The War That Changed The World

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There was one oddity about the situation that became apparent only later. The dreadnought was the great weapon, and the two nations built with feverish haste; but the dreadnought was actually in the process of going out of date because the big gun itself was on the verge of becoming obsolescent. The torpedo was beginning to emerge as the decisive weapon, the submarine was looking more and more like the craft that could best use the torpedo, and the airplane was a fluttering shadow just offstage.

In any case, the men who controlled these two navies made their battle fleets as great and strong as they could—and became, at last, obsessed by the sheer weight of matériel . The battle fleets were almost too big and cumbersome to maneuver easily, and more and more they came to seem too valuable to be risked. When war finally came, the German fleet played it safe, and in effect consented to the blockade which the British imposed; the Kaiser apparently felt that his magnificent ships must not be risked in action, and ordered his admirals to follow the most cautious defensive strategy. The British in their turn were under much the same spell. They got, during the war, just one chance to destroy the German fleet, at Jutland, and contented themselves with a purely defensive victory; to have pressed the attack home, at a time when their battle fleet stood between the German fleet and German harbors, might have cost too many ships. Similarly, the attempt to open the Dardanelles by naval action was abandoned just when it was on the verge of success because it had cost several obsolete pre-dreadnought battleships and might cost more. The naval men on both sides were the prisoners of their own weapons.

Wartime events, to be sure, go beyond the scope of Mr. Marder’s present volume. But he sets the stage for them. He shows how dedicated men on both sides became so engrossed with the expensive mechanisms for destruction that they were not quite able to use those mechanisms freely when the time came: The British Navy’s prized “Nelson touch” was not evident in the First World War. One reason may be that Nelson never had to carry the burden of a fleet that was too costly, too intricate, and too valuable ever to be risked.