This is one of those occasions when I need us to look back at a review published some time ago that is fine as it stands, but could be taken to another level. The plain truth is when I wrote the appreciation of British Battleships of World War One I didn’t so much consider the book as write about the Royal Navy. I like to think I painted a few pictures that some of you might feel in tune with, but the effect was to miss something important. The book was the second of three volumes in a full history of battleships of the Senior Service and while it was fine to see it in isolation, the only way to do it justice was to look at all three in one appreciation.
The result is I haven’t changed any of my impressions of the incredible work done by RA Burt. But to see the full breadth of his knowledge and skill spread across three books is another ballgame altogether.
I have spent many evenings pouring over these books learning about the development of battleships in the UK and I have to say they make it very easy. While there is a mass of detail I was able to get my head round what the Admiralty and the politicians were thinking and, equally importantly, how they decided where to spend the British taxpayers money. Then as now warships of any size did not come cheap. But these amazing people made a commitment to the primacy of the Royal Navy so that no rivals would ever be able to eclipse it. That covenant stayed in place throughout the battleship era of two world wars and the great depression.
Each ship cost around a million pounds in old money and I have no idea what that would mean today, but it is staggering long after decimalisation when we consigned guineas and shillings to history. It would take the financial black hole of the Second World War and the inexorable rise of the United States to bring that era of absolute confidence to an end. Nothing lasts forever. The Royal Navy had been battered on occasion but was never broken.
Navies were about more than just battleships but they were the expression of national will and had a degree of majesty nothing these days can mimic. Pretty words, but all this took time and thought. It took great engineers and a few sailors who could see what was needed to unleash the juggernaut. In addition, it took the at times hot nature of world politics to drive all these things along. Arms races juxtaposed with limitation treaties had their impact on the story over the decades, but the great ships were still built.
It’s like the ingredients in a curry you enjoy on the way home from the pub. You know what you like but you don’t necessarily care what goes in it. The battleship story was just that to the British people, but nowadays we want to know much more and in these books you get right down to the bare bones. This trilogy is a set of recipe books. You get to enjoy all the courses including the dessert and the cheese. You get your coffee and cigars but the thorny problem is who is going to do the washing up and the sad truth is it’s being done by the modern Royal Navy, an organisation brimming with history and tradition but left hungry well after the feast.
I consigned myself last time to reading chunks of the text and concentrated on the illustrations and the look of the book. There was a degree of pragmatism in this because these books are huge. Over three books the quality of the photography and diagrams really hit home and I revelled in it. The rich text, which is easy to read even without a strong naval background; explains the progress from the last vestiges of sail beyond the pre-Dreadnoughts and the mighty ships of Jutland to the giants coming off the slipways when the ultimately pointless naval treaties to limit size and numbers did nothing to alter the headlong rush to an even more destructive conflict but everything to stymie the power of the navy when it was needed most.
It’s easy to get a little dewy eyed about these magnificent battleships and the men who crewed them but we also see the clear headed thinking that saw some of them converted into aircraft carriers and they are compared with purpose built ships. You cannot fault the logic or the can do spirit that made this happen. Some people might be surprised that there was once a Britain where this was so.
Class by class and ship by ship, Mr Burt takes us through all this history. All those apparently isolated developments in layout, improved seaworthiness and important advances in fire control get the same treatment and come to make sense. The three volumes read like a family tree.
I allow myself the nostalgia and the sadness it is all gone, but I have to say I am even more impressed by the way this immense story has been told. It takes huge knowledge and enthusiasm to produce works of this quality. But it also takes a great deal of vision and, I would add trust on the part of a publisher to get package from a concept to a place on bookshelves.
The books have been updated and refreshed since first publication from the mid-1980s into the 1990s. I haven’t seen the originals so have no comment on that, but I do know they represent an enormous achievement. Books need to entertain as well as educate and there is nothing to be afraid of on that score. They have been my bedtime reading and I always went off to sleep happy in the knowledge I had learned stuff. We all like our stuff, don’t we?
Ok, they are not cheap and I will tread into the world of the bleeding obvious by saying you would need an interest in naval history and production to afford some grounding in the subject before you release the moths from your wallets. But, like some of the ships the author rightly describes as things of beauty, these books cross the ‘T’ on every page and set a standard you will look hard to see matched. Other publishers might make a box set of them and maybe Seaforth will, but be content you can get them individually because all three represent the best of naval history books and that is all we can ask for.
Review by Mark Barnes for War History Online
BRITISH BATTLESHIPS 1889-1904, BRITISH BATTLESHIPS OF WORLD WAR ONE and BRITISH BATTLESHIPS 1919-1945
By RA Burt
1889-1904 – ISBN: 978 1 84832 173 1
World War One – ISBN: 978 1 84832 147 2
1919-1945 – ISBN; 978 1 84832 130 4