Our latest entry in this series is from James Goldrick, who is currently a visiting fellow at All Souls College, undertaking a project on future British and Australian maritime strategy and policy. He served full time in the Royal Australian Navy for 38 years, retiring as a rear admiral in 2012. His latest book ‘Before Jutland: The Naval War In Northern European Waters August 1914 to February 1915′ is now available at the Naval Institute Press. He can be found on Twitter at @GoldrickJames
I have been fascinated by the Navy as far back as I can remember and this developed into an enthusiasm for naval history from practically as soon as I could read. I think that such early interest happens much more often than people realise – although we seem as a society to be aware of it only in relation to music. I read The Riddle of Jutland when I was 8 and might not have understood some of what it said, but quite a lot stuck.
I started writing history while at university, where the Navy had sent me. In my final year, as the result of a suggestion by Stephen Roskill, I embarked upon a study of the opening months of the First World War in the North Sea. Unsurprisingly, I extensively revised my draft after actually serving in the North Sea while on loan to the Royal Navy as a very junior officer. The book was published by the US Naval Institute Press in 1984 as The King’s Ships Were at Sea. Since then, I have written more on the First World War, as well as on the development of the RAN and on the navies of South Asia (published in India as No Easy Answers) and South East Asia (published in collaboration with Jack McCaffrie by Routledge in 2012 as Navies of South-East Asia).
Naval history has infused my naval service. It has also been easier than might be imagined to combine history and the Navy because I have been acutely and increasingly conscious of the benefits that I have gained from my abiding interest – benefits on both the small and large scale. History matters and history helps. Quite a few of the tricks and apparent innovations which I adopted, particularly as an executive officer and as a captain, were in fact filched from memoirs and histories. Many times, when customs or practices were on the point of being abandoned, I could explain just why the Navy does things a certain way. Occasionally, I have even been able to dispense with an obsolete custom because I could prove that it really was obsolete – or that it wasn’t in fact an ‘old navy custom’ in the first place, but an unpleasant habit picked up in the recent past. I have also been able to influence policy with a clear consciousness that my impetus had at least part of its original motivation from some historical fact. And I certainly believe that my understanding of historical blockade concepts was of fundamental importance to my work in tactical control of maritime interception operations in the north Persian Gulf in 2002, when we broke the back of the Iraqi oil smuggling racket. We sat well inside Iraqi territorial waters, making it practically impossible for any tankers to get out – I will always remember the captain of an American destroyer (who happened to have a civil master’s ticket in full rigged sail) crying, ‘I’ve realised what you’re doing! It’s 1805! You’re blockading Brest!’ I have long thought that what navies need is more history and less tradition.
Since leaving full time service, I have returned to study of the First World War at sea. A key reason was my realisation that my perspective had changed. Bringing my experience of ship and force command and of the bitter realities of making new technology work meant that I could look at things differently. I hope that those who read Before Jutland will understand the arguments that I am trying to make about the sheer difficulty of the operational problems that commanders at sea faced in 1914.