The Great War at Sea
begins with the dreadnought revolution in naval ship design, moves on to the arms race between Britain and Germany, and builds up to the Battle of Jutland. This revolution began with the HMS Dreadnought
, which was launched in 1906. She had 10 12-inch guns, more than twice the destructive power of any other warship. Hough’s focus is not on the ships, however. Instead, it is on the Royal Navy, which in 1906 was beginning a massive transformation: from a rather moth-eaten organization still basking in Nelsonian glory, to a modern fighting force capable of the formidable challenge from the brand-new Germany Navy. Two men were key to this transformation: Admiral Jacky Fisher and Winston Churchill. Together, their massive energy removed the rust and age from the Royal Navy.
Despite his accomplishments with the pre-war navy, Churchill in war does not cut a very striking figure. In Hough’s view, Churchill was pretty much a disaster as First Lord of the Admiralty. His micro-management of his commanders was crippling to initiative, and his bombastic temperament made him many enemies, who were at best unsympathetic with his plight after the Gallipolli campaign, where Britain suffered heavy naval losses. In the aftermath, he was forced to resign as First Lord.
Nevertheless, the navy as a whole was a strong force, with generally strong commanders. Churchill said later that Admiral Jellicoe, commander of the Grand Fleet, was the only man who had the ability to lose the war in a single day. That he did not was due to a combination of skill, luck, and bad weather. Neither the British nor the Germans really intended a major fleet action at Jutland on May 31st, 1916: both were planning a trap that would lure part of the other’s battle fleet into annilation, without much risk to their own battle fleet. The plan worked, more or less, for the Royal Navy, but Jellicoe’s caution prevented him from making a decisive attack and the German fleet escaped hurt but far from destroyed. However, the High Seas Fleet never again went to sea in force, and for that Jellicoe deserves praise.
The Great War at Sea
is a readable analysis of the state of dreadnought warfare in the pre-war years, and how the theories worked when put to the test in the sea battles of 1914-1916. It conveys particularly well the unknown state of naval war in pre-war years: nobody really knew how a fleet action should be fought with these new ships. Serious students of naval warfare will probably find it lacking, particularly in its relatively light coverage of the submarine war, but I found it an engrossing study and would recommend it, if your taste runs to big steel ships and big guns.