The best books on Churchill’s First World War Navy

Matthew S. Seligmann Author Of Rum, Sodomy, Prayers, and the Lash Revisited: Winston Churchill and Social Reform in the Royal Navy, 1900-1915
By Matthew S. Seligmann

Who am I?

I am a British naval historian and winner of the Sir Julian Corbett Prize for Naval History. My main area of interest is the Anglo-German naval race before the First World War. I have written numerous books on this topic including Rum, Sodomy, Prayers, and the Lash Revisited: Winston Churchill and Social Reform in the Royal Navy, 1900-1915 (2018); The Naval Route to the Abyss: The Anglo-German Naval Race, 1895-1914 (2015); The Royal Navy and the German Threat, 1901-1914 (2012); Naval Intelligence from Germany (2007); and Spies in Uniform: British Military and Naval Intelligence on the Eve of the First World War (2006). 


I wrote...

Rum, Sodomy, Prayers, and the Lash Revisited: Winston Churchill and Social Reform in the Royal Navy, 1900-1915

By Matthew S. Seligmann,

Book cover of Rum, Sodomy, Prayers, and the Lash Revisited: Winston Churchill and Social Reform in the Royal Navy, 1900-1915

What is my book about?

The book is built around a quotation often attributed to Winston Churchill that depicted naval life as consisting of “Rum, Sodomy, Prayers and the Lash.” Churchill may not have said this, but it is a remarkable coincidence if he didn’t because, as the book shows, the Churchill Admiralty of 1911-1915 attempted to reform conditions in the Royal Navy by introducing new measures respecting the spirit ration, homosexuality, religion, and corporal punishment. As such it opens up a new aspect of the career of Winston Churchill, who as First Lord did not just prepare the Royal Navy for war with Germany, he also attempted to reform social conditions in the senior service and bring it into the modern world.

The books I picked & why

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Churchill and the Dardanelles

By Christopher M. Bell,

Book cover of Churchill and the Dardanelles

Why this book?

It is very difficult to say something new about the Dardanelles campaign and even harder to say something new about Winston Churchill, but without resorting to exaggeration or conspiracy theories, this book manages to do both. It offers a forensic examination of the background to the failed attempt to force the straits and a comprehensive survey of Churchill’s subsequent attempts to ensure that the re-telling of that failure did not rebound to his discredit. There is no better book on this topic.


The Fear of Invasion: Strategy, Politics, and British War Planning, 1880-1914

By David G. Morgan-Owen,

Book cover of The Fear of Invasion: Strategy, Politics, and British War Planning, 1880-1914

Why this book?

This book genuinely changes our understanding of British defence policy before the First World War. It is often assumed that the German challenge to British naval supremacy before 1914 was a mirage and that fears that Germany might launch an invasion of the British Isles were simple scaremongering. The reality was different. The Royal Navy may have been bigger and stronger than its German counterpart, but its task was harder and its leaders were not confident that they could prevent German soldiers from landing on British soil. Based on first-rate research, this book explains why.


From the Dreadnought to Scapa Flow, Volume I: The Road to War, 1904–1914

By Arthur J. Marder,

Book cover of From the Dreadnought to Scapa Flow, Volume I: The Road to War, 1904–1914

Why this book?

Anyone interested in the Royal Navy before 1914 has to read this book. It is the only book on the run-up to the First World War written following discussions with figures from the time and based upon original research on unreleased materials in the Admiralty Record Office. Many of the sources it uses have since been destroyed. It, thus, has a unique view of what went on and why. It is beautifully written, too.


Dreadnought Gunnery and the Battle of Jutland: The Question of Fire Control

By John Brooks,

Book cover of Dreadnought Gunnery and the Battle of Jutland: The Question of Fire Control

Why this book?

A lot of ink has been spilt on why the Royal Navy was unable to overpower the German fleet at the battle of Jutland. Some focus on flaws in equipment and ship design, others on flaws in leadership and tactics, others still on poor fighting methods. This book examines the subject in the round and shows, contrary to received wisdom, that in gunnery at least, the Royal Navy entered the battle with the instruments best suited to its needs. Such failures as there were – and there were many were largely down to individual command decisions on the day.


Britain and the Mine, 1900-1915: Culture, Strategy and International Law

By Richard Dunley,

Book cover of Britain and the Mine, 1900-1915: Culture, Strategy and International Law

Why this book?

Underwater weapons of all types have had a major influence on naval warfare in the twentieth century. Despite this, studies of them to date have not been all they might be either in terms of quantity or quality. Richard Dunley rectifies this in respect of the mine with a major evaluation of its place in Royal Navy thinking and planning in the first decade and a half of the twentieth century. As a result, this is an important book and a major contribution to the literature.


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