Outstanding review: BRITISH BATTLESHIPS OF WORLD WAR ONE by Mark Barnes


Once there was a fleet so big and so powerful the world looked on in awe at it. It was as vast as it was modern and it expanded at a pace that thrilled a nation and sent shivers through the capital cities of friend and foe alike. Millions were ploughed into it to maintain the surety of domination of the seas and it worked for quite a time. The industrial might of a nation and empire expressed through her shipyards as a succession of bigger and more powerful vessels thundered down the slipways of the Clyde, Tyne and other proud yards. Rivals grew and built fleets of their own but they could not sustain the moneys or the numbers until only one could hope to match the sheer commitment and when the time came the two fleets met in the greatest sea battle the world had seen and when it ended the result was startling and tragic. The pretender had sunk more ships but had lost the strategic aim and skulked away, never to fight another day. As if to cement the victory the pretender’s fleet was brought back in abject defeat and by twist of fate, scuttled in the victor’s safe harbour. You couldn’t make it up. And what is left of the victor today? Not a lot. For a nation whose armed forces and military psyche is built on tradition and sentiment, we don’t extend it to our ships and they all go to the scrap man’s torch in short order. It all comes down to that Jerry Maguire quote “Show me the money.” Someone somewhere is only interested in the pounds shillings and pence and couldn’t give a stuff about how great it would be to save one of these leviathans for posterity. We have the Belfast on the Thames and one or two smaller ships from Grey Funnel and that’s your lot. I’ve seen a gun from a Jutland cruiser outside a veterans club on Vancouver Island. As for our modern RN, there’s no hope for Ark Royal and a procession of other recent gems have ended up on the Mersey made into ingots. Look on War History Online today and you’ll see the Falklands War hero Invincible emasculated, so what hope was there for giants of Jutland like Iron Duke or Lion?

Go to the United States and all of their Iowa-Class battleships survive; monuments to an age they somehow transcend when you think that some fired Cruise Missiles in combat. I reviewed a book which claimed they are the most famous battleships in history; a piece of hubris you can enjoy for what it is. Who can lay claim to having the most famous battleship?  You’d do well to stop anyone these days who would know one, but perhaps that’s just mischief; because accurate class knowledge aside, there was a time when most people might say the Hood or the Bismarck. The glorious fleet of the Great War was out of this world and almost beyond imagination and yet it existed and it was ours. The fleet visited the ports and coastal towns of the people so they could see it and revel in the power and the glory forever and ever. Amen. I have photos of some of it at my home town, Southend when it made a handy visit a short hop from The Nore just after the war. Lit up at night it looks awesome with the brand new Hood and others on the Thames off the pier. You’re left with the burning question – how could this ever end? And yet, it did. I am biased admittedly, My granddad Gordon sweated in the engine rooms of Canopus and Colossus and my uncle Edward served on the Barham; three ships to treasure.

The Royal Navy wasn’t all battleships and battlecruisers, of course, but this quite magnificent book confines itself to the monsters that dominated the ocean and inspired an arms race, drained exchequers and fluttered hearts. The story of the design and engineering and the sheer scale is here. The power, the majesty and the wonder is here. It’s a Seaforth book, so you have nothing to worry about quality or scale. It has to be a big book and it has a grand feel about it. You feel safe. It’s not an American book so I will refrain from the word awesome and will stick with magnificent. The photographs alone will stay with me forever, but despite being fantastic and in the field where my professional world is anchored they are at the shallow end of the effort that has gone into this stunning book because the author Mr Burt has revised his book in ways I can only half guess at and am happy to say this book is one in that select little group I keep pulling out to read bits of on thin days like these when the snow whistles in and I just love it.

The Royal Navy of this book is just a ghost, you see it on pub walls in the former manning ports and other places fond of nautical nostalgia.  It’s hard not to see how austerity and hard times won’t cut the modern fleet further. Two new carriers are imminent but doubts remain about what will happen to them. One of these days Seaforth will be producing beautiful books on what remains of the modern navy, and I hope these ships will have some of the majesty of those giants you will find in the pages of this extraordinary book. Capital ships, if we can still call them that, will probably find it easy, but the smaller stuff less so and I will always love those old Type 42 Destroyers currently awaiting the gas axe. Just one as a museum and memorial, to recall Coventry and Sheffield and their sisters would have been lovely. But we don’t do it here in Britain. So, we rely on Seaforth and old photographs and, best of all the people who built them and the people who served in them to keep them alive, heart and soul. Perhaps that’s it, the ships are just things. Who am I kidding?

Mark Barnes

By RA Burt
Published by Seaforth Publishing £45.00
ISBN: 978 1 84832 147 2

Mark Barnes

Mark Barnes is a longstanding friend of WHO, providing features, photography and reviews. He has contributed to The Times of London and other publications. He is the author of The Liberation of Europe (pub 2016) and If War Should Come due later in 2020.