By Tim Coyle*
Two individuals stand out in the firmament of exalted historians who have written on the Royal Navy’s twentieth century history. These are the American Professor Arthur Marder and Captain Stephen Roskill RN. Their landmark works were – for Marder, the five volume history of the Royal Navy in the First World War: ‘From the Dreadnought to Scapa Flow’ and for Roskill: ‘The War at Sea 1939-45’.
Marder and Roskill’s works have been long out of print and attracted high prices through antiquarian booksellers. Roskill’s ‘War at Sea’ has been variously available as print on demand but his lesser known two volume ‘Naval Policy Between the Wars’ has languished.
Happily ‘From the Dreadnought to Scapa Flow’ and ’Naval Policy Between the Wars’ are now republished by Seaforth Publishing at reasonable cost so a new generation of naval history enthusiasts can acquire and appreciate these scholars’ works.
Arthur Marder (1910 – 1980) and Stephen Roskill (1903-1982) were legends in their lifetimes which became tinged with acrimony in their later years over a demarcation in their periods of interests. Roskill resented Marder’s perceived incursion into ‘his’ period; an informal agreement between the two had given Marder coverage of the RN’s World War One history with Roskill’s concentration post World War One and World War Two. Roskill claimed that Marder had strayed into Roskill’s chronological territory in some of his later works resulting in a simmering resentment, largely on Roskill’s part. Both Marder and Roskill are worthy subjects of historical analysis in their own right and this was addressed in Seaforth Publications’ 2010 ‘Historical Dreadnoughts; Arthur Marder and Stephen Roskill and Battles for Naval History’ by Barry Gough. This book was reviewed in these columns and is recommended to those who wish to know about the historians’ backgrounds, thoughts and methodologies. This book adds greatly to the enjoyment of reading Marder’s and Roskill’s works.
The two historian’s works enjoyed a high profile because they were published in the late 1960s when many of the principle players in naval history remained active as commentators. The First and Second World Wars were well within living memory and there was a generally high community interest in military history. Consequently works of the standard offered by Marder and Roskill were keenly sought and reviewed in prestigious organs.
‘From the Dreadnought to Scapa Flow’ Volume One ‘The Road to War1904-1914’ examines the political, administrative and policy state of the RN. This centres on Admiral Sir John Fisher’s tenure as First Sea Lord with his revolutionary reform initiatives which polarised the service. It goes on to discuss the political and international intrigues of the day, the technical revolution in warship design, ‘The Churchill Period 1911-1914’, chillingly sub-titled ‘On the Eve of Armageddon’, the evolution of maritime strategy and the status of the British and German fleets on the eve of war.
Volume Two, ‘The War Years: To the Eve of Jutland’ begins with an assessment of the professional qualities of RN admirals and captains, a feature which Marder returns to throughout his work as he examines the various actions at sea. His narrative of the escape of the German battle cruiser Goeben from the RN Mediterranean squadron is both exciting and frustrating as a tactical RN failure. The political machinations at the Admiralty with Churchill and Fisher turning their initial cooperation into outright hostility is equally fascinating as the narrative leads up to the Dardanelles campaign. The naval actions described in Volume Two are complemented by maps depicting the actions: The Chase of the Goeben, The Battle of Coronel, The Falklands Islands Battle, The Scarborough Raid, The Dogger Bank Action and the Lowestoft Raid
Volume Three, ‘Jutland and After’ is a mighty treatise on this climactic battle which has been mired in controversy since. While over 500 books address this battle in some form, and some most recently published for the battle’s centenary, Marder’s treatment remains the standard by which others are judged. Again maps – some 16 of them – accompany the text.
Volume Four, ‘1917: Year of Crisis’ addresses the change of Grand Fleet Commanders-in-Chief with Jellicoe departing to be First Sea Lord, relieved by Beatty. The latter’s strengths and weakness are discussed while Jellicoe wrestles with post-Jutland politics and the U-boat threat to which the convoy antidote was a hard fought policy decision. The genesis of naval aviation is also a feature of this volume. What Volume Four lacks in battle action narrative is compensated by the policy battles within the Admiralty and the British Government. The volume ends with the Jellicoe’s dismal removal from his post and the ructions this caused in navy, political and media circles.
Volume Five, ‘1918-1919 Victory and Aftermath’, concludes Marder’s magnum opus. Major naval actions were few; however, the heroic Zeebrugge operation is a stand-out. Marder examines the ‘second-line’ operations such as the Dover Strait and Northern barrages and the U-boat battle, largely defused by the introduction of convoy. By this time the British and German battle fleets were seemingly at a loose end; the British yearning for another, this time conclusive, fleet action and the German fleet swinging around its buoys in idleness and subsequent mutiny while the new generation of naval weapons systems – U-boats – maintained the German maritime rage. The volume concludes with the ‘Rifts and Reforms’ at the Admiralty with changes of commands and appointments, Beatty’s elevation to First Sea Lord and ‘Uncertainties and New Rivalries’. ‘From the Dreadnought to Scapa Flow’ concludes with the armistice and surrender of the German fleet and ‘Reflections On the Era’.
Volume Five contains the bibliography, which runs to 54 pages. Marder had the advantage of access to the papers and of personal interaction with many of the RN’s senior officers of the period and access to Admiralty files and records; itself a saga of Marder’s relentless determination to mine this priceless resource in the face of initial British bureaucrat obfuscation (covered in the abovementioned ‘Historical Dreadnoughts’).
There have been several valuable works on the era more recently published – Robert Massie’s ‘Castles of Steel’, Nicholas Lambert’s ‘Sir John Fisher’s Naval Revolution’, Andrew Gordon’s ‘The Rules of the Game’ and James Goldrick’s ‘Before Jutland’ – which concentrate on specifics of the time and while they are recommended only Marder’s work is the alpha and the omega of the RN in World War One.
Roskill’s ‘Naval Policy between the Wars’ is a logical continuum of naval affairs beyond World War One. Volume One, ‘The Period of Anglo-American Antagonism 1919-1929’ is far from exclusively dedicated to Anglo-American naval relations, although this matter is extensively covered as the US Navy strove to exert its emergent precedence in the wake of the RN’s post-war exhaustion and depletion. The Washington and Geneva naval disarmament conferences are major topic as are the Armistice and the Treaty of Versailles, post-war plans and problems and the vexed question of naval control over sea-going aviation. Naval interventions in Russia 1919-1920, the Near-East Crisis 1919-1923 and Problems of Overseas Defence in the immediate post-war era illustrate the exercise of sea power in the uncertain post-war era.
Roskill’s Volume Two: ’The Period of Reluctant Armament 1930-1939’ continues some of the Volume One themes: The Naval Aviation Controversy and the third of the naval disarmament conferences, the London Conference. The financial stringency of the 1930s and its effect on naval estimates were exacerbated by the abortive attempt to reduce naval pay which resulted in the Invergordon mutiny. The last pre-war naval demonstration in the neutrality patrol during the Spanish civil war culminates in the policy issues surrounding naval rearmament and the Road to War.
There is no doubt that a full reading of both works is a considerable undertaking; however the determined reader will be rewarded with a peerless commentary and analysis of naval affairs from 1904 to 1939. These books are essential sources for any scholastic work on naval affairs of the period and Seaforth Publishing’s resurrection of these works is most welcome.
* Dr Tim Coyle is an active naval reservist posted to a naval base on Sydney Harbour.