22 JULY 1882, Page 6


IT is too soon, as yet, to weigh accurately the many military lessons which the Bombardment of the Alexandrian Forts will doubtless teach. The data are imperfect and incomplete, while the want of sufficient technical knowledge on the part of most of our War Correspondents incapacitates them, able and enterprising as they are, from providing precisely the kind of information which the military critic needs. Besides, they have to cater for a general public which does not greatly care for the distinction between time and percussion fuzes, open and casemated forts, embrasure and barbotte guns. But, while hasty generalisation should be avoided, our present knowledge suggests much matter for reflection.

Putting the gunboats aside, the works of Alexandria were shelled for more than ten hours, by eight ironclads, mounting sixty-two heavy, armour-piercing guns,—an armament greatly exceeding that of Gibraltar at the present time. The conditions were highly favourable to the ships. The sea was calm, the return fire almost contemptible—" weak and ineffectual," according to the official report. Even the fact of the smoke hanging low was not altogether disadvantageous to the attack. It necessitated temporary cessations of fire, but it may, at the same time, have served to veil their targets from the Egyptian gunners. Their fire is stated to have been good in direction, but bad in elevation, which the showing-up of the masts of the ships, while their hulls were obscured, may serve partially to explain. Moreover, the men working the machine-guns in the tops and on the upper decks of the ships were not exposed to a return fire of similar weapons, or of small-arms, from the shore. The Egyptian shells hardly ever burst, and never penetrated the armour-belts of the ships, so that there were none of the frightful scenes between decks which occurred during the Chilian war. There was no dread of torpedoes,— an important factor in modern Naval warfare. On the fighting decks, or in the turrets of the ironclads, the men working the

guns must very soon have realised their security, so that the conditions of their shooting would correspond more nearly to those of target-practice than could ordinarily be the case in action. Realising all these favourable circumstances, it is not to be wondered at that slight symptoms of disappointment appear in some of the earlier telegrams,—disappointment, not at the results, but at the expenditure of time and metal re- quired to produce them. It may, perhaps, have been expected that the works would have been at once rendered untenable, under the shower of enormous shells poured into them ; that no gunners could be found to stand to their guns under such a feu denier ; that the guns themselves must all be dismounted, and the works ruined in an hour. Yet the Alexandra,' Superb,' and Sultan,' assisted by a flanking fire from the ' Inflexible,' hammered the north-eastern defences all the morning—latterly at 800 yards' range, according to the Times —without absolutely silencing them, and it was even found de- sirable to send the ‘Temeraire ' to their assistance ; while the Mex fort, engaged by the Monarch," Penelope," In- vincible," Temeraire; and apparently by one turret of the `Inflexible,' continued to reply till after eleven a.m. "The enormous power of modern English artillery " may, as the Saturday Review states, have been " amply demonstrated," but the conditions were highly exceptional, and the expenditure of materiel was very great. The task of silencing an enemy's works is capable, however, of being underrated. It can be accomplished only in two ways,—either by throwing powerful shells with low velocities at high elevations into the interior space, dismounting guns, damaging carriages, and making life impossible ; or by battering down material defences, and de- stroying by direct fire the embrasures and the guns in them. But good earthworks stand a great deal of knocking-about, as the Plevna redoubts proved. Exposed masonry may be " crumbled into powder " and parapets " knocked into shapeless heaps," as is stated to have been the case at Alexandria; but shapeless heaps will still afford cover. Much of the earth thrown up by the shells falls back, it is disintegrated, has lost its consolida- tion and some of its resistance to penetration ; but it may re- quire the cumulative effect of several shells striking near the same spot to effect a complete breach, laying open the work in rear. Guns mounted in well-built co,semates can hardly be destroyed except by direct fire, and such fire, to produce speedy effects, must be extremely accurate. There was, doubtless, plenty of indifferent shooting at Alexandria,—indifferent, that is to say, relatively to target-practice. The Times' corre- spondent " saw several of the 6 ' shells burst right over the centre of the town," and from the notes taken by an Englishman in the town, and published in the Daily News of the 18th, it is clear that the shells of the Fleet were flying about pretty freely. The firing of the Monarch' is specially noted as disappointing. This vessel fought throughout under weigh,—that is to say, in the normal condition of Naval warfare, but with the very great advantage of a stationary target. The ' Alexandra," Sultan,' and Superb' also seem to have made less satisfactory shoot- ing, till anchored. On the other hand, the work of the gun- boats appears to have been extremely good. The little Condor,' with her single 7-inch gun and two 64-pounders, engaged the Marabout work—" the second strongest fort," according to the Times, mounting "four powerful guns and twenty smooth-bores "—for an hour quite alone, and, aided later by the Bittern' and Beacon,' seems to have given a very good account of her antagonist. The material damage these little boats effected was doubtless small, but their success in silencing the enemy's fire compares favourably with that of the great ships. Moreover, they were never once hit. The two guns mounted on the Monorieff principle appear to have given most trouble, and on elevated sites, not exposed to flank fire and well protected in front, guns so mounted may now be allowed to possess great enduring power. We shall hope to know more about the performances of the machine-guns of the Fleet. Were they able to direct an aimed fire on the Egyptian gunners ? We gather that most of the works were open, as the Standard correspondent speaks of being " able to make out the Egyptian gunners grouped round their guns." Or, did they fire at random into the smoke ? Did they, in any one case, succeed, unaided, in silencing a gun by firing through its embrasure ?

Reviewing the whole operation, it would seem that, while there is no reason whatever to feel diminished confidence in fortifications, especially in good earthworks, when opposed to ships, the power of the latter has

not quite justified the more sanguine expectations. A very powerful Fleet, possessing an enormous initial prepon- derance of metal, and operating under the most favourable conditions, has, after ton hours' fire, wrecked some weak and mostly ill-constructed works, armed chiefly by obsolete weapons, fought by gunners quite unable to make a proper use of shells, and apparently incapable of handling their few heavy guns. This is all, and the deductions drawn by the Times' correspon- dent do not appear to have any particular value :—" Taking the result as a whole, in reference to the comparative strength of the batteries ashore and the batteries afloat, in this the first Naval action in which the question has been put to the test, the advantage, as regards the loss of life, would seem to be with the ships,—that is to say, that the ships can effect more loss of life on land batteries than the land batteries can inflict on the ships ; but that, cceteris paribus, the forts can inflict more damage on a ship than a ship will ever be able to inflict on a fort." The general proposition that as regards destruction of life the ships have the advantage over well-built forts, is a highly doubtful one, and, in any case, the Alexandria affair affords no evidence whatever on the point. A battery of modern field-guns firing shell would destroy a battery of the- Waterloo type firing round shot. The proportional disparity was not less at Alexandria. The second proposition, that, eceteris paribus, forts can inflict more damage on ships, is a question of circumstances on which it is impossible to argue. Can there be any real parity of con- ditions between a ship and a fort ? One, to us not unim- portant, fact has received new confirmation by the recent events. The increased power of modern artillery is due to two things,—the power of rapidly handling enormous weights, which mechanical appliances confer ; and the great destructive effect of heavy shells, properly fuzed. The dexterous handling of heavy guns, and the proper manage- ment of fuzes, require high training and discipline. The latter seems to be beyond the capacity of semi-civilised nations, and it is significant that the Egyptians, while making credit- able shooting with their smooth-bores, seem to have been quite unable to lay their few twelve-ton and eighteen-ton guns. Uncivil- ised nations are fond of procuring the latest modern weapons —the Emperor of Morocco is now mounting ten-inch guns at Tangier—but it is highly doubtful whether they will ever be able to get any great results from them, and Arabi's thirty-six Krupp guns need not cause much anxiety.