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Book Review: H.P. Willmott, The First Century of Sea Power, Vol. I: From Port Arthur to Chanak, 1894-1922

In Review on May 25, 2010 by AEG

H.P. Willmott.The First Century of Sea Power, Vol. I: From Port Arthur to Chanak, 1894-1922.Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 2009. Xviii + 543 pp. $34.95.

As the first volume of three, this work sets a very high bar for both Willmott’s second and third installments. Indeed, such is the quality of the author’s analysis and writing that it is difficult to imagine another who could so seamlessly offer such incisive commentary in such an accessible form.

Following the useful introductory piece, Willmott proceeds to discuss every naval conflict in the period, from the Sino-Japanese War to the end of the series events that evolved from the First World War. Included herein are some little-known wars, notably the Greco-Turkish War of 1897 and the naval components of the Balkan Wars of 1912-3. Naturally, the World War receives extensive coverage, but the number of pages devoted to lesser conflicts is impressive. The narrative is followed by a detailed 72-page chronology of the First World War at sea; this is a very useful resource in its own right to students of the subject.

Willmott’s research is exhaustive. The select bibliography gives only a small sense of the material consulted; a more meaningful measure of it can be found in the extensive endnotes and the appendices that follow some chapters. For example, the chapter on the First World War in the Atlantic is followed by no fewer than eight appendices, which include detailed narrative discussions of the actions at Heligoland, Coronel, the Falkland Islands, Dogger Bank, and Jutland, each of which in turn offers details of all the individual ships known to be involved, including auxiliaries, and a brief discussion of the action and results, as well as analysis specific to the battle in question. The remaining four appendices offer extensive statistical evidence on the German submarine effort against maritime trade and the convoy system employed to combat it, along with further analytical comments. All told, these comprise thirty-four pages of densely-packed information.

The reader is presented with this wealth of information in a somewhat unusual form. Chapters are generally brief, focusing on developing a specific argument without burdening the narrative with collections of evidence that might otherwise distract from the point of primary focus. This is a very effective method of organization, and Willmott’s insightful commentary is thus afforded the clarity it deserves. When one proceeds to the aforementioned appendices and the extensive collection of largely explanatory endnotes, the depth of the evidence supporting his analysis is readily apparent.

Criticisms of this volume are minor. The level of assumed knowledge is quite high, so readers without some background in the era and specialty will likely find themselves a bit lost from time to time as Willmott moves easily (and often without notice) between topics. Context will provide sufficient explanation in many cases, given careful reading, but this is not an introductory volume. The maps included are perhaps a bit general and slightly below the current standard, and are often oriented in directions other than the usual true north, making them less intuitive, albeit only initially.

In all, Willmott has produced an extraordinary volume. His analysis is clear, well-supported, sometimes unconventional but always compelling. This book, and certainly the two volumes that follow it, will remain landmark studies of Twentieth Century naval warfare.


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