Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Tuesday, April 3, 2018

America's Sailors in the Great War
Reviewed by James M. Gallen

America's Sailors in the Great War:
Seas, Skies, and Submarine

by Lisle A. Rose
2nd Edition, University of Missouri, 2016

American Sailors & Returning Soldiers Aboard the  USS Louisiana

In American Sailors in the Great War, author Lisle A. Rose presents both the big picture of the Navy's role in the war as well as the lives of the individual sailors. Though not generally thought of as a naval war in the way World War II was, the First World War found the United States Navy to be an early and major contributor to hostilities. In fact, America received its first introduction to the reach of Axis power in the summer of 1916 when one of the German monster "merchant" U-boats, Deutschland, designed to transport New World supplies through the British blockade, made two visits to the United States. The lesson was reinforced in September when Lieutenant Hans Rose, with an Iron Cross pinned to his chest, surfaced U-53 in Narragansett Bay near the U.S. Naval War College. During the next few days U-53 sank five merchant vessels within sight of the Newport Lighthouse.

Armies of the Great War era relied on masses of troops that could be quickly raised by draft calls and supplied with small arms. Navies by contrast are made of fleets that must, to a considerable extent, be shipshape when Mars's siren calls. The expansion of America's reach after the Spanish-American War left the navy as America's best-prepared force in 1917 and the first able to extend its power into the war zone. Less than six weeks after the declaration of war, five destroyers of Division 8 were in Queenstown, Ireland "ready now…except for refueling."

Joint operations in support of the response to the Boxer Rebellion had forged close relations between the Royal and American Navies. Maritime combat in the Great War was a contest between German surface raiders and U-boats striving to cut Britain's supplies of food and material and Allied and American protecting forces. The stage having been set by the time she entered the war, America expanded its navy to fulfill its assigned roles. For Americans this meant building destroyers, sub chasers, and mine layers to counter the submarine threat.

The growing U.S. Army was of no use until it was transported to France. Never before had America had to safely move such a force across the seas. Troop convoys were escorted by destroyers that would hunt, and (if possible) sink, any harassing U-boats. Canadian convoys generally left Halifax for British ports, while most American troops sailed from New York and Hampton Roads to Brest, St. Nazaire, La Pallice, and Bordeaux in France. So efficient were American transports that only three troop ships were lost and then on lightly escorted return trips while empty of their human cargoes.

Official Art of U.S. Escorted Convoy

Rose begins with the "State of Play," an analysis of the state of the U.S. Navy and the status of Maritime Theatres at the time of the declaration of war, the relationships between the United States and Royal and German Navies and the unrestricted submarine warfare that finally compelled a reluctant President Wilson to lead his country into belligerency. His next topic is the "Call to Quarters" in which Americans are rapidly incorporated into the combat of Neptune's realm.

Next to be addressed is the variety of America's vessels. While we might think of naval aviation as requiring the advent of aircraft carriers, in fact planes were merely new tools adopted by all forces, with sea planes being a major part of the navy's contribution to the air war. One of the most interesting chapters deals with the development of the convoy system that became essential when success on the battlefield relied on the transportation of men and supplies from Canada and the United States.

The spotlight is then turned on the types of ships employed: the destroyers that protected the convoys and hunted their menacing U-boats; the battleships that, although ill-suited to the routine of the war did, on occasion, provide artillery support to land forces; the submarines that hunted other submarines; the minesweepers that made channels impassable and later reopened them; and perhaps unique to this war, the sub chasers, the swarms of near-yachts that plied the seas in search of U-boats.

The title notwithstanding, much of the book deals with the ships, boats, and planes that were the tools of America's contribution to the Great War. Anecdotes drawn from the lives of the sailors provide some of the most entertaining interludes in this book. Division 8's sailors who arrived in Europe looking forward to encounters with Irish colleens were disappointed to find "not a one had any teeth, their hair looked like rope and they had no shape." (p.58) Later arrivals were to arouse jealousy among the Irish lads. In England, a drunken swabbie who shouted "To hell with King George" below his portrait in a Liverpool bar had to do some quick backpedaling when a husky Anzac replied with "To hell with President Wilson." Turning around the Yank offered a hand and cried, "That's what I say! I'm a Republican." (p.183)

Even experienced readers of Great War literature will find America's Sailors in the Great War to be an excellent introduction to the men and machines that so heroically completed their assigned missions. Names distributed throughout this tome such as Texas, Arizona, Nimitz, Kimmel, and Halsey will be recognized from histories of a later war. The narrative of this book is well researched and skillfully crafted and certainly retains the reader's attention. At its end I had a much firmer grasp on the contributions of America's sailors to the Great War.

James M. Gallen

1 comment:

  1. Thanks, Jim, for a really useful review. This is a book many of us need to read. I know I have concentrated almost totally on the land war--with an appreciative look at the air war, too--but I suspect many of us have paid scant attention to Jack Tar and his American partner in the War.