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THE USE OF SUBMARINE MINES AND TORPEDOES IN
TIME OF WAR
This subject, which was brought so forcibly to the attention of the civilized world by the operations of the Russo-Japanese war in the vicinity of Port Arthur, was one of the questions at the Hague conference last year, being thus brought for the first time to the attention of an international conference.
In making this statement I do not ignore the fact that the Institute of International Law had previously discussed this question · and formulated some ideas upon the matter, but this Institute, no matter how valuable its academic discussions may be, is in no sense an authoritative organization or, in the proper and official sense, an international conference.
When the invitation, however, was formally given by the Russian Government for the Second Peace Conference at The Hague the question of submarine mines was among those duly enumerated in the official program of the conference. Its bearing upon the free navigation of the seas and upon the safety of those being carried thereupon brought the matter within the scope of the rights of neutrals as well as within the domain of common humanity.
It may be well to state that the floating means of defense and offense referred to in this article can be differentiated into three classes:
1. Automobile torpedoes, which are projected both from shore stations and from vessels of various sizes against the vessels of the enemy in the course of a naval action.
2. Submarine mines which float in water-tight cases and are anchored along the coasts and in and off harbors, and which are generally exploded at will from shore by electrical apparatus and cables.
3. Submarine mines which are foating, either anchored or drifting, whose explosion is caused automatically by contact.
This latter type can be placed rapidly in large numbers and the mines are intended to be exploded by a simple shock arising from the contact with an enemy's vessel. It is this type which is so dangerous to friend as well as to foe, and submarine mines of this class were especially the subject of the discussion at The Hague. Such floating contact mines, when beyond the control of the belligerent using them, or which have broken adrift from their moorings, carry great danger with them on the high seas to neutral and pacific commerce and lives. This sea area should be free and
to all nations and its liberty has been definitely established by common consent and the law of nations for centuries. In this way, directly and indirectly, has arisen a conflict between the new conditions of sea warfare and national defense and the principles of the freedom of the seas.
No subject assigned to the Hague conference seems to have required a settlement and reconciliation more than this one, with its two varying requirements. The dangers arising from the use of these automatic contact submarine mines are not of an imaginary nature. In the operations about the Liaotung Peninsula, previously referred to, the fatalities from such mines not only extended to a great distance from the actual scene of operations, but in time outlasted these operations and also the duration of the war.
The delegation representing China at The Hague stated that at the time they addressed the conference upon the subject their country was still obliged to furnish their coasting vessels with apparatus to raise and destroy floating mines, which were found in quantities both in the open sea and in their own territorial waters. Notwithstanding all of the care taken in this respect, a very considerable number of merchant vessels, fishing boats, junks, and sampans had been sunk, and between five and six hundred of their countrymen, while innocently and peaceably employed, had cruelly lost their lives from this cause alone.
It will, however, have to be considered that submarine mines constitute not only an effective but a comparatively inexpensive means of defense for nations possessing extensive coast lines and small navies as against great naval powers. This system of maritime defense appeals in consequence to the less powerful countries as a ready and economical defense against arbitrary naval strength, and considering, therefore, the fact that in the Hague conference of 1907 the membership was mostly held by weak naval powers it is not to be wondered that considerable opposition and conservatism was shown with respect to the propositions of Great Britain as a representative of great maritime power. On the other hand, the Colombian proposition to restrict the use of Submane Contact mines for defensive purposes alone naturally came more nearly within the range of success. It is very probable that if it were possible to differentiate exactly between offensive and defensive operations of this nature the employment of such mines would have been so restricted. The endeavor to substitute for submarine contact mines those exploded only at will by means of electricity met with failure also, both on account of the want of readiness in the placing of such mines and the restricted distance from the shore at which such mines could be effectively used. Vessels of the enemy lying beyond their placement could easily, with the range of modern weapons, destroy or injure by gun fire in safety the shipping, resources, and defenses of the ports under attack.
The delegation from Great Britain was apparently the only one ready with a definite project formulated for discussion at the beginning of the conference. What might be called amendments to the British proposition or to its several articles were presented by Italy, Japan, Holland, Brazil, Spain, Germany, Russia, and the United States. A formal proposition on the part of the United States was offered at the session of the subcommission on the 11th of July, too late to be printed, distributed, and discussed by that subcommission before its reference to the preliminary committee of examination and drafting. Consequently, it appears as an amendment to the British proposition and is given further on.
It is to be regretted that better preparations generally were not made before the assembling of the conference, and the following suggestions of Dr. Lawrence, the well-known English publicist, should be considered before the next meeting of the Hague or any similar conference. These suggestions are that:
1. Any power or groups of powers to be represented at the next conference shall have the right of proposing subjects for discussion.
2. Such proposals shall take the form of draft articles for an international code, and shall be sent to the International Bureau at The Hague at least six months before the date fixed for the assembling of the next conference.
3. Five months before that date the proposals received shall be communicated in a classified and digested form by the International Bureau to the governments of all the powers who are to take part in the conference.
4. Three months before that date any amendments which any power or group of powers may desire to bring forward shall be sent to the International Bureau.
5. Two months before that date the International Bureau shall communicate to the powers the proposals and amendments duly classified and arranged under appropriate headings.
6. As soon as the conference assembles it shall elect a small committee, which shall have power to fix the order of discussion and to admit any new subject for which at least three powers demand emergency.
Before mentioning the purport of the British propositions which were taken as the foundation of the discussion it may be well to state that Great Britain has practically abandoned the use of submarine mines for the defense of its ports and is trusting to projected automobile torpedoes of the Whitehead and other types in connection with submarine boats for the defense of its seaports. Hence, and in connection with this, the fact that her fleet, both naval and maritime, is the greatest in the world — never greater or more efficient than now this Power represents the extreme school against the use of submarine mines exploded by contact. The British propositions stated concisely are:
1. That the use of all submarine mines exploded automatically by contact and not anchored should be forbidden.
2. That any such mines anchored that do not become harmless upon breaking adrift should also be forbidden.
3. That the use of floating contact mines to establish or maintain a commercial blockade should be forbidden.
4. That such contact mines should only be anchored and established within the territorial waters of the belligerents except in case of operations against military or naval ports.
In addition, it was proposed that all contact mines should be so constructed that after a certain period they would become harmless, and also that after the war was over both belligerents should mutually work together to remove or destroy all mines remaining in their territorial waters.
The proposition of the United States was:
2. Anchored automatic contact mines which do not become innocuous on getting adrift are prohibited.
3. If anchored automatic contact mines are used within belligerent jurisdiction or within the area of immediate belligerent activities, due precautions shall be taken for the safety of neutrals.
The leading power in opposition to the British proposition seems to have been Germany, aided in some of the final votes by France. The German propositions or amendments had a tendency to lessen the cogency of the articles as proposed at the earlier commissions, and from their vague nature would have tended to lessen the effective ness of the rule and to widen the sphere of the use of submarine mines of all kinds. A reservation was made by Germany in the final vote upon article 2 which forbids the placing of automatic mines of contact before the coasts and forts of the adversary with the sole purpose of intercepting commercial shipping. Although the failure to vote favorably for this proposition was explained by Baron Marschall de Bieberstein on account of the use of the word
seal ” and the introduction of a subjective element or an evasion, an impression has been formed, probably unjustly, that Germany, from its action here and upon other propositions, looked favorably upon a commercial blockade of an enemy's port by submarine mines alone. This, of course, would be in contravention of the Declaration of Paris and mark a retrogression in maritime warfare.
The rules as finally adopted by the full conference follow, with a brief statement of the votes upon each rule or article. I follow generally the English translation of the articles as officially published, the American text not having come to hand in time for this article:
ARTICLE 1. It is forbidden:
1. To lay unanchored submarine mines, except when they are so constructed as to become harmless one hour at most after they have escaped from the control of the person who laid them;