BOOK REVIEW – At War in Distant Waters: British Colonial Defense in the Great War

Phillip G. Pattee, At War in Distant Waters: British Colonial Defense in the Great War. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2013. 273 pp.

Review by Joseph Moretz
British Commission for Military History

Though the historiography of naval operations during the First World War is fulsome, rather less attention has been paid to its governing naval strategies, and it is this that Phillip Pattee addresses with regard to the Royal Navy in At War in Distant Waters. Specifically, the focus is on the evolving strategic environment Great Britain faced in the years before the World War and the responses—political, diplomatic, naval and economic—adopted. Where others have focused on the competition in armaments and, most especially, the race in capital ship construction between Germany and Britain, At War in Distant Waters emphasizes the commercial and colonial underpinnings of the British Empire and the role of the Royal Navy in safeguarding the mercantile trade upon which all else rested. Perforce this takes British maritime strategy beyond the confines of the North Sea and, as the empire was a global construct, so too, was British naval strategy.

The author’s methodology follows one model of present military planning for examining a situation. If alien to how British statesmen and naval officers would have approached the challenges facing them, it remains, nevertheless, a useful vehicle for establishing the objectives of prewar British maritime strategy. It also allows Pattee to evaluate the subsequent course of events with an eye to rendering a final judgment on the overall effectiveness of British maritime strategy. The author ably relates why the challenge of a German Navy married to an already formidable military was such a fear to British leaders. Upsetting the balance of power at home, it threatened British survival if access to markets and agricultures were denied abroad. How Britain responded owed as much to diplomacy as naval measures and both, deftly adopted, ensured that the nation and the Navy were ready in 1914. The conclusion reached by the author is that the Royal Navy successfully executed its strategy during the World War and was able to meet its three main tasks: Forestalling invasion of the home islands, supporting the military on the continent all while maintaining and protecting British trade.

That it did, but the effort was daunting and in the words of Lord Fisher all hinged on whether the Army could win the war before the Navy lost it. Thus, it was not sufficient for the Royal Navy to succeed in its strategy. British grand strategy had to be effective too. British naval strategy also had to be more than defensive and the three tasks allowed by Pattee—and it was. This is important for a central tenet of the author is that the war in distant waters was not a sideshow or an adjunct to the greater war, but played a role in the victory that was ultimately secured. Surely, that is to claim too much. Contraband control was effective because Britain controlled the narrow waters of the English Channel and North Sea. Though Germany commanded the Baltic and had access to interior communications, British economic pressure exerted by the Navy against Norway and Holland limited the usefulness of these avenues.

Meanwhile, depredations by German cruisers could cause Britain pain; they could not cause defeat. As Germany lacked overseas docking and repair facilities, her surface raiders lacked the ashore wherewithal to mount an effective campaign for a sustained period. Eventually, the ships would have to return to Germany for repair where they would face interception in the North Sea. Alternatively, they might opt to be interned in neutral ports. Either suited the needs of the Royal Navy. This was why the submarine war was so dangerous; its bases were inviolate and near at hand.

The work is supported by archival research using not only official records, but personal papers, as well, and all are buttressed with reference to the best of contemporary secondary literature in the field. This is a solid work and is highly commended. Never dogmatic, Pattee is excellent at describing the interwoven fabric of empire, trade and Navy and how technology affected all, in turn. The assessments made are reasoned and reasonable. That said, a number of minor factual errors are present—Churchill was never First Sea Lord and it was HMS Princess Royal rather than HMS Tiger that was re-tasked to augment the search for Von Spee’s squadron following Coronel—these should be corrected in any second printing.

The assessments remain reasoned and reasonable. They are not definitive. An important omission is the author’s failure to address the Dardanelles-Gallipoli campaign which cost more in resources and effort than was available locally. Before this operation began, the Eastern Mediterranean Squadron of the Royal Navy had executed many of the types operations described so well by Pattee in Pacific waters, including securing local enemy intelligence and destroying enemy telegraphs. Yet, this was not done to effect sea control, rather being the fruits of already enjoying that privilege.

This points to another consideration. Tackling German overseas territories (or Ottoman) could be pursued for multiple reasons beyond simply ensuring the protection of British mercantile trade. Few British leaders in 1914 appreciated how the war would evolve—Kitchener being a notable exception—much less, end. Capturing or attacking enemy colonies suited the needs of the British Navy, as it sought to secure the destruction of enemy raiders, but it also suited the needs of higher policy. Pattee is a little too dismissive of the latter. For a nation much experienced in the give and take of war and their negotiated settlements, war in distant waters served a corollary purpose.

In the end, if this reviewer does not agree with all the findings reached, this owes everything to the chance that other interpretations are possible in the face of the proof presented and that which is not. Such is the nature of historical discourse. At War in Distant Waters is an excellent piece of scholarship. Lucidly told, it addresses a side of naval strategy too frequently ignored and is warmly recommended to the academic no less than to those only acquainted with the topic.

(Return to the January 2015 Issue Table of Contents)

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