BRITAIN’S WAR AT SEA, 1914-1918: THE WAR THEY THOUGHT AND THE WAR THEY GOT

PROF GREG KENNEDY

Prof. Kennedy’s latest publication ‘Britain’s War at Sea, 1914-1918: The War they Thought, the War the Fought’ is now available from Ashgate Publishing.

The concept of “lessons-learned” has become a growth industry in the realm of academic, and not so academic, writing on Western strategic and operational processes within defence and security topics. In the aftermath of failed operations to reconstruct Iraq and Afghanistan into viable, functioning states, many questions about what the post-Iraq and Afghanistan world holds for the use of military power are being asked, particularly regarding doctrinal and tactical matters. The limited utility of Western military power in dealing with the Arab Spring, Libya, Syria and now the threat posed by the rise of Islamic State, has created a ground-swell of literature that all points to lessons of the near-past having to be studied in order to learn lessons as to, primarily, identify what went wrong and how to avoid repeating such mistakes in the future. In the United Kingdom (UK) in particular, this search for lessons in manifest in the much-delayed Iraq Inquiry set up under the leadership of Sir John Chilcot. As such, most of the lessons-learned processes are reactive and avoidance oriented, instead of proactive and initiative oriented. Furthermore, the majority of these inquiries and questions about lessons learned are land warfare oriented. A distinctly land-focused historical appreciation of Britain’s role in the First World War during present commemorations and appreciations, with respect to the 100 year anniversary of that conflict, has only served to exacerbate this historic misunderstanding of Britain’s ability to learn about and prepare for future wars. This focus on a land environment approach for trying to use the lessons of the past, with both near and distant historical examples, belies the true nature of the past and current UK strategic need: to understand the use of sea power and the maritime domain in defence of the national interest.

This study utilizes a comprehensive methodology to interrogate one of the most significant periods of Britain’s maritime past with regard to lessons learned and preparation for future conflict. In the period leading up to the First World War the nature of the international system was complex and fluid, changing rapidly due to social, technological, commercial, fiscal and cultural pressures. As such it is an appropriate period to use for comparison to today’s international condition, which is described as being also in such a state of flux and transition. Furthermore, within the British strategic policy making elite, questions about what nations could be relied upon to be allies, neutrals or opponents were also fundamental to strategic planning for the future. Much like today and the choices presented to the UK’s strategic policy making elite, questions about how the world worked and why, how much money to spend on what, and what aspect of military power was most appropriate to the nation’s strategic condition, made such planning fraught with difficulty. However, one element of that strategic consideration process was clear: the centrality of the continued use and access to the maritime domain for all of the nation’s, and the empire’s, continued national security and prosperity in any peace. For Britain any general European war would require a maritime strategy to be utilized in order to create, apply and disseminate power on a global scale. Such is arguably still the case for Britain’s strategic position in the world as a key economic, political and military actor, that is absolutely dependent on the continued good governance and use of the seas in such a fashion.

The book’s focus will look at how various aspects of that maritime security question were appreciated before the war, and how, if any, those appreciations changed due to the actual realities of the war itself. Issues relating to technological change, force structures and positioning, appreciations of potential allies, education, intelligence and the need to wage economic warfare as the first line of national defence, are dealt with by an international array of scholars. What is produced is a useful case study of the merits and perils of war planning and lessons learned in an under-appreciated area of both First World War studies, and, contemporary discussions about the UK’s strategic way ahead. As such, it is an important work of history that can be read with benefit by contemporary UK policy makers, as well as students of history. For what better approach to “lessons learned” is there than a comprehensive and sound knowledge of history? History is, after all, the core intellectual discipline that is the very essence of the methodological underpinnings of such exercises.

Image: The British Grand Fleet sailing in parallel columns in World War I, via wikimedia commons.

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