The Price of Admiralty: The Evolution of Naval Warfare

Reviewed by James Hawkins

Since the publication of his book The Face of Battle (1976), which skillfully blended letters, diaries and reminiscences of those actually present at the battles of Agincourt, Waterloo, and the Somme to reconstruct a “soldier's eye view,” John Keegan has emerged as one of the most widely read historians of warfare. In a subsequent volume, The Mask of Command (1987), he reviewed the careers of Alexander the Great, Wellington, Grant, and Hitler.

Now, Keegan, a former lecturer at the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst and presently the defense correspondent of the Tory London Daily Telegraph, explores the changing nature of war at sea by dissecting four crucial sea battles, each featuring a different type of warship: Trafalgar (wooden sailing ships); Jutland (ironclad dreadnoughts); Midway (aircraft carriers); and the Battle of the Atlantic (submarines). The author focuses on how technology, tactics, strategy, and training influenced combat operations in the battles.

The longest and best chapter deals with Trafalgar, in which a British fleet led by Horatio Nelson defeated a French-Spanish force under the French Admiral Pierre Villeneuve. Keegan explains the mechanics of naval warfare in the age of sail, observing that wooden ships-of-the-line were “astonishingly efficient” and represented “a monument to human ingenuity of a unique sort. Nothing else made by man to coax power from the elements while defying their force has ever so perfectly embodied his intentions.”

Keegan gives short shrift to impersonal “historical forces” by demonstrating the importance of personalities. He contrasts Nelson as a “revolutionary tactician” who was a “master of ship and fleet management,” with his French counterpart, Villeneuve, a survivor of revolutionary politics. After sparring for five months over 7,000 miles of ocean, what finally provoked Villeneuve to offer battle on October 21, 1805, was the news that an exasperated Napoleon had dispatched his rival, Vice-Admiral François Rosily, to replace him. On paper, the combined fleet was powerful and might have proved a match for the British. But the effects of the Revolution had taken its toll: the French navy lacked experienced officers, and a 1793 decree had abolished the corps of naval gunners on the grounds that they constituted “an aristocracy of the sea.”

The battle fought off Cadiz was a massacre. The French never again attempted to challenge the British at sea. And for the next century the oceans were dominated by the Royal Navy.

In a number of important respects, the Kaiser's High Seas Fleet was superior to the Royal Navy. German ships were better built; the magazines of British battleships proved to be especially vulnerable. And when the battle of Jutland was fought on May 31, 1916, the British commanders, Jellicoe and Beatty, showed that they lacked strategic and tactical insight. But the German naval chief, Admiral Scheer, was unable to translate technical excellence into a strategic advantage over a declining economic power — Britain — due to the Kaiser's concentration on Army concerns.

Along with fine narration, Keegan is able to give his readers a feel for combat. At the battle of Jutland, he points out:

… casualties suffered wounds almost unknown to an earlier generation of naval surgeons; metal fragmentation wounds, scouring trauma by shell splinter which carved strips of flesh from the body and, most painful and hardest of all to treat, flash and burn effects and flaying by live steam.

At Midway in 1942, Admiral Yamamoto ignored orthodox naval practice and failed to concentrate his forces, which outnumbered the U.S. Pacific Fleet. Chester Nimitz, the American C-in-C, ordered his subordinates to press on with their counterattack. The result was, as Keegan observes, “one of the truly crucial 'moments of decision' which can be isolated in the whole course of warfare.” The loss to Japan of four carriers and their pilots could never be made up (the Japanese trained only one hundred replacement pilots annually).In the Battle for the Atlantic, Hitler's ignorance of naval matters, reinforced by his general-staff-dominated command, caused the Führer to shortchange a potentially war-winning weapon in the U-boat. Even so, Dönitz's wolf-packs came within an ace of severing Britain's sea lifelines.

The Price of Admiralty is not only good history. It is also good reading.


Source: Reprinted from The Journal of Historical Review, vol. 10, no. 2, pp. 251-253.