BOOK REVIEW – How the Navy Won the War: The Real Instrument of Victory 1914-1918

Jim Ring, How the Navy Won the War: The Real Instrument of Victory 1914-1918. Barnsley: Seaforth Publishing, 2018. 232 pp. 

Review by Dr. Joseph Moretz, PhD, FRHistS
Adjunct Professor of history, United States Naval Academy

 Unsurprisingly, the centenary of the First World War witnessed an outpouring of commemoration to a conflict whose legacy shaped the contours of modern life with veneration reaching its apogee in 2018, as nations noted the stark sacrifices made by an earlier generation. Giving thanks to a peace at last secured, many could pray such a profound test not be faced again. A natural enough response by the heirs of the defeated, it is a stance even later generations of the victorious have embraced. Living with weapons even more ghastly than those found in the World War may offer one explanation for such revision while a sense the victory won came at an altogether too high a price must stand as another. That the quality of generalship proved unequal to the challenge of modern, industrial war has become received wisdom in contemporary Britain and doubtless, elsewhere, too. 

Jim Ring is aware of this context in How the Navy Won the War, but has his eyes set on two problems of a different sort. To wit, Britain followed a flawed military strategy in the war to the detriment of her greater interests, and the subsequent historiography of the war, centered on the actions of the Western Front, overlooks the font of the conflict’s decisiveness: the sea. This rebuttal is not aimed at academic historians of the war, though some academics might agree. Nor is it directed at those schooled in the conflict’s finer details. Rather, Ring seeks to reach a public knowing of the war but faintly and then badly at that. Fed on a continuous diet of works from two competing heresies, that public must conclude British soldiers were indeed “lions led by donkeys” or that Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig was not so bad after all—certainly, he remained the best type of officer the Army could produce under the circumstances. Accordingly, at no point has the public been allowed to appreciate the maritime dimension of the World War and how it ruled all else.

The argument is not without appeal to those born to a maritime tradition and cannot be dismissed out of hand given that it is the crux of those who posit a “British Way in Warfare,” such as the late author and defense critic, Sir Basil Liddell Hart. Unsurprisingly, How the Navy Won the War draws freely and favorably from that writer as well as Winston Churchill, Admiral Sir John Fisher and the noted Oxford historian Alan Taylor in making its case. Collectively, a body of no mean intellect, ironically, all bear a responsibility for the very received wisdom that Ring laments. That this so may be attributed to a reason that they feature so prominently in How the Navy Won the War—all wrote fluently with veer, passion and, at times, a degree of venom. Certainly, none stands accused of boring their readers in the turgid style of the official histories penned by Julian Corbett, Henry Newbolt, and Ernest Fayle which the author fails to cite.

Central, though, to the author’s argument is the mistake Britain made by sending its army to the continent in August 1914 to act as an appendage of the French Army. From that decision flowed the destruction of the original British Expeditionary Force on the Marne and the subsequent disasters of the Somme and Third Ypres which decimated the “New Armies” which had replaced the “Old Contemptibles.”  Instead, better would it have been for Britain to limits its role to the traditional maritime strategy which had served it so well previously. Here, the influence of General Sir Henry Wilson, late Director of Military Operations, and Field Marshal Lord Kitchener, the Secretary of State for War, is castigated. The former by tying British military strategy so closely to France, while the latter, in raising an army of continental proportions, fed the beast that Wilson had ordained.

That proposition fails to persuade not least because Henry Wilson did not operate as a loose cannon. Francophile that he assuredly was, that officer remained subject to the guidance and oversight of the War Office and Richard Haldane, its Secretary of State during the key period before the war. It fails because sending the BEF to the continent in 1914 did not irretrievably commit Britain to a war of mass attrition. After all, Britain simultaneously initiated a series of peripheral operations against German colonies and would soon initiate another in Mesopotamia when the Ottoman Empire opted for belligerency in association with Germany and Austria-Hungary. More than anything else what committed Britain to a continental war was the fresh facts that Germany had created on the ground. With large portions of France and Belgium occupied and Russia suffering a heavy defeat at Tannenberg, the limits of naval power were all to painfully exposed when the German High Sea Fleet elected not to sally forth. In short, Britain could not leave France in the lurch unless it was willing to accept a very less than splendid isolation in a Europe now transformed to its detriment.  

This does not mean that what followed passes without criticism, but coalition warfare for a coalition lacking a unifying strategy, possessing diverse political aims, and retaining fragmented operational control of its military forces posits mistakes—many mistakes—will be likely until success or failure beckons. The tale of the succeeding four years is of a coalition struggling to master such shortfalls. The sea made the war a World War, but it did not make it any easier to wage. Britain and the Allies, however, were fortunate that they faced a Germany having an uncanny ability to make its own share of grievous errors, especially at the nexus of strategy and policy, while never grasping the essence of maritime war.

In the end, what transformed matters were the defeat of Russia and the entry of the United States into the war. The first sowed the seeds of discord which eventually rebounded on a Germany which had abetted the return of Lenin to Russia. The second allowed economic warfare to be prosecuted in a rigor heretofore not possible owing to earlier American neutrality. The Royal Navy played its part in that prosecution but so too the Allied armies fighting at the front which forced the enemy to consume that which could not be replaced—be it food, be it armaments, or be it manpower. How the Navy Won the War attempts too much, but it does remind us that the war was more than the Western Front and the clash of armies. It was a clash of economies too and not by accident did the side mastering sea power ultimately prevail. The specialist attuned to the First World War may safely forego the work. Others, less steeped in the war, are invited to consider the corrective presented. 

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