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Fighting the Great War at Sea: Strategy, Tactics and Technology


Norman Friedman

Barnsley, UK: Seaforth Publishing, 2019

24.5 x 29 cm format, paperback, 416 pages

300 B&W illustrations, end notes, sources, index

MSRP £25.00

ISBN: 978 1 5267 6549 9



Fighting the Great War at Sea (FTGWAS) is not the sort of book that will appeal to all readers. I’ll get to the reasons why in a moment, but first let’s take a quick look at what’s between the covers. The book is 352 pages of text divided into an introduction and sixteen chapters. The chapters are:


1.       A Maritime War

2.       Resources

3.       Blockade, Trade War and Economic Attack

4.       Expectations versus Reality

5.       The Fleets

6.       The Chessboard—Naval Geography

7.       Fleets in Battle

8.       Capital Ships

9.       Inshore Operations and an Inshore Fleet

10.   The Battle of the Narrow Seas

11.   Submarines

12.   Protecting Trade: The U-Boat War

13.   Anti-Submarine Warfare: Tactics and Technology

14.   The Anti-Submarine Armada

15.   Mine Warfare

16.   Lessons for the Future


The text is copiously illustrated with black-and-white photographs. Following the main text are a whopping forty-two pages of notes, three pages of sources, and a four-page index.


Okay, now let’s get down to brass tacks—what is the armchair historian getting for his money? The first thing that any potential buyer may want to take notice of is the table of contents. If you go back and look at it again carefully, something should become apparent to you, namely that FTGWAS is not a chronological narrative of events at sea. Rather, it is a topical treatment of the war. I didn’t figure this out for myself until I was well into Chapter 7. I had presumed—wrongly as it turned out—that Chapters 1–6 were introductory material. The truth hit me when the first fleet action described in Chapter 7 turned out to be the Yarmouth Raid of 3 November 1914. Immediately I wondered why the text had skipped over the Battle of Heligoland Bight, which took place in August of that year. Out of curiosity, I flipped to the index and looked up every mention of the latter battle. None of the six indexed references was an actual description of the battle. The realization that I was not going to get a chronological treatment of events after all was, for me, rather deflating.


It turns out that FTGWAS is not really a history so much as an analysis, and a very thorough analysis, as is evidenced by the lengthy notes section. When read as such, the reader will find that the author has done a very respectable job of breaking down strategy, tactics, weapons development, and the like—all of the things listed in the table of contents. With this in mind, the reader is more or less freed to pick and choose which chapters to read and which to skip, since the material in each chapter can be considered as a stand-alone topic.   


But here is something else the casual reader should be advised of: the words “thorough analysis” should give a hint as to the length of the book. It is indeed a very, very long book. This isn’t evident at first glance; after all, 352 pages is not an unusually large number for a history book. However, the text is printed in small type and laid out in two columns, which means that the 352 pages of text are more like 1300 pages of reading. It can be a slog. And did I mention that the book is also large and heavy?


Something else about FTGWAS didn’t strike me with full force until I was about half-way through the book, namely that although the book is lavishly illustrated, it does not have a lot of visual elements. By this I mean that there is a complete absence of infographics and ancillary content. There are no maps, graphs, tables, cut-aways, diagrams, color plates, lists of technical data, biographical notes, or any of the other various elements that can make a book visually engaging for the casual reader (I write textbooks for secondary students for a living—can you tell?). That can make the text even more of a slog than just the sheer volume of words alone.


As you can probably tell, FTGWAS did not have a great deal of appeal for me personally, but by saying that I do not mean any disparagement. The author definitely knows his subject inside and out, as is demonstrated, as just one example, by his detailed knowledge of the various war plans, fleet exercises, and ship building programs of all the major combatants during the pre-war years. For this reason, FTGWAS can definitely be recommended to anyone who is a serious scholar of the naval side of the Great War. The numerous photos alone will get the rest of us to flip through all the pages at least once—and possibly to even read a few.



Chris Coyle
Greer, South Carolina

When you have to shoot, shoot. Don't talk.
- Tuco

Current builds: Brigantine Phoenix, Hawker Hurricane

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