Written by Geoffrey Bennett
ISBN Number 1473821118
Pen and Sword Books 2014. Originally published by B T Batsford Ltd 1968
313pp with photographs and maps
The author, Captain Geoffrey Bennett, was born in 1909 and served in the Royal Navy between 1923 and 1955. He earned the DSC while serving with Force H in the Mediterranean and between 1953 and 1955 was Naval Attaché in Moscow, Warsaw and Helsinki. After retirement in 1955 he became a full time author and wrote a number of books on naval history. Several of these works are to be found in the reviewer's library. Naval Battles of the First World War was originally published in 1968, Captain Bennett died in 1983.
There has been a considerable amount of research into the naval war since the original date of publication and it therefore has to be said right off the top that the book is somewhat dated. There are a few other issues as well.
At the end of the first chapte, Captain Bennett states that the failure of Germany to achieve an early victory on land allowed time for sea power to play a decisive role in the outcome of the war. Though conceding that the Western Front dominated the strategy of the Entente powers and later the Americans, the author asserts "...it was their navies, of which the British was immeasurably the strongest, that in the end brought Germany to her knees. And this is the theme of all that follows...."
Not everyone would subscribe to this view, and some might argue that the defeat of the German Army on the Western Front was more important in bringing about Germany's defeat in 1918. Regardless of personal viewpoints, however, after such a strong statement the reviewer expected that Captain Bennett would build his case and explain how the navy brought Germany to its knees. It was expected that there would be much on the achievements of the British blockade in cutting off the flow of supplies. In fact there was nothing and not much on Germany's U-Boat blockade of Britain either.
To understand the direction the book actually takes one has to look no further than the title, though perhaps it should be more accurately titled British Naval Battles of the First World War. As mentioned above, Captain Bennett wrote a number of books on naval history including a biography of Lord Charles Beresford, accounts of the Battle of Jutland, the Battles of Coronel and Falkland, and a lively telling of the naval war against the Bolsheviks in the Baltic in 1919/20; Cowan's War. He was a good writer and his books, including this one, have a good balance of narrative and analysis.
However, with Naval Battles of the First World War the reviewer gets the sense that he focused on the topics he had already produced books on (Jutland and Coronel/Falklands) and then added little bits on other aspects of Britain's naval war to try and fill in the gaps. As a result from a book of 313 pages we get 87 pages on the Emden, Konigsberg and Von Spee's victory at Coronel and defeat at the Falkland Islands. We get 121 pages on Jutland and the post-war controversy. But we only get 21 pages on the war in the Mediterranean, including Gallipoli, and the U-Boat war is tackled in under 20 pages with a good amount of that dealing with Q-Ships. There is nothing on the Royal Navy's distant blockade.
If a reader is new to Great War naval history, Naval Battles of the First World War is a well written and lively account of many of Britain's naval battles. On this level I can recommend it. However, if the reader is a veteran of the issues and debates of the Great War at sea, this book is probably not for them. Its drawbacks are threefold. First, a great deal of research on the naval war has taken place since it was first published in 1968 and so it is quite dated. Serious students will want to look for something more contemporary. Second, it is not balanced as to the amount of space devoted to the various aspects of the war being described. Jutland is naturally very important, but almost 40% of the book is devoted to the North Sea clash with over 25% focused on the destruction of the German cruisers of Von Spee's East Asiatic Squadron. The small number of pages devoted to the U-Boat War is a serious limitation given the crisis of Britain's merchant ship losses by April 1917.
Finally the author does not develop his thesis on how the Royal Navy "brought Germany to her knees". There is a complete absence of information dealing with the Royal Navy's distant blockade and, from the emphasis of Captain Bennett's narrative, if one accepts he is actually making his case for bringing Germany to her knees, one must infer that he is saying it was brought about through the Royal Navy's ability to deal with a handful of isolated cruisers early in the war and then after Jutland by bottling up the German High Seas Fleet in its harbours.
The Royal Navy did play an important role in the defeat of Imperial Germany. Whether it played the decisive role, as asserted in Chapter 1, is open to debate. Whichever side of the debate one favours though, Captain Bennett is unconvincing because he never really brings forward the evidence to support his contention. He probably never really intended to. He had already written books on Coronel/Falklands and Jutland. One feels he simply re-worked these and added a few additional bits to fill in the gaps.
Naval Battles of the First World War is a readable and lively telling of some very important naval battles of the First World War. It is fine for someone just getting their feet wet, so to speak, in the study of the First World War at sea. I would not recommend it for seasoned naval history veterans and even beginners might want to look for something a bit more contemporary.
Reviewed by Paul McNicholls