chapter  5
14 Pages

1914–18: the proof of the pudding


The task of measuring the Royal Navy’s success in the war which started on 4 August 1914 must be situated in the context of the sort of war that was expected and planned for, and in the light of the Service’s two related but specialist seapower tasks: firstly, achieving fleet v. fleet dominance, preferably by decisive battle; and secondly, behind the shield of fleet supremacy, maintaining the free flow of British communications with the Empire, with allies, and with trading partners in general. If the Navy failed in either of those tasks, Britain could be assumed to lose. In both the fields of decisive fleet battle and of defending the sealanes, the Royal Navy had matchless historical experience, but in 1914 that experience had been lying fallow for 100 years, and in the intervening generations the naval seascape had been transformed by far-reaching technological and strategical changes, and by the small-scale peacetime mundanities of servicing a global maritime empire. The issue in 1914 would be: how far would the old ‘creaking timbers’ methods and doctrines be appropriate in this new world of H.G. Wellsian war machines, and would the Navy be hazarding its supremacy more by remembering them or by forgetting them? Was it even conscious of the choice?