TOPICS OF THE DAY.
SUBMARINES AND FOOD. THE weekly report on submarine activity issued on Thursday is the worst yet published. The number of sinkings of large vessels of all sizes is forty—double the average weekly number of the past two months. That sounds bad enough, but the figures are really a good deal worse than they seem. And here we may say that the return should be made to render to the plain man a true, not an optimistic, account of what is happening. We are not accusing the Admiralty of deliberately hiding the truth, but they certainly do not push it home as they ought to do. We know, of course, that the destruction of shipping by sub- marine is not the only cause of shortage of tonnage, and also that the shortage of tonnage is not the only cause of the shortage of food. Speaking generally, however, unless we can reduce the depredations of the submarines and regain the command of the sea, for that is what it comes to, the food peril will be enormously enhanced. For a combination of strategic, or alleged strategic, and sentimental reasons, there has been very little criticism as yet of our naval policy and action. When it has taken place it has been at once smothered by angry scoldings. We have been told, on the one hand, that we were giving away our secrets to the Germans, though it was pretty obvious that those secrets were better known to the Germans than to us. On the other hand, there has been a foolish outcry that in criticizing the Navy we show that we do not appreciate the gallantry of our sailors, and arc not repaying the debt that we owe them. In order, then, to prevent misrepresentations of this kind, let us say that the individual action of the naval units has been beyond praise, and that nothing could have been more splendid or more self-sacrificing than the behaviour of the Fleet from the point of view of moral. The trouble has been in the policy at the very top. The essential ideas adopted by the Board of Admiralty and acted upon by them to guide our naval action have, we believe, been wrong from the beginning. As we have pointed out on several occasions in these columns, and as is pointed out in a striking letter in this week's Land and Water from "An Eminent Flag Officer," we went wrong at the outset of the war by adopting Mr. Churchill's mad notion that we could win at sea without lighting, or, at any rate, win without a vigorous direct offensive policy. Mr. Churchill, with amazing candour, published the ideas that governed his mind. 'Without a battle," he said, "we had all that the most victorious of battles could give us." He appears later to have explained this to mean that our ships must and ought to be torpedo-shy. Under Mr. Churchill's masterful influence the Admiralty deserted the old policy of "Engage the enemy more closely" —" Search out the enemy's Fleet wherever it may be hiding, and however great the risks and sacrifices, and destroy it." That was the policy pursued by the Admirals of former days and before our supremacy was undisputed. Now the policy has tended to become "Engage the enemy not more but less closely," " Keep your capital ships out of harm's way rather than seek out the enemy and destroy him "—the policy of the weaker, not the stronger, Power. Though we do not want to exaggerate, and are still convinced that the battle of Jutland was a victory for us, the more the details are known, the more clear it becomes that it was not nearly as conclusive as it might have been because we were torpedo-shy—because we were governed by the idea that we ought to save our ships rather than risk them, and that hanging on to the enemy, if it involved the risk of entering danger zones, was not sound policy. It was as if Hawke when at Quiberon Bay had said : "If you think I'm going to be such a fool as to follow you into the shoal water, you are mistaken," or as if Nelson had said something similar at the battle of the Nile !
But if our action has been largely paralysed by the false Churchillian doctrine as to grand naval policy and in the matter of big sea actions, it has, we fear, been equally tainted in regard to dealing with the submarines. The submarines are like pirates, and we are now being put very much in the position into which the pirates of the Mediterranean put the Roman Republic before Pompey tackled them on a clear and systematic plan. Pompey did not in the last resort try to meet his supermarine peril by building more ships, or by convoys, or by searching the waters of the Adriatic and the Aegean for his enemies. He did what in a humbler sphere we are all compelled to do when a house is being rendered unin- habitable by hornets or wasps. Though the thing may be a ueisance and involve some danger, what we do is to find out the wasps' nests and destroy them. Now we venture to say that in the last resort this radical remedy is the one which we shall have to apply to the submarines. Whether the time has come for it yet, or whether we may have temporarily missed the golden moment and must wait for another, we do not know, and we are not going to be so foolish as to try to dictate "when," "how," and " where " to the Government or the Admiralty. All we can do is to insist on the abstract proposi- tion that the submarines will have to be met, like every other form of naval offensive, by an appropriate and drastic counter- offensive, and that this in the end must be the destruction of the enemy bases—i.e., of the wasps' nests. But. though such a radical naval cure might do a great deal to help us to solve the food problem, it is of course not the only way of meeting that danger. The next most important step is to induce, or if necessary order, the nation to eat less ; it must spread its supplies in such a way that it will be able to endure till the next harvest is reaped: We believe that now there is nothing for it but strict and compulsory rationing. This might have been done on the voluntary principle if the Government had had imagination enough and sufficient sympathy of comprehension to know how to address our people. Three months ago, when the danger was really as obvious as it is to-day for any one except the man whose nose and eyes are always on the ground, they should have appealed to the country as they appealed in the matter of the Loan. Instead they made a few feeble appeals which were sterilized by the fact that they would not boldly adopt the principle that no foodstuffs should be used in a year of famine except for food purposes, and that therefore, quite apart from any temperance considerations, there must be no beer-brewing and no whisky-distilling till the food peril was over. They have stultified their appeals by insisting that the brewers must have an imperative right to destroy enough foodstuffs to make beer. As we have explained elsewhere in this number, and again and again, the public, only too anxious not to take a gloomy view, seized upon this fact as proof positive that there was not any real danger, and that the Government were only trying to frighten them a little. "Depend upon it, they wouldn't let the brewers have all that barley if there were any real danger." If the Governmmt still want to bring the petit home to the nation in an unmistakable way, they could not do it better than by instantly issuing an order that the million quarters of meal which are still undestroyed must be kept for food purposes.