Eric Dorn Brose, Clash of the Capital Ships: From the Yorkshire Raid to Jutland. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2021. 347 pages.
by Dr. Peter Hooker
Dr. Eric Dorn Brose has written extensively on the First World War, including a volume on the naval war titled Death at Sea: Graf Spee and the Flight of the German East Asiatic Naval Squadron in 1914, published in 2010. His latest work, Clash of the Capital Ships: From the Yorkshire Raid to Jutland, examines the naval actions that took place in the North Sea from 1914 that culminated in the Battle of Jutland on May 31-1 June 1916.
Clash of the Capital Ships is underpinned by a balance of British and German sources that provide insight into both sides of the conflict. One of the main strengths of Clash of the Capital Ships is the author’s fine use of the latest works of scholarship, older works as well as primary material from German and British perspectives. This is impressive given the wealth of literature that already exists on the subject. Indeed, due to the recent surge in interest concerning the Battle of Jutland following the centenary in 2016, Dr. Brose states his intention for writing this book was “to allow the interaction of old and new to synergise, and then to develop the conclusions that the evidence reveals in a new light” (1-2). Certainly Clash of the Capital Ships is invaluable for researchers new to the field of naval warfare during the First World War.
Clash of the Capital Ships especially hits the mark when detailing the politics, personalities, and wider context of the war that provide valuable perspectives on how the North Sea played into the course of the First World War, and how it was intertwined with events in France, Asia, and the Atlantic. In this regard, Clash of the Capital Ships runs a similar course to Lawrence Sondhaus’ masterful study The Great War at Sea: A Naval History of the First World War. This reviewer was particularly intrigued by Dr. Brose’s analysis of Kaiser Williams’ interference in naval affairs for the sake of maintaining a degree of his withering military authority and to preserve some semblance to a humane style of warfare that had essentially ceased to exist on land. Indeed, with the western front at a seeming deadlock, expectations for the High Seas Fleet to contribute more to a German victory grew Exacerbating Germany’s attempt to undermine Britain’s naval supremacy was the bickering and clash of ideas between German officers who supported more aggressive naval strategies and tactics and those who advocated a more cautious and diplomatic use of the fleet. Herein debates over the appropriate use of submarines as commerce raiders or as a adjunct to the main fleet played into the wider debates about unrestricted submarine warfare. An entire career could be made or broken depending on how one engaged with these competing views, as many commanders of the German High Seas Fleet discovered long before Admiral Reinhard Sheer, the commander during the Battle of Jutland, took over.
On the other side, divisions between the British Admiralty, Whitehall, and fleet commanders left decisive decision making wanting. Furthermore, at this critical stage in its existence the British Royal Navy was divided between those who favoured new technology and those who favoured the old ‘Nelsonian’ spirit. Herein the commander of the British Grand Fleet, John Jellicoe, and the commander of the British Battle Cruiser Squadron, David Beatty, were at loggerheads. Jellicoe sought to avoid having his fleet ambushed by submarines or devastated by mines, while Beatty sought a fast and close engagement. Although bolstered by the arrival of naval units from the Caribbean and Asia by 1916, the lack of decisive action from the Royal Navy in defeating their German counterparts also elevated tensions.
However, the extensive narration on the battles and the manoeuvre of fleets in the North Sea from the Battle of Dogger Bank to the Jutland that donates most chapters limits a greater analysis of this wider context. For those reasonably familiar with this history most of the narration will already be well known. The author also repeats some of the well versed and cliché’ views of the North Sea theatre, such as the often quoted (and according to some scholars, completely exaggerated) view that Jellicoe could lose the war in a single afternoon.
This is not to say that this book is without fresh arguments or perspectives. For instance Dr. Brose weights in on the controversial decision made by Scheer to include his pre-dreadnaught squadron in his sortie north that led to the clash with Jellicoe in 1916. Dr. Brose argues quite convincingly that far from being a poor decision, or one made due to the Admiral’s nostalgia as a former commander of the pre-dreadnaughts, the inclusion of these ships could serve as a useful “rear guard” should the German fleet need to make an abrupt retreat (as did occur). Jellicoe too included outdated warships in his fleet for support (144-145). The inclusion of controversies over the handling of intelligence by the British and the exaggerated faith that the Germans placed in their code system also added a layer of analysis that is still too often overlooked or simplified (152-156).
Histories of battles certainly have a place in historical discourse. The Battle of Jutland is surely by now a quite familiar one. Yet continued fixation on the battle itself obscures the great significance of the North Sea theatre within the wider conflict. In the opinion of this reviewer, Clash of the Capital Ships is at its finest when it turns away from the decks of the Grand Fleet or the High Seas Fleet to consider the wider context of the war and how this affected the eventual clash of fleets in May 1916. The book does provide some key insights that should be more thoroughly addressed by researchers, and its extensive use of recent and older source material make it a useful update to a familiar topic. On the other hand this also serves as a weakness as long narratives of battle and fleet movements dominate more than is perhaps needed.
Dr. Peter Hooker was awarded his PhD with the University of Newcastle, Australia. He specialises in maritime history from the eighteenth to twentieth centuries. His PhD thesis examined American maritime prisoners of war during the War of 1812. Previously, he has contributed to the British Library James Cook: The Voyages Exhibit, as well as published articles within his field of research. He has also written an award winning Honours Thesis, which comparatively examined German and Japanese naval strategy during the interwar period. He also devotes his time to the Australian National Maritime Museum in Sydney.