Commemorating the First World War at Sea


Last week the Culture Secretary announced the government’s plans for the centenary commemorations of the Battle of Jutland. In addition to remembering the sacrifice of those sailors who lost their lives in the Battle itself, he described the anniversary as an opportunity to remember ‘the pivotal role that the Royal Navy played in the war effort’ more generally. The First Sea Lord, Admiral Sir George Zambellas, echoed this sentiment, referring to the need to place the Navy more prominently within the popular narrative of the War. ‘The First World War remains characterised by imagery of the trenches of the Western Front’, he claimed, ‘yet the sea was Britain’s lifeline and the supremacy of the Royal Navy was crucial to national survival.’ Whilst the Navy’s desire to emphasize its role in the conflict is understandable in the context of a forthcoming SDSR, the Admiral’s words are no less legitimate for that. In a speech made during his unsuccessful bid to regain the premiership in late-1918 Herbert Asquith, under whose leadership Britain had entered the War four years earlier, communicated a similar message, informing his audience that ‘this war has been won by sea power.’

Yet despite its undoubted importance, the role sea power played in the First World War has proven difficult to capture satisfactorily within the centenary commemorations. Both the Imperial War Museum and the National Maritime Museum (NMM) have placed commendable emphasis upon the maritime aspects of the War as a whole in their galleries. However, targeting specific events has been more problematic.

The summer of 2014 saw some allusion to the strategic significance of the sea to Britain, with the revival of the debate over whether the government was right to intervene in what might have remained a primarily continental war. As more insular-minded observers at the time argued, Britain could have stood aside, relying upon its naval, maritime and economic strength to sustain itself in a position of neutrality. Linked to this idea is the suggestion that Britain might have supported France from a distance, eschewing direct military involvement on the Continent. After all, many within the Navy itself supported precisely such a ‘traditional’ strategy of economic pressure and amphibious landings; the First Sea Lord, Sir John Fisher, famously dismissed direct military support to France as ‘the thin end of the insidious wedge’. Scholars have long acknowledged that, regardless of whether the 6 divisions of the British Expeditionary Force went to France or not, the government remained wedded to a primarily maritime strategy: ‘business as usual’, in Asquith’s phrase. However the centrality of the Navy to British strategy in 1914-15 has been far more difficult to convey to the public than the valour of the ‘Old Contemptibles’ in France and Belgium in the same period.

Much will rightly be made over the course of the next several years of the vital contribution Commonwealth troops made to the Entente war effort. The United States’ role in sustaining Anglo-French finances and to the offensives of 1918 will also be celebrated. Yet in neither case will vital importance of seaborne communications, which enabled the movement of the men, munitions and supplies required to achieve success in the primary theatre, be obvious from these events. Individual governments will finance comprehensive programmes of commemoration for Imperial and Commonwealth forces, yet no similar degree of support will be possible for the Navy or merchant marine, when Britain has its own military sacrifice to acknowledge.

The direct contribution of British, Allied and Associated sea power to victory in 1918 also defines ready encapsulation. The ‘hunger blockade’ of Germany aroused much debate at the time and remains a sensitive issue. Yet, whilst accurate estimates of the number of civilian deaths caused by the restriction of imports to Germany remains problematic, recent research has tended to stress the affect economic dislocation had upon the Central Powers in military, social and psychological terms. The fact that the ‘blockade’ remained in force after the cessation of hostilities and the lack of an obvious date upon which to focus attention on it are further barriers to effective commemoration.

These factors have all led to an understandable, if unsatisfactory, tendency towards focusing remembrance activities around the anniversary of the Battle of Jutland. The National Museum of the Royal Navy will open a gallery, 36 Hours: Jutland 1916, The Battle That Won the War in time for the anniversary. Restoration of HMS Caroline, the last survivor of the Battle, is also anticipated to be complete in the spring of 2016. As the ‘main event’ of the War at sea, Jutland has inevitably acted as a focal point in the centenary process. However, this approach is not without its risks, both for understanding the Battle itself and the War at sea as a whole. Research on the conduct of the Battle is necessarily complex and the intricacies of ship-handling, fire control and fleet command will be difficult to translate effectively to a general audience. Problematically for the Navy, the centenary of an at best inconclusive engagement will be difficult to align with the First Sea Lord’s broader message that ‘today, the strategic effect of navies are just as relevant across oceans and onto the land.’ On a broader level, placing the commemoration of the War at sea so soon before the anniversary of the first day of the Somme, which promises to be the central event of the entire four year period in Britain, risks it being overshadowed by the extensive programme associated with events in France. In many ways this may be appropriate, as casualties on the Somme dwarfed those suffered at sea, however the tension between remembrance and understanding remains. Situating discussions of the War at sea in its totality around the commemoration of an Anglo-German engagement in European waters creates further difficulties in conveying the truly global nature of the maritime conflict and risks minimizing its non-military aspects. Focusing the acknowledgement of the maritime War as a whole around the anniversary of a battle also threatens to convey a misleading impression of the maritime War and of conveying undue significance to Jutland itself.

The NMM has sought to bridge this gap by running a major conference on the War at sea timed to coincide with the Jutland centenary. This is a welcome development, as considerable shortcomings still exist in our understanding of the maritime aspects of the War. Some of the latest work on the Royal Navy in the conflict will appear this month in a special edition of the Journal of Strategic Studies, ‘New Interpretations of the Royal Navy in the ‘Fisher Era’’, which seeks to showcase new approaches to the topic. However, much more is required if we are to present a holistic treatment even of Britain’s War at sea, to say nothing of the many transnational questions inevitably raised by the worldwide shipping and financial network.

In his retirement, Lord Fisher fulminated that ‘the original English Expeditionary Force was but a drop in the Ocean as compared with the German and French millions, and the value, though not the gallantry of its exploits, has been greatly over-rated.’ ‘The British Fleet won the War, and the British Fleet didn’t get a single thing it ought to have’, he claimed. Such partisan outbursts were characteristic of the man and simplistic judgments about who or what ‘won the War’ offer little insight into the conflict. Nevertheless, the fact remains that without the security afforded by the Grand Fleet there would have been no British Army on the Western Front and that without the merchant marine it would have had no food or supplies to sustain it. To that extent, the British sea power certainly did play a key role in winning the War. It is to be hoped that 2016 will be an opportunity to acknowledge this aspect of the British Empire’s War effort.

Image: Nov. 9, 1914: The SYDNEY [I] – EMDEN [I] battle, painted by Phil Belbin, via flickr.

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