Empire of the Seas: Sea Change

I’ve just watched the last instalment of Dan Snow’s latest series.

After Trafalgar the Royal Navy was riding the crest of a wave. Dominant in all of the world’s oceans, the ironclad era and the advent of engine propulsion spurred it on to new heights.

But away from the ships, a sea change too place in the culture of those who served in the Royal Navy. Whilst still worshipping the memory of Nelson, officers began to place obedience far above initiative – the value that Nelson had tried to instill among his Captains. As the Navy became the darling of British society, it also became more stratified socially, which stifled meritocracy.

One man in the early Twentieth Century tried to change all of this. Admiral Jackie Fisher became First Sea Lord with a comprehensive plan to modernise all aspects of the Royal Navy. His mantra was ‘if you want peace, prepare for war’ – put simply, he wanted to make the Royal Navy so large and so powerful, that no-one would dare challenge it. Soon 25% of all Government expenditure was being spent on the Navy.

Chief among this spending was the new Class of Battleship – the Dreadnought. Far better armed and armoured than any ship previously, she rendered all other ships virtually obsolete. An arms race developed in Europe, with the Kaiser’s Germany attempting to challenge British Naval supremacy.

Although the German Navy had less than half the amount of Dreadnoughts as Britain, in 1916 the German fleet attempted to draw the British Grand Fleet into battle. Although the Grand Fleet suffered heavy losses at Jutland, the battle was a strategic victory for the British – the sheer amount of ships flying the white ensign prevented the Germans from challenging them again. The British failings at Jutland had been caused by a slowness to adapt to the new technology of battle – poor communications combined with rigid obedience led to ships failing to act decisively, and un-necessary losses.

Although Jutland led to bursting of the 100 year ‘Trafagar bubble’, it also shook the Royal Navy out of its complacency. Never the less, after the First World War Britain was no longer the world’s dominant Naval power.

This episode ends the series nicely, but I do feel that it concludes very abruptly. British Naval power did not suddenly end after 1918 – the size of the Royal Navy in 1940 still prevented Nazi Germany from invading Britain. I would argue that it was through the symbolic loss of the Royal Oak, the Hood, Prince of Wales and Renown that Britain really lost her naval superpower status. The decline may have begun at Jutland, but it was only in the latter stages of the Second World War that the US Navy eclipsed the Royal Navy.

All in all, this has been a thought-provoking series that has discussed a key part of British history. I have been impressed with how well Dan Snow has put across some complicated ideas in very simple and understandable ways. Many of them are extremely relevant today. On the down side, perhaps it did ignore earlier and later factors outside of the series arbitrary start and end dates. An earlier episode on Tudor sea power and a later one on the Second World War would have made much more sense.

How about a similar series, looking at the British Army since Cromwell?

Catch the last episode here on BBC iplayer

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12 Comments

Filed under Navy, On TV, World War One

12 responses to “Empire of the Seas: Sea Change

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