Book Review – ‘The Royal Navy in the Age of Austerity 1919–22: Naval and foreign policy under Lloyd George’ by Richard Dunley
The historiography of the Royal Navy in the periods before and during the First World War has grown and developed in an extraordinary fashion over the past 10 to 15 years. This has fundamentally changed how we view the organization which fought the conflict from a political, social, technological and strategic perspective. This development tends to end abruptly in 1918 or arguably 1916, with the end of the war and transition into the interwar period having been largely ignored. G. H. Bennett’s new volume on the Royal Navy in the years 1919 to 1922 is thus a welcome addition to the literature.
The book, as the title suggests, seeks to go beyond the narrow focus on naval policy, and instead looks to locate the developments in the far broader context of domestic and foreign policy, austerity and social change.
The issues of naval policy in the years after the First World War were complex and had multiple dimensions, including strategic, diplomatic, fiscal, industrial and cultural. Bennett seeks to explore this diverse picture and the chapters looking at technology and the shipbuilding industry are particularly strong. He highlights the local economic impacts of the decisions around naval construction and the perilous position of UK armaments firms and their workers. This is then very successfully tied into the wider political and electoral context. The sections of the book dealing with the high political and diplomatic aspects of naval policy appear less convincing. This reviewer would have liked to have seen further research into the detailed diplomatic and foreign policy questions, especially in the light of the sub-title of the book.
From the use of the term ‘austerity’ in the title to the discussion of the new HMS Queen Elizabeth, Bennett clearly draws parallels between the challenges facing the Royal Navy in the post-First World War period, and those of the present day. This connection continues throughout the book and adds an additional angle to the work. Only time will tell whether the present generation of naval leaders will be more or less successful in negotiating this age of austerity than their predecessors were almost a century earlier.
The Royal Navy in the Age of Austerity forms a welcome addition to the literature on the service in the inter-war period and continues an important trend in locating naval policy within its wider context. For this reason it deserves to be read, and hopefully will spark further research into this period.