A Higher Form of Killing: Six Weeks in World War I That Forever Changed the Nature of Warfare
Diana Preston, New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2015. 340 pp. Biblio. Index. Illus. Maps. Notes. Sources. $28.
Reviewed by Dwight Messimer
Those who have read any of Diana Preston’s earlier works will find that her latest book, A Higher Form of Killing, meets the same standards for engaging writing and historical accuracy. Ms. Preston writes in a clear, concise style that is a pleasure to read. This book is well organized and has an excellent index, which many readers will appreciate. It provides a strong argument for the thesis that World War I was the most important war of the 20th century, or put another way was the most important event in the 20th century’s Thirty Years War, 1914–1945.
This book is not just a recounting of three events, but a reasoned analysis of why they occurred, the moral issues raised and argued, and their historical legacy. Ms. Preston argues convincingly that during the nearly six weeks from 22 April to 31 May in 1915, the Germans forever changed the nature of warfare by deploying poison gas (chlorine) on 22 April, torpedoing the RMS Lusitania without warning on 7 May, and bombing London on 31 May.
She seamlessly weaves the international and political reactions to those three events into her writing and makes them personal through eyewitness accounts. This technique gives life and drama to her descriptions of what the Lusitania’s passengers experienced during the 18 minutes between the time the torpedo struck and when the ship went under. She describes the tragedy of a family named Leggatt who lived in the working-class district of Hoxton, “one of the worst parts of London, where poverty and overcrowding are characteristic of practically the whole district” on the night that the Zeppelin LZ38 bombed London. The Leggatts, finding their apartment on fire, tried to rescue their five sleeping children, but in the smoke, heat, and confusion they overlooked three-year old Elsie “on the mistaken belief that someone else had already carried her to safety.”
The development histories of each of the three weapons are included in the narrative in such a way that they add to the forward momentum of the writing, while at the same time Ms. Preston includes the roles played by each of the men who were associated with the development and use of the those weapons. She does this without bias, presenting an even-handed argument that shares blame and recognition where warranted. For example, she writes that after the torpedoing of the Lusitania, the British government, led by the efforts of First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, and the Director of the Admiralty Trade Division, Captain Richard Webb, tried to push the blame for the liner’s loss onto the Lusitania’s Captain William Turner. She does that without overt condemnation, leaving it to the reader to decide.
Of the three weapon systems showcased, only one was not used in World War II—poison gas. But unrestricted submarine warfare was adopted by all the belligerents, as was the wholesale destruction through area bombing of entire cities. Nevertheless, Ms. Preston makes the point that that though both sides refrained from using poison gas in World War II, all of them had ample supplies on hand in case a first-use provocation occurred. She describes the presence of the huge stockpiles of poison gas as “perhaps the first example of the effectiveness of mutual deterrence.”
There is a two-page map of Europe on the eve of World War I in the front of the book, followed by two smaller maps showing the courses of the Lusitania and the U-20 up to 7 May 1915. The 16 pages of glossy photographs in the middle of the book make an interesting supplement, illustrating the high points of the narrative. There is a photo of Fritz Haber and Albert Einstein together, the man who developed poison gas and the man who adamantly rejected the undertaking. There is also a cross section of the Lusitania that is particularly informative, and a photo of the U-20 aground and heavily damaged on the Danish coast taken on 5 November 1916.
For those who are interested in World War I, its legacy and historical significance, A Higher Form of Killing is a highly recommended addition to your library. Ms. Preston’s writing style and her treatment of the subject make this an easy read from which there is much to learn.
British Naval Supremacy and Anglo-American Antagonisms, 1914–1930
Donald J. Lisio. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2014. 332 pp. Bibliographic Essay. Illus. Index. $99.
Review by Colonel John Abbatiello, U.S. Air Force (Retired)
This monograph is a must-read for Sea Service professionals interested in naval arms control and the interwar years. Donald Lisio, professor emeritus from Coe College and an expert on the Hoover administration, masterfully tells the complicated story of Anglo-American naval relations with a focus on the 1920s.
Lisio paints an accurate picture of former World War I partners growing increasingly antagonistic as they tried to ensure a peaceful recovery after the Treaty of Versailles. The bitterness started in 1914, when Britain began a naval blockade of Germany. Trade restrictions severely curtailed American commerce with Germany, and as the war continued the British increasingly interfered with U.S. economic activity with neutral European powers. The blockade generated American acrimony toward Britain and the U.S. Congress passed the Navy Act of 1916, a massive naval buildup designed to make the U.S. Navy “second to none” and force free trade on the belligerents. German unrestricted submarine warfare eventually drove the Wilson administration to ask for a declaration of war against the Central Powers, but the demand for freedom of the seas was a lasting foreign-policy objective for America.
At the Washington Naval Conference (1921–22), the Americans, British, Japanese, Italians, and French agreed to a number of constraints, to include a limit on the total tonnage of battleships and aircraft carriers through specific ratios of relative strength, resulting in the scrapping of many capital ships around the world. The key success was the avoidance of a new naval arms race among the victors of the Great War. The Washington negotiations, however, avoided limitations on other warships such as cruisers, destroyers, and submarines. The bulk of Lisio’s study deals with this issue and how the British and Americans approached a new round of arms-control talks.
Making use of extensive archival and other primary-source material, the author describes in great detail the behind-the-scenes preparation for a new round of naval arms-control talks. The focus of these was on cruiser strength. The Royal Navy’s initial position was that there should not be any limitations on cruisers; it had extensive commerce-protection responsibilities worldwide and desired a free hand in determining the numbers and design features of these important warships. Resistance to limitations was especially vexing to Winston Churchill, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who was responsible for balancing the British government’s budget. During the mid-1920s, the government still had to repay war debts, fund social programs, and provide for the defense of the British Empire.
Admiral Sir David Beatty, the First Sea Lord, who had initially resisted a second round of naval arms limitations, changed his tune in late 1926 largely due to a series of design flaws in the Royal Navy’s new 8-inch gun. The new gun was the primary armament for the fleet’s latest series of heavy cruisers; it malfunctioned often and did not achieve its designed range or rate of fire. With little funding available to conduct a re-design and with ships already far along in construction, Beatty had no choice but to call for a new round of naval talks to limit cruiser strength and minimize the challenge of superior American and Japanese cruisers.
The author describes in great detail the negotiating strategies that preceded the Geneva Naval Conference of 1927. Most notable in this story were the political battles between Churchill and Beatty and the surrounding context of party politics in Britain. Beatty deceived his own Cabinet as well as American negotiators on a number of issues, all for the purpose of ensuring British cruiser superiority vis-à-vis the U.S. and Japanese fleets. Ultimately, the Geneva talks failed, and an agreement on cruiser numbers, tonnages, and armaments would have to wait until the successful London Naval Conference of 1930.
This reviewer has only a few minor complaints. The author incorrectly states that Admiral of the Fleet Lord John Jellicoe was an Australian (he was an Englishman who later served as Governor-General of New Zealand after retiring from the Royal Navy) and his surname ends in an “e.” The book, though attractively presented and including excellent photos of key characters and ships, is overpriced at $99.
Lisio’s monograph is nevertheless a superb addition to the scholarship of an important subdiscipline of naval history. This study is a masterpiece of context, where the history of diplomacy, naval strategy, party politics, media relations, naval technology, and, of course, leadership collide to produce a rich narrative. The author clearly demonstrates the importance of naval officers being directly involved in diplomatic discussions regarding arms limitations, and the give-and-take required between government and Navy leaders.
Maritime Power in the Black Sea
Deborah Sanders, Surrey, U.K.: Ashgate, Corbett Centre for Maritime Policy Studies Series, 2014. 248 pp. Biblio. Notes. Index. $119.95.
Reviewed by John C. K. Daly
Since Russia’s March 2014 annexation of Crimea, the Black Sea region has shifted from an obscure backwater to a new front line in NATO’s expansion into areas bordering Russia.
While the Russian navy has been the subject of intense scholarship for decades, those of Turkey, Bulgaria, Romania, Ukraine, and Georgia have rarely attracted academic attention. This work, thoroughly utilizing and synthesizing vast amounts of English-language material, provides a single-volume introduction to a region whose strategic importance becomes more evident each day. The book consists of individual case-study chapters covering Black Sea nations’ capabilities, both naval and civilian, within a broader theme of maritime power.The author extends her survey beyond purely military and naval issues to incorporate economics, correctly pointing out that the Black Sea in the past two decades has become a major thoroughfare for Russian and Caspian hydrocarbon exports. The study also surveys the state of the Black Sea merchant marines, its fishing and transport fleets, as well as issues involved in maintaining them. It also provides a useful overview of the Black Sea nations exploiting their marine resources, from fishing to offshore drilling. While such material is available, it is widely scattered; accordingly, it is extremely valuable to have it all in a single volume.
Another point this review illuminates is that all the Black Sea post-Soviet and communist navies shared similar shortfalls, including a lack of funding, low morale and pay, and aging infrastructure and ships. This underfunding and neglect was dramatically illustrated last January, when only the Ukrainian navy’s flagship, the Krivak III–class frigate Get’man Sagaidachnii was deemed fully operational to deploy off Somalia as part of the EU’s Operation Atalanta. The author has done the reader a great service by bringing this scattered material into a single survey.
As with nearly every monograph, the volume contains shortcomings. First, the work could have used a more meticulous copy editor. A more serious weakness is the lack of primary-source material in the languages of the navies surveyed except where available in English translation. While the modest size and relatively brief history of the Georgian, Ukrainian, Bulgarian, and Romanian navies might mitigate the use of such materials, wherein officers and government officials debate naval matters as in Proceedings, this shortcoming is particularly notable in the case of Russia, whose navy dates back to Tsar Peter the Great and has published the monthly Morskoi Sbornik (Sea Collection) continuously since March 1848 as a forum for naval matters. Debates on naval strategy, tactics, armaments, vessels, personnel, etc. can be found in Voennoe Obozrenie (Military Survey) and Krasnaia Zvezda (Red Star). Similar material can also be found in the official publication of the Turkish navy, which originated in the Ottoman era, the Deniz Kuvvetleri Dergisi (Navy Journal).
The use of such material is critical to understanding the regional governmental policies of the most important development in the Black Sea basin since the 1991 collapse of communism: NATO’s increasing presence there. Two-and-a-half decades ago the region had a single NATO member, Turkey; it now includes two former communist states—Bulgaria and Romania. Since the April 2008 NATO Bucharest summit, the United States has been pressing the alliance to fast-track two other former Soviet republics, Georgia and Ukraine, for membership, a position that Moscow has persistently and vehemently opposed in the pages of Morskoi Sbornik, Voennoe Obozrenie, and Krasnaia Zvezda, and elsewhere as “red lines” unacceptable to Russia. The enormous gulf between NATO’s own benign perception of its expansion eastward and Russia’s alarm—focusing on Georgia and Ukraine as pivot points—while intensively debated in the Russian military and naval press, is barely addressed here.
The study similarly lacks sufficient coverage of the current ramifications of the most important diplomatic treaty impacting the Black Sea region, the 1936 Montreux Convention. In a small but telling point, the author attributes in a footnote that U.S. efforts in the wake of the August 2008 Russian-Georgian conflict to send two hospital ships, “exempt from the Montreux Convention,” were nevertheless prevented by Turkey. Turkey was actually adhering to the treaty, as Article 18 limits humanitarian assistance by non–Black Sea powers to 8,000 tons. As the George W. Bush administration sent the USNS Comfort (T-AH-20) and the USNS Mercy (T-AH-19) hospital ships, both converted oil tankers displacing 69,360 tons apiece, Ankara’s refusal was valid under the convention’s terms. While both Russia and Turkey have issues with the convention—Russia with the passage of non–Black Sea warships, Turkey with the untrammeled tanker traffic through the Turkish Straits—neither nation is currently seeking the convention’s abrogation, and its ongoing relevance cannot be discounted in any regional survey.
These cavils aside, the author has done readers an immense service by providing this concise overview of largely unknown navies recently thrust onto the geopolitical front line. Given the author’s painstaking efforts, this is likely to remain the best survey of Black Sea navies for some time.