Tuesday, March 25, 2014

A Naval History of World War I - Paul G. Halpern

The good thing about Paul Halpern's A Naval History of World War I is how he touches on practically everything. He doesn't focus simply on Jutland, or the struggle between the U-boats and the Atlantic convoys, or the British Navy's role in the mess in the Dardanelles. He looks at the use of merchant ships as decoys for subs, minelayers, surface raiders, the early attempts to incorporate aircraft into the naval war, resistance to convoys, pressure amongst the brass to "do something", and does so in every body of water where the war took place, from the Baltic, to the Adriatic, the Indian Ocean, even the Danube River.

The bad thing is Halpern's not an engaging writer. He could be trying to simply maintain objectivity, but the book is almost monotone. I've read several books on military campaigns where the writer was able to make the battles come alive, make me care about the people involved, whether I liked them or hated them. If Halpern has that capability, he doesn't demonstrate it here. Which is why the time I was halfway through the book I was debating whether to finish it or not. I did, but it was a real slog at times. There's only so many times I can see the phrase 'that is outside the scope of this work', or 'there isn't space to go into details on. . .' I'd say I read those phrases at least a half-dozen times each in the book, maybe twice that. And it was usually in reference to things that sounded fun to read about. But this is allegedly a general history, though that doesn't stop him from spending entire pages reciting the essentially fruitless missions of large U-boats off the coast of the United States. Perhaps if he shortened that down to 'the tonnage sunk by the U-boats hardly justified their use in those waters,' he could have spent a little more time discussing interesting developments.

You might be better off flipping through the bibliography and picking out titles of more specific histories that sound appealing.

'The arguments involving absolute contraband, conditional contraband, free goods, and international law and precedents were frequently complex and legalistic. There is no space to go into them here, but in general one can say that whereas British and French actions involved property and could be contested in prize courts, the German measures in the submarine war frequently involved loss of life. Neutral and other shipowners might on occasion win awards for damages or restoration of their property in prize courts, but a life, once lost, could never be restored. The British and French therefore had a noted advantage in the propaganda war for the sympathy of the richest and most powerful neutral of them all, the United States. The Germans - at least the naval authorities - however well grounded and legalistic their arguments, seemed never to fully comprehend this.'

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