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Genesis of the Grand Fleet: The Admiralty, Germany, and the Home Fleet 1896-1914 

Reviewed by Charles C. Kolb, Ph.D. 

This new title from the Naval Institute Press’s series, Studies in Naval History and Sea Power, is written by Christopher Buckley, son of Captain David Buckey (USN Retired) and an undergraduate history major from the University of California Santa Cruz, who obtained his doctorate at the University of Salford (UK) in 2013. Genesis of the Grand Fleet, in part, derives from his thesis, Forging the Shaft of the Spear of Victory: The Creation and Evolution of the Home Fleet in the Prewar Era, 1900-1914. Professor Eric John Grove (1948-2021), a distinguished, inspirational, and highly respected naval historian, author, lecturer and television expert who passed away on 15 April 2021, was Buckey’s academic advisor at Salford; Buckey acknowledges his doctoral mentor in the book (p. xi) and in a separate published tribute:

 Buckey’s account spans the period from 1897 through 1914, drawing upon 22 recent interviews as well as previous scholarship, and his own research in 13 British and American archives, plus periodicals, annuals, and theses. Among his sources are the National Archives and Records Administration in the United States, the Churchill Archive Centre, Liddell Hart Centre, Cairo Library, National Maritime Library, and British National Archives, Kew. The volume consists of a brief “Introduction,” nine chapters, a list of 35 “Abbreviations,” 1,870 scholarly “Notes,” a “Bibliography” (57 periodicals, 254 books, 159 articles, and 25 other references), and a comprehensive “Index.” A group of 30 monochrome “Illustrations” (14 from the American Library of Congress’ collections) depicting eight ships or fleets and 22 individuals, is inserted between pp. 180-181.

In the “Introduction” he comments on several previous books written about the naval history of this period, noting that these are generally regarded as outdated, lack data, and/or are incomplete by most late 20th and early 21st century historians – particularly revisionists Nicholas Lambert and Brian Ruddock. The era Buckley reviews, 1897-1914, was one of rapid, dynamic change for the Royal Navy. By 1914, the formidable Grand Fleet consisted of 45 dreadnaughts, 40 cruisers, and five aircraft carriers. Buckley writes that the “Royal Navy was a jailer keeping the German fleet confined but never entering its cell” (p 2)! 

The initial chapter, “From Review to Reform, 1897-1905,” begins with the Diamond Jubilee Naval Review at Spithead in June 1897 focusing on the command structure of the Royal Navy: The Home Squadron, which became the Home Fleet; the Channel Fleet which was designated as the Atlantic Fleet, and the Cruiser Squadron  transformed into the Mediterranean Fleet. The Eastern Fleet included four components: the China Fleet, Australian Squadron, East Indian Squadron, and Cape of Good Hope Squadron; in addition, there was also a West Atlantic cruiser force of eight vessels and a Pacific Squadron of three cruisers. The British Admiralty had been inspired by American Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan’s The Influence of Sea Power upon History (1890) and developed three new warship types: torpedo boat destroyer, armored cruiser, and submarines. An increase in the naval budget after 1909 and a greater standardization of ship construction components were significant factors in the Royal Navy’s successes during the First World War.

Germany had become Britain’s primary naval threat, with the Kaiserliche Marine rising to that position and the Russian Fleet falling due to its losses in the 1905 Russo-Japanese battle at Tsushima. The Mediterranean Fleet remained a focus of British strength, with capital ships withdrawn from the China Station to reinforce Gibraltar and Malta. The new Liberal government reduced the naval budgets from 1906 to 1908, but a subsequent government change in 1909 reversed the cuts. Britain began preparing for war beginning in 1901, but no permanent Admiralty body was specifically responsible for war planning until the Admiralty War Staff was tasked in 1911. The Naval Intelligence Department had previously carried on this duty, 1888-1911, along with its other charges. Buckey details the personalities of individuals, both military and political, responsible for war planning and the politics of this era showing how the Ballard Committee and Fremantle Committee, among others, devised plan after plan and how Sir John Fisher adjudged that war planning demanded a permanent committee with himself as committee president. The author also details the War Plan of 1908, with W.1 and W.2 variations, mentioning the U.S. Navy’s War Plan Orange, and W.3 with two parts designed to destroy the German fleet and not to conduct commercial warfare.  Herein, there was a role for British submarines and the deployment of British Army troops against Germany.  In Operation Unthinkable, contingency plans created in May 1908, the British were concerned about a potential Japanese-American War, even as the American Great White Fleet visited Australia, and an Anglo-Japanese alliance was considered. Plans W.4, W.5, and W.6 were devised as variants; W.5 involved American participation. Plan G.U. was a German-American combination versus the Royal Navy.

Chapter 4 “Politics 1907-1908” characterizes the British government’s “erratic behavior” and documents the Admiralty staff and seagoing commanders as openly hostile to each other. The October 1907 naval fleet maneuvers (war games) involved three combined fleets: Atlantic, Home, and Channel. Battleship and armored cruiser designs for the post-Dreadnaught era were rejected on the basis of cost and types and sizes of armaments. The 1908 Maneuvers (Red vs. Blue Fleets) also showed that the Board of the Admiralty had become too divided and Sir John Fisher would be eventually ousted in 1909. Meanwhile, there was substantial construction activity in German shipyards, so much that the Cabinet, Admiralty, and Winston Churchill and David Lloyd George sought to resolve British budgetary and shipbuilding issues. With King Edward’s passing, Sir Arthur Wilson’s tenure as First Sea Lord ended, and Churchill moved from the Home Office to the Admiralty to “rein in” spending and create a real naval staff.  Thus, began the Winston Churchill-Rear Admiral Francis Bridgeman Admiralty of 1911-1912. Buckley deftly traces the complex political and naval strategies of John Jellicoe’s rise to power, personality conflicts, and economic issues, with goals of reducing the expensive upkeep of an obsolescent fleet, scrapping old ships, building new ships with heavier guns, and restructuring the Home Fleet. Churchill, an advocate of more torpedo craft, was somewhat successful as German naval actions and fleet increases made further reorganization of the Home Fleet essential. Planning for construction of the battleship Queen Elizabeth, the strategy to induce Canada to contribute money and ships, and the 1912 Maneuvers are reviewed. A new strategy was devised: abandon the concept of a blockade of Germany and institute distant patrols to protect the British coast with torpedo boat destroyers. 

Chapter 7: The Serene Sea Lord,” documents the 1911-1913 period when Prince Louis of Battenberg worked well with Churchill in terms of developing the Grand Fleet’s composition, deployment, and fleet tactics. The prewar structure included four battle squadrons, five cruiser squadrons, four destroyer flotillas, one submarine flotilla, and two semiautonomous cruiser squadrons. Deployments were based on the Kerr Plan for the North Sea with area patrols abandoned in favor of a “flotillamens’ park” and, in the Admiralty view, “a bridge too far. There were problems with the systems for range-finding and plotting, and theoretical and practical advantages and disadvantages to be addressed; the latter including decentralization; the lack of practice in tactical maneuvers; the construction of a new naval base at Rosyth and the expansion of the existing base at Scapa Flow in the Hebrides; and the development of superior German radio-direction finding apparatus. Admiral Callaghan was replaced by Jellicoe, who placed greater trust in his subordinates. Buckey concludes that by the date of the 1914 Maneuvers, there was lack of an acceptable, comprehensive, authoritative tactical doctrine.   

In the “Last Months of Peace, 1913-1914,” political issues centered on naval costs, a diversity of political parties and, therefore, the Cabinet.  In addition, there was a manpower crisis – shortfalls in recruiting both officers and enlisted men to man the new and planned ships, especially for submarines and light cruisers, while Rear Admiral Beatty revised battle cruiser duties in 1913, and Callaghan and Jellicoe prepared five viable opening gambits against Germany at the beginning of hostilities. The assassination in Sarajevo on June 29, 1904 caused surprise and confusion in the Admiralty and affected the movement of the Home Fleet to Scapa Flow. By June, four battle squadrons were unified under a single command and the Home Fleet was able to adjust to political situations because of a multi-tiered process even in face of bureaucratic oversight.  Lastly, Buckey reviews the changes in Royal Navy and Admiralty goals since 1906, including the abolition of the Channel Fleet and the blockade strategy, the removal of Lord Beresford, the dominance of Churchill over Bridgeman, the rise of Louis of Battenberg, the revision of tactics and command structure, and the significance of the torpedo over heavy guns. 

Buckey’s Genesis of the Grand Fleet: The Admiralty, Germany, and the Home Fleet 1896-1914 is a new, valuable assessment of the political status of Britain and the state of the Royal Navy just prior to the First World War. Thoroughly researched archival and naval sources with scholarly documentation take the reader through a highly complex era of political and naval intrigue to demonstrate how the Royal Navy prepared Britain to face a war at sea against the rapidly developing  Kaiserliche Marine. Buckey’s account is balanced, detailed, and well-written, and should be preferred by general readers, scholars, and historians.    

A few words about similar works and unexamined contexts; Buckey has examined many of these and cites several of them in his book. The early “standard” works on British preparations and conduct of the First World War generally lacked detail or have been chastised as “incomplete” by more recent authors.  Jellico of Scapa, Admiral the Viscount’s The Grand Fleet (London: Cassel, 1919) is seen as a self-serving  account challenging other British naval staff and the Admiralty, while Arthur J. Marder’s monumental five-volume account  From the Dreadnaught to Scapa Flow: The Royal Navy in the Fisher Era, 1904-1919, Oxford: Oxford University Press (1961-1969; Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, revised ed. edition 2014) has been questioned as incomplete and savaged by some revisionist historians. 

David K. Brown’s The Grand Fleet Warship Design and Development (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1999) focuses on the ships’ structure and “anatomy” in ways Buckey does not. Roger Parkinson’s The Late Victorian Navy: The Pre-Dreadnought Era and the Origins of the First World War (Woodbridge: Boydell, 2008; reprinted Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013) is a more recent evaluation of the origins of the war.  Shawn T. Grimes’ Strategy and War Planning in the British Navy, 1887-1918 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012) provides a thoughtful, detailed assessment of more than three decades of planning and actions undertaken. Matthew S. Seligmann, in The Royal Navy and the German Threat, 1901-1914: Admiralty Plans to Protect British Trade in a War Against Germany (Oxford; Oxford University Press, 2012), focuses on economic issues and plans to deter the German “menace,” as does Nicholas A. Lambert’s  Planning Armageddon: British Economic Warfare and the First World War (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012).  

The Admiralty and British politics are reviewed by Nicholas A. Lambert, author of  Sir John Fisher’s Naval Revolution (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2003) who provides an account of some of political activities and interactions as does the more recent Matthew S. Seligmann and David G. Morgan-Owen’s volume, New Interpretations of the Royal Navy in the “Fisher Era” (London: Routledge/Taylor & Francis, 2015).

Little has been written in English about the naval planning by Germany.  A notable but dated source is Sir E. L. Woodward’s Great Britain and the German Navy (Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1935).  Herwig Holger’s “Luxury” Fleet: The Imperial German Navy, 1888-1918 (London: Routledge, 2016), Jan Rüger’s  Heligoland: Britain, Germany and the Struggle for the North Sea (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019), and Matthew S. Seligmann, Frank Nägler, and Michael Epkenhans’ collaborative The Naval Route to the Abyss: The Anglo-German Naval Race 1895-1914 (London: Routledge, 2019) address a variety of issues regarding naval planning. David Morgan Owen’s The Fear of Invasion: Strategy, Politics, and British War Planning, 1880-1914 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017) also contributes to our understanding. A recent book by Matthew S. Seligmann, Naval Intelligence from Germany: The Reports of the British Naval Attachés in Berlin, 1906-1914 (London: Routledge, 2020) explores a neglected but significant source. From Buckey’s book title, one might construe that there would be more information about German naval planning, but this is no drawback to a splendid, readable, scholarly research.

Dr. Kolb is a USNI Golden Life Member.

Genesis of the Grand Fleet: The Admiralty, Germany, and the Home Fleet 1896-1914 (Christopher M. Buckey, Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, MD, 2021).

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