Conference Report: the First World War at Sea, 1914-1919

ALEXANDER HOWLETT

This was a major international conference, featuring a master-class of subject specialists and naval historians. Since the centenary of the Battle of Jutland was only a few days prior, the great naval battle was certainly the elephant in the room. Jutland was not, however, the only subject of discussion: the strategy and tactics of the anti-submarine campaign, the Anglo-American alliance, naval aviation and other technologies, the role of the dominions, the press, and recent archeological discoveries were all discussed.

Professor Nicholas Rodger provided the opening keynote, elaborating on the concept of the decisive battle and its cultural legacy for the western way of war. Professor Rodger described the influence of the expected “second Trafalgar” on the German, French, American, Japanese and Royal Navies. This traditional culture of decisive battle continued to dominate at the turn of the 20th century, but technological change had transformed the naval context, most profoundly, by the introduction of the torpedo. The focus on the new weapons, primarily the submarine and airplane, eventually defined modern naval tactics and strategy. Integrating the new technologies would become a major challenge for Britain, and the other global powers, going forward. Indeed, it remained unclear to what extent the United States Navy or the Imperial Japanese Navy had moved beyond the decisive battle doctrine by the time of the Second World War. As Dr. Bob Watts would argue on day two, it seems, to some extent, that the USN is still seeking the desired “second Trafalgar” to this day.

The first panels were focused on anti-submarine warfare, the blockade, and the war in China. I presented with Dr. Alexander Clarke and Louis Halewood on the subject of anti-submarine warfare, from the diplomatic and air perspectives. I argued that, during the 1912-1916 period, the RN never successfully addressed the problem of anti-submarine warfare from the air, although, important theories and new technologies were developed. Louis Halewood examined the delicate diplomatic situation, notably focusing on the complex aspect of Anglo-American relations (a story about which we will hear more later), and also the situation in the Mediterranean. By 1918, First Lord of the Admiralty Eric Geddes proposed the creation of an “Allied Admiralissimo” to unite the diverse national naval efforts into a single force, similar to the role of Supreme Commander Ferdinand Foch on the Western Front. Alexander Clarke then completed the story, describing the legacy of the First World War efforts which led to tactical and technical innovations in the interwar period and, indeed, laid the foundation for the triumphs of the Second World War. Dr. Clarke described the importance of the Post-War Question Committee (the Phillimore Committee), which reached the conclusion that reconnaissance and deterrence had, in fact, been rather effective against the submarines- the famous scare-crow tactics forcing U-boat commanders to avoid aircraft and airships, regardless of the reality of the threat.

The second panel I attended, also on the submarine campaign, was presented by Dr. Norman Friedman, Isabelle Delumeau, Michael Brandao, and Dr. Elizabeth Bruton. Dr. Friedman, bringing his renowned analytical approach to the topic, observed that ultimately the introduction of the convoys, although often heralded as the decisive tactic for the protection of Allied merchant shipping, was in fact a stop-gap. The Germans were ultimately unable to utilize the signal intelligence required to find the convoys, and thus triangulate submarine groups to attack them, as would later be done in the Second World War. As a result, while the convoys provided a means of protection, they were not capable of terminating the threat itself.

The technological scramble on the Allied side to find a way to locate and destroy the submarines clearly demonstrated that the Allies were not prepared for this aspect of the war, despite some novel solutions such as the use of aircraft to directly attack the submarine bases. Isabelle Delumeau shared her findings concerning the Bretton fishermen who experienced the blunt end of German and Allied propaganda concerning the submarines, leading to the organization of the fishing fleet along militia-like lines. Miguel Brandao followed up by discussing Portuguese efforts to subvert the Allied blockade, specifically, the fascinating case of the town of Esposende, which smuggled eggs to the U-boats along the coast. Finally, Dr. Bruton described the astonishing case of Anglo-American technological and scientific cooperation in the efforts to develop hydrophone technology. Significantly, Dr. Burton described the effort of US Naval Secretary Josephus Daniels- of whom more later- to replicate the Fisherite think-tank, the Board of Invention and Research, which was studying anti-submarine measures, amongst other things.

The final panel in the lecture theatre on day one was presented by Dr. Jesse Tumblin, Dr. Eugene Beiriger and Dr. Dennis Conrad. Dr. Tumblin discussed the failure of the dominion fleet scheme, not least the result of Sir Wilfred Laurier’s inability to finance the requisite battlecruisers. The outcome of the Boer War suggested Canada’s Army, at the expense of the navy, might play a larger role in the future. Dr. Beiriger then discussed President Wilson’s role in the negotiations that led to the US Naval Act of 1916, while Dennis Conrad provided a defence of Josephus Daniels, the latter often portrayed as the antagonist of the fiery Admiral William Sims. At the evening reception, while the academics swirled their wine, Nicholas Rodger presented naval historian John Hattendorf with the print copy of the edited volume produced from the 2014 Oxford conference held in his honour: Strategy and the Sea.

The following day started at 9 am with the first panel specifically on the American role. Annette Amerman, USMC History Division, gave the first talk, looking at USMC naval aviation. The Marine Corps aviators cooperated with Wing Captain Charles Lambe’s RNAS and RAF forces at Dunkirk in bombing raids, including against submarine bases. David Winkler, Naval Historical Foundation, described the expansion of the US Naval Reserve into a large militia-like force, the model favoured by Josephus Daniels and Assistant Naval Secretary Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Chuck Steele, USAF Academy, and David Kohnen, USN War College, both presented panels on William Sims and his significance. Dr. Steele stressed Sims’ importance as a diplomat between the Navies, while David Kohnen emphasized Sims’ role as a practitioner and ad hoc innovator.

The last two panels were on Jutland: Robin Brodhurst, of the Navy Records Society, gave a comprehensive presentation on the historiography of the battle of Jutland, establishing the intense controversy that still surrounds this battle after a hundred years. Dr. John Brooks, who has recently published a reassessment of Jutland for the centenary, described some of the technical nuances of the night destroyer action, and Dr. Stephen Huck, joining the conference from the German Naval Museum, Wilhelmshaven, then illuminated the experience of German crew members, raising the important question about how the men actually perceived the battle; a social history mirrored for the Royal Navy by the book, The Fighting at Jutland: the Personal Experiences of 45 Sailors of the Royal Navy, compiled by H. W. Fawcett.

After Jutland was the name of the third and final panel in the lecture theatre. Andrew Gordon described the importance of the command failure at Jutland, importantly the critical issue of signal failures, endemic ultimately of a culture of divineness within the Royal Navy. Bob Watts summarized the significance of the Jutland and the long awaited “decisive battle” for the thinking of the US Navy, and observed the reality that the Navy, even during the Second World War, was denied its grand decisive battle. James Goldrick summarized the situation after Jutland and the novel emergence of battlespace awareness alongside the need for superior scouting and intelligence gathering in the, always questionable, North Sea conditions. With the refocus on aircraft and the submarine, by the end of the war, the torpedo had seemingly triumphed over the gun, and the chance to refight Jutland had slipped away.

Andrew Lambert’s compelling keynote summarized and concluded the conference. Professor Lambert focused on Julian Corbett, later the official historian, as the architect of Britain’s grand strategy. Corbett acted as the brain trust for the British Supreme Command, and it was Corbett’s three-phase naval war model that became the basis for Corbett’s post-war history. First Sea Lord David Beatty, wary of the mistakes made at Jutland, tried to suppress the truth about his role, in particular the gunnery failure of the Battle-Cruiser Fleet, but the truth shone through in Corbett’s third volume, based on the Naval Staff’s suppressed appreciation. The significance of Hipper and Scheer’s achievement was, however, marginalized by the High Seas Fleet’s inability to break the blockade and thus influence the outcome of the war: this meant that in the final calculus, Jutland, like Trafalgar, only reaffirmed the naval status quo.

Image: National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, via wikimedia commons.

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