In an earlier post, I examined the official histories of the First World War on the land. Obviously, the war on land was only one aspect of the First World War, combat in the air and on the sea played significant roles in the outcome of the war. Indeed, it is in these arenas that some of the most significant innovations occurred, as armed forces learned to make the most effective use of new and untried technologies and how these technologies could be improved. The First World War saw the first use of powered aircraft, which became increasingly central to the prosecution of the war, and saw the first widespread use of submarines to attempt to enforce a wide-ranging blockade at sea. The official histories produced by each of the belligerents provide important sources for these aspects of the war.
With the largest navy in the world in 1914, Great Britain took the undisputed lead in Entente naval operations during the First World War. If the British official history of the war on land is hard to come by in electronic form, the same cannot be said about the corresponding history of the Royal Navy. The Historical Section of the Committee of Imperial Defence was also responsible for the official histories of Britain’s effort at sea and in the air. The writing of the official account of the Royal Navy’s contribution to the war initially fell to the renowned naval historian and theorist Sir Julian Corbett, but was finished after Corbett’s death by Sir Henry Newbolt. The first of the five volumes of the History of the Great War Based on Official Documents: Naval Operations appeared in 1920 with the last published in 1931. The first four volumes of this series are available to be read online or downloaded. Naval Operations can be supplemented by the Admiralty Staff monographs, which were compiled during the Interwar period and cover various engagements and campaigns of the Royal Navy. The Royal Australian Navy has made available the first 19 volumes for download.
Other useful additions to Naval Operations are the British official histories covering trade during the war. The first volume of C.Ernest Fayle’s 3-volume series Seaborne Trade (1920-1924) is available to download. Additionally, two volumes of The Merchant Navy (1924-1929) by Sir Archibald Hurd are also free to download or read online.
As with the war on land, forces from the British Empire also contributed to the war at sea. Arthur Wilberforce Jose, a close friend of Charles E.W. Bean, was chosen to write the official history of the Royal Australian Navy during the First World War. After a torturous process of getting the volume through the censors, The Royal Australian Navy, 1914-1918 was finally published in 1928 as volume nine of The Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918. This volume can be read online or download in parts from the Australian War Memorial website. In 1962, Gilbert Tucker produced the first volume of an official history of Canada’s naval services, which covers the First World War period. The Naval Service of Canada: Its Official History Vol I: Origins and Early Years is free to download as a pdf from the National Defence and the Canadian Forces website.
Much like the US Army, in the Interwar period, the US Navy remained short of funds to compile an official history of its actions in the First World War. Lacking a large-scale official history, the Historical Section of the Navy Department produced four short volumes between 1920 and 1923, which are useful sources on US naval activity in the war, some of which are available online: German Submarine Activities on the Atlantic Coast of the United States and Canada; The Northern Barrage and Other Mining Activities; The United States Naval Railway Batteries in France; and The American Naval Planning Section London.
The official history of the German navy’s war at sea is even more extensive than the Royal Navy’s history. During the Interwar period, the Marine-Archiv under the direction of Vizeadmiral Eberhard von Mantey undertook the publication of twenty-two volumes covering the Reichsmarine’s war as Der Krieg zur See 1914-1918. This was divided into seven different series, some of which are currently available to read online or download: ‘Der Krieg in der Nordsee’ (seven volumes); ‘Der Handelskrieg mit U-Booten’ (five volumes); ‘Der Krieg in der Ostsee’ (three volumes); ‘Der Kreuzerkrieg in den ausländischen Gewässern’ (three volumes); ‘Der Krieg in den türkischen Gewässern’ (two volumes); ‘Die Kämpfe der kaiserlichen Marine in den deutschen Kolonien’ (one volume); and ‘Die Überwasserstreitkräfte und ihre Technik’ (one volume). Unfortunately, the volumes covering some of the most interesting aspects of the war at sea – the German submarine campaign and the battle of Jutland, for example – are not available online.
Great Britain emerged from the First World War with the only independent air force. The creation of the Royal Air Force in April 1918 meant that there was a strong institutional drive to produce a high-quality official history of the role of the air forces in the First World War. All six volumes of The War in the Air: Being the Story of the Part Played in the Great War by the Royal Air Force are available online for reading or downloading. This series, published between 1922 and 1937, was begun by Sir Walter Raleigh and continued by H.A. Jones when Raleigh died in 1922. Its volumes contain useful primary sources in the form of reports and memoranda. The War in the Air can be profitably supplemented with the volume eight of The Official History of Australia in the War of 1914-1918. This volume entitled The Australian Flying Corps in the Western and Eastern Theatres of War, 1914-1918 was originally published in 1923 by F.M. Cutlack and provides considerable detail on the Australian effort in the air.
Much like the official history of the US Army in the First World War, constraints in the Interwar period, not least the lack of an independent air force, prevented the publication of an official history of US air operations during the war. Nonetheless, like the rest of the army, the US Army Air Corps had collected and produced considerable records of its activities during the war. In 1978, the Office of Air Force History finally produced a four-volume series, The U.S. Air Service in World War I. These four volumes, which are available to download or read online, reproduce reports written during the war and in the Interwar period and provide invaluable sources on US air activities in 1917 and 1918 and include large numbers of orders and reports written during wartime operations.
The Treaty of Versailles forbade Germany from possessing an independent air force. This fact alone retarded the writing of any official history of German air operations during the war. When the Luftwaffe was formed once Germany had repudiated the Versailles Treaty, the newly formed Reichsluftfahrtministerium began writing an official history of the German air activities during the war, entitled Die deutschen Luftstreitkräfte von ihrer Entstehung bis zum Ende des Weltkrieges 1918. However, the Second World War and German defeat prevented the completion of this project and only four volumes of this series were published between 1941 and 1943. None of these appear to be readily available online. The closest there is to an official history of the German air effort in the war is Die deutschen Luftstreitkräfte im Weltkriege edited by Georg Paul Neumann and published in 1920. This 617-page volume draws on official records and provides a useful source in the absence of the official history. An English-language translation of portions of this work was done by J.E. Gurdon in 1921 and published as a much-shorter The German Air Force in the Great War.
Like all sources, the official histories discussed here and in my previous post have their strengths and weaknesses for historians. However, like the increasing availability of archival material online discussed in an earlier post, these digital sources open new research possibilities for historians of the First World War. The ready availability of these histories should allow for a deeper understanding of the operational side of the war from a comparative perspective.
As with my previous posts on digital First World War resources, if you know of any I have left off this list, please let me know via the comments below. Once comments come in, I will update this and previous posts to reflect these.