Daily Archives: 5 February, 2010

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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Filed under Navy, On TV, World War One

Call of Duty: ‘just a game’ or a spark of interest?

Unless you happen to have been living under a stone for the past few years, you have surely seen the popularity of the Call of Duty series of games. Before that there were games such as Medal of Honour too. I have had a play on several of them, and for the large part they are impressively acurate, detailed and fun to play. There were obviously some knowledgeable historical consultants and researchers working alongside the programmers and animators.

Do games such as this encourage people to become interested in military history? I would hope so. If Call of Duty helps even a minority of players develop and interest and awareness in military history, then it has to be a good thing. It would be wrong of us to get snobby and think of it as ‘just a computer game’. Computer Games happen to be a medium that young people use and is relevant to them. In many ways players are getting as close to the experiences that men not much older than them experienced in the war. Engaging young people with history is hard as it is, so if it works, then why not?

I think looking into military history would actually help when playing these games. Knowing the strengths and weaknesses of various weapons would come in handy – knowing when to swap a Tommy Gun for a Japanese sniper rifle, for example. Looking into tatics might also come in handy – firing short burts rather than blazing away, giving covering fire, and flanking maneouvres, for example. Most of the games are based around a specific theatre of war – such as the Pacific – so it would never be a bad thing to go away and read up on it. The same kind of ideas also go for pursuits such as paintball and airsoft. How many stag do’s involve blokes running round like idiots madly zapping each other?

And we’re only watching a very small part of the experience of war. Soldiers do not spend all of their time blazing away. On a computer game you do not go through the training, the drill, the boredom of waiting around. In my mind there is something ironic about people who play airsoft or paintball but arent interested in military history. Very strange indeed. And why not put in some of the physical training that the men who do it for real undergo?

We should be mindful that while we are playing these games for fun, years ago many men did it for real and did not come home to tell the tale. We should be very careful not to ignore or trivialise their experiences. We need to be aware that the images in front of us represent real men, and true stories – unlike Wold of Warcraft, which is a complete fantasy world. These are not games like any other.

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