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Great War Naval Project


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Not my area of interest but for anyone who is interested I found the following in the International Journal of Naval History Vol 5, No 3, December 2006. The link to the project proposal is here http://www.ijnhonline.org/volume5_number3_...enge_dec06.html with a contact us button.

The Admiral makes an interesting comment :

It is not too much to say that The Battle of Heligoland Bight is symptomatic of our continuing inability to produce an effective marriage between academic naval history and more ‘popular’ work. Too much of what constitutes published history that is accessible is not accurate and, equally, too much of what is truly accurate is not readily accessible. ... None of the official histories still constitute comprehensive, or even reliable sources and they do not, even considered together, present a credible narrative of a conflict much less bloody than the land war, but which had its own significance.

IMO no history can claim to be an accurate account of what happened, but it will interesting to see what emerges from the project. Googled Great War Naval Project but couldn't find anything.

I wonder what people think about his comment on the naval war histories and the OH's as they would relate to the historiography of the land war. Of course, much more has been written in the past forty years on the land war that has much more solid research behind it than the popular histories of the 50's and 60's, whose views some still hold dear to their hearts.



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10 more historys would give 10 more opinions on what happened at the battle, his statement 'of what is truly accurate is not readily accessible' why not make that accessible and let everyone make thier own judgement, he has. The 'Naval Records Society' tend to publish the raw documents with a general overview and this lets you make your own mind up.

I tend to use the OH as a base line and look for other contemporary accounts which back it up or not. An officers notebook with its drawings and narrative to me speak oodles compared to an opinion formed 90 years after the fact. Of course the material that was not available at the time of the OH is now open to the public but even then reading between the lines of the OH it is there.

My 2d

Regards Charles

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I fully agree with all that you have said.



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Charles I also agree

It also should be remembered that the offical historians had a great deal of help from the admiralty and the files they used are now in ADM137 at Kew. As such they form a good narrative but are of course light on analysis but the again I don't think that was there purpose


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  • 1 month later...

I thoroughly agree with each, noting of course that not all information is ever made available for a variety of reasons, its destruction before archiving (how many tons of files were destroyed by GHQ BEF at the end of the war), the death of key decision makers, participants and witnesses, and just as importantly security and political imperatives, both national and international.

As to the issue of "popular" histories and more accurate academic histories, they both have their place, though I do agree that it would be far better if some of the popular histories were more accurately grounded in research. If we didn't have those popular histories would Anzac Day be as popularly significant as it is? Would we be able to interest the younger generations to study war and history? Look at what Les Carlyon and Peter Fizsimmons have done for a broader interest in WW1 and WW2 in Australia with their easy to read story telling style for example.

As a quick example of political imperatives influencing history and histories. During WW2 the CoS 1st Aust Army directed the SO1 Int to prepare an intelligence estimate for NADZAB in New Guinea, the SO1 responded that there were no Japanese in the area so an Int Estimate wasn't needed, but was told to write one anyway. One was duly produced, without any Japanese being in the area and sent into the Brigadier, the Brigadier went back and explained, reasonably pointedly, to the SO1 that directives had been received that the 503 Parachute Infantry Regt must be used, and he explained that it was important that a credible enemy threat existed, that justified the use of the 503 and a threat that would also qualify them for their combat parachute badge. The SO1 duly rewrote the Int Estimate, I won't write the invectives Brigadier Berryman apparently used when he went back to the SO1 and indicated what he would thought would happen to the 503rd! To this day the SO1 (he is 93) doesn't know whether Berryman was joking or not.

The bodgy Int Estimate was used to justify the op drop of 503 and is quoted in the Australian Official History. Histories state that there was little enemy resistance (there was none) and a number of deaths occurred during the drop, as would be expected at that time and on operations. I do note the 503 Wikipedia page does state there was no resistance, but I think they got their badges.


Chris H

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None of the official histories still constitute comprehensive, or even reliable sources and they do not, even considered together, present a credible narrative of a conflict much less bloody than the land war, but which had its own significance. [/i]

One major problem with the Official History was the way that the Beatty/ Jellicoe feud warped the reliability of whole sections. It was particularly noticeable in the actions where the protagonists were directly involved.

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Volume III at least of the Corbett Official History was updated in 1940 (if memory serves), including items which for one reason or another were not allowed to be published earlier. I think I'm right in saying that the Royal Navy never actually published its own official history of WWI at sea, "Naval Operations" having been commissioned by the Historical Section of the Committee of Imperial Defence, and printed with the note that the views expressed within did not in places reflect the views of Their Lord Commissioners of the Admiralty. The original publication of the book was used as an excuse by the Beatty board not to publish the Harper Record, instead producing the Admiralty Narrative of the Battle of Jutland which tellingly was not printed by the Authority of Their Lordships. The Navy of course printed multiple appreciations of various subjects from the war, (Staff Monographs) but these have never been printed, only quoted from, in public.

Rear-Admiral Goldrick writes on Heligoland Bight, "Too much of what constitutes published history that is accessible is not accurate..." I would agree; his "The King's Ships Were At Sea" is in my opinion an example of this trend in British naval history, being both populist and academic and being neither. I cynically doubt that Goldrick has in mind the supersession of his own work by such a great project.

My thoughts on the matter are this; for far too long the history of the war at sea has been the purview of academics. Arthur Marder, an American, spent more than fifty years studying it and his works are rife with inexplicable shortsightedness, especially in the matter of personnel. He was unique in that for a great many Admiralty papers he was one of the last people to look at them before the Naval Historical Section gutted them.

Most historians seem to be totally deficient of a technical understanding of the materiel which played such an important part in the Great War at sea, which has led to many, many inaccuracies and false conclusions - British gunnery is an example of this. This year alone I've read about twenty books concerning the period and the vast majority have struck me as trying to prove a point rather than state the facts, which are mostly either poorly sourced or wrong.

I sincerely doubt that a "Great War Naval Project" would ever get off the ground, as someone would have to pay for it and I loathe the idea of it coming under the control of any university. The idea of a project suggests a body which produces more reviews of materiel rather than the materiel itself. While I admire the work of A.T. Patterson, B.McL. Ranft and P.G. Halpern for the Navy Records Society (and deploring Sumida and "The Pollen Papers", their selections of papers will always be just that; selections. There can be only one ideal; "The complete dissemination of information regarding the Great War at Sea into the public forum." As yet I have seen no body which performs "complete dissemination" of any subject.

My solution would be to produce a large digital archive of sources from 1914-1918. A great number of British officers' and seamen's service records are now available online from the National Archives, though at 3.50 a go it's extremely inconvenient if one is attempting to do systematic research of certain subjects involving a great number of men (and even more inconvenient to have to go to London to do look at them). Anything official really should be published online. Orders, telegrams, orders-in-council, command papers - all the things which have been pored over for the last 90 years and evidently not rigorously - should be placed squarely in the public domain. Such public-minded institutions like the N.M.M. and the I.W.M. should make available online the extraordinary wealth of papers, letters and reminsicences which they hold, do. for Churchill College, Cambridge. The Royal Navy did a pretty good job in studying the Kaiserliche Marine after the war had ended and acquired a great mass of German papers which alone would prove a goldmine for any historian.

The way I look at it far too many historians narrow themselves down to what they think they can use as primary sources, if indeed they bother. Publish everything online and that excuse is removed, and it also gives the more-eagle-eyed of us (and in my case somewhat immobile) the chance check their facts and validate their findings. All too often validation of printed history is found in the number of copies sold.

Researching naval history is in my experience an expensive pastime and studying it is almost as bad. A set of Marder's "From the Dreadnought to Scapa Flow" will set you back a great amount of money, Corbett and Newbolt's "Naval Operations" vols I-V a similar large amount and so many other books which are necessary for a complete view of the war will make your wallet cry (mine is weeping and I recently found a stack of cheap naval history books in the second-hand book stores of New Hampshire). I have never believed that anyone can put a price, let alone a high price, on our heritage. Of course someone has to pay the bill in the end, and I can only hope that one day the British Government or any other national government will look kindly on the thought that public knowledge is worth paying for.

Please note, I'm not advocating an end to history books - there will always be the need for analysis and circumspection. But only when the facts are there for everyone to see and not just the author.

Obviously this is something of a rant, and contrary to any impression this may give I am really a deep-rooted Tory rather than a neo-anarchist or utopian. Naval History brings the best (or the worst) out of us, I suppose.


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