Book Review: The Great War at Sea: A Naval History of the First World War

“There is something wrong with our bloody ships today.” Vice Admiral David Beatty to Captain Ernle Chatfield at the Battle of Jutland

H.H. Asquith British Prime Minister 1906-1916: “with deference to our soldiers, this war has been won with sea power.” 

The Great War at Sea by Lawrence Sondhaus

The Great War at Sea: A Naval History of the First World War by Lawrence Sondhaus is a detailed look at how sea power played a role in WWI. Sondhaus is an associate professor in the department of history and political science at the University of Indianapolis. He is the author of Naval Warfare, 1815–1914 Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf: Architect of the Apocalypse Preparing for Weltpolitik: German Sea Power before the Tirpitz Era ; and two volumes on the Austrian navy.

For many, myself included, World War I was usually covered in the History of the 20th Century or a similar class. My recollection was Germany invaded France through Belgium and the rest of Europe fell into war and a system of trenches. America entered the war to end the slaughterhouse that Europe had become. The Western front was covered in some detail. The Eastern front, which was far more active, was for the most part ignored. Naval warfare consisted of the Battle of Jutland and Germany’s unsuccessful submarine warfare. Over the years I have learned a great deal more of the war that formed the 20th Century. Naval warfare has always been limited in coverage with the exception of Jutland. Sondhaus presents a wealth of data on the effects of naval power on the outcome of the war. 

Prior to WWI, the world was recognizing the importance of a modern navy. Navy’s could easily change the outcome of the war. Japan’s navy humiliated the Russian navy twice in the decade before the Great War. Britain used naval power to secure trade routes for her Empire. America needed a navy, to support its claims in Latin America and the Philippines. Naval power meant power projection. Militarily, Germany and Britain were opposites. Britain had a strong navy and a weak army; Germany the strong army, fresh from the defeat of France in 1871, and a weak navy. Germany began a naval build up before the war with the intention of equalling Britain. 

Technology lead to changes in ship designs and much larger capital ships. Ships moved from burning coal to oil burning oil. Systems were designed for ranging and firing at targets, however even in the best situations accuracy was about 4% — four out of one hundred fired would actually hit the target. Torpedoes came into play with longer ranges,up to 5,000 feet. In an impressive growth spurt naval guns now could fire a 19,000 feet. Perhaps the most the most important bit of technology was wireless communications. From humble beginnings of 50 meters range grew to almost half a world away. Communications allowed better control of navies. 

On of the earliest naval battles was the running battle between HMAS Australia and von Spree’s squadron of German ships across the Pacific. Spree was intent on doing as much damage to the Allies as he could on his way back to Germany. Spree waged a running attack against the Allies until he was defeated at the Falkland Islands in December 1914. Spree’s run lasted 15,000 miles– unheard of in steam powered days. 

There was warfare in the Mediterranean Sea, though limited. Austria-Hungary’s navy was trapped by the French and British navy. Austria-Hungary did score a first in naval history on September 15th, 1916 when a naval seaplane sunk the french submarine Foucault. Unlike surface ships where guess work played a large role in dropping depth charges, from the air, a low running submarine gave a visible silhouette and an easy target. The problem was with the accuracy of dropping bombs. 

The sinking of the Lusitania is usually credited with bringing the United States into World War I. The US did not declare war on Germany until two years later. The Lusitania, did however, change US opinion of the war. Early on England and it’s strict interpretation of wartime contraband prevent almost all trade, including cotton, affecting United State’s rights as a neutral. Unrestricted submarine warfare did turn public opinion from German support to Allied support. 

The Great War at Sea is the most comprehensive account of the power and projection of naval forces in WWI. Sondhaus gives details of many events that usually do not make it into the general history books, or even other books on the First World War. There is a chapter devoted to the Russian Navy in the Russian Revolution, several chapters to the naval build up before the war, the war in the Mediterranean, detailed accounts of Germany’s main efforts in submarine warfare, and of course the Battle of Jutland and who won, if anyone. A very detailed and well cited work of history recommended for anyone want to know more about naval history or wanting a more complete history of WWI.

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