on 22 September 2013
(publisher's review copy)
This is a modern, affordable, and extremely welcome paperback reprint of Arthur J Marder's classic account of the Royal Navy in the First World War. First published in 1965, after Marder had recovered from the inadvertent binning of his original notes covering from 1914 onwards, what had originally been intended to be a single volume had already become two, and would now, when complete, be five, of which this - covering the outbreak of war to the eve of Jutland - is the second.
Even in five volumes Marder's narrative selects only those naval activities most relevant to the build-up to Jutland. For other detail there are so many other sources. What Marder gives us is "The war behind the war" with deep insights into how the war was managed from Whitehall. That is what makes Marder such a fundamental source.
Bringing Fisher back in October 1914 booted into action an Admiralty that lost its sense of urgency following his departure in 1910. A vast programme of ship (and airship) building was immediately put in hand. It was fortunate that the Germans could not credit us with being so stupid as to have done nothing to fortify Scapa, Invergordon and Rosyth, and that initially (because they were reading 1912 tealeaves) they misread our grand strategy. However they had better rangefinders, better shell fuzes, and could afford better watertight subdivision between decks. The Royal Navy was totally unprepared for mine warfare but the problem was eventually, with ingenuity, great effort and no little loss, contained. Our own mines were lamentably deficient in design and either dragged or didn't go off. However (not mentioned by Marder) the Germans were later in abandoning sided midship turrets than us, partly because German ships could be built broader in beam, since their (much newer) docks were built to suit their ships rather than vice versa. This gave us a three-year advantage in battleship broadsides and against all but two German battle cruisers.
Coming out four years after the first volume, some delay to its successor under review here was due to the MoD's extraordinary and quite indefensible attempt to censor Marder's work half a century after the events described. Via his contacts, Marder had managed to see and use papers which, after the event, he was told he shouldn't have seen and from which he had drawn conclusions relating to the Goeben and Dardanelles affairs which reflected badly on the Admiralty.
Here, for instance we have the story of how the Admiralty thought they could shift the blame for the Goeben's escape onto Admiral Troubridge, by having him court-martialled .. but, annoyingly, he was acquitted. The Admiralty were pretty spiteful to him afterwards but the cause of the Goeben debacle is, we see, the Admiralty's failure clearly to set objectives and priorities, plus a bungle in their offices that cost Troubridge 24 hours of the chase. This episode was to be re-enacted in part in 1940 when Vichy French ships escaped because the force which might have caught them were not under appropriate command. That time, however, the Admiralty managed, totally unfairly, to punish and professionally ruin Admiral North. It was more than a coincidence that the man in charge both times was Churchill, who could be self-serving and spiteful on occasion.
The disaster off Coronel, caused by the Admiralty splitting one perhaps adequate force into two definitively inadequate ones, was redeemed off the Falklands, thanks to Churchill's urgent despatch of two battlecruisers - and thanks to luck. It was original bad luck that produced Coronel; I have read elsewhere that the two opposing squadrons would never have found each other if their wing ships, Glasgow and Leipzig, had not closed the same merchant contact to investigate her at the same time. It was good luck that Von Spee dawdled to the Falklands and did not take the place before Sturdee reached it; and luck that brought the two squadrons into contact when it did. Too late for any correction, for the record, HMS Kent was also at the eventual scuttling of the Dresden, not just HMS Glasgow.
The Government and Admiralty naively assumed that Germany, in spite of its record in previous wars, and in spite of its invasion of Belgium of whose neutrality Prussia was a guarantor, would obey the Hague convention which it had signed as recently as 1907, which inter alia forbade the mining of international waters, and the bombardment of purely civilian targets - such as Scarborough and Whitby. The chief problem with intercepting these tip and run raids was that the Germans had the initiative. When there was a chance of interception, as with the April 1916 Lowestoft raid, success eluded us because the torpid Balfour/Jackson Admiralty failed to sail the Grand Fleet early enough, and then failed to coordinate the Grand Fleet and the Harwich force. Luck was also needed, and our moment would indeed come.
A tour of the Flag List with Marder might leave one wondering how some of those admirals ever made Commander. Hardly any officer of Commander's rank or above had had any sort of education beyond the functional, and the officer training process placed an unhealthy premium on slavish obedience at the expense of initiative. Most senior officers (like Keyes, and, too often Fisher) had little political or diplomatic sensitivity and often failed to see the bigger picture. At a lower level, they were to a man untrained in understanding naval warfare itself beyond the handling of a single ship. What was later routinely taught even to junior officers as the Principles of War - selection and maintenance of the aim, concentration, surprise etc. - was a closed book to most admirals. To find a senior officer with a balanced education and also a flair for leadership was almost impossible. Most had never acquired habits of clear-cut analytical thought; many (including Beatty) seemed to have a complete blind spot for technology. That Scott, Bacon and Richmond somehow emerged from this with their brains intact was a vast blessing. The sinking of the three cruisers of the Live Bait squadron within one hour by a single U-boat showed how little modern technicalities were understood.
In Beatty's own estimation, his Flag Lieutenant, Seymour, lost him four battles through ambiguous signalling. As it turned out our officers had a lot to learn in the way of signalling all relevant information. Why was Seymour not beached? Too often there was too much concern for the feelings of inadequate officers, unbalanced by understanding the disastrous consequences for the war of keeping them in post, even at this rank, let alone at Flag level. A failure of an individual is really the failure of those who make the appointment. Sometimes, sadly, there wasn't much of quality to choose from. Even Fisher's credibility and usefulness was undermined by his fixation on penetrating the Baltic.
The object of sea warfare is to gain and maintain command of the sea. Individual battles are ancillary to this and may or may not be appropriate. Jellicoe (sometimes, apparently, alone) knew this and that diversion of his resources, let alone attacks by mines and submarines would jeopardise not just the Grand Fleet but the security of the nation itself. The Grand Fleet's supremacy could only be exercised in open water, where the High Seas Fleet`s capability was not enhanced by local defences. The sad thing was that even some admirals couldn't see this. Churchill never understood how sea power works and kept pressing for one potentially disastrous sideshow after another, culminating in the Dardanelles disaster. This adventure, which had its genesis in 1906, is given two chapters and overshadows a third. Marder explains to us how we got into the mess and how the operation unravelled, partly via mission creep. We see how any surprise was blown by a stupidly premature bombardment in 1914, and how the mission was doomed by totally impractical assumptions about naval gunfire whose flat trajectories made it useless against the land targets, even if there had been adequate spotting, which there wasn't. And if our ships had forced their way up to the Sea of Marmora, how would they have coaled? In the case of the Baltic and the Sea of Marmora what worked well were submarines (their insertion and deployment vastly cheaper than a battleship assault).
Failure of tactical loading cost the army a month (amazingly this blunder was repeated in Norway in 1940 and Singapore in 1942). This was caused, ultimately, by Churchill forcing an unqualified civilian (Graeme Thompson) into the job of organizing the sea transport.
Ironically, the evacuation showed what good staff work, so lamentably absent at the start of this campaign, could achieve given a clear aim.
Churchill was, unsurprisingly, grossly unfair in his comments afterwards. Marder ultimately blames the total system more than Churchill.
Fisher and Churchill had overreached themselves. They both had to go, as it was clear that either on his own would have walked all over any other First Lord or First Sea Lord. However under Balfour and Jackson - a nitpicker and micro-manager who was unable to delegate - the Admiralty stalled. For instance the fitting of director firing in capital ships' secondary armament, and in cruisers and destroyers had still not happened when battle was ultimately joined. The Admiralty was finally spurred into action in the spring of 1916, by public unrest, to deal (too late) with delays in warship construction. These were partly caused by restrictive practices in the middle of a war (just as happened in the Second World War in the docks) but also by labour and skills shortages as the army swallowed up more and more men. Fisher's prewar shipbuilding initiatives relating to battleships had, however, come good. As it was, work did progress on `Fisher's Follies', HMSs Spurious, Curious and Outrageous, the ridiculous cruisers (which all finished up as aircraft carriers) optimised from the start for his insane Baltic adventure and a monument to how Fisher, although still bursting with energy, was intellectually past it.
The enemy's guerre de course passed from his defeated cruisers to his submarines, Germany operating in breach of international agreements (again). All objections were based on fear of neutrals' reactions and never on ethics.
Unlike the mine threat which was contained by technical advances, the submerged U-boat was undetectable except occasionally from the air. Various ingenious countermeasures against submarines were devised but some were less effective partly because, for instance, because measures like the Q-ships went on being used after the Germans had rumbled them. The Admiralty misled itself in believing that lulls in 1915 and 1916 in the U-boat campaign were due to our cleverness, whereas they were due to German sensitivity to American complaints about American casualties.
The Mediterranean drain on resources caused by having to protect the supply to armies in Salonika, Gallipoli and Egypt was aggravated by failure of coordination of British, French and Italian efforts. In particular the Italians repeatedly refused to take out the U-boats' Adriatic base at Cattaro.
Our own Foreign Office comes across as over-sensitive regarding neutrals. This inhibited the northern blockade. If more vigorous prosecution had been allowed, this might have shortened the war perhaps by two years and saved thousands of Allied lives. As it was, by 1916 the blockade was already hurting enough for there to be agitation in Germany regarding the idleness of the High Seas Fleet.
The penultimate chapter gives a comparison of British and German strategy. That these strategies collided at the end of May 1916 turned out to be a most fortunate coincidence.
All these topics have of course been individually explored in detail in other works. What Marder does is to bring them altogether so as to give us a total view of the war as seen from the Admiralty.
As a passing curiosity, many of the names of the RN seniors in this book - Backhouse, Bayly, De Chair, Dreyer, Hamilton, Kerr, Luce, Pound, Tyrwhitt, Spickernell, Sturdee, Wemyss - were still, a generation or even two later, in the Navy List as Marder prepared this work.
There are portrait photographs of the principal participants and maps are provided of the most important of the actions mentioned. In a brief discussion regarding Zeppelin raids Marder only mentions the RFC - the RNAS' Warneford's VC-winning success would have been worthy of inclusion, and also that defeating the Zeppelins was not just an aircraft problem but also a matter of finding the right ammunition. The odd spelling mistake - principle for principal etc. - has somehow survived the text transcription. But perhaps it is petty of me to make these points when Seaforth/Pen & Sword have done us all such a service in bringing Marder back to us.
As the book closes, one can hear the rattle of cable on the forecastles of the battle fleet in Scapa, then visualise line after line of grey hulls surging southward, as Jellicoe prepares to bring the High Seas Fleet to its Götterdämmerung in the greatest sea battle the world had ever seen. I await the next volumes, next year, with the greatest anticipation.