Warship Worship Part 1
The magnificent dreadnought type warships of 100 years ago and the international naval race they spawned, was indirectly responsible for the start of World War One and directly the cause for the fall of the British Empire. When Admiral Jellicoe turned away from the German High Seas Fleet during the climactic Battle of Jutland in 1916, he missed the last real opportunity to destroy his enemy’s seapower.
Both antagonists, including German Admiral Scheer but especially Jellicoe feared to lose these precious giants in which so much of their nations’ hopes and treasure went to create. The British fleet commander was further handicapped in battle with the notion that only he “could lose the war in an afternoon”. Perhaps this left the Admiral to believe that keeping his fleet intact was more crucial than closing with the enemy at all costs. Admiral Nelson would not have approved.
Was Jellicoe suffering from a case of Next-war-itis? At this latter stage of the British Empire’s glory days she was surrounded by numerous rising competitors besides the Germans, most noticeably America and Japan. With the end of Manifest Destiny and the close of the American frontier, the new World was feeling expansionist and seeking a new role in world affairs, spurred on as she was by the recent Roosevelt Administration. And though the US and the Empire hadn’t fought a war in a century (though they had come close on numerous occasions), it was a fact that the Royal Navy eventually came to blows with any potential rival to her maritime supremacy.
As if Jutland never mattered, there is the prevailing notion among historians that the dreadnoughts still played an essential role during the war. The oft repeated quote that “‘The German Fleet has assaulted its jailer, but it is still in jail’ is typical of this attitude but overlooks certain facts. The prevailing drain afterwords to keep the Grand Fleet intact added a crippling burden to the British economy. So many destroyers guarding the fleet at Scapa Flow could have helped stem the tide of German U-boats during the critical final years of the war, while many crewman on the battleships might have served vital technical functions on the Western front, especially as tank engineers, artillerists, or even pilots.
Today, with the dreadnoughts long gone and the British Empire just a memory, America depends on an aircraft carrier-centric navy to defend its interests. These are of two types: large supercarriers for deploying naval airpower against enemy powers and light carriers (Marine LHA amphibious assault ships) for peacekeeping and so-called “soft power” missions to the Third World. The roles of each of these multi-mission warships are interchangeable, with large carriers recently deployed for Tsunami relief in Asia, and the light carriers ferrying Marines and Harrier air support planes to the Middle East warzone.
British Empire: did the good points outweigh the bad, or vice versa?
How should we portray the the British Empire in our education today and in the future?
When was the ‘last breath’ of the British Empire?