Book Review: Study the Navies of WWI in "To Crown the Waves"

Updated on April 25, 2020

There are a lot of general naval histories that get published, and most are quite bad. To be fair, it is very easy to see why: if one is to attempt to write a naval history of the First World War, then the sheer amount of material to cover and to choose what to emphasize is tremendously difficult.

This is why To Crown the Waves: The Great Navies of the First World War is a pleasant surprise, offering a very good general summary of the Great Power navies during the Great War, and is an excellent book to have as a general summary and understanding of the individual battles of each navy. It might be less proficient when it comes to an overall picture, but in general terms it is an excellent volume.

Battleships, destroyers, and submarines, oh my!
Battleships, destroyers, and submarines, oh my!

The book's structure is remarkably simple and doesn't require much explaining. After an introduction explaining what it is trying to cover and the massive bloodletting of naval combat during the war, is organized by nation and each chapter written by a specialist on their navy, starting with Austria-Hungary, then going on to France, the German navy, Britain, Italy, Russia, and finally the United States.

After this, there is a chapter that briefly talks about two other navies that were not rated as being important or involved enough in the war to justify their status as full chapters—the Japanese and Ottoman navies. A brief conclusion revisits the wartime service of each fleet and the immense technological and doctrinal changes happening in early 20th-century naval conflict.

Covering every great navy during the Great War is a formidable task, but To Crown the Waves does a good job with it, defining its subject narrowly and then covering it plentifully. It doesn't make any pretensions to cover a subject larger than the navies of the era, but it does so with more focus than just the ships—there is also discussion of the demographic components/personnel of the navies and their, so to speak, "culture", in how they were socially stratified internally or by contrast their egalitarianism, and the divisions and social chasms within the fleet.

Combined with communications, basing (with good maps provided for each major navy), administration, organization, intelligence, shipping, training, and above all else doctrine—which is well explained for both surface and undersea warfare for every combatant, as well as general anti-submarine, mine warfare, aviation, coastal defense, and amphibious landing doctrine seeing overview as well. Every navy has plentiful tables covering its naval ships, and their losses and construction throughout the war, which gives good quantitative info as well.

Of course, any book has to leave some subjects uncovered or little covered, and in this one there is far too little emphasis on the submarine war at sea in the German guerre de course. I would have expected that the German, American, and British sections would have included more lengthy descriptions of the submarine conflict, but the description of them is extremely scanty and short. While not necessarily a part of naval strategy per se, like most naval oriented books this one fails to address the opportunity cost of navies for the nations that had them: it is very pleased with the performance of the Russian navy in WW1 for example, but in 1913 nearly 1/4 of total Russian military spending went to the navy... would not the Russians have been better served if most of that money was invested in their army instead? Most naval books are eager to stress the importance of a navy but say less about their cost as a total of national defense.

The Japanese navy in WW1 was one of the world's largest and most powerful fleets, which makes not including it questionable.
The Japanese navy in WW1 was one of the world's largest and most powerful fleets, which makes not including it questionable.

Japan's inclusion in the "other navies" category is also suspect, since while it is true the Japanese navy didn't formally contribute much to the European battles, it still ranked as one of the world's great navies, and it did participate in escort operations and in the Pacific in taking German colonies and providing convoys. The same critique can be applied to the treatment of extra-European subjects for the European navies themselves: the treatment of their combat operations is almost entirely about their roles in European waters, and with a bias towards battle fleet and regular combat operations as compared to anti-submarine warfare, and there is little about their role in the colonial wars which were waged outside of Europe.

But of course these are all issues of length, and the book had to choose to draw the line somewhere. For a less-than-400 pages account of the state and some of the combat operations and evolution of the principal combatant navies of the Great War, To Crown the Waves is an excellent book. It gives a holistic depiction of the navies, well-rounded and covering a wide variety of topics, and a readily understandable and reasonable story of their combat operations. It is a very good book to be picked up for those interested in naval history and above all else the Great War at sea.

4 stars for To Crown the Waves

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