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The Royal Navy Since 1815: A New Short History

08 Dec 23

Whilst the below book will be well-known to members, and was originally reviewed by Professor Andrew Lambert in 2005 (Vol. XCIII, No.2, p. 192), the Book Reviews Editor welcomes the thoughts of members on books that are of significance. The Royal Navy Since 1815 is noted as being essential pre-reading for those joining BRNC.   

312 pages

Lt Jack Carlisle RN

If you ever had the privilege of meeting Eric Grove you will be aware of how passionate he was about his subject, and how animated he was in the delivery of his talks; something which is reflected in his writing style.

I was fortunate enough to attend a talk on the Battle of Jutland given by Professor Grove whilst at Britannia Royal Naval College. During this talk he ran fervently backwards and forwards, making enormous hand gestures to indicate explosions, thoughts, and arguments; at one point he collapsed backwards into the stage when heatedly describing a particularly poignant part of the battle, only to pounce back towards his audience to highlight a conversation between Admirals Beatty and Jellicoe. Reading The Royal Navy Since 1815 is a remarkably similar experience; you are torn backwards and forwards through history with astonishing speed and energy. Having read the book prior to meeting Professor Grove I had not appreciated his writing style, but having met the man I have a greater understanding of what he is trying to convey.

From the glory of the age of sail to the foundations of our present-day fleet, the book brings to life the history of the Royal Navy. However, in its emphasis on the greatness of the past it serves to highlight a decline in the Royal Navy from global power to its current position as a much smaller force with many modern-day struggles. The fact that the years 1991-2001 are covered in just fewer than 10 pages perhaps best highlights Eric Groves views on the modern navy.

The book itself focuses on technological advancements which occurred during the history of the Royal Navy, and how these advancements were driven by Britain’s vast empire and economic growth, as well as the political aspects which have driven the development of the fleet. This can be seen throughout the first half of the book in the chapter titles such as ‘The Coming of Steam’ and ‘The Ironclad Age’. Reference is also made on a regular basis to the budget/Naval Estimates: from the first page where “…the Select Committee on Finance recommended annual Naval Estimates of no more than £6 million (against almost £23 million in 1815)”; all the way through to the final statement on budgets of “…just below £23 billion…” in the 2001-2 Strategic Defence Review.

The focus on figures resonates throughout the book, but this does make it a weighty read, emphasised due to a scarcity of battle narratives which would somewhat lighten the load on the reader. An example of this is the bombardment of Alexandria in 1882 described by Laid Clowes as “the most serious naval operation in which British men of war were engaged in the last quarter of the nineteenth century”, but restricted in the book to three pages. What the comments on the battle do provide, however, are the political motives behind the conflicts and the views of other nations. In the case of the bombardment of Alexandria, the French government’s decision not to involve themselves with the conflict due to the people’s belief it was a popular revolt is discussed, and the general political situation at the time is heavily implied.

Surprisingly, the most interesting topic addressed in the book is the oft overlooked interwar period. Despite its neglect in other writings, many changes happened to the structure and funding of the Royal Navy during the interwar period. Not only did the end of the First World War and a predicted time of peace affect the make-up and future of the Royal Navy, but the growth of the US Navy and the perceived allied status of the Japanese lead to the UK government modelling the post-war Royal Navy on the United States Navy. The chapter itself is the easiest reading of the book, with few references to naval estimates or force numbers.

A topic which seems of particular interest to Eric Grove, and which is brought to the reader’s mind in its prominence across several chapters, is the famously strained relationship between Admirals’ Beatty and Jellicoe and, as he refers to them, their supporters. He does not just pay them lip service either, rather dedicating entire pages to them and the relationship between them. Given their significance in the structuring of the Royal Navy in the first quarter of the 20th century, it is hardly surprising.

Overall, the book is fast paced, at times erratic, but always full of content. It is interspersed with copious amounts of quantities, figures and lists of ships; though in my opinion could do with delving deeper into the battles, people, and lives of sailors that were affected by the changes to budgets and political policy. That said, the book provides any reader with a very thorough understanding of the political driving force behind the Royal Navy from the Napoleonic Wars, through days of empire, all the way to the 21st century Great Britain which has had to drastically adapt the way in which it operates the Royal Navy and delivers sea power, whilst dealing with diminished funds. He then looks to the future with a glint of optimism at then-future projects for the Navy such as the Queen Elizabeth-class carrier programme; and he looks at the potential for the Royal Navy to still have a lasting influence on the globe today whilst still driving forward in technological advances.