War Classics: From the Dreadnought to Scapa Flow

Graham Goodlad recalls one of the great works of military history.

No publisher would now commission a five-volume history of the Royal Navy in the First World War. Indeed, Arthur J Marder’s epic study From the Dreadnought to Scapa Flow was originally conceived on a much less ambitious scale.

More than half a century after its publication, it is widely regarded as the inescapable starting point for scholars working on early 20th-century British naval history. In his lifetime, Marder won praise from his academic peer group and from naval professionals alike. The foreword to a collection of essays marking his retirement was written by Admiral of the Fleet Lord Mountbatten.

Remarkably, Marder was not British, nor did he have personal experience of service at sea. He was an American scholar who was based in the United States for the greater part of his career, making visits to London to gather material. To those who were curious how he came to choose his theme, Marder simply responded that ‘nature abhors a vacuum and there was this fat subject lying about to be picked up.’

Yet Marder was uniquely well prepared to chart Britain’s involvement in the war at sea. The Anatomy of British Sea Power, published in 1940, was the first scholarly study of the Royal Navy in the last decades before the launch (in 1906) of the first of the ‘all-big-gun’ Dreadnought battleships. Up to that point, no one had considered in depth the interplay between politics, finance, technology, and foreign policy that drove naval policy-making at the turn of the 20th century.

In From the Dreadnought to Scapa Flow, which appeared between 1961 and 1970, Marder continued this approach into the era of the Anglo-German naval race, through the engagements of the Great War to the surrender and scuttling of the German High Seas Fleet in the Orkney harbour of Scapa Flow on 21 June 1919.

Image: Wikimedia Commons.

Arthur Jacob Marder
Born: 8 March 1910
Died: 25 December 1980
Nationality: American

Arthur Marder worked at Oregon and Harvard universities, with a wartime spell as an analyst at the Office of Strategic Services, the forerunner of the CIA. From 1944, he spent 20 years as a professor at the University of Hawaii, before moving to California for the final years of his career. Marder was the author of numerous books on maritime history, including a study of Winston Churchill’s tenure of the Admiralty and a survey of relations between the British and Japanese navies.

A dreadnought among chroniclers

What made Marder such an outstanding historian? First and foremost, it is his command of the primary sources. Military historian John Keegan acclaimed him for displaying ‘standards of archival research and organisation of material which defy betterment.’ Marder also interviewed and corresponded with surviving participants – eye-witnesses who would not be available to a later generation of writers.

After Marder’s death, some later students of the period questioned the thoroughness of his research. Their criticisms ignore some important facts. Marder wrote under restrictions imposed by naval archivists, over which he had no control. Moreover, a number of documents to which he gained access were weeded out after he had seen them.

Whatever objections might be raised regarding his methodology, this makes his work uniquely valuable. He showed extraordinary tenacity. After a university janitor inadvertently destroyed his papers, he recrossed the Atlantic and combed the archives again. This was a time before the digital camera, when researchers painstakingly took notes in pencil and spooled through microfilm.

Marder brought to his subject outstanding stylistic gifts, vividly evoking key events and personalities. His judgments may be disputed, but they are invariably sharp and well-argued. The central figure of the first volume, which covers the build-up to the war, is Admiral Jacky Fisher, architect of the Dreadnought shipbuilding programme as First Sea Lord.

Marder is not blind to Fisher’s shortcomings but credits him for transforming what he memorably describes as ‘in certain respects a drowsy, inefficient, moth-eaten organisation’ at the dawn of the century. Here is his summation of Fisher’s achievement as professional head of the Royal Navy:

‘Marder showed extraordinary tenacity. After a university janitor inadvertently destroyed his papers, he recrossed the Atlantic and combed the archives again.’

By 1910 Fisher’s work had been done. A tornado of energy, enthusiasm, and persuasive power, a man of originality, vision, and courage, a sworn foe of all outworn traditions and customs, the greatest of British naval administrators since St Vincent… He fell on the old regime with a devastating fury. During these strenuous years there was no rest for anyone connected with the service. ‘It was as though a thousand brooms were at work clearing away the cobwebs.’

A gift for narrative

The heart of the series is a detailed narrative of the key events at sea, from the pursuit of the battlecruisers Goeben and Breslau to Constantinople, and the failure of the Dardanelles campaign, to the struggle against the U-boats and the destruction of the German fleet.

The third volume centres on the Battle of Jutland – the confused and bloody naval battle, fought off the Danish coast on 31 May- 1 June 1916, that confirmed British dominance of the North Sea but resulted in more than 6,000 British officers and men being killed or wounded (against just over 3,000 in the High Seas Fleet). Entering an already heated debate, Marder displayed forensic skills of analysis as he sought to explain why the engagement was not a second Trafalgar. He declined to side with the partisans of either of the two central figures, Admirals Jellicoe and Beatty. He did not neglect the part played by the technical aspects of warship design and firepower.

BELOW Detail from the 1918 painting The Vindictive at Zeebrugge the Storming of Zeebrugge Mole by Charles John de Lacy. The purpose of the raid, the brainchild of Admiral Roger Keyes, was to block a U-boat base on the Belgian coast.
Detail from the 1918 painting The Vindictive at Zeebrugge the Storming of Zeebrugge Mole by Charles John de Lacy. The purpose of the raid, the brainchild of Admiral Roger Keyes, was to block a U-boat base on the Belgian coast. Image: Wikimedia Commons.

But the focus was primarily on the structural causes of failure – the stagnation of tactical thinking, weaknesses of communication, and the excessively centralised culture of naval command. ‘The ideal of the one superman on the remoteness of the Flagship’s Bridge,’ he wrote, ‘was one to which the service gave unquestioning allegiance and was drummed in from the day a naval cadet joined his first gun-room.’

Marder is superb in his ability to move between detailing individual events and analysing the factors that explain broader developments. In the final volume, for example, he vividly describes the action of the April 1918 Zeebrugge Raid, devised by Admiral Roger Keyes in a daring bid to block a U-boat base on the Belgian coast, using an ageing cruiser, Vindictive, to land a force of marines:

The Zeebrugge armada approached its objective in bright moonlight (it was, says Keyes, ‘almost as bright as day’), with a visibility of at least eight to ten miles. Then, soon after 11pm, an hour before arrival time, it suddenly became misty, clouds hid the moon, it began to drizzle, and visibility was reduced to less than a mile.

This, with the ‘pea-soup fog’ of a smokescreen created by the motor launches, enabled the Vindictive to approach within 300 yards of the mole extension before coming under fire. It was now four minutes before midnight. Unfortunately, the wind now changed to an off-shore direction, quickly dissipating the smokescreen, and suddenly revealing the Vindictive to the enemy in the full glare of their star-shell and searchlights.

The wider picture

Marder closes his final volume with an overview of the part played by the Royal Navy in protecting British trade and communications, and in imposing an ultimately successful blockade on imperial Germany.

He is unsparing in his criticism of the Navy’s senior leadership yet generous in his assessment of the quality of officers and men. In his closing passage, he celebrates the maritime tradition to which they were heirs, which gave them a critical edge over their opponents.

Some of Marder’s conclusions were challenged by the next generation of historians, as research moved into new areas. He was primarily concerned with ‘the war behind the war’, focusing on the interrelationships of the key policymakers.

Marder had some blind spots. Relying heavily on a network of retired officers, he has little to say about the experience of the ordinary sailor. It was left to later scholars to explore in greater depth the effectiveness of British gunnery at sea and the role of naval aviation, for example. Yet the scholars who came after Arthur Marder owed an incalculable debt to his pioneering work. They sailed further into a sea already navigated by this remarkable historian. •