound to answer the call to assemble and deal with the problem.

Fast forward to the English Colonies, and later the United States of America, and the same problems existed, but without the local lords etc.. Authority to hold the monopoly of violence was generally granted to the local sheriff and state governor, but he still was required to call out the militia to deal with enforcing the law. This was somewhat of a restraint on the local authorities, since they had to have the assent of the local militiamen to enforce their laws. If they felt that the law was asinine, then they would be somewhat reluctant to enforce it. There was no “I was only following orders” sort of excuse. Militia was notoriously ill-disciplined, at least in the eyes of the authorities, for precisely this reason. There had to be a general agreement and support of the people for the laws to be enforced.

The reason that there WAS enforcement of the laws by the local militia, though, was that the alternative was quite unpleasant. There are many cases of lawlessness on the frontier that were handled by means of “rough justice”, and many a blood feud was conducted. The famous Hatfield and McCoy feud is only the last of a long line of blood feuds which peppered the American frontier’s history, and in fact was an ever-present fact of life on most frontiers throughout the world, where law and order is applied in a less-than-orderly fashion.

That said, take a look at the areas today where government’s authority and their monopoly of violence has been removed or drastically reduced. There is an excellent study, “RethinkingMilitias: Recognizing the Potential Role of Militia Groups in Nation-Building” by US Army Majors, Terry L. Hodgson and Glenn R. Thomas, as a part of their work at the Naval War College, on the rise and use of militias in the modern world, where they come from and what they do. In almost all cases they are a response to filling the vacuum of power caused by the removal or simply the absence of government’s monopoly of violence.

The authors define “militia” rather broadly, to include virtually all armed groups who were ostensibly defending their territory/people from outsiders. Within this they included nationalist militias, tribal militias, local “neighborhood protection teams” and ethnicity-based military groups. Taking a brief look at the Tribal Areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan, you can see all of these types of militia in action. The rest of the Mid-East, especially in areas where the United States has had a hand in destroying the local infrastructure as a part of “nation building”, has examples as well. Furthermore, the authors define many Latin American drug cartels as being militias under their broad definitions, as they too provide protection and services to the local inhabitants of the areas that they operate in which are not provided for them by the national government, which claims authority over the territory.

And this is in fact the bottom line of militias: they provide security and other services to their people which are not/cannot be provided by the actual government. There is a void of power, and into that void step the local populace, who therefore form a militia. Sometimes it is under the strict rule of a local strong-man, sometimes it is far more amorphous in its leadership, but they all rise in response to the power vacuum. When the monopoly of violence is removed, other violent players will fill that void. Some are criminals, some are idealists, most are simply practical men who wish to protect their homes, family and neighborhoods from the violence they see surrounding them in the collapse of authority. (The local militias which have risen in the Mexican state of Michoacan to fight the narcotraficantes who were running roughshod over the peasants are good examples of this, as are the local militias which have arisen in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq to deal with the terrorist organizations that afflict them. Sometimes they are incorporated into larger military units, usually not.)

Other organizations, too, become active when the monopoly of violence is removed. As noted above, blood feuds, usually a response to some injustice or another, become endemic and if you have a smaller or less militant family, you, and they, lose. The Hatfields and the McCoys may be the subject of mirth and amusement representing a case of “those benighted people” by today’s intellectuals, but it is a very real phenomenon. Just ask any veteran of our colonial war in Afghanistan, and he’ll set you straight about ethnic and family violence on a huge scale.

Of note as well is that people and organizations which can afford private security, do so. Corporations such as Blackwater/Academi/Whatever-their-name-is-now are more than happy to provide well trained soldiers to protect the interests of their employers. In the absence of government-employed agents of law enforcement, you can bet your life on the fact that large corporations such as Amazon, Google and Chase Bank are going to hire such players to protect themselves and their property...and they probably won’t be nearly as accountable for their actions as the police are now. Not only will the violence NOT be monopolized by the state, any civil actions against them will be defended by very well-paid lawyers in courts far more interested in maintaining the peace by any means than the rights of the citizens who may be affected by their misconduct. Kind of like it is now, but much, much worse. Neal Stephenson explores some of these ideas in his fiction, “Snowcrash” in particular, which are well worth consulting for some insight on this.

The final nail in the coffin, so to speak, in arguing against the removal of police forces in the country, is that they in fact provide as much protection for the miscreants as they do for their victims, in many cases moreso. It is often only the threat of prison and a loss of their life’s savings from the gentle ministrations of the local prosecutor, even if found not guilty, that restrains the citizen from dealing out “rough justice” towards criminals, be they vandals, burglars or rioters. Without the threat of “What will the police and the courts do to me?”, do you think that the business owners and residents of riot-torn areas would resist the strong temptation to simply start shooting the rioters? Or that the residents of the suburbs, in fear of the chaos coming to them, wouldn’t band together and simply shoot rioters on sight? The police provide a great deal of impetus for self-restraint from those with something to lose, a concept which seems to be lost on those who would argue for the abolition of those restraints.

Note: I would like to point out something here that is of historical interest. In the 19th Century, “Race Riots” generally consisted of white people burning down black neighborhoods and businesses. In the 20th Century, they consisted of black people burning down their own neighborhoods and businesses. In our enlightened 21st Century, they seem so far to consist of white AND black people burning down black neighborhoods and businesses. So we’ve at least made some progress there.


In conclusion I would fully agree that the police do in fact require extensive reforms, instituted as noted above. There are myriad reasons for doing this, and doing it soon. However I think that it would be foolish in the extreme to remove them entirely. Government’s Monopoly on Violence, while from time to time a nuisance, is in general a far better system than one of local militias, strongmen and private security dealing out rough justice in any way that they see fit in the heat of the moment. If you think that tarring and feathering, beatings, and lynchings are a great means of ensuring justice, then carry on. If you prefer peaceful commerce with your neighbors, then rule of law enforced by a fairly detached power that, for the most part, enjoys a monopoly on violence is probably a more reasonable alternative.

Gordon Frye
June 8 2020

Addendum:  Sir Robert Peel’s Nine Rules for Policing
1st - To prevent crime and disorder, as an alternative to their repression by military force and severity of legal punishment.
2nd - To recocgnise always that the power of the police to fulfill their functions and duties is dependent on public approval of their existence, actions and behaviour, and on their ability to secure and maintain public respect.
3rd - To recocgnise always that to secure and maintain the respect and approval of the public means also the securing of the willing co-operation of the public in the task of securing observance of laws.
4th - To recocgnise always that the extent to which the co-operation of the public can be secured diminishes proportionately the necessity of the use of physical force and compulsion for achieving police objectives.
5th - To seek and preserve public favour, not by pandering to public opinion, but by constantly demonstrating absolutely impartial service to law, in complete independence of policy, and without regard to the justice or injustice of the substance of individual laws, by ready offering of individual service and friendship to all members of the public without regard to their wealth or social standing, by ready exercise of courtesy and friendly good humour, and by ready offering of individual sacrifice in protecting and preserving life.
6th - To use physical force only when the exercise of persuasion, advice and warning is found to be insufficient to obtain public co-operation to an extent necessary to secure observance of law or to restore order, and to use only the minimum degree of physical force which is necessary on any particular occasion for achieving a police objective.
7th - To maintain at all times a relationship with the public that gives reality to the historic tradition that the police are the public and that the public are the police, the police being only members of the public who are paid to give full-time attention to duties which are incumbent on every citizen in the interests of community welfare and existence.
8th - To recocgnise always the need for strict adherence to police-executive functions, and to refrain from even seeming to usurp the powers of the judiciary, of avenging individuals or the State, and of authoritatively judging guilt and punishing the guilty.
9th - To recocgnise always that the test of police efficiency is the absence of crime and disorder, and not the visible evidence of police action in dealing with them.

Monday, July 11, 2016

Gordon's Gun Closet #8: Victorian High Tech Firearms

Here are some images to accompany episode 8 of the Gordon's Gun Closet podcast. We'll be generating a YouTube video from this audio at some point in the near future, but this should help in the meanwhile...
Typical paper cartridge for a smooth bore

You need working front teeth to use this kind of ammunition.

I love that the phic R is a Muybridge photo. From the look of it probably the right half of a stereoscope image?
Henry cartridge


German East-African Askari

Smith & Wesson 2nd Model Russian

More images coming.... please stand by.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

The History Files #58: Letter from 1916

A few things to go with episode 58 of The History Files...

Gordon's Gun Closet #7: The Lee Enfield

A few supplemental items for episode 7 of GGC
Highlander cleaning his short Lee Enfield

British soldiers in the trenches

Afrikaner commandoes

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Gordon's Gun Closet #6: Cowboy Action Shooting

Archeologist and gentleman adventurer Dr. Morgan Blanchard is back for episode six of Gordon's Gun Closet to talk about the sport of Cowboy Action Shooting. We thought we'd put a few supplemental things here on the blog just for the heck of it...

All the images in the header image at CSICON (and here above) are pics of Morgan, Gordon, Mrs. Frye, and a group shot of some of their friends at a SASS shoot back in The Day.

This nifty portrait of Morgan was taken by Stephen Jacobson sometime in the 90s at a house party.

This shot of me dressed as a Californio ca. 1850s was actually taken at a SASS shoot ca....80s? Let me think about it. My hair was less "blonde" back then, at any rate.

Here is a photo from an early End of Trail shoot back in 1986.  From Left are Carl Ontis, Dennis Mader, Jim Dunham, and kneeling is Frank Leman. (I can't remember the names of the other two gents, unfortunately!)

On the show we mentioned the additional sport of mounted action shooting, using blanks to pop balloons from a moving horse. Here's some footage from 2009 of me (and our friend and jousting buddy Bev) competing at an event not far from where we live. I'm on Gryphon (the black guy with the blaze). He was an amazing old appendix quarterhorse who wasn't thrilled about jousting but didn't mind gunfire. Go figure.

Mounted action shooting takes the "walk and chew gum" analogy up a notch, as the rider has to guide the horse, shoot relatively straight, not shoot your horse...and then change guns halfway through.

Safety tip: this sport is good way to demonstrate to the uninitiated that blanks are NOT safe. The muzzle blast that pops those balloons is very dangerous and can shoot a hole through an aluminum can from just a foot or so away. People die every so often messing around with stage/movie guns, loaded with blanks, because they think "no lead" means "no danger". They are wrong.

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

The History Files #54 & #55: The Battle of Jutland

When two or more people get together to talk about history, they're going to run long. This episode ended up being a two-parter, which was no surprise to anybody involved.

The British fleet steams toward Jutland
 Part 1

The Battle of Jutland took place on May 31, 1916, just 100 years ago as I write this. The background for this engagement is quite complex, as are the origins of the First World War. One of the main driving forces which caused the diplomatic break in the traditional alliance between Great Britain and Germany was the German build-up of her “High Seas Fleet”. It was that fleet which met with the Royal Navy’s “Grand Fleet” in the North Sea off of Jutland and resulted in the greatest naval battle of WWI.

Before I get into the main discussion, I want to point out one of the primary reasons that Kaiser Wilhelm II of the German Empire was so enthusiastic about building this fleet which was to be the cause of so much misery for Europe and the world. Aside from the fact that, as Queen Victoria’s eldest grandchild, Kaiser Bill was raised in the shadow of the Royal Navy, then the most powerful instrument of war on the globe, he also ruled during a time of massive economic and colonial expansion by the European powers. England already controlled almost a quarter of the Earth’s surface, besides controlling most of its oceans, while France, Italy and even Belgium engaged in a mad scramble for what was left over. Portugal’s empire was long gone, and the rump of Spain’s worldwide empire was soon to be appropriated by the United States. At the same time the newly united German Empire (1871) was possessed of the most powerful army in Europe and in the process of becoming an economic juggernaut. This new Germany felt that they should have a say in world affairs consistent with their new status as a world power.

Enter one Captain of the United States Navy, Alfred Thayer Mahan, a rather shy instructor of Naval History and President of the Naval War College, who in 1890 published lectures from his classes entitled “The Influence of Sea Power on History”. In this book he effectively shows how England went from a 2nd-class European power to ruling a quarter of the globe, through its focus on sea power. Hailed in the United States for its brilliance, and in Britain for saying that the Brits were marvelous (and by their own amazing foresight able to forge an empire out of nothing but some wooden ships and iron men), the work proved to be enormously popular throughout the world. The Imperial Japanese Navy, only now beginning to stir into the leviathan it would shortly become, absorbed its lessons, as did the Russian Imperial Navy, and virtually every other navy in the world including the German Imperial Navy. Kaiser Bill in fact was so enthralled with the book that he not only ordered his officers all to read it, but he also ordered a copy for every ship in the German fleet. Interestingly, these were in English, as most German Naval officers spoke English, as did all of the officers of the Japanese Navy. In fact, on Japanese ships English was spoken almost exclusively on the bridge, as the Japanese were intentionally copying every aspect of the Royal Navy for their own.  

The enormous influence of this book was, ironically, on sea power, and Mahan’s thesis was a godsend to the admirals and political supporters of the various navies of the world who were pushing for big ships and big fleets. Mahan was a vocal supporter of the theory of “Guerre de Main”, a strategy of using large ships in large fleets to seek out and destroy their counterparts in glorious battle, at which point the seas would be free for the passage of their own merchant ships and transports. Thus the economy could be kept chugging along, troops could be transported to anywhere touched by salt water, while the enemy could be simultaneously deprived of these things. The downside of course was that such large ships and large fleets were hideously expensive, and that they tended to rely on a roll of the dice in regards to who would come out the victor in these massive engagements.  

The British of course loved this idea, and had pursued it relentlessly for the 200 years prior to the publishing of Mahan’s book. With Admiral Nelson’s great victory at Trafalgar in 1804 there had been no one to seriously challenge the idea, at least as far as Mahan and his followers throughout the world were concerned. Thus the supply line of funds for these big ships and big fleets was not only kept flowing due to Mahan’s book, but increased, nowhere more than in Germany.

The other theory of naval warfare which was now denounced as useless in this new-fashioned day and age of the 1890’s was “Guerre de Course”, or “War of the Chase”. Termed “Handelskreig” in German, it was a war on the opponent’s economy via the destruction of his merchant marine. Though widely and successfully practiced by the United States in the War for Independence and the War of 1812, as well as by the Confederacy in the American Civil War, Mahan felt that this was a mistaken practice, for it was only through the destruction of the enemy’s main battle fleet that wars could be won. With this new approach, a century of American naval practice was thrown out the window to embrace the British form of naval war. Guerre de Course wasn’t completely ignored, but it was definitely given a back seat to the sexier, more expensive Guerre de Main.

Kaiser Wilhelm II, who came to the throne in 1888, embraced the lessons of Mahan’s book with a passion born of envy. While the warlord of Europe’s most powerful army (though not the largest: the Russian army was far larger, but also far, far less efficient), the new quest for colonies led the young Kaiser to seek to challenge his Grandmother’s country in a way whos dangers he could not have foreseen.

With his Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, Kaiser Bill began his program of building up a navy “to rival that of Great Britain”. It was thought at the time that in order to successfully conquer and maintain the overseas colonies which, though they proved to be more of an expense than a net gain for the countries which took them, a large, powerful navy was necessary. Britain had built her empire this way as had Spain and Portugal before her, so it was obvious that this was the proper course to take.  (That neither Russia nor the United States had bothered with large navies in order to build their respective continental empires was of course ignored, as both nations simply expanded into the land of their aboriginal neighbors, no navy needed.) The British people were for the most part quite unconcerned at first with this development, as the traditional enemies of Great Britain and her empire were France and Russia. Now that they were allied (due to Kaiser Bill’s foolish lack of judgment in not renewing the non-aggression treaty with Russia, a move which both angered the Russians and left a vacuum for the French to eagerly fill), this threat was deemed to be even greater than ever. Thus the traditional alliance of England with the Protestant Northern Germans was expected to remain solid. However, due to some rather provocative statements by the ever-erratic Kaiser, and his insistence on building his navy to be “second to none”, tensions arose in the relationship.

It had been for a century the policy of the Admiralty that the Royal Navy would be larger than the next two competitor’s navies combined, so that should push come to shove, Britain could fight off any such combination that might arise. However, as the 19th Century began to close, this became more and more economically difficult, and finally impossible.  Both the new German state, and the rising American Empire were proving to be economical competitors as well as colonial competitors, and both were beginning to put serious money into their naval enlargement programs. Both were beginning to take on overseas colonies: the Germans had was was then termed “South-West Africa”, now Namibia, and German East Africa, now part of Tanzania, as well as various islands in the Pacific such as Samoa, as well as enclaves in China. The United States had only just relieved Spain in 1898 of its last overseas possessions in the Caribbean in the form of Cuba and Puerto Rico, but also took Guam and the Philippines in the Pacific, as well as annexing Hawaii. Her new navy was a major reason for this expansion, and its successes only increased its budget. Obviously something had to be done.

That something was to woo the United States back into the fold of the British Empire, even if only as a “prodigal son”, as it were. Cliques in Britain and the United States actively lobbied for better relations, and over a century of wars and suspicion were gradually mended. Further British diplomatic efforts resulted in an alliance in 1902 between British Empire and the Empire of Japan in which should one or the other be attacked by two or more enemies, then the other would become involved. With the Western Atlantic and Eastern Pacific now policed by the friendly United States, and the Western Pacific policed by the allied Empire of Japan, Britain could now breathe a bit easier, and focus on her nearby neighbor who was making occasional angry faces, Germany.

The British, conscious of the fact that a naval arms race with Germany or anyone else would be ruinously expensive, tried at first to come to an accord with Germany in regards to naval armament. Several attempts were engaged in, with the idea that both of the nations involved would cap the numbers of ships they were building for their fleets. It would of course have left Britain with a superior number, but considering that she had a far-flung empire to police, it was assumed to be fairly reasonable to do so. However, the German diplomats involved were ordered by their superiors to constantly evade coming to a conclusion in these discussions to the point which the British finally threw up their hands and gave up. And the resulting naval arms race was, in fact, ruinously expensive for everyone involved. As Winston Churchill, later First Lord of the Admiralty put it “The Conservatives demanded four new battleships, the Liberals insisted on only two, so we compromised on six”.

The march of technological development which went so far to help bring industrialized societies so much wealth, and bring so much death and destruction to that same world in the First World War, was also very apparent in ship design. In 1908, the First Sea Lord Jackie Fisher put a new spin on the naval arms race with his patronage and launching of HMS Dreadnought, the first “all big-gun ship”, as it was said at the time. While not precisely true, the design did do away with many of the “intermediate” naval artillery guns which tended to clutter up the “pre-Dreadnought” designs, such as a multiplicity of 5” and 6” guns around the sides of the hull with only a few larger guns, and in return carrying ten large 12” guns in five turrets. But probably more revolutionary than the “all big-guns” was the propulsion system, which, rather than being a reciprocating steam engine, had steam turbine engines giving her a 21-knot top speed. What this did was to put everyone else in the world’s navy into the “obsolescent” category, and forced all competitors to pony up some major cash if they wished to continue to participate. Although it nearly bankrupted Britain to do so, she, by 1916, had managed to construct some twenty-eight of these new dreadnoughts, as opposed to the German fleet, which had only managed to construct sixteen. However, the older pre-dreadnoughts were still formidable weapons of war, and though outclassed by the newer versions were thought to still be able to hold their own in a slugging match as long as they were supported by their newer sisters.

Another of Jackie Fisher’s ideas that took root in the Royal Navy was the idea of the Battle Cruiser. This was to be a lighter version of the dreadnought, utilizing the same sized guns but with far less armoured protection. Fisher believed that the lighter weight would allow for sufficiently greater speed to allow the Battle Cruisers to be able to avoid being hit by enemy shells, while at the same time being able to pack the same punch as the heavier Battleships. This new class of war-ship was to see its debut in the 1st World War, with mixed results.

As much as anything it was this new naval rivalry which pushed the British into a rather hasty alliance with their old foes, the French and the Russians. Even though there was a long-shared history of intermarriage between the British and German aristocracies (Kaiser Bill’s mother was, of course, English and Victoria’s husband, German), the continuing economic competition and this new naval threat was sufficient to push the British, both the populace and the elites, away from their traditional allies and into the arms of the waiting French. With far more inter-service “discussions” going on between the French and British higher Army staffs than anyone even in the British Cabinet was aware of, and with a British promise to the French that should war break out between France and Germany that Britain would insure that no German ships would be able to harass the French coastline on the Channel or the Atlantic, it allowed the French to concentrate their own fleet in the Mediterranean in order to ensure the good behaviour of the Italians and the Austrians. Add to this the death of King Edward VII in 1910, which meant there was no longer anyone in Europe who could be counted on to solve the diplomatic crises which seemed to occur on a weekly basis. When in June of 1914 a Serbian fanatic murdered the heir to the Throne of Austria, war broke out across Europe, with Britain involved this time on the side of France and Russia.

With the outbreak of hostilities on the continent, Churchill, as First Lord of the Admiralty, ordered the Home Fleet from its usual berthing in Plymouth to Scapa Flow, far into the North Sea north of Scotland. From this vantage point it was believed that the fleet could be both in a position to sweep down and attack any hostile fleet threatening Britain or France, and at the same time be safe from any hostile actions to itself due to its distance, as well as the fact that any hostile fleet would have to make its intentions known long before it arrived.

One of the main problems which immediately became apparent, both with Churchill’s actions and the lack of any actions from the German Imperial Navy, was that with ships costing millions of marks or hundreds of thousands of pounds they became too valuable to wager lightly. The loss  of the three elderly cruisers, Aboukir, Cressy, and Hogue on September 9, 1914, all of whom succumbed within less than an hour to a single submarine (U-9), showed that perhaps Guerre de Main wasn’t going to be quite so straightforward in this war. It also demonstrated that this new, “Damnably un-English” weapon was, perhaps, not quite so useless after all. The safety of the fleet, in the eyes of both the British and German high command, became paramount.

The first naval engagements of the war in the North Sea, Heligoland Bight in August of 1914 and Dogger Bank in January of 1915, were inconclusive at best. Heligoland Bight was an attempt by the British to jump German destroyers during their patrols and resulted in the loss of several of His Majesty’s destroyers and cruisers. At Dogger Bank a squadron of German pre-dreadnoughts were met by a squadron of British dreadnoughts and heavy cruisers, due to the British managing to acquire German’s wireless codes which had been thought to be unbreakable. Perhaps they were, but when you give out your codebooks to merchant ships which are captured by your enemy, they’re not so secure. One elderly German pre-dreadnought, SMS Blücher, was disabled and sunk by the British, while the flagship of the British squadron, HMS Lion, was severely damaged. The Germans were chased back to their lair, while the British returned to lick their own wounds. The result was that the Kaiser was now in fear of losing his precious navy.

The Germans, despite their earlier focus on their “High Seas Fleet”, now had a bit of a change of heart. If the U-9 could inflict such amazing damage on the British with such an inexpensive craft, perhaps there was something in this submarine business, and Guerre de Course, after all. U-boats and likewise German sea raiders in the form of disguised merchant vessels were set loose upon the oceans, and the war became one far more of Guerre de Course than of Guerre de Main. This was so much the case that Japanese ships were sent to protect Australian troop ships crossing the Indian Ocean, and even to British Columbia to defend the coastal cities of Victoria and Vancouver. This being said, I doubt very much that the American coastal batteries would have suffered without dispute any evil intentioned German ships steaming up the Straits of Juan de Fuca.

At this point the war at sea settled into two separate wars: the Guerre de Course fought by the German U-Boat fleet (preying on merchant vessels supplying England with all of her necessities) versus the British Destroyer squadrons sent out to search for and destroy them, and at the same time the great battle-fleets of Britain and Germany, which did nothing at all.

As for the British, one of the things which they did perceive from their encounters with the High Seas Fleet was that, although they were victorious, it was only through the barest of luck that they were so. In both cases, had the Germans pressed their cases things could have easily gone the other way. As Churchill said of the British commander of the Grand Fleet “He’s the only man in England who can lose the war in an afternoon”. The fact that a throw of the dice could, in fact, lead to a major defeat for Britain and the subsequent opening up of her coastline to German attack was well appreciated in the Admiralty, so you have now a case in which both governments are quite averse to the idea of risking their major investments for war, their fleets. At the same time, both the Royal Navy and the Kaiserliche Marine were busily laying down and building more of the same ships that they were hesitant to risk, using resources which would probably have been far better spent by their respective armies instead.

By 1916, the British blockade of merchant vessels to Germany was beginning to hurt, while the Germans, due to American protests, had reduced the effectiveness of their own submarine blockade of Britain by restricting the rules of engagement. The German Naval High Command decided that what it needed to do was bring part of the British fleet, the Cruiser Squadron, into battle and destroy it with its own dreadnoughts by luring them into a trap. However, with the German codes already known to the British, it wouldn’t turn out the way that the Germans had expected.

 Part 2
The original German plan seems to have been to engage in a major raid on Britain itself. Due to weather problems it was decided instead to head towards Norway and Skagerrak, the entrance to the Baltic. It was felt that by preying on British shipping there the German High Seas Fleet could induce the Grand Fleet to stir from their lairs in Scapa Flow and the Firth of Forth, at which point they could pounce on them for the Great Victory which they so fervently desired. It was not to be.

Sixteen German dreadnoughts, forming the 1st and 3rd Battle Squadrons under the command of Reinhard Scheer, left their base on the Jade River late in the evening of the 30th of May. They reached the North Sea by the early hours of the 31st and were joined by six pre-dreadnoughts of the 2nd Battle Squadron. A Battle Cruiser squadron under Franz Hipper consisted of five Battle Cruisers, five Light Cruisers and about 30 Torpedo boats, the approximate equal to the British Destroyers.

At approximately the same time sixteen British dreadnoughts of the 1st and 4th Battle Squadrons, and three Battle Cruisers forming the 3rd Battle Squadron, all under the command of Sir John Jellicoe, left Scapa Flow. The plan was to meet with an additional eight dreadnoughts of the 2nd Battle Squadron, under Vice Admiral Martyn Jerram, while the Battle Cruiser fleet under Sir David Beatty was to lead the way from the Firth of Forth and scout out the German fleet. This squadron consisted of six Battle Cruisers, four of the fast Queen Elizabeth dreadnoughts, fourteen Cruisers and twenty-seven Destroyers. The game was afoot.

At around 2:30 in the afternoon of May 31st the two Battle Cruiser Squadrons met and began their engagement. The Germans had the best of it, first leading the British south towards their main battle fleet and then engaging the British in a gunnery duel. For some reason Beatty was slow on the draw and took his time deploying his squadron from order of steaming to battle array, and this cost the British dearly. The German fleet had the advantage of being in a haze, with the British were forced to fire while turning. This led to them firing over the German ships, while the Germans made successive hits on the British Battle Cruisers. Within minutes Beatty’s flagship HMS Lion was hit, and only the heroic actions of Major Francis Harvey of the Royal Marines saved the ship from suffering a devastating magazine explosion. Harvey, while mortally wounded, had ordered the magazines for Q Battery to be shut and flooded after it was disabled and his gun crew killed by accurate German fire. Shortly thereafter HMS Indefatigable was hit and suffered a catastrophic magazine explosion which sank it along with over a thousand sailors. Only two men survived from that ship.  

At this point, around 4:15, things began to look poorly for Hipper as Beatty’s battleships came up into extreme range and scored a hit on SMS Von der Tann, the ship which had accounted for Indefatigable. However, by this time they were nearing the German main battle fleet which bolstered Hipper’s confidence. At 4:25 shots from SMS Derfflinger and SMS Seydlitz hit HMS Queen Mary and penetrated to the forward magazines, resulting in her exploding and killing all but nine of her complement of 1,275 men. A few minutes later a German salvo landed in the sea around the HMS Princess Royal, and Beatty’s signalman declared that she too had exploded. This led to Beatty’s famous line of “There seems to be something wrong with our bloody ships today”. Lucky for him and the crew of the Princess Royal, it wasn’t actually hit and didn’t explode or sink.

While all of this was happening, a major Destroyer action was taking place between the fleets, with each one trying to make torpedo runs against its opponent’s capital ships. One, HMS Petard, managed to score a hit on Seydlitz, but even though taking on water Seydlitz kept up her speed and stayed with the fleet. Only the Light Cruiser SMS Weisbaden was disabled during this part of the battle, though she was not sunk and continued to fight on. Thus ended the so-called “Run to the South”.

When Beatty discovered that he was headed straight into the jaws of the oncoming High Seas Fleet of Scheer, he did a sharp about-face and headed north towards the protection of Jellicoe’s following squadrons of Battleships. Due to his poor communications skills however, he failed to apprize his four accompanying Queen Elizabeth-class fast Battleships of this change of order, and they proceeded to pass him and continue south towards the German Battleships, leaving Beatty hurrying north towards his own. These ships of 5th Battle Squadron finally did turn, but did so while under fire from the German battle squadrons. Although taking many hits during this maneuver and subsequent run north, these Battleships proved their worth by managing to take the punishment dealt out by the Germans without major loss, and keeping up full speed in their retreat.

One of the interesting aspects of this battle was that due to faulty intelligence on both of their parts, neither the British nor the Germans had any idea that their opponent’s main battle fleets were at sea. Both of course knew about the other’s Battle Cruiser squadrons, as a major part of their tactical plan was to lure the other’s squadrons into a trap to be sprung by their Battleship squadrons. But the unexpected arrival of the “heavies” definitely put some spice into the game for both sides.

At this point Hipper had already re-joined Scheer’s battle fleet, while Beatty’s remaining ships re-joined Jellicoe’s in a confused jumble that resulted in several near-collisions. As two of the British Armoured Cruisers, HMS Warrior and Defence, went to finish off Weisbaden, they were surprised to come under the shells of the German battleships. Defence erupted into a massive explosion and sank with all hands, some 900 sailors, while Warrior next came under fire. Lucky for Warrior, HMS Warspite, a new Queen Elizabeth-class Battleship with a long and illustrious career ahead of her, had her steering mechanism overheat and began a series of lazy circles in the midst of the fighting and became a primary target for German gunnery.

Around 6:20 Hipper’s moves brought him into range of not only Beatty’s Battleships but also Admiral Hood’s 5th Battle Squadron, and his flagship SMS Lützow started taking hits from both. Within a few minutes, however, Hood’s flagship HMS Invincible hove into range of Lützow and Derfflinger, and exploded spectacularly with the deaths of all but six of the over one thousand man complement, including Admiral Hood.

At 6:30 both of the main battle fleets had come together, and, once Scheer recognized that he was now dealing with the entire Grand Fleet rather than simply Beatty’s Battle Cruisers squadrons, he ordered a 180-degree turn in unison, which was done quite professionally with few if any difficulties. Jellicoe had managed to perform that most sought after of all naval tactical situations by crossing in front of his opponents line of travel, and Scheer was smart enough to see that had he continued forward he would have done so at great peril to his fleet. Jellicoe had “Crossed the ‘T’”.

Scheer’s retreat forced Jellicoe to chase, but in the process the German Torpedo Boats and Cruisers let forth a swarm of torpedoes which the British ships had to maneuver to avoid. Scheer then turned his fleet to face the British, but this time it was Scheer who put himself into the position of having his “T” crossed.  British Battleships opened fire on the Germans, causing severe damage to several ships.

At a little past 7:15 Scheer again ordered an “about turn” of his fleet and ordered his Torpedo Boats to loose a swarm of torpedoes against the British to occupy their attention. At this point, Captain Hertog of Derfflinger, in command of the German battle cruisers due to the disabling of Hipper’s flagship by a torpedo boat, ordered what became known as the “Death Ride”, ordering the four remaining battlecruisers to launch an attack directly at the British battleships. All but SMS Moltke suffered severe damage, but none were sunk and all managed to veer off once the safely out of danger. The last shots of the battle were fired around 8:30 on some of the German pre-dreadnoughts which had come up late to the fight, but by this time the main battle was pretty much over.

The German fleet eventually managed to escape by cutting back behind the wake of the British fleet. By this process they fought off various British destroyers and other light ships, but the German’s acknowledged superiority in night fighting caused Jellicoe to abstain from engaging his larger ships. In fact it seems that he wasn’t even aware of the German’s position, as they were probably jamming his radio frequencies. The Germans also incurred losses in this portion of the battle, losing several cruisers. At one point SMS Nassau rammed HMS Spitfire and, unable to lower her guns sufficiently to hit Spitfire’s hull, instead blew away portions of the superstructure with the muzzle-blast from point-blank gunfire. Another German cruiser was lost after being rammed by a German dreadnought, and a multitude of both German and British destroyers were lost during the night to both enemy actions and accident.

The last of the major losses to the British fleet occurred when HMS Black Prince blundered into company with SMS Thüringen in the early hours of June 1 and, in what seemed to be a common occurrence in that engagement, blew up with all hands after receiving several German shells. The pre-dreadnought SMS Pommern was lost to an attack by a British destroyer, which caused her forward magazine to explode, sinking with all hands, while one of the other German battleships took damage from a British mine on the return to port.

One of the noteworthy things about this battle was the poor performance by the opponents on both sides. The Germans were outnumbered, but due to faulty intelligence and even worse communications the British were unable to really make use of their superior numbers in a worthwhile manner. What could have/should have been a decisive victory for Jellicoe ended up being a rather confused and frustrating draw.

Even more noteworthy was the frightening tendency of the British battle cruisers to blow up and sink with all hands at the least touch by the Germans. The Germans used smaller caliber, but higher velocity, guns, and better optics as well, but the main cause was the British tendency throughout the fleet to value rapidity of fire above safety. Diving expeditions in the early 2000’s showed that cordite charges were stacked outside of the magazines to be ready to fire quickly. Even though the ships were designed with all sorts of safety measures, most were not followed. The Germans did not suffer from this problem, thus when the British shells struck German ships they didn’t result in catastrophic explosions.

Here are some of the issues which the British had which contributed to the losses of their ships in the Battle of Jutland:
-British use of Picric Acid for shell filling explosives, whereas the Germans used TNT which was not prone to premature explosions.
-The British used Cordite propellant, while Germans used a similar powder but included components which reduced the “flash point” of the powder, lowering its propensity to ignite when exposed to flash or flame.
-The British lack of maintaining safe ammunition handling precautions, resulting in dangerous practices such as stacking cordite bags in turrets and nearby passageways, rather than keeping all of the ammunition segregated in the magazines until they were ready for loading.
-The British tendency to armour in thicknessed in direct relationship to the caliber of the guns used, while the Germans used smaller caliber guns but thicker, better armour.
In all events it was the decisive battle that both sides had been seeking since even before the beginning of the war, but in the end it was not to be so cut and dried. For the Germans it was a tactical victory in that they did what they set out to do, which was to whittle down the number of British ships facing them. They did this in a most spectacular fashion. For Great Britain it was a strategic victory, for they kept command of the sea. The German High Seas Fleet never again came out in search of a battle. Admiral Jellicoe, the man “who could lose the war in an afternoon”, managed to keep his fleet in being without a major defeat. Scheer, who set out to sink some British capital ships, managed to do so and in the process also kept his fleet in being, and therefore always a threat to the British for the rest of the war. It was not, however, the “Glorious Decisive Victory” which Mahan had predicted and for which a generation of British and German sailors had prayed and prepared. With two competent leaders commanding vast resources, and competent men with roughly equivalent technology, neither of them was in a position to take gross advantage of the other’s (fairly limited) mistakes. Thus, the Battle that Was Meant To Be became a frustrating draw and only a British victory in hindsight.