Imagine chaos raging from France through Germany that surrounded the end of the slaughter on the Western Front in the fall of 1918. Or the new rounds of killings that accompanied the revolution in Russia through 1924 and engulfed the Baltic States, ravaged Poland and ripped East Prussia from Berlin. As well, the privation of millions of survivors whom were desperately on the move escaping from new terrors of unparalleled famine and old horrors of religious and ethnic violence following the collapse of polyglot empires in Central Europe and the Middle East.
This is the vast canvas that William Still uses to paint his follow-on history of the Navy in European waters in World War I, Crisis at Sea. It is as varied in challenges unforeseen even in the midst of an epic war. It is a world complicated by unimagined events, wildly out of the control of political leaders from moralist Woodrow Wilson, to revolutionary Vladimir Lenin, to secular nationalist Kemal Ataturk.
And stamped with genocide on a scale likely not seen since the end of the Napoleonic wars in the early 19th century, almost a precursor to the concentration camps of Nazi Germany.
For anyone who believes that the Armistice or even the Allies’ and the United States’ [technically not an allied power] signing of the treaty with Germany in 1919 put an exclamation point on the American Navy’s physical presence and continuous activities in the Barents, Baltic, Adriatic, Aegean, and Black Seas, Victory provides a heavy dose of reality.
Still, honored in 2013 as one of the first three Naval Historical Foundation’s Dudley W. Knox Naval History Lifetime Achievement Award and a personal mentor of this reviewer, gives example after example of how the Navy with its forward presence — although there was a pent-up demand to bring ships back to American ports and send sailors home as soon as the ink dried on paper at Compiegne, France — to rescue trapped American citizens in the bedlam that preceded and continued after the signing of one treaty after another diplomatically ending the “war to end all wars.”
The American naval presence was essential in taking 250,000 Greeks and Armenians in Smyrna to safety aboard Greek and British ships when the Ottoman Empire was being shoveled into the dustbin of history.
In addition to the outside demands for intervention in this place or that, growing rivalry with Great Britain on the high seas, France’s thirst for revenge and reparations, and Italy’s unquenched zeal for Austro-Hungarian territory, the American senior naval leaders in Washington, and elsewhere were squabbling among themselves about how many vessels and sailors needed to be left behind and for how long. More importantly, what were these ships and sailors supposed to do when rioting breaks out, order breaks down, and new, meaner, local wars loom?
Didn’t we have to get back to protecting our interests in the Caribbean and with our island possessions in the Pacific? How can the United States build upon its success in international trade in markets, like the Middle East, that had been little open to American commerce?
Astounding to this reviewer was at the dawn of the post-war era, the French sent the American bills to pay for docking and incidentals U.S. warships, troop ships, transports, freighters, mine sweepers, et al., that brought the necessary force, arms, food, medical supplies, etc. to Europe and kept the sea lanes open for more, all critical to winning the war.
The Allies, particularly Great Britain and France had their own political plans on how to slice, dice, chop, and divide Germany so it would never make war again on land, sea, and air. They also had pre-agreed largely on disposing of German territory around the globe, but zeroing in on Germany’s industrial heartland, including machinery that needed to be dismantled and shipped westward or destroyed. And as for its fleet, that too was a fait accompli before the treaty signing in Louis XIV’s Hall of Mirrors in his palace at Versailles.
With the Navy’s mobility, it was the on-call service for the nation’s great contribution to the post-war world, the American Relief Administration, run by Herbert Hoover, that spared millions of survivors — from the United Kingdom struggling with the havoc submarines wreaked in trade for goods, materiel, and food to the Middle East.
And it wasn’t “just” humanitarian relief that American naval officers were tasked with in the volatile port cities of Archangel and Murmansk following the Bolshevik Revolution. Particularly, there the British repeatedly called upon, demanded, stomped their feet in front of the American naval officers trying to cajole them to ignore President Woodrow Wilson’s policy of “hands off,” no combat in northern Russia to support the counter-revolutionaries.
The on-scene American naval commander in those disputed ports found the British: “arrogant, condescending, and irritating.” To be fair to other American commanders, Newton McCully was not alone in his judgment of the Royal Navy’s posturing and behavior in almost every port on the Atlantic Ocean and numerous seas.
Still also points to the ambitions of Adm. William Benson, chief of naval operations at the time, and Navy Secretary Josephus Daniels to have a Navy “‘second to none,’ one that would be the equal of, if not more powerful than, the Royal Navy” that helped fuel the rivalry between the nations.
In answer to the age-old question, posed in 2003 by then Army Maj. Gen. David Petraeus, commander of the 101st Airborne Division early in the war with Iraq as the insurgency developed, “tell me how this ends” is what Victory is all about.
Still lays out the evidence, sector by sector, and the answer is “very messily.”
Nothing makes that clearer than this quote on just one mission: clearing mines.
“The U.S. Navy has in peacetime experienced no other operation of such scale and with such an element of dangers. Two officers and nine enlisted personnel were killed during these operations. Twenty-three ships were lost or damaged. A total of 20, 711 mines were destroyed, approximately 40 percent of the mines. Living and working conditions for the crews could hardly have been worse.”
Remember, this is the “peacetime” Navy. How many Americans at the time were even aware their Navy was undertaking such a monumental mission? How many today or then realize that despite this manpower intensive mission only 40 percent of the mines were destroyed?
In sum, Victory is an essential work and a valuable contribution to understanding the American Navy as it enters the years of the great international naval conferences, limiting tonnages and kinds of warships, and the Kellogg-Briand pact to “outlaw” war as a means of settling political disputes.
Victory Without Peace: The United States Navy in European Waters, 1919-1924
By William N. Still, Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, MD, (2018).
Reviewed by John Grady. Grady is the author of Matthew Fontaine Maury, Father of Oceanography. He also has conducted oral history interviews for the Naval Historical Foundation. His writings on national security, defense and naval affairs have been published by USNI News and other news organizations.