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How the Navy Won the War

Jim Ring

Verdun, the Somme, Tannenberg and Passchendaele. These epics of destruction and futility are such bywords for the First World War that – Jutland apart – we forget the role played by sea power in the war to end war. The great global conflict is too often narrowed to the fields of Flanders and the plains of Picardy. Now, award-winning biographer and naval historian Jim Ring has revisited the story to redress the balance. He emphasises how Great Britain, ‘the great Amphibian’ in Churchill’s words, was able to move its army anywhere in the world. The Navy’s very existence deterred any attempt at invasion, and its great ships kept the German High Sea fleet at bay; lastly, the Navy gradually starved the Kaiser’s nation of war materiel and food. Choosing fourteen turning-points of the war, he explores the relative contributions made by land and sea power to the eventual outcome of the conflict in 1918. For example, the abandonment of the Imperial German Navy’s ambition for a decisive naval surface battle was at least as important as Jutland itself, while Lloyd George’s imposition of the convoy system on, it must be said, a reluctant Admiralty turned the battle against the U-boats; the mine and the submarine altered the course of war as much or more so than the tank. The book is also a study of character as well as of action, of decision-making as much as the sweep of battle, and his critique of the warlords of both the Entente and the Central Powers – of Ludendorff and Churchill, of Haig, Kitchener and Foch, of Fisher, Jellicoe, Beatty and Scheer – is refreshing, his conclusions surprising. ‘The Great War was fought on land but won at sea.’ Not so, says Ring, but much closer to the truth than we tend to believe.

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Verdun, the Somme, Tannenberg and Passchendaele. These epics of destruction and futility are such bywords for the First World War that – Jutland apart – we forget the role played by sea power in the war to end war. The great global conflict is too often narrowed to the fields of Flanders and the plains of Picardy. Now, award-winning biographer and naval historian Jim Ring has revisited the story to redress the balance. He emphasises how Great Britain, ‘the great Amphibian’ in Churchill’s words, was able to move its army anywhere in the world. The Navy’s very existence deterred any attempt at invasion, and its great ships kept the German High Sea fleet at bay; lastly, the Navy gradually starved the Kaiser’s nation of war materiel and food. Choosing fourteen turning-points of the war, he explores the relative contributions made by land and sea power to the eventual outcome of the conflict in 1918. For example, the abandonment of the Imperial German Navy’s ambition for a decisive naval surface battle was at least as important as Jutland itself, while Lloyd George’s imposition of the convoy system on, it must be said, a reluctant Admiralty turned the battle against the U-boats; the mine and the submarine altered the course of war as much or more so than the tank. The book is also a study of character as well as of action, of decision-making as much as the sweep of battle, and his critique of the warlords of both the Entente and the Central Powers – of Ludendorff and Churchill, of Haig, Kitchener and Foch, of Fisher, Jellicoe, Beatty and Scheer – is refreshing, his conclusions surprising. ‘The Great War was fought on land but won at sea.’ Not so, says Ring, but much closer to the truth than we tend to believe. A century after the catastrophic events of the Great War, in the midst of a time at which the country is once again pondering its identity, it is worth reciting the words of John Keegan: ‘No Briton of my generation, raised on food fought through the U-boat packs in the battle of the Atlantic can ever ignore the narrowness of the margin by which sea power separates survival from starvation in the islands he inhabits.’ The Royal Navy was key to the survival of Great Britain and to eventual victory in 1918. Written with passion and verve, this book offers a very different way of looking at the conflict – if you think you understand the Great War, think again.

ISBN: 9781473897182
Format: Hardback
Author(s): Jim Ring
First Publishment Date: 19 September 2018

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  1. I enjoyed being challenged by this book, the style is both readable and stimulating. Fisher’s epitaph was: “Organiser of the Navy that won the Great War.” This book convinced me and is highly recommended! review by PCW-M on 07/03/2019

    With its provocative title, you could be forgiven for thinking that this book will be examining the naval actions of WW1 to prove the superiority of the Royal Navy, but that is not the case, far from it. The author cleverly weaves a path through a range of the political, strategic, economic and tactical events referred to as the “14 turning points of the war”, as well as studies of the key figures. These include the battle of Heligoland Bight, Loos and Arras, the German 1918 Spring offensive, the attack on the Lusitania, unrestricted German submarine warfare and the introduction by the British of a convoy system.

    The lack of strategic clarity in 1914 by the British led to the deployment of the numerically weak BEF and little regard was taken of using the Navy other than for transporting the soldiers safely to France – a task it carried out superbly with very little loss throughout the war. As the war progressed – in Beatty’s words “it may have been fought on land but it was won at sea”, Heligoland Bight and Jutland showed the High Seas Fleet the dangers of a fleet action with the Grand Fleet. The pre-eminence of the British naval power enabled it to establish an increasingly effective blockade, literally starving Germany of everything from food to raw materials. A combination of poor national food distribution and drain of manpower from the German farming sector added to the misery. With internal discontent in 1916/17, the Kaiser authorised unrestricted attacks by U-boats on Allied merchant ships as the only hope of German victory. The Royal Navy reluctantly instituted a convoy system in April 1917, when merchant losses were running at 850,000 tons a month. Fisher said at the time: “Can the Army win the war before the Navy loses it?” The convoy system broke the stranglehold of the U-boats and is described as one of the reasons the Entente won the war. The author is a journalist and the book is deliberately challenging but enjoyable. With quotes from Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth and comparing Ludendorff to one of Paul McCartney’s songs, this is not the usual style of a military historian. His conclusion is that the Navy was as great a contributor to victory as the Army but at less cost. I enjoyed being challenged by this book, the style is both readable and stimulating. Fisher’s epitaph was: “Organiser of the Navy that won the Great War.” This book convinced me and is highly recommended!

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