Think of the First World War at sea and you might inevitably turn to Jutland, because that awesome couple of days saw the most terrible clash of Titans, still hotly debated in some houses, when the greatest navies of the age collided. You might consider the Lusitania zigzagging, or not, a precipitous path towards the single torpedo of the U-20. Gone in twenty minutes, she remains an icon of the war and a tragic reminder of the power of the new wonder weapon perfected by the “frightful Hun”.
In actual fact the war offers so much more than these two events from 1916 and 1917, so easily picked out from internet timelines and easy to read guides. Before these stellar events took place, other battles of significance took place on the high seas and distant oceans of the Globe. Bryan Perrett does a great job reminding us just how important it was for the Royal Navy to seek and destroy a number of German surface ships on the loose in the first two years of the war in his very entertaining book.
Although technical innovations were gathering apace there is something about the naval actions of the Great War that offers a last look into a vanishing era, as if a great riveted iron door was closing on a world we can longer see; taking a wondrous smoky world of coal fired ships wrapped up in a chivalrous warmth to be replaced by the monstrosity of submarine warfare, air power and the eventual onset of the missile age. Great leviathans belching smoke from multiple stacks charging across the sea towards each other to do battle make for a wonderful vista, and to be fair, they are making a cheesy reviewer like me have a stab at the imagery. Such is the impact the book has had on me. Enough, already!
In all seriousness, this book delivers as much tragedy as it does action and derring-do, for with every victorious sinking there has to be a loser with loss of life and the author is not slow to sympathise with either side under the circumstances. In many cases we read of immense chivalry from the German captains of cruisers and armed merchantmen who showed great decency towards prisoners and they deserve immense credit for their humanity. The flip side to this are moments when some people show examples of callousness leaving little to admire, especially not from the likes of a British officer and a supposed gentleman. But we have to remember that war has never been pretty and does not fit the vision of the copywriters and propagandists whose feeding frenzy largely set the tone we have built our Great War knowledge fund on.
The book takes us across all the oceans of the world and to all continents. The adventures are many and varied and at times it seems a little like reading one of those classic Deeds That Thrilled the Empire publications or a feature from that shameless rag John Bull, but keep in mind a good deal of the heroics and chivalry are German and the supporting cast are French, Russian, Danish and from across the British Empire.
The accompanying photographs are many and excellent and the way the chapters are set out allows you to dip in and out at leisure. My copy came with an alarming number of typos in one or two early chapters which would upset me if I was the author. But the overall quality of this book is absolutely first rate. The chapters on Africa had me reaching for the truly epic and tragic Tip & Run by Edward Paice; his account of the terrible war on the ‘Dark continent’, which I cannot recommend highly enough, but I learned yet more of the relevant naval episodes here, so I am replete.
The Battle of the Coronel and the follow up Falkland Islands is a sequence we should all be taught so we can praise the memory of Doveton Sturdee, the Lewisham lad who survived falling foul of the venal Jacky Fisher to win a great victory. He was at Jutland, too. My favourite episode is probably also the author’s. This is the incredible tail of the battle between two armed merchant cruisers, the British Carmania and the German Cap Trafalgar. Imagine the scene where the British ship came up on the German vessel which had been disguised to look like it! The rest, as they say, is history. Bryan Perrett tells it well. Find out what happens, you know it makes sense.
THE HUNTERS AND THE HUNTED
The Elimination of German Surface Warships Around the World 1914-15
By Bryan Perrett
Published in hardback by Pen & Sword Maritime £18.99
ISBN: 978 1 84884 638 8