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Fighting the Great War at Sea: Strategy, Tactics and Technology

Reviewed by Joseph Moretz, PhD.

Members of this forum will know and appreciate the many previous offerings of Dr. Norman Friedman in the field of naval technology and strategy. With several serving as standard reference works, readers of Friedman are invariably treated to a reasoned discourse anchored in primary research that never fails to inform. Fighting the Great War at Sea is that and more and those interested in the nexus of technology and tactics in early twentieth century naval warfare will find throughout the pages of Friedman’s effort lessons and cautions for the present in the context of an accounting of the naval history of the First World War.

To be sure, Fighting the Great War at Sea does not attempt a complete telling of that story. Rather, the author focuses on the period before the onset of war and then reviews the unfolding actions which followed in Northern Waters between the British Grand Fleet and the German High Seas Fleet. Necessarily, such a truncated survey omits much of the war in distant waters where amphibious landings and riverine operations were so marked, but as Friedman’s emphasis is on the evolving technology at play and the tactics arising the omission allows for a focused appreciation of the naval war in the vital theater. Here, the author’s expertise in Undersea Warfare is much apparent with submarine operations, anti-submarine warfare, mining, and mine countermeasures deeply surveyed. Other disciplines including surface warfare and the rise of fleet aviation support feature too, though not the Royal Navy’s initial responsibility for the air defense of Great Britain. 

Friedman’s conclusion that the Royal Navy employed signals intelligence before 1914 to create ‘an ocean surveillance system with enormous operational implications’ while correct is also misleading. Much of that system existed only in European Waters and then only came together for brief moments during the period of summer maneuvers with personnel returning to normal duties and practices remaining to be codified. When signals were intercepted, target bearing might be plotted but estimating distances remained fraught. To wit, upon the outbreak of war the Australian Station’s interception of German naval signals did not yield an immediate encounter with enemy warships as the intelligence collected was misinterpreted. A subsequent raid on the German wireless transmitter at Yap, if keeping with prewar planning for a naval war, compounded matters by denying the Admiralty the possibility of bettering the little useful intelligence so far yielded.  

The author is in his element when describing the place of the capital ship—the battleship and the battle cruiser—in naval strategy. Germany already having the foremost military now seemingly challenged British superiority at sea by building a fleet of heavy ships. British shipbuilding capacity, speed of construction, and innovation (both technological and tactical) might ensure the German challenge would never be fatal, but the price of meeting it proved daunting enough. Higher naval estimates to be sure, but also changes in naval force structure and fleet disposition to the detriment of Britain’s global position. Submarines and flotilla forces armed with torpedoes and mines might secure Britain from invasion, but even Admiral Sir John Fisher, the Royal Navy’s professional head between 1904-1910, dare not test that thesis to the point of neglecting the building of HMS Dreadnought and her increasingly more capable and more expensive successors. The author’s summary of the technology and trade-offs involved is thoroughly insightful.      

More problematic, is the author’s treatment of the political, economic, and strategic factors which that technology operated within. His failure to consult the relevant British Cabinet, Foreign Office, India Office, War Office and Colonial Office records with the same eye that has accessed Admiralty files has resulted in an incomplete presentation or a presentation that ‘mirror-images’ late twentieth century defense paradigms, particularly ideas of strategic deterrence, upon the past. This does not detract from the technical and the tactical story related, but it does lead to minor errors in fact regarding British governance, the threats the British Empire faced, and the timing of certain events. A large, conscript army was more than just a means of meeting an invasion to Britain proper. To many, it was the necessary means for defending India; yet finance argued otherwise in the aftermath of the South African War. Thus, diplomacy, alliance with Japan, and entente with France and Russia prevailed. The latter offered no ‘blank cheque’ but in late 1914 the Germans had created fresh facts on the ground. Now stood the risk that Russia or France would seek a separate peace. That might not be fatal to Britain, but it could prove so to its empire if Germany occupied African and Asian colonies as the quid pro quo for evacuating France and Belgium in any postwar settlement.

Likewise, it is too strong to claim the rise of the German Navy ‘was accompanied by a shift towards enmity against the United Kingdom.’ Certainly, some German newspapers adopted such a stance but Berlin’s official policy prior to the war was largely one of seeking comity with London. To that end a revised Anglo-German understanding over Portuguese Africa had been negotiated in 1913 and the following year saw agreement on the extension of the Baghdad Railway. A general accommodation however would have required Great Britain to forsake her now close ties with France while jettisoning more substantial interests in Africa and the Persian Gulf. Even if that circle could be squared, Germany’s growing fleet represented an existential threat to Britain and the empire. Perhaps a Kaiser not an Honorary Admiral of the Fleet in the British Navy could have tempered battleship construction. Manifestly, the present one would not.

Though Fighting the Great War at Sea is handsomely documented with footnotes and lavishly illustrated with contemporary photographs critically amplified by Friedman, it is sometimes difficult to determine whether a conclusion reached is the surmise of the author or one derived from established fact. For the general reader and, indeed, for most naval professionals, this presents no barrier. The academic, however, will wish the case was otherwise and though Henry Asquith’s Letters to Venetia Stanley and Maurice Hankey’s The Supreme Command represent key adjuncts to the official record, they remain only that. Hankey, seemingly secretary to everything, is not the neutral ‘observer’ the author assumes but was a central player in the events described and, most particularly, in the events surrounding the Dardanelles-Gallipoli campaign. His memoirs, especially, must be treated with caution and need to be read in conjunction with the official record and the personal correspondence of the principals involved.

Fighting the Great War at Sea, though, remains an excellent work with its weaknesses only confirming just how hard it is to write a single-volume history of the naval war. Sir Julian Corbett and Sir Henry Newbolt required five volumes to the tell the story of the naval war and the Admiralty Training and Staff Duties Division substantially more than that. Those reading Friedman’s rejoinder will gain an appreciation of the multiple technological revolutions operating at this hour which continued into the period of uncertain peace. A deeply thoughtful work, Fighting the Great War at Sea is highly recommended.     

Norman Friedman. Fighting the Great War at Sea: Strategy, Tactics and Technology(Barnsley: Seaforth Publishing, 2014), pp. 416, $85.00, ISBN 978 1 84832 189 2

Reviewed by Joseph Moretz, PhD, FRHistS

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