Roscoe Lecture Series - Liverpool John Moores University

Roscoe Lecture: Lord West of Spithead

The importance of the Navy during WW1

The Right Honourable Lord West of Spithead delivered a Roscoe Lecture which emphasised the importance of the Navy during World War One.

The idea has developed that WW1 was fought and won principally on land, said Admiral West, but he assured the 1000-plus audience that without the Royal Navy, Britain would have lost the First World War.

Speaking to a packed St George’s Hall, Admiral West explained that not only did the Navy prevent an invasion, it defeated the German submarines and transported millions of troops and their supplies.

In 1914, he said, the Royal Navy was held in great esteem and was probably, at that time, the most sophisticated organisation in the world. The expectation of the public and the Navy itself, was that the Navy would deliver a crushing victory like Trafalgar, in a few months.

However, he explained how, with the major theatre of war being the North Sea, the Navy had many difficulties to overcome.

He commented: “This was not an easy area to operate in. There were frequent gales, limited daylight in the winter, fog and mist in the summer and it was swept by strong tidal streams. Navigation was a nightmare because all the lights and buoys were switched off and removed. Most ships had to use magnetic compasses with all their problems of variation and the Earth’s magnetic pull, which was very difficult in the North Sea. They had to use dead-reckoning unless they could get a star sight but of course visibility was bad so they couldn’t get star sight.” Therefore, for most of the time, he said, the ships had only a very rough idea of where they were.

Admiral West highlighted how Britain, though not always tactically successful, was able to maintain the blockade and keep the High Seas Fleet in port, although the High Seas Fleet remained a threat that kept the vast majority of Britain's capital ships in the North Sea.

He outlined major battles including those at Heligoland Bight, Dogger Bank, and Jutland and discussed the lasting legacy of the Battle of Jutland. At the end of the War, he said, the Royal Navy was everywhere but the result of Jutland damaged the reputation of the Navy. Jutland witnessed the British Navy losing more men and ships but the verdict was that the German Navy lost and was never in a position again to put to sea during the war. For the wartime British public hoping for a second Trafalgar, Admiral West added, Jutland was a disappointment, and has contributed to the perception that the War was primarily fought and won on land.

You can download and listen to the lecture here