Because history, like any other teacher, works its influences far into the future, the roots of Britain's reaction to the Falkland Islands crisis run back almost 70 years to an event which has always symbolized characteristics on which the English pride themselves: ability to rebound triumphantly from defeat and disorganization; colonial loyalty to the Crown; and Britannia rules the waves.
At the outbreak of World War I, the Imperial German Navy, smaller and weaker than the Royal Navy, adopted a double strategy. The Kaiser would hold enough ships in European waters to pin down the British Grand Fleet, while smaller units and single ships would attack British merchantmen throughout the rest of the world.
Operating under this plan, Vice Admiral Maximilian Von Spee steamed from China, his peacetime station, with five cruisers and some supply ships, intending to harass Allied shipping along the Chilean coast.
The British, suspecting Von Spee's destination, sent out a squadron of three cruisers and an armed merchantman under Rear Admiral Sir Christopher Craddock. On reaching the Straits of Magellan, Craddock received orders from the First Lord of Admiralty, Winston Churchill: stop the Germans from coming through into the Atlantic.
Dining with the British consul in Punta Arenas, near South America's tip, Craddock glumly summarized the situation: ''I am going to look for Von Spee,'' he said. ''And if I find him, my number is hoisted.''
West into the Pacific, and then North, Craddock's ancient cruisers sailed, not even waiting for the battleship steaming behind them which, had she joined the squadron, would have evened the odds greatly.
On Nov. 1, 1914, off the port of Coronel, Chile, Craddock found Von Spee. In rough weather, which reduced his old ships' ability to fire, Craddock's number indeed came up. Without any loss, Von Spee's gunners sank two cruisers (including Craddock's flagship) and drove away the other British vessels.
The news devastated England. This was the worst - and in fact the first - British naval defeat since the Napoleanic Wars. But Churchill and the First Sea Lord (the Navy's uniformed commander), Sir John Fisher, immediately began a counterstroke.
In features, ability, and personality, Fisher resembled America's Admiral Hyman Rickover. ''Get on or get out'' was his motto. During a pre-war stint as the Navy's chief, he impelled what he called ''reform from top to bottom.'' Impatiently he snorted, ''Scrap the lot,'' while exchanging the Fleet's Victorian rustbuckets for modern warships, built around H.M.S. Dreadnought, whose very name came to symbolize the new order.
Although Fisher had been retired for several years, when war started, Churchill ordered him back to his old post. The day after Fisher reported for duty, Von Spee destroyed Craddock.
Fisher reached to the Coronel catastrophe in typical Fisher style. He immediately ordered two of his newest battle cruisers, Invincible and Inflexible , to steam at once to the Falkland Islands, then as now, a barely-inhabited sprinkle of land, where the Navy maintained a radio station and a coal depot.
Both ships were in various stages of shipyard maintenance, a difficulty which Fisher disregarded entirely. To protests that the vessels' boilers were not yet operable, he gave one of his get-on-or-get-out replies: if the work was not done in three days, the shipyard people could stay aboard and finish the job at sea.
Three days later, the refit complete, the ships (without the shipworkers) headed for the Falklands. In command, Fisher and Churchhill had placed Rear Admiral Sir F. C. Doveton Sturdee. This was a clever touch: Sturdee had been one of the Admiralty planners responsible for the orders which doomed Craddock.
By December 7, Sturdee's battle cruisers, augmented by the survivors of Coronel and four other cruisers, arrived at Port Stanley. There they found the battleship that had never joined Craddock.
No German ships were in sight, although the intensely Anglophile colonials expected them momentarily. Civilian volunteers served as lookouts; a couple of elderly women were even going to ''spot'' for the battleship's gunners who were preparing to fire blind over the intervening land.
Unaware of the reception awaiting him, Von Spee had decided to strike the Falklands, intending to burn the coal and destroy the radio station. It was a foolish decision. Given the size of his flotilla, his shortage of ammunition, and his primary mission (commerce destruction), Von Spee should have avoided the Falklands under any circumstances.
Instead, on the morning of December 8, he sent two of his ships boldly in while the others waited offshore. Mistaking the smoke of Sturdee's squadron for a deliberate burning of the coal, and the visible masts of Sturdee's battle cruisers for those of the Coronel survivors, Von Spee pressed the attack.
Had he continued, he might well have caught Sturdee in port, unable to maneuver. The resultant victory could have eclipsed Coronel and perhaps - by its morale value alone -- changed the course of the war. Von Spee, however, suddenly recognized the British ships for what they were, and turned in flank-speed retreat.
Thus reprieved, Sturdee brought out all his ships and commenced the pursuit. After a 21/2-hour chase, the British, their guns far outranging the Germans', opened fire. The battle quickly turned into slaughter. By late afternoon, although the British suffered no casualties at all, Von Spee had lost two heavy cruisers, two light cruisers, and his life. One light cruiser escaped, but only briefly. Within three months, the British caught her not too far from Coronel, and the German overseas fleet disappeared permanently.
Tactically, and probably strategically, Sturdee's complete victory meant little. But it exerted an incalculable restoration of British confidence, and a comparable deflation of German spirit. Thereafter, although the Kaiser's submarines continued warring against merchantmen, the German fleet remained in port until 1916. Then came the great Battle of Jutland, where the British lost Inflexible, but pushed the Germans back to base for the rest of the war.
Echoes of the Falklands fight continued to sound, even in World War II. Hitler named a pocket-battleship after Von Spee, and a speedy, powerful battle cruiser after his flagship. Each vessel perpetuated the gloomy legacy of defeat. The Graf Spee, trapped in Montevideo, Uruguay by a British squadron, was scuttled in late 1939; the Scharnhorst, ringed by another fleet, went to the bottom off the North Cape the day after Christmas, 1943.