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Posted on Sep 25, 2021 in Books and Movies, Front Page Features

On the Origins of the Royal Navy’s Grand Fleet. Book Review.

On the Origins of the Royal Navy’s Grand Fleet. Book Review.

Ray Garbee

“They pay me to be an Admiral, not to think!”

This quote attributed to Berkley Milne sums up an era of change that transformed the organization of the Royal Navy at the dawn of the Twentieth Century.  Author Christopher M. Buckey explores this transformation in his recent book Genesis of the Grand Fleet: The Admiralty, Germany and the Home Fleet, 1896-1914. Buckley examines the factors and personalities that led to the creation of the mighty armada that was a foundational element in the Entente’s victory in the First World War.

Buckey spotlights the truism that while technological superiority is definitely important in naval warfare, it means little if not paired with an effective tactical plan that in turn rests on a solid foundation of strategy. Buckey explores the intersection of geography, politics and personality and how these factors shaped the formation of the Royal Navy in the years leading up to the outbreak of the First World War. 

The book serves as an effective proof that geography matters. The discourse surrounding fleets deployed in support of a global empire is as valid today as it was at the start of the 20th Century. Buckey also shows that in a democratic state, elections have consequences. The effects of political policy will directly impact naval strategy through deployments, budgets and new construction.  And lastly that even in an organization governed by scientific, empirical, data-driven decision-making, individual personality still matters in shaping outcomes and events.

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Genesis of the Grand Fleet is a fascinating insight into the careers of politicians and officers who would go on to greater things. Through example, the book offers the lesson that no matter how much you may not enjoy your current position, you can still impact events, and that the future may offer even greater opportunities. The early days of politicians such as Winston Churchill and naval officers such as Lewis Bayly, Roger Keyes and John Jellicoe, are recounted in detail. Those details shine a light on important early work that is often overshadowed by their subsequent actions and contributions.

While Buckey constructs a generally linear description of events, the discourse at times contains multiple parallel threads that reflect the complex events acting to shape naval policy during the period. The approach is very effective and breaks down the overlapping events into discrete stories that are effectively woven into the narrative tapestry.

One take on this this narrative is that the more things change, the more things stay the same. The iron triangle of strategic goals, budget constraints and technological advancements remain the fundamental challenges dictating the shape of modern naval strategy.  Great power competition can both drive technical and tactical changes, while at the same time forcing political debate on the costs of pursing any given strategy. Buckey explores how that debate impacted the Royal Navy as it developed the ‘all big gun’ line of battle as well as the flotillas of torpedo carrying destroyers and submarines.

Buckey drives home the point that technological change is important, but so is making the investment in educating a navy’s officers and ratings in an evolving technical environment. As naval warfare transitioned into a complex, mechanized activity, the RN’s investment in education was key in creating a cohort of personnel ready to adapt and adopt the technical and tactical changes that would transform naval combat in World War One.

Part of this education is in creating a trained cadre of naval officers that can serve as an effective staff to create war plans based on the current geopolitical system. And in addition to creating those plans, to test what those plans will mean when implemented by the fleet. Buckey shows the importance of war gaming in validation strategic and tactical plans. Though not a tabletop exercise like a classic Prussian Krieg spiel, the Royal Navy took those plans out to sea in the form of annual fleet exercises which were large scale war game events designed to put aspects of those plans to the test. Buckey captures the value in having a solid administrative staff to assist in war planning and fleet operations.

Genesis of the Grand Fleet is an engaging book that shines a spotlight on the ‘battle of ideas’ over how best to utilize the RN in the face of an emergent German Empire on the doorstep of Great Britain.

Buckey’s book stands in contrast to Phillip G. Pattee’s work At Sea in Distant Waters.  Pattee’s book showcases the competing demands on the Royal Navy from the United Kingdom’s imperial commercial empire and the concurrent global defense needs for a large force of cruisers for protecting sea lane. It’s this contrast where Buckey’s book shines as it details how the government – specifically the Admiralty – had to wrestle with Fredrick the Great’s maxim of “He who defends everything, defends nothing”.

The presence of the German High Seas Fleet just across the North Sea focused the Admiralty’s attention in a way that the far-off needs of the Imperial possessions could not. The PR campaign waged by Tirpitz through the various naval laws, kept the Admiralty focused on those German battleships. As British naval policy included a goal of maintaining a fleet twice as strong as the next two smaller naval powers, each German ship required two additional British ships be constructed. Viewed through a lens of Weberian least cost theory, Buckey shows how the Admiralty was engaged in weighting the threats across the British Empire. Once those threats were prioritized, Buckey shows how the Admiralty was then tasked with working out the appropriate deployments to best meet those threats based on a dynamic, constantly evolving geopolitical system.

The book repeatedly details how wargames – in this case, the annual Admiralty fleet exercises – were used as a crucible to test new technology, new organizations and tactics. The narrative shows both what worked and what didn’t work, as well as highlighting assumptions made regarding amphibious assault, destroyers and the evolving role of submarines. Some of those assumptions were reminiscent of the assumptions made by the Imperial Japanese Navy in their wargame exercises prior to the Battle of Midway, but the fleet exercises helped point the way towards the organization of what would become the Royal Navy’s Grand Fleet.

Returning to a comparison with Phillip Pattee’s work focused on the Committee for Imperial Defense (CID), Buckey demonstrates how the Admiralty became increasingly preoccupied with the perceived threat the capabilities of the German High Seas Fleet posed to Britain’s naval supremacy. Buckey is a valuable point of view that stands in balance to Pattee’s globalist perspective. The narrative drives home how existential threats to the homeland will generally rise to primacy over a state’s more distant concerns. 

While nominally appearing as an administrative history of the Admiralty and its fleet organization, the book contains elements of geopolitical theory and the impact of politics (both domestic and foreign) on naval strategy. The historical example Buckey lays out is not just a dusty curio, but serves as a lens through which to view the modern environment in which national powers operate. Every navy operates in that same iron triangle of objectives, capabilities and budgets. By examining the historical example faced by the Royal Navy, modern naval officers can reflect on their current challenges.

The Weberian least cost model still weighs on the minds of planners as they allocate construction budgets, personnel needs and the prioritization of threats and mission requirements.

As a youth, I played a commercial wargame – Jutland, by the Avalon Hill Game Company. Jutland was a game that focused on modeling the naval combat between the Royal Navy’s Grand Fleet and the German High Seas Fleet. While an engaging game that provided some insights into the challenges faced by each side, the game didn’t provide a good context explaining how you ended up with the specific forces at your disposal. Genesis of the Grand Fleet provides the reader with that historical context.

Genesis of the Grand Fleet also serves as a lens through which the reader may view modern naval political policy and strategy. Christopher M. Buckey has crafted a narrative that serves as useful tool that reflects the past challenges of naval policy onto a modern setting as nations ponder their twenty first century maritime goals. It’s a text that will appeal to a broad swath of readers ranging from students of naval history through those interested in naval policy and great power competition.

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