Before Jutland: naval war in northern Europe

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efore Jutland: The Naval War in Northern European Waters, August 1914 – February 1916. By James Goldrick. Naval Institute Press, Annapolis MD, 2015. ISBN 978-1-59114-349-9. 305 pages plus extensive notes, bibliography and index. Illustrated with 35 black & white photographs and 9 maps.
Reviewed by David Hobbs

Before Jutland is an extensive and improved revision of James Goldrick’s earlier work All The King’s Ships Were At Sea published by the Naval Institute Press in 1984. In his introduction, he explains that this new work evolved gradually as he had opportunities to study a number of primary source documents and the work of eminent historians. He also became aware that the way in which the ships and fleets of 1914 were operated, controlled and fought is no longer widely understood and we know more about Nelson’s wooden ships than we do about Jellicoe’s ‘Dreadnoughts’.

Further insight was gained through experience gained on loan service with the Royal Navy on fishery protection duties in the North Sea, operating in the very waters dominated by the Grand Fleet and still without the benefit of GPS or other aids to situational awareness. His subsequent extensive command experience with the RAN allowed him to comprehend, after much reflection, just how difficult were the problems faced by admirals and captains in 1914 not only in knowing where they were but, critically, where others were in relation to them. Their solutions were, at best, seamanlike estimates which were vital in determining operational success or failure.

The book leads the reader thoughtfully into the outbreak of war in August 1914 with descriptions of the British, German and Russian Navies and explains why pre-war plans had, frequently, been changed to meet rapid advances of technology. I found the descriptions of the ‘state of the art’ in chapter 5 particularly interesting and had not realised the impact of pre-war restrictions on RN training or the lack of specialised navigational training. Although the ships appear almost modern, most lacked gyro compasses and fitted speed logs; command from a wind, rain and often sea-swept open bridge with no form of tactical plot was, therefore, far removed from anything we would be familiar with today.

No wonder there were problems of co-ordination and with overcast skies that prevented sun and star sights, ships’ dead-reckoning positions could be more than ten nautical miles in error soon after losing sight of land. Tactical communications, including for the first time wireless telegraphy and the use of information from the Admiralty’s war room brought their own problems of integration. The culture indoctrinated into each of the combatant navies also affected the way they were commanded and operated.

Set against the realistic appraisal of the fleets, their technologically innovative and untried ships, the men who commanded them and their untested war plans, the book describes the naval conflict as it unfolded from the outbreak of war to the Battle of the Dogger Bank. In its own publicity, the Naval Institute Press describes this book as a definitive study of this period and I agree that the use of that adjective is entirely justified. It is a masterly work that combines a lifetime of study with extensive experience of seamanship, command and control written by one of Australia’s pre-eminent naval officers.

James Goldrick ends his remarkable book with the observation that the more one comprehends what happened at sea in 1914 and early 1915, the more that the events of Jutland, the Dardanelles and of 1917-18 become understandable, if not inevitable. ANI members will be aware that there are a number of books appearing to mark the centenary of the Great War. Be in no doubt that this one is the essential key to a full understanding of the naval war and I wholeheartedly recommend it as the outstanding work on the subject.

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