Review: WW1 at Sea (Carolan)


WW1 at Sea.

The First World War is rightly remembered for its vast destruction of lives, but it also wrought havoc with people’s preconceptions, and dragged many recalcitrant, backward minds into the modern era.

One of these conceptual casualties was the assumption that spectacular sea battles would decide the course of the war. That the idea received as much currency as it did is puzzling, in light of the logistics and the length of coastline involved. Certainly imperial rivalry played a part, albeit largely on the stage inside the Kaiser’s head.

This is not to mean that the notion of naval involvement was as foolish or futile as the army’s fondly held faith in sweeping cavalry charges in the face of machine gun fire. Mistakes were made, particularly in the Mediterranean and the Dardanelles, but the successful evacuation of Gallipoli cannot be minimized.

The effectiveness of Britain’s distant blockade and of Germany’s submarine warfare surprised many on either side. Both countries’ blockades caused economic crises and widespread civilian suffering.

The Battle of Jutland, despite the large number of ships involved and the losses it caused, had no significant effect. As the short chronology in the back of this little book shows, not much other action occurred afloat.

The paucity of important engagements with the enemy meant that a set of military minds had little to occupy them: in a terrible waste of mental manpower, British naval officers championed the tank before their counterparts on land could see the point, so the navy’s astute endorsement of “landship” technology went unheeded far too long.

In addition to the chronology, the book contains a separate set of “profiles” (actually CVs) of nine British and German naval leaders. The only illustrations adorn the front cover and inside front cover, but although the images are credited, they are not identified. There is a short bibliography and an index.

The publisher, Pocket Essentials, takes its name seriously: In only six chapters (fewer than 150 pages), WW1 at Sea does what little historical justice can be done to a part of the war that almost wasn’t.

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