David Stevens, In All Respects Ready: Australia’s Navy in World War One. Victoria: Oxford University Press, 2014. 378 pp.
Review by Chuck Steele, PhD
International Journal of Naval History
If one is looking for a comprehensive history of the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) in the Great War, they need to go no further than David Stevens extraordinary book, In All Respects Ready. This single volume covers the full range of RAN contributions to Allied victory in depth, breadth, and context. It is a solid work of narrative history that accomplishes more than what one might rightfully expect of a book dedicated to telling the story of a service that was manned by fewer than 10,000 sailors (officers and ratings—to include seven women, p.2). Regardless of how slight the numbers, Stevens demonstrates that in a war fought by millions, the mere thousands of sailors in Australian service managed to play an outsized role in a multitude of theatres.
When World War I began, the RAN was but a few years old (it gained recognition as an independent naval service in 1911). Understandably, when compared with its progenitor, Britain’s Royal Navy, the RAN was a modestly sized force. There were no Australian battleships, and by far the largest ship in the RAN was the battlecruiser HMAS Australia. The remainder of the fleet consisted of a collection of smaller vessels to include the light cruisers, HMAS Sydney and HMAS Melbourne, with Sydney being the most famous of the two for her role in the sinking of the German light cruiser SMS Emden—a story described in detail in the book’s fifth chapter. The stories of these ships and their crews, as well as well as other Australian vessels is ably reported by Stevens and would make In All Respects Ready compelling reading, even if the book contained nothing else.
Fortunately, Stevens addresses more than the RAN’s service as an organization in the war, he also delves into the multi-faceted contributions of individual Australians, and Britons working in association with the RAN. His thoroughness extends from sea to shore and from the obvious to the obscure. If the RAN, or sailors from the RAN, had a presence in a theatre or action, Steven’s covers it. For example, he does not only document the services of the RAN’s ships, such as the battlecruiser Australia and her service with the Grand Fleet, but he also provides a record of Australians’ services in that fleet. While Australia was not present at the Battle of Jutland, Australians were—and Stevens does not neglect their efforts in his book. Indeed, there is considerable focus on the individuals who brought the RAN out of its infancy and into its own as a war fighting entity. Each of his 24 chapters concludes with a profile of a sailor whose work was integral to the story told in the preceding pages.
The book is sensibly broken down chronologically and geographically. Starting with the creation of the RAN and moving to the outbreak of war, the book progresses year by year, and theatre by theatre, until the RAN returns to “Business As Usual” in the last chapter. The format of the book allows for the RAN’s story to unfold in a coherent and easy to follow manner.
If the book has a fault, it would be that it is possible for a reader to develop a distorted view of the war at sea inadvertently. Despite Stevens describing the Battle of Jutland blow by blow, it is done from a decidedly sympathetic point of view. The focus is always on the RAN and those most intimately associated with it. An example of this is the case of Rear Admiral Sir William Packenham, the commander of 2nd Battlecruiser Squadron at the battle of Jutland (who flew his flag from Australia until it was damaged in a collision with its sister ship New Zealand). Even though Stevens explicitly details Pakenham’s adoration of Vice Admiral Sir David Beatty in the months before the battle (p.148), the author turns to Pakenham for the last comment as to why the British victory was not complete (p. 215). Pakenham’s statement expectedly absolves Beatty of any fault, and despite the severe losses within the battlecruiser force, Pakenham proclaims that had Beatty exercised greater authority the battle’s outcome would have been far more salutary. While the contents of the section detailing the war’s most significant battle are understandable, one must remember that this is first and foremost a history of the RAN in the Great War and not a history of the war at sea in general.
Regardless of the potential for misinterpretation, if anyone is looking to gain an understanding of the roles played by the RAN in the Great War, or interested in the formative years of Australia’s Navy, then this book is a must-read. It is well written and thoroughly researched. It is a remarkably good piece of naval history.