BOOK REVIEW – A History of the Royal Navy: World War I

Mike Farquharson-Roberts, A History of the Royal Navy: World War I. London: I.B. Taurus, 2014.  236 pp.

Review byJohn Abbatiello, PhD
Rocky Mountain Military Affairs Society

This is a delightful overview of the Royal Navy’s wartime experience during the First World War. Academics will likely find little that is new in this brief survey, but general readership will appreciate a thorough and engaging narrative of this important conflict. The book is part of a series examining the larger history of Britain’s Royal Navy, and the author skillfully condenses the most important events and themes of this topic into 207 pages of text.

Mike Farquharson-Roberts brings an interesting personal background to this subject matter. He is a retired Royal Navy Surgeon Rear Admiral who was an orthopedic surgeon and earned a Maritime History doctorate from the University of Exeter in 2013. He is currently an Associate Research Fellow of the National Museum of the Royal Navy. Interestingly, his doctoral thesis examined the executive branch of the Royal Navy between the world wars.

The author’s main theme is that readers today should view the war through contemporary perspectives and not impose judgments based on the ultimate experience of both world wars. For example, regarding the decision to enact convoys as an antidote to the German U-boat threat, Farquharson-Roberts states:

[B]efore the war, intelligent and able people (including Winston Churchill) had reasoned that convoying merchant ships was both impractical and unnecessary. The modern perspective is that convoy was the obvious answer to the German campaign of unrestricted warfare, and so it proved; however, it did not appear so at the time (p. 3).

In eight well-organized chapters, the author provides narratives of the Royal Navy’s preparations and initial dispositions, key naval engagements (with an entire chapter on Jutland), technology, blockade, anti-submarine warfare, and even a chapter on the operations of the Royal Marines and Royal Naval Division. Farquharson-Roberts highlights leadership, doctrine, and technology throughout his monograph and is not afraid to criticize leadership shortcomings when necessary. For example, he takes both Churchill and Beatty (Admiral David Beatty) to task a number of times regarding their wartime decisions and makes fair judgments based on what they knew–or should have known–at the time.

The author’s research is impressive.  Though much of the narrative appears to be based on secondary sources and memoirs–with a smattering of Admiralty documents and contemporary publications from the National Archive (PRO) and Admiralty Library at Portsmouth–Farquharson-Roberts references the latest scholarship on most topics.

The author’s bottom line is that without the Royal Navy’s “contribution the war could not have been won.”  Despite a presumed bias, he skillfully makes this case throughout the monograph.  Fairly priced, nicely illustrated, and expertly written, this is a wonderful narrative of the key events and themes of the Royal Navy’s experience in World War I, where “it was largely responsible for Germany’s defeat, and that defeat was due to British seapower” (p. 207).

(Return to April 2016 Table of Contents)

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