Author: davidmorganowen

Conference Report: Commemorating the Centenary of the First World War


This post reflects upon an event held on January 12th in the River Room at King’s College London. The symposium featured contributions from Prof Jay Winter, Dr Helen McCartney, Prof Annika Mombauer, Hanna Smyth, Dr Jenny Macleod, Dr Heather Jones, and Dr Catriona Pennell. Recordings of all of the days proceedings are available online and can be found by clicking on the name of the individual participant.

How the conflict which subsequently became known as the First World War ought to be interpreted, understood, and given meaning became a hotly contest topic almost immediately after the outbreak of hostilities in the summer of 1914. Debates over what the War meant displayed, and continue to display, a multiplicity of interpretations, attitudes, and agendas – which often reveal far more about those who formed them than the events they aim to discuss. The centenary of the conflict – and the accompanying raft of commemorative activities and spike in public interest – has presented a unique set of challenges to historians, but also a valuable opportunity to reflect upon the relationship between their craft and broader society. This event, held at King’s College London on January 12th, brought together scholars from a range of backgrounds to discuss the varying national approaches to the centenary, and what these might tell us about how the First World War is perceived and understood in the twenty first century.

 (Contested) Identities of Remembrance

What is the future of identities in the process of commemoration? Jay Winter’s provocation proved a key theme that ran through the event’s proceedings. With the aftermath of Brexit and the increasingly pluralised nature of identities in the modern age, participants were invited to consider how these identities might become contested and fluid, rather than temporally fixed. Vladimir Putin’s use of the ‘sacred memory’ of the First World War as a way of rehabilitating the Russian Empire and providing a ‘militarist narrative for popular consumption’ is just one example of the slippery way in which identities can be mobilised for political gain. Other speakers tapped into this pervasive theme. Hanna Smyth touched on these contested identities when speaking about the work of the Vimy Foundation. For Canada, national and imperial identities of remembrance were not binary. The idea of a Canadian national identity can be broken down further: how does Newfoundland – a separate dominion during the war, but now part of Canada – remember the First World War? What about the Quebecois? What about those from the First Nations? These contested identities are further compounded by the problematic narrative of ‘brave soldiers’ who died for freedom – a narrative that is by no means unique to Canada. In the case of Ireland, the tense, often divisive, nature of identities of remembrance has supposedly been tackled head on during the centenary commemorations. Catriona Pennell spoke of the ‘de-orangification’ of the First World War narrative, and the move towards equality of sacrifice in Ireland’s commemoration. As historians, we need to be mindful of the inherent complexity associated with the construction and presentation of national identities; the centenary has certainly reminded us of this.

Silences of commemoration

Despite the high level of commemorative activity across many of the main belligerents, there remain obvious silences of commemoration. Refugees and the reconfiguration of imperialism offer just two, broad examples. While attempts have been made to uncover and reintegrate the story of the Canadian First Nations, and Indigenous Australians into national commemorative narratives, there is still a continuing problem of visibility. Heather Jones spoke of the removal and muting of the ‘national’ narrative from France’s commemorative activity. While the international and the European has been a key focus of France’s commemoration, the continuing trauma of the nation’s colonial legacy and the often white, male face of commemoration has – unwittingly or not – proved another means of silencing complicated aspects of France’s past. From a British perspective, the focus on 1 July 1916 as a key focal point in the Somme commemoration is just one of the silences apparent in British commemorations. Cherry picking certain operations or campaigns, for commemoration, particularly those dominated by the army, is problematic. We are faced with similar problems when looking at the contributions of the army’s sister services. The British war in the air has been sidelined. In spite of its ubiquity, it will be commemorated in April 1918, aligning with the birth of the RAF. The war at sea has been both marginalised and militarised, overlooking the important contributions made by the Merchant Navy to the war effort. In many respects, commemoration activity in Britain runs the risk of distorting our own popular perceptions of the conflict, particularly in terms of who fought and their relative contribution. What happens then when we widen our view to look beyond the national to the international? What implications does this cleft between historical reality and remembrance have both during and beyond the centenary?

The Historian and the Centenary & Democratisation of commemoration

The complex relationship between historical accuracy and commemorative activity, and thus between the historian and the centenary, was also evident in the participants discussion of the democratization evident in the activities undertaken since 2014. Quite naturally the speakers welcomed initiatives intended to encourage broader participation in the centenary and engagement with the First World War. Schemes such as the ‘We’re here because we’re here’ and the poppy display at the Tower of London attracted widespread public interest, however questions remain over the extent to which they prompted people to reflect upon the conflict and its meaning. Helen McCartney highlighted how programmes such as Letter to an Unknown Soldier produced a degree of engagement with the historical detail that suggests a greater level of engagement with the record than critics might fear, however there is good reason to doubt the extent to which the centenary has genuinely changed the well-established narratives about the War evident prior to 2014. As Annika Mombauer highlighted in relation to Germany, even scholarship that penetrates into the popular domain – as Chris Clarke’s Sleepwalkers has done – tends to be simplified to the point of gross reductionism in popular debates, which are as much about the realities of the present as they are about the lost world of the past.

This all begs the question – what is the role of the historian during the centenary? Hanna Smyth observed that there is an implicit tension in those studying commemorative practice and centenary being involved in shaping its conduct. What effect does this have on the scholarship of those involved? And, in turn, ought the academic study of commemorative practice to play a role shaping how we commemorate? If the centenary is as much about the future as the past, what claim can historians make to inform a debate about events yet to pass?

Power & modern agendas – government, organizations, & the centenary

Ultimately, how we commemorate the First World War will always be determined by the needs of the moment. The iconic image of François Mitterrand and Chancellor Helmut Kohl standing hand in hand in the pouring rain before the memorial at Verdun is one of the most powerful encapsulations of European Unity and of a future devoid of conflict on the continent. Moments such as these are as much about power and political narrative as they are about historical accuracy, yet by attempting to mobilize the past for the needs of the present they also speak to the never ending debate as to what history is, and ought to be ‘for’. Indeed, the laudable inclusion of German and French representatives – alongside the British, Irish, and Commonwealth forces – at the centenary service for the Battle of the Somme at Thiepval – mirrored the move towards increasingly transnational, inclusive approaches within the discipline of history itself.


The timing of the UK’s referendum on its membership of the European Union – coming as it did days before the July 1st service – underlined how far we still are from a common narrative or understanding of the conflict. The War was mobilized in support of both the leave and remain arguments, often with precious little care for historical realities. Historians have no claim over this process, but do have an obligation to engage with it and to work against the crude instrumentalisation of the past for the needs of the political moment. This process is ongoing, and will be the subject of further discussion by the First World War Research Group as we approach the culmination of the centenary cycle in 2018-19.

Image: Poppies At The Tower Of London 23-8-2014 via Flickr.

Trafalgar Day, History Rhymes, and Russians in the Channel


The Battle of Trafalgar holds a special place in British history. The victory of 21st October 1805 is wound into the fabric of the nation: visitors to central London cannot help but awe at Nelson’s column and the surrounding square built in honour of his greatest achievement.

The importance of the Battle and the manner of the victory also holds a special place in the minds of British naval officers, for whom Trafalgar Day remains a source of pride and a connection with their service’s glorious past. This was true as much a century ago as it is today, particularly for one of the titans of the Edwardian Navy: Admiral Sir John Fisher.

Familiar to history for his ‘ruthless, relentless, remorseless’ reform of the Royal Navy and his championing of new weapons such as the submarine and HMS Dreadnought, Fisher was also acutely aware of the tradition in which he followed. He was fond of reminding friends and colleagues that he had been nominated as a candidate for entry to the Navy by Admiral Sir William Parker – the last officer to have been a captain under Nelson himself. This sense of history led Fisher to ensure that, when he learned that he would assume the office of First Sea Lord in the autumn of 1904, the date of his appointment was made for October 21st. Fisher relished this connection with the past, writing to supporters in anticipation of ‘our opening day on Trafalgar day’.

It is often remarked that Fisher was not a fighting Admiral – he last saw combat in 1882 during the siege of Alexandria and, despite a string of fleet commands, never led a force into battle. Yet his administration of the Admiralty began with an incident that very nearly pitched the Navy and the country into war, and one which will witness an uncomfortable parallel this week.

The year 1904 was one of rapid change in the international scene. After decades of tensions, Britain and France has signed the Entente Cordiale in April, bringing to a close twenty years of animosity and suspicion between the two in the colonial sphere. This rapprochement was threatened from the outset, however, by a war between Britain and France’s respective allies in Asia: Japan and Russia. The two Asian powers had been embroiled in a conflict for regional supremacy since February 1904, during which time London and Paris had worked hard to avoid being drawn in to the fighting in honour of their alliance commitments (to Tokyo and St. Petersburg respectively). This uneasy state of affairs was put to the test the day after Fisher arrived at the Admiralty, when Russian attempts to reinforce their faltering Pacific Fleet precipitated a crisis in the North Sea.

The Russians had faired poorly in the Far East during the course of 1904. The Japanese had caught the Tsar’s Pacific Fleet at anchor at Port Arthur and disabled several capital ships with a surprise torpedo attack in February, whereafter the Russian’s had struggled to regain the initiative against a modern, effective adversary. In an effort to redress the balance, Tsar Nicholas II dispatched his Baltic Fleet on the long journey to reinforce the beleagured Russian squadron in the east. British naval intelligence had long been sceptical as to the Russian Fleet’s efficiency, discipline, and fighting capacity, but the passage of the squadron through British waters remained a source of diplomatic tension. Relations between Britain and Russia had been strained for over a decade as the Tsar’s forces agitated along the North-West Frontier of India and the government was in no mind to aid the Russian passage. The British Fleet was thus on high alert as the Russian’s made their journey south towards the Channel.

The detail of what followed remains unclear, but it appears that the jittery Russian crews mistook a crowd of British fishing vessels off the Dogger Bank for a swarm of hostile torpedo boats and, fearful of the fate which had befallen their comrades in the Pacific, opened fire. The result was chaos. Russian ships fired upon each other, reported phantom torpedo hits, and let loose hundreds of shells at the unsuspecting fishermen. That none of the fishing vessels were sunk bore testament to the accuracy of naval intelligence’s appreciation of the Russian’s fighting capabilities, but at a time of great international uncertainty the affair very nearly escalated into a major crisis. The British Prime Minister, Arthur Baflour, was incandescent and initially inclined to unleash the might of the combined British Fleets upon the unsuspecting Russians. Admiral Fisher reported to his wife that ‘it has very nearly been war again. Very near indeed…’ The Russians obdurately refused to accept responsibility, Balfour’s brother lamenting ‘their inveterate habit of trying to take back in detail what they have conceded in the gross’. This intransigence obliged the British, who were unwilling start a war over the episode, to concede to international arbitration over the issue. In the meantime, the government closed the Suez Canal to the Russian ships, forcing them to take the Cape route to Port Arthur. The delay only postponed their fate: the Russian fleet suffered a decisive defeat at the Battle of Tsushima in May 1905. The Japanese victory was so complete that the Admiralty larconically described it as ‘equivalent to Trafalgar.’

A little over two centuries since Nelson triumphed over the Franco-Spanish Fleet and some 112 years after Britain and Russia almost went to war over the Dogger Bank incident, Russian warships will again visit British waters this week. The venerable Russian aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov and a number of escorts departed from Severomorsk and ports in the Baltic late last week, bound for the eastern Mediterranean. The Royal Navy and its NATO partners are preparing to escort the Russian armada on its highly provocative passage through the English Channel, which may indeed occur on the anniversary of Trafalgar itself.


HMS Dragon with Russian Aircraft Carrier ‘Admiral Kuzetsov’ in 2014 via flickr.

The US are also keeping a close eye on the Russian flagship, not least due to the risk of her long-running history of mechanical problems resulting in her needing assistance during her voyage. Fishermen in the vicinity of the Dogger Bank may also be advised to keep a weather eye on the Russian ships, if history is any guide.

The Kuznetsov will add relatively little to Russian military capability in the eastern Mediterranean. Experts on Russian military affairs highlight the chronic shortage of pilots trained to operate from her and point out that her lack of catapult launchers will preclude planes taking off with a full payload of weapons. A tacit acknowledgement of her ongoing shortcomings is the fact that she will undergo a full refit upon return from the deployment in 2017.

Nevertheless, her deployment reminds us that, as Hew Strachan commented, ‘geography provides strategy with an underlying continuity.’ Britain’s position off the north-west coast of Europe means places her, as it has done for centuries, astride the key lines of maritime communication between Europe and the rest of the world. Just as she acted as a ‘breakwater’ obstructing German ambitions to world power in Admiral Fisher’s era, geography and capability make her the European country best placed to patrol NATO’s maritime flank in the event of Russian hostility. Her will to accept this role is less clear. With the arrival of the new aircraft carriers drawing closer these are exciting times for the Royal Navy, but the government has still yet to answer the vexed question of how many escorts will accompany them. Without the necessary support, the carriers may indeed become ‘exquisite capabilities’ or worse, critical vulnerabilities for an over-stretched Fleet.

The Russian’s will demonstrate the symbolic value of a carrier when they pass through the Straits of Dover this week. Nelson, Fisher, and today’s Royal Navy will be hoping that the Queen Elizabeths will afford Britain both prestige and military power.

Image: Lord Nelson atop Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square via wikimedia commons.


Command, Leadership & Management: the Power of Perception

This short-series of posts coincides with the Command, Leadership and Management phase of the ACSC. In it, members of the Department reflect upon aspects of the leadership, broadly defined.


Rarely has an individual whose most famous achievements came in the realm of military administration captured the historical imagination in the manner of Admiral Sir John ‘Jacky’ Fisher. Yet despite the fact that was not a fighting admiral of any note, Fisher has come to bestride our appreciation on the Royal Navy in the early twentieth century. Indeed it is not uncommon to see the entire period of British naval history referred to as the ‘Fisher Era’.

Fisher’s place in history was confirmed by his role in the design and construction of the eponymous battleships HMS Dreadnought in 1905-06. The largest, fastest and most heavily gunned warship afloat when she was launched, Dreadnought lent her name to the class of ships which followed – the grey ‘castles of steel’ which secured British control of the world’s oceans during the First World War.

‘Radical Jack’ was certainly an influential and important feature in British naval policy in this period, but arguably not to the extent that popular accounts would allow. He provoked bitter disputes within the Service and left the Admiralty resentful at the lack of political support he received in 1910. However his very ubiquity in our understanding of the period reveals a pivotal facet of his success – his style.

For Fisher, style was not something used to obscure a lack of substance – it was an important tool in a leader’s arsenal in and of itself. He purposefully distinguished himself from other, more reserved, officers by adopting an increasingly distinctive, flamboyant manner as he rose through the ranks. Whether strengthening his voice by shouting gunnery commands whilst marching through the South Downs as a young lieutenant in HMS Warrior, or dancing the waltz with the Duchess of Hamilton at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919 aged 78, Fisher developed a unique ability to captivate an audience. He knew appearances mattered and he capitalized upon the fact, using image and style to reform the Service and as a weapon against rival powers.

Fisher’s presentation was an important factor in his rise to the position of First Sea Lord – particularly his ability to articulate defence issues within their broader political and economic context. During the financially chastened years after the Boer War, he campaigned tirelessly for reforms that he hoped would reduce spending overall spending on the military. In doing so he combined professional expertise with political nous. Whilst ostensibly avoiding comment on the Army’s budget – a topic he claimed to mentioned only with ‘great diffidence’ – Fisher bombarded the Prime Minister with proposals to reduce the naval and military estimates to ‘60 millions sterling instead of 84 millions sterling, combined with a Navy 30 per cent stronger and an Army 50 per cent more effective: this means eightpence off the Income tax!’ By augmenting his professional competence with political savvy and persuasive argumentation, Fisher rose to head the Service.

He gained leverage by consciously depicting himself as a radical, reforming figure, forming a carefully cultivated public and political image in order to win and maintain support. By stressing his progressive qualities he sought to distance himself from more conservative officers – whom he could present as antediluvian reactionaries – thereby increasing his influence in political circles. He often mischaracterized his actual opinions in doing so. Thus, whilst pronouncing that ‘history is a record of exploded ideas!’ in order to stress the ‘revolutionary’ impact of new weapons like the submarine, he simultaneously sought the counsel and assistance of the noted historian Julian Corbett on important Admiralty business.

His awareness of the importance of perception and imagine was reflected in his flexible attitude towards the press. Fisher cultivated contacts with journalists throughout his career and regularly distributed official material marked ‘very secret’ with half-meant entreaties to ‘burn’ scrawled across them to sympathetic commentators. As a Captain he had helped ferment a major navy scare in the mid-1880s by collaborating with a newspaper journalist and the experience proved instructive. Once Fisher arrived as First Sea Lord the military correspondent of The Times remarked upon ‘Sir John’s semi-confidential manifestos printed for the advantage of the press’. He was right to highlight the Fisher’s unorthodox methods. But by developing a supportive press Fisher buttressed his position and bested a number of opponents. As he justified in 1908 ‘unless I had arranged to get the whole force of public opinion to back up the Naval Revolution, it would have been simply impossible to have it carried through successfully’.

Fisher also employed symbolism and rhetoric against potential foreign opponents. In some respects the visual impact of the Dreadnought – the physical manifestation of British industrial, financial and imperial might – was more significant than her military capabilities. Fisher ‘rubbed in’ this fact as much as possible, emphasizing her superiority over enemy vessels. He did so as part of his broader strategy of deterrence. Recognising that preventing war was far cheaper than fighting it, he viewed the military instrument as a vital tool in ‘peace strategy’. By making ‘wild statements’ about the Navy’s capacity to crush the German Fleet in 1905-06, Fisher underlined to the Germans how ill-advised they would be to provoke war. Indeed, on occasion his rhetoric even got the better of judgment. Reflecting back on a series of bloodthirsty statements he had made at the Hague Peace Conference of 1899, he admitted that ‘perhaps I went a little too far when I said I would boil the prisoners in oil and murder the innocent in cold blood etc., etc., etc.’ but his words had the desired affect – delegates left the event under no illusion that the Royal Navy was prepared to defend British interests.

In reality Fisher was a more considered, calculating leader than some of his more wild pronouncements would suggest. An excellent judge of character, he attracted many of the leading lights of the service to him, sponsoring the careers of

future First Sea Lords Francis Bridgeman, Prince Louis of Battenberg, and John Jellicoe and also Maurice Hankey RM – Secretary to the Committee of Imperial Defence after 1912. He also listened to the views of this ‘Fishpond’ of supporters, accepting modifications to his judgments and policies.

What Fisher’s example underlines is the power of perception as a tool in a leader’s arsenal. Fisher used image to secure personal advancement, support, and also as a weapon against potential enemies. This fed into his views on strategy – where he sought purposefully to exert pressure on areas the enemy felt to be particularly vulnerable. Herein lay the rationale behind his claim that the Navy was ready to ‘Copenhagen’ the German Fleet in 1905-06 and his desire to operate in the Baltic after 1914. Fisher’s bluster certainly made him many enemies and contributed to his downfall in both 1910 and 1915, but it also made him the effective political operator he was. A further, unintended side effect –which would doubtlessly have appealed to Fisher – has been to immortalize him as the epitome of the Navy he so loved.

Image: Fisher in December 1915, via wikimedia commons.


In Defence of Military History

This post follows on from an entry by Dr. Matthew Ford, Dr James Kitchen and Dr Stuart Mitchell on Chilcot and the Politics of Britain’s Military History.


The notion of an academy remote from public discourse and disinterested in government policy is an attractive stereotype. Aspects of the academic discipline of history could certainly produce such an impression. There is a strong body of thought within certain areas of History that considers any attempt to use the past to inform current debate as bordering on ‘instrumentalising’ previous experience. For some scholars the past was a simply an entirely different world, one which ought to be understood solely in its own terms and not compared to the present lest such an endeavour lead to inaccurate and misleading deductions.

This argument has always appeared less convincing to those engaged in the ‘traditional’ areas of historical enquiry – political, diplomatic and military history – which have their roots in statecraft and military staff colleges. From their outset these sub-disciplines have sought to influence and educate practitioners. Yet in twenty-first century Britain, their ability to do so appears to be in an alarming state of decline.

Historians engaged in the study of politics, power and military force find themselves firmly out of fashion and under-represented within the academy. Outside of the staff college environment, one can count the number of chairs in military or naval history at UK institutions on the fingers of two hands. The ‘cultural turn’ in history in evidence since the 1960s may have produced a valuable, more egalitarian record of the past, but it has been accompanied by a noticeable contraction in support for academics studying topics which can inform government and the public about the use of armed force.

Indeed, a divide now exists between the academic study of war, the general public, and the policy-making community. This matters because it has a direct bearing on the UK’s capacity and willingness to use its armed forces in an intelligent and well-informed manner to defend its people and its interests.

Defence was conspicuous largely by its absence in the 2015 general election debates. Similarly, this week’s parliamentary debate on the renewal of Trident has been conducted with minimal public engagement or (seemingly) interest. If the population is disengaged with key issues of national security and strategy, it is unlikely fully to support or believe in decisions taken by government. Equally, the absence of history from discussions of international affairs risks each issue we face looming large as a challenge without precedent or answer. Such obstacles may exist, but if we lack an understanding of historical context, how can identify them as such and focus our actions on them appropriately?

If we are to create a more beneficial interaction between the academic study of war, the general public and the body politic, three key issues must be surmounted:

 Diminishing role of history in education & public life

The majority of the population does not take an active interest in historical research, even if they are engaged with history in a broader sense. Modern media presents a wealth of alternative entertainment offerings and whilst historically based content does feature regularly, the marketplace is hugely competitive. Thus, whilst reading history does remain a popular leisure activity, reading in the traditional style is in precipitous decline – particularly amongst younger people. This presents a major challenge to a discipline whose pinnacle of achievement is likely to remain the sole-authored monograph.

History also appears to be of decreasing importance within secondary education. Leaving university level education aside – afterall most people’s exposure to history ends after leaving secondary school – the quality and purpose of history teaching has been an area of intense debate in recent years. Critics like Niall Ferguson note the huge gaps in understanding and knowledge that many students arrive at university with (and those studying history at a higher level are presumably amongst the most interested in the subject and thus a sample of the most knowledgeable about it). In a survey conducted at one UK university, it was found that only 34% of arriving undergraduates reading history knew who the monarch was at the time of the Spanish Armada, 31% knew the location of the Boer War, 16% knew who commanded British forces at the Battle of Waterloo and just 11% were able to name a single British Prime Minister from the nineteenth century. Ferguson blames a curriculum which provides no real picture of the grand sweep of history, focusing instead on distinct episodes with no apparent relation between them.

Regardless of what one views the specific shortcomings of secondary school history to be, it seems reasonably clear that history is not viewed as a core subject. Thus, even if people are minded to study the past independently upon leaving education, they may lack the foundations necessary to do so in the most effective and enjoyable manner.

Availability of Cutting Edge Research

Those of the public who are minded to engage in depth with historical research are constrained from doing so by the academic-publishing process, which is simply not aimed at providing a conduit between the latest scholarship and the general reader. Whilst the growth of open access publications such as the British Journal of Military History is a welcome innovation in this regard, the fact remains that the majority of top journals appear unlikely to follow this route in the near future. So long as the Research Excellent Framework (REF) and other career considerations push academics in the humanities and social sciences to prioritise quality of research (one indication of which can be place of publication) over reach, this situation seems unlikely to change.

Much the same can be said of book publishing. The desirability of writing for highly regarded university presses is constantly emphasised and re-emphasised to academic staff by their institutions, yet even if one is successful in doing so the result is likely to be a monograph with a price tag of £60 or more. This is far outside what a general reader is likely to consider to be a reasonable price for a book, yet because such a monograph is essentially the gold standard for promotion, it will remain what many academics strive for. The result is that many of the most talented historians who write about conflict are faced with a choice between following the ‘safe’ route of academic publishing or risk the opprobrium of their institution for ‘wasting’ valuable research time by writing a ‘popular’ book, which may not be eligible for submission to the REF. Thus, the ‘military’ history available to the general reader on the high street is totally unrepresentative of the output of the academy as a whole and continues to be dominated by ‘big books by blokes about battles’. Some books of exceptional quality certainly do bridge the divide, but if only a small cross-section of the academy penetrates the popular market (and these often senior professors for whom the REF is often less of an immediate consideration) then those scholars producing excellent new work within the field cannot be faulted for operating within a system of promotion they did not create or for following the ‘academic career’ track.

The government’s attempt to remedy this situation – ‘impact’ – raises as many problems as it solves. Impact is defined as ‘any effect on, change or benefit to the economy, society, culture, public policy or services, health, the environment or quality of life, beyond academia’. Education, or the transmission of knowledge or ideas is not prioritised. Thus, academic staff are encouraged to participate in endeavours which produce a measurable change in public views or attitudes, rather than simply seeking to share their work. How the public can change their minds on a topic about which they have no fixed view is unclear. The practical result is to disincentivise some activities which may serve to bridge the gap between academia and a general audience.

Mass Media

If new forms of media represent a challenge to the popularity of history, they also surely present a wealth of opportunities for disseminating research and engaging a wider audience. Blogs, videos, podcasts and social media are all exploited widely by the academic community as means of providing free access to new research and ideas. However, mass media – radio and television – continue to command a wider audience than even the most successful blogs and Twitter accounts, often reaching far into the millions. This presents a hugely powerful vehicle for reaching a broad audience, but also confers a weighty responsibility on programme makers who may provide the totality of an individual’s knowledge of an historical episode.

This produces difficulties for both editors and academics. Those in the media need the courage to strike the appropriate balance between education and entertainment, providing opportunities for academics to translate their work to a popular audience. Academics must become more willing and more able to articulate their research in an accessible, engaging manner that does not presume fore knowledge or descend into scholarly minutiae. This ought to be more effectively supported by government policy and by universities, as media work currently falls outside of the ‘impact’ criteria in the majority of circumstances.


Britain undoubtedly needs to develop a more sophisticated understanding both of its own armed forces and of the role military power can play in international affairs. If not, we risk ill-informed public pressure obliging the government to shy away from important decisions that may be in all of our best interests. Military history can and should provide an excellent means of improving this understanding. But to blame historians for an unwillingness to engage, to produce work quickly enough or to write with a broad audience in mind would be to consider but one small part of a far larger problem. Until more people are provided with the necessary tools and interest to engage with the past in a meaningful way, until academics are freed to reach a more popular audience without compromising their careers and until the media and the academy partner more effectively, the best new military history is unlikely to reach as far beyond the walls of the academy as is necessary to have a discernable impact upon wider society.

Image: Book stacks, The British Library (1978-97) by Colin St John Wilson via flickr.

Conference Report: Jutland, History and the First World War

This is the fifth in a series of posts connected to a King’s College First World War Research Group and Corbett Centre Event to mark the centenary of the Battle of Jutland. Recordings of all of the papers from the event can be accessed for free here.


The role of sea power in the First World War was a source of disagreement and debate during the conflict itself and has remained so ever since. David Lloyd George, British Prime Minister at the War’s end, recalled in his memoirs how no less of a figure than the Allied Generalissimo Field Marshall Ferdinand Foch, who had played such a pivotal role in steadying the Western Front in 1918, always asked ‘What have the Navy done? Have they done any fighting?’

Foch’s question highlights one of the greatest difficulties of comparing combat on land and at sea: a highly effective naval campaign can involve very little actual combat. This proved to be the case in the First World War, where British sea power enabled her to draw upon the resources and manpower of her colonies, to trade with the remainder of the world and to isolate the Central Powers from the global economy. None of this required a decisive victory over the German High Seas Fleet in the North Sea, even if one may have been desirable.

Yet the lack of a focal Battle made the vital importance of the naval War difficult to compare with the casualty figures of the Western Front. From the War’s outset this created a problem for the naval leadership. Dissatisfaction at the Navy’s lack of an obvious success built in Britain from 1915 onwards, as a gloomy realisation that the warships of the British Fleet alone would be unable to affect events on the Continent set in. Thus, when an opportunity for an engagement did arise off the coast of Denmark in the summer of 1916, public and political expectations were for a readily comprehensible success.

The indecisive action that followed at Jutland was unpalatable to some in the Navy and many the country, and was quickly over-awed by the mammoth British offensive on the Somme the following month. The absence of a further major fleet action in the final two years of war thus resulted in an ongoing fixation on Jutland itself and in recriminations over decisions taken at the Battle that are out of all proportion with its genuine strategic significance. This has been reflected in the centenary celebrations, which have perpetuated the indefensible myth that Jutland may somehow have ‘won the war’, thereby reinforcing the simplistic and unhelpful notions that war is decided merely by a series of battles rather than on the fact that sea power under-pinned the British and thus Allied war effort throughout the entire conflict.

This event was conceived in order to set the Battle into its broader context, both within the history of the First World War and of the Royal Navy itself. It highlighted the extent to which a myopic emphasis on fighting can lead to a deeply misleading impression of war, making it virtually impossible to understand events in the past in anything more than the most superficial manner. By engaging with the past in a more nuanced, sophisticated and thoughtful manner, themes of far greater interest and relevance are not difficult to find.

Indeed, one of the most prominent themes of the afternoon was the fact that the Battle of Jutland itself was of relatively minor strategic importance in the context of the wider war. A decisive loss for the British would undoubtedly have been a major setback, but the pace of pre-War British shipbuilding was such that the Royal Navy’s numerical superiority over the High Seas Fleet was assured by 1916 and would only have continue to grow. Moreover, even a heavily bloodied British Fleet would have remained ‘in being’, effectively still denying Germany the ability to use her Fleet outside of the North Sea. Britain was in a commanding strategic position through a combination of her industrial and financial might and the miscalculations which under-pinned the German ‘risk fleet’ and these could not be undone if her commanders prioritised strategic effect over a chance at operational victory. These broader factors were of far greater import than tactical decisions taken at Jutland.

Yet the question remains could Britain have utilised her sea power in a more aggressive manner to exert pressure on Germany? There is a credible case that a more creative approach to her military strategy, utilising more combined operations and exploiting the benefits of seaborne manoeuvre may have produced an impact out of proportion to the forces employed. Whether these would have proven acceptable to the sceptical French high command and government is another issue, but here we see how an appreciation of history enabled a more creative approach to strategy making at the Admiralty than that prevalent in military circles.

As to the Battle itself, discussion in the media has tended to emphasize the disparity in relative losses, both of ships and men. The implication has been one of incompetence, either of the commanders or of those who designed the ships and prepared their crews. The reality was rather different. Mistakes were undoubtedly made during the Battle – Vice-Admiral Sir David Beatty was particularly at fault for the mistakes he made in deploying his force during the opening phases of the Battle and his poor communication with Jellicoe. Yet the Fleet performed well, with Jellicoe twice crossing the German ‘T’ and obliging a hasty retreat. It is unlikely that any decisions taken on the day would have led to a decisively different outcome. False comparisons with the Battle of Trafalgar ignore the reality that the British gained little more in 1805 than was achieved in 1916: command of the sea.

Indeed, such was the impact of Jutland on German thinking that caution defined the use of the High Seas Fleet for the remainder of the conflict. The resulting shift in emphasis towards unrestricted submarine warfare by the German leadership proved a massive miscalculation, precipitating American entry into the conflict and thereby further isolating the Central Powers from global trade and finance. This enabled the British Empire to exploit the resources of neutral powers, to tighten its economic stranglehold on Germany and to use the sea to move resources around the globe. Men, munitions and supplies from Australia, Canada, India, New Zealand and across the Empire proved vital not only on the Western Front and at Gallipoli, but in the Middle East, North Africa and Italy. This global war effort was ably supported by the nascent Royal Australian Navy which, in combination with French and Japanese units conducted effective trade protection, influence and counter-insurgency operations across the Pacific and Indian Oceans.

So far as the Navy concerned, Jutland was undoubtedly a major disappointment. Combined with the embarrassing escape of the Goeben and Breslau in the Mediterranean in 1914, the inability to translate numerical superiority into victory left a bitter taste in the mouths of many officers. Yet failure can only be described as such if nothing is done to address its causes. The vast majority of the Navy’s senior leadership for the subsequent four decades served in the Grand Fleet, and many witnessed Jutland. The Battle thus became key in fostering a spirit of tactical offensive and mission command in the Fleet, the benefits of which were reaped in 1939-45.

This event showed how progressing commemoration beyond simplistic judgments based upon inter-service rivalries, historical shibboleths and condemnation of the First World War as a whole can produce a far more interesting, accurate and valuable discussion. The latest scholarship can be of value of all of those interested in history, whether for personal or professional reasons, and need not be divorced from the centenary experience.

Image: Warships of the Grand Fleet at sea, viewed from the quarter deck of HMS QUEEN ELIZABETH of the 5th Battle Squadron, courtesy of the Imperial War Museum.











Strategy, Operations and Perception: The Coastal Bombardments of 1916


At shortly after 4am on the morning of April 25th 1916 the residents of Lowestoft were awakened by the thunder of naval gunfire. Heavy caliber shells began to crash into the town in a whirlwind bombardment which lasted around ten minutes. Half an hour later, for the second time in the War, the seaside town of Yarmouth suffered a similar fate. Casualties were reasonably light, but in many ways this was immaterial. Neither town was a credible military target, and killing British civilians was a means rather than an end. What the German’s hoped to achieve by their action was more subtle, more intangible, and ultimately far more dangerous to British interests.

The German navy had begun to raid British coastal towns as a means of enticing the Grand Fleet south from its lair at Scapa Flow shortly after the outbreak of war. But the Battles of Heligoland Bight and Dogger Bank had convinced the Kaiser that preserving a fleet in being was more important than trying to take the initiative in the North Sea. As a result, the High Seas Fleet had sat at its moorings in Wilhelmshaven for much of the first two years of the War. This resulted in a good deal of frustration amongst German sailors, who looked enviously to their U-Boat colleagues who were more involved in the war effort.

Yet this policy of inactivity was not without its impact. By the autumn of 1915 a sense of frustration with the War was growing in Britain and the relative inaction of the Royal Navy became a source of widespread comment. As one writer complained, ‘there is a growing tendency on the part of those in authority to ‘wait and see’. That is not warfare.’ Such frustrations spread to the heart of government, where a desire for a more vigorous prosecution of the War at sea began to grow. Similar sentiments were evident in senior naval circles. The recently retired Admiral Lord Fisher sought to play upon the government’s dissatisfaction by reminding his friends that ‘no amount of Cabinet or War Council instructions are of the slightest use if those who have to carry them out are totally wanting in ‘push’ and ‘initiative’! There must be ginger at the top if you want ginger at the bottom!’

The result was a gradual increase in the pressure on the British C-in-C, Admiral Sir John Jellicoe, to take greater risks with the force under his command. During the spring of 1916, lengthy discussions occurred between Jellicoe and his superiors about potential means of enticing the German fleet out to battle. The C-in-C encouraged caution in the face of pressure from above. ‘Provided there is a chance of destroying some of the enemy’s heavy ships, it is right and proper to run risks’, he wrote, ‘but unless the chances are reasonably great, I do not think that such risks should be run’.

Jellicoe’s caution was the product of the huge responsibilities command of the Grand Fleet conferred upon him. His force was the guarantor of Britain’s trade with the rest of the world and the security of her east coast. It was also fundamental to the enforcement of Britain’s campaign of economic warfare and to her links with the Expeditionary Force fighting in France and Belgium. Such considerations were easily blurred as the country strained under the burden of eighteen months of unprecedented total war, however. In this context, the German raids on Lowestoft and Yarmouth threatened to exert an influence over the use of the Grand Fleet out of all proportion to their military significance and thereby expose a vital strategic asset to attrition for mines and submarines in the North Sea.

Jellicoe was much affected by the civilian deaths caused by the raids, but despite the best efforts of the Admiralty’s signals intelligence department – Room 40 – the Grand Fleet was unable to cut off the fast retreating German squadron: ‘I can never be south in time’, he lamented. Despite having risked sailing with no destroyer cover due to inclement weather, the British Fleet was simply too remote from the vulnerable stretches of the east coast.

The obvious solution to this dilemma was to move the Fleet further south, probably to Rosyth in the Firth of Forth. This would not eliminate the difficulties of responding to raids further south, but would certainly shorten the distance Jellicoe’s force had to steam. The move was not without its attendant difficulties, as Rosyth was less spacious than Scapa Flow and afforded little opportunity for exercising the Fleet, but Jellicoe appeared to be reconciling himself to it by May. On the eve of Jutland the British C-in-C was thus faced with the conflicting demands of preserving his Fleet – and thereby British command of the seas – and a political demand for a more proactive approach to fighting in the North Sea.

The raids of April 1916 and the reaction they provoked highlight the tense relationship between operational and strategic success and the role of perception in linking the two. Bombarding coastal towns was of virtually no military significance, yet by adding to the growing sense of public and official frustration with British naval strategy, it threatened to shape the employment of the Grand Fleet. Jellicoe recognised this danger and – despite the unpalatable reality that his force could not prevent future raids – urged his superiors to prioritise the broader strategic picture. In his analysis battle should only be offered under circumstances sufficiently favourable to justify the risk. Since the Admiralty continued to rely upon Jellicoe to defend the country, her vital trade routes and the supply line to France, his judgment appears sound a century later.

Image: Admiral Sir John Jellicoe, via wikimedia commons.





Article Writing Month: On Community and Progress


The Defence Studies Department’s article writing month initiative is now in its third week. Judging by our shared googledocs page, my colleagues appear to be making impressive progress towards their writing goals. Personally, I am working to finish a book manuscript; a process which involves as much deleting as it does new writing. With an introductory chapter still to draft, I hope to make up some ground in word count terms by the end of the month.

My own lagging word total not withstanding, the experience of the last two weeks has led me to reflect more generally upon the process of writing and the role community can play as a source of inspiration and accountability. The benefits of making yourself accountable for your writing are well known and widely remarked upon. Committing to writing for a certain amount of time, producing a set number of words or completing a given section or project is more effective when you can involve your peers, colleagues, friends or family in the process. Shame, it seems, is a powerful motivator. Yet despite regularly encouraging students to study together, share and test their ideas, present their findings to one another and to engage in collaboration and discussion, academic departments are remarkably reticent in extolling the benefits of similar endeavours to their staff. As academic’s progresses from graduate to post-graduate education, to a doctorate and then to a post-doc or teaching position, their research becomes an evermore individualistic endeavour. This can partially be explained by the imperative to produce original research, which encourages specialization and which can make one’s research inaccessible to colleagues. But as the majority of disciplines share common characteristics, methodological basis and lines of enquiry, it need not be so. On a more practical level, tools, techniques and approaches to writing can also all easily be shared and discussed. It is these collegiate aspects of  #ArtWriMo that I have found particularly beneficial.

It is an oft-utter aphorism that the best way to improve your writing is to write more words, more often. I myself regularly give this advice to students, but often find it difficult to implement. Having a monthly goal and seeing other people Tweeting, discussing or updating our googledocs page with their progress has been a useful source of impetus to sit down and practice writing. Many of the words you pen will not appear in the final product, but this does not mean they were not important. Tools like Scrivener or other online writing applications that enable you to set a daily word-count can be a real help with this and provide some of the accountability you can also get from colleagues and friends. If you’ve not tried one of these platforms, I thoroughly recommend doing so. The facility to bring colleagues or friends in other departments together into an online community is a potentially powerful means of improving all of your productivity and will certainly be something I continue to do in future.

Part of this month’s initiative has been a series of writing sessions where members of the Department can all come together and work in a shared space. Initially I was quite skeptical about this, as I suspect many of us were. Afterall, one of the luxuries of having one’s own office or working in the library is that one is not interrupted. Yet in practice these shared sessions were great for productivity and for shared discussion. Using scheduled breaks as an opportunity to work through approaches to writing, how best to frame an argument, tips for tailoring work to specific journals or publishers or just to learn what colleagues were writing on was both a beneficial and enjoyable use of time. Rather than being distraction, taking time out of undoubtedly busy schedules to write together was an entirely positive experience.

Another interesting thing to come out of the session was the opportunity to discuss methods of working and writing. We experimented with the Pomodoro technique, which intersperses periods of work (25 minutes) with regular scheduled breaks (5 minutes) in an attempt to improve work capacity and avoid burnout and also discussed storyboarding; a technique which many of us have been using to great effect this month.

All-in-all, #ArtWriMo has provided me with some revealing insights into my own writing; how I write; why I write and how to do it better. Taking the time to reflect on these issues has been of great benefit and has also helped me to have a productive month. There is more to a writing community than the fear of shame, it seems.

Image: storyboarding a chapter and current progress using Scrivener


NSS/SDSR 2015: A Balanced Fleet: An Historical Perspective


The government’s SDSR 2015 proudly proclaims to be ‘transforming the Royal Navy’s ability to project our influence overseas’ by providing for not only the two Queen Elizabeth Class aircraft carriers, but also an increased number of F35s to fly from them. Commissioning both vessels is certainly a bold statement of intent on the government’s behalf, however the decision to commit to only eight Type 26 Global Combat Ships must raise questions about Britain’s capacity to deploy her much vaunted carriers without sacrificing her naval presence in other theatres.

The debate over the most appropriate balance to be struck between ‘capital’ ships and the other vessels required to deploy them effectively has a long antecedence. In the early twentieth century, similar questions were asked when the Admiralty announced its intention to construct the new-model battleship HMS Dreadnought. The influential American commentator Rear-Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan was scathing in his criticism of the new ship, and in Britain the former Director of Naval Construction, Sir William White, cautioned against placing all of the country’s ‘naval eggs into one or two vast, costly, majestic, but vulnerable baskets’. Even supporters of the type like Captain Reginald Bacon, a member of the Committee who had over-seen the design of Dreadnought and the officer that was to become her first captain, acknowledged that innovations in torpedo and submarine technology meant that the battleship could no longer operate independently. Rather, a fleet of smaller craft was required to work in harmony with the capital ship:

the conception of the battleship now is no longer one unit enclosed in one hull, but is bound to come to a ship which the other adjunct vessels associated with her that will supply her with that portion of her power which she herself has lost.

Despite this awareness of the battleships’ increasing dependence upon other craft, critics of contemporary Admiralty policy contended that too great a proportion of the Estimates was being spent upon capital ships at the expense of their vital escorts. Rear-Admiral Edmond Slade, the Director of Naval Intelligence, remarked in 1909 that ‘while we are amply strong in Battleships the fault is that the flotilla has been neglected’. Admiral Fisher’s naval assistant expressed similar concerns, noting that the majority of the Navy’s torpedo boats were ‘20 years old and in such a bad state that they will only be serviceable for about two years unless some action is taken.’

Most famously, Admiral Jellicoe consistently lamented the lack of light craft at his disposal whilst in command of the Grand Fleet between 1914-16. ‘We were very short of destroyers for fleet work’, he later reflected, claiming that this had caused ‘the Battle Fleet to confine its movements under ordinary conditions to the more northern waters of the North Sea.’ In other words, an insufficiency of light vessels had restricted the mobility of the very dreadnoughts that had been built at their expense. Indeed, the ‘insufficiency of the flotilla forces’ was later cited as an obstacle to the introduction of convoys in 1917. At that point, the Admiralty was obliged to choose between the requirements of the fleet and the anti-submarine campaign in the Channel and Western Approaches. Recalling this dilemma in 1940, Admiral Sir Herbert Richmond encapsulated the lesson he had derived from the situation; ‘the Navy must be provided with flotilla and cruiser forces adequate to fulfil both purposes simultaneously’.

Arguably, Admiral Fisher had prioritised strategic concerns over operational matters when he emphasized capital ships within his procurement plans. As he argued in 1906, ‘international alliances and, much more, international Ententes can be made and broken with far greater rapidity and ease than that with which battleships can be built.’ The same could be said of smaller craft, which could be purchased with much greater rapidity and ease than high-value battleships or battle cruisers. This was demonstrated in the autumn of 1914 when, after returning to the Admiralty as First Sea Lord, Fisher moved quickly to inaugurate a sizeable programme of flotilla craft construction. These new vessels would maximize the operational impact of the battleships whose existence secured overall British naval supremacy. Bacon summarised the necessity of securing the most important, difficult to construct ships first:

As long as we remain a fighting sea power, we must have not only ships of equal or superior armament, but we must, at the same time, call then luxuries – call them what you like – but at any sacrifice have ships that are able to overtake, fight and sink the ships of any other country.

SDSR 2015 has replicated this approach in the emphasis it has placed upon carrier strike capability. The challenge for the government now is to provide enough supporting vessels to deploy the carriers without unduly compromising Britain’s ability to act in other areas of the globe. Whether this will be achieved through operating with allies and partners, or through a new variation of frigate for the Navy remains to be seen. Yet if the commitment to ‘global reach’ is to be more than rhetoric, a means of deploying a carrier whilst conducting another naval operation is certainly required.

 Image: HMS Dreadnought in drydock at Portsmouth 1916, via wikimedia commons.


Planning for war in the North Sea 1912-1914


On the morning of November 3rd 1914 German battle cruiser bombarded the popular resort town of Yarmouth on the Norfolk Coast. The Daily Mail reported how the German ships ‘appeared suddenly out of nowhere, revealed in the dim haze of dawn to steam drifters five miles of Lowestoft, fired on a British warship, and dropped shells almost on the sands of Yarmouth and Lowestoft, and then disappeared again.’ A similar attack on Scarborough and Whitby the following month left 137 dead, the majority of them civilians. Coming on the back of accusations of German atrocities in France and Belgium, such brazen attacks on a non-military targets provoked the ire of the British public. Imbued with patriotic indignation, The Spectator struck a typically defiant tone. ‘There is no agreement as to what the Germans were trying to do’, the naval correspondent wrote;

to prove that German ships can suddenly appear off an English watering-place, and to let the inhabitants of the East Coast listen to the sound of hostile guns – a sound not heard there, we suppose, since Paul Jones was engaged by British vessels – is to give a fillip to British recruiting.

Expressions of national unity such as this were commonplace, however they disguised an important strategic reality. As all the reports acknowledged, the Germans had appeared off the east coast unannounced and undetected on both occasions and had escaped without being brought to action. In his memoirs Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty, recalled the uncertainty and tension experienced in Whitehall as news of the events off Yarmouth filtered through. ‘Was it a German raid into the Channel, or a serious attempt by the German Navy to intervene upon the Belgian coast while the land battle was still raging? Was it a descent on the British coast at Sunderland or Blyth? We had no means of judging’.

How had this unsatisfactory situation whereby, despite the might of the Grand Fleet, the Royal Navy was unable to locate and intercept German vessels in the North Sea, come to pass? The answer to his important question lies partly in the details of the Navy’s pre-war planning process.

Churchill had arrived as First Lord in late-1911 in the aftermath of the Navy’s failure to provide the government with a coherent plan for British action in the event of war with Germany during the Agadir Crisis of that summer. Whilst the Admiralty’s shortcomings were less severe than is often considered, Churchill was tasked with creating a Naval War Staff to produce more realistic and detailed plans and appreciations for consideration by politicians. This body quickly came to the conclusion that the basis of all previous Admiralty planning for war in the North Sea – the observation of German ports – was no longer practicable due to the growth of German naval power and the formidable logistical difficulties involved with maintaining British flotilla forces off the enemy coastline. Thus, in April 1912, the War Staff wrote to the C-in-C Home Fleet informing him that ‘the Blockade by the British Fleet of the whole German Coast on the North Sea is to be considered as cancelled.’ This created a major problem for the Navy. With attempts to monitor direct German access to the North Sea ended, it was unclear how and where enemy movements might be detected. As Churchill explained to his cabinet colleagues ‘a considerable element of chance and of risk that important hostile movements will not be reported and intercepted in the early stages is inseperable from all dispositions other than a close blockade.’

Such ‘hostile movements’ were highly like to include those of German torpedo craft. Confining German torpedo boats to coastal waters had been a key tenet of previous British planning, as doing so would enable the Fleet to traverse the North Sea without fear of a surprise torpedo attack. If this task was no longer deemed possible, the movement of the British fleet in the North Sea would become increasingly hazardous and would be dependent upon the integration of flotilla cover with the battle fleet. Furthermore, British bases on the east coast, such as Rosyth, would become vulnerable to German torpedo, mine and submarine attack, as destroyers would be able to make the passage across the North Sea under the cover of darkness and ambush the approaches to these anchorages. If the Admiralty withdrew the Fleet to the Shetlands or the coast of Ireland in order to protect it from torpedo attack, lighter vessels patrolling the North Sea would be left vulnerable to defeat in detail by superior German forces. The abandonment of attempts to observe German North Sea bases thus created a dilemma that became known in the corridors of the Admiralty as ‘the North Sea Problem.’

The War Staff sought to address the problem by conducting patrols of the mid-North Sea. This approach was widely appreciated to be an unsatisfactory interim measure until a better solution became practical. Plans were made to restrict German movements by means of mines and to use the Navy’s newest submarines on observational patrols, however both of these ideas remained inchoate and significant technical and practical barriers to their implementation remained. The authorities were therefore obliged to persist with patrols of the North Sea for the time being. The demands of these operations were reflected in the Navy’s construction programme, which included eight light cruisers in both 1911-12 and 1912-13. These vessels were to be combined into mixed squadrons with the Navy’s battle cruisers to provide powerful, self-supporting reconnaissance units for North Sea patrols.

By early-1914, however, the consensus of opinion amongst senior officers had moved away from constant patrols and towards occasional ‘sweeping’ movements of the North Sea with the entire Grand Fleet. ‘The movements should be sufficiently frequent and sufficiently advanced’, it was explained, ‘to impress upon the enemy that he cannot at any time venture far from his home ports without such serious risk of encountering an overwhelming force that no enterprise is likely to reach its destination.’ Such was the state of Admiralty thought on the eve of war.

One notable dissenter from this approach was the Second Sea Lord, Vice-Admiral John Jellicoe. Jellicoe stressed the dangers the Fleet would run from mines and enemy torpedoes during such ‘sweeps’. He therefore lobbied to restrict the frequency of such movements, with limited success. Jellicoe’s dissent would have been much less significant had he not been thrust into the position of C-in-C Grand Fleet upon the outbreak of War. Placed in the uncomfortable position of succeeding the popular Admiral Sir George Callaghan earlier than had been planned, Jellicoe also inherited war orders which embodied a strategy he had opposed during his time at the Admiralty. After several months of concerted lobbying, he convinced Churchill to allow him to abandon the idea entirely, reverting to patrols similar to those contemplated between 1912-13.

The German raid on Yarmouth came around a month later. The episode exposed the extent of the difficulties the Navy faced in the North Sea, a satisfactory solution to which remained elusive for the remainder of the War. The Admiralty’s attempts to resolve the ‘North Sea problem’ are detailed in this new article and are also explored in these free lectures by myself and Rear Admiral James Goldrick. They revealed a dynamic, innovative planning process which identified and began to prepare a series of appropriate solutions to the challenges of operating against Germany in the North Sea. The difficulties encountered in implementing the plans were largely due to the failure of technology to keep up with the Navy’s strategic ambition, rather than manifestations of Admiralty inadequacy.

Image: A British Fleet patrolling the North Sea, courtesy of the Imperial War Museum © IWM (Q 18118).

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.