Book Review – Air and Sea Power in World War I

Maryam Philpott, Air and Sea Power in World War I: Combat and Experience in the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Navy. London: I.B. Tauris, 2013. Notes. Bibliography. Index. Hbk. 258 pp. £59.50.

Air and Sea Power

This book is something of a curate’s egg. Overlooked in favour of the experience of the British Army, Philpott suggests that the contributions of the Royal Navy and Royal Flying Corps (RFC) ‘have never been explored.’ (p. 1) However, while containing a grain of truth, this hyperbolic overstatement illustrates the first of several issues extent in this work. Primarily, these issues are its methodology and historiographical underpinnings. Indeed, split into chapters examining training, motivation, technology, the home front, and representations of war, this book attempts too much in the space provided.

Firstly, the comparative approach utilised has led to a light touch on both organisations considered and this choice is questionable itself. Philpott considers one organisation, the Royal Navy, in comparison to a branch of another, the RFC within the British Army. Used to justify their selection, technology alone does not provide an adequate framework for understanding experience within these organisations. While technology certainly drove their context, they were not the singular basis of their respective cultures and any acceptance of this represents both a Whig and deterministic understanding of history. Further exacerbated by the fact that Philpott is attempting to compare two disparate organisations, the problem considered here is cultural. Philpott never really understands the cultures underpinnings the organisation she is examining. The Royal Navy had a distinct culture with its own norms quite distinct from that of the British Army. Conversely, though Philpott dismisses the importance of this (p. 2), the RFC was, to borrow a phrase from cultural analysis, a sub-culture of its larger parent organisation, the British Army. A reading of David French’s study Military Identities (2005) would have enlightened Philpott as to the British Army’s cultural idiosyncrasies. While there certainly was an attempt by RFC officers to create an organisational identity, it still owed much to its parent organisation, as did the RAF, which was a complex cultural amalgam of both the British Army and Royal Navy.

Second, at a historiographical level, Philpott does not adequately recognise the difference generated by the above distortion and makes many mistakes that illustrate a lack of understanding of the literature surrounding the Royal Navy and RFC. For example, Philpott describes Arthur Marder as the Royal Navy’s official historian (p. 48). While the later Royal Navy may have liked to have Marder as their official historian, the authors of the service’s official history of the First World War were Sir Julian Corbett and Sir Henry Newbolt. Similarly, Philpott describes the RAF’s official history as written by ‘veteran pilots’ (p. 14). While H.A. Jones served during the war and received the Military Cross, this oversimplification ignores the complicated selection process involved in choosing an official historian. Never a pilot, Sir Walter Raleigh, the RAF’s first official historian, was chosen based on his literary ability. Philpott also ignores much of the literature concerning the services discussed. For example, the chapter on training as it pertains to the RFC (pp. 27-40) would have benefitted from a reading of David Jordan’s 1997 University of Birmingham PhD thesis that contains a useful section on this very subject. This spills over into the archival evidence deployed to support Philpott’s analysis. While drawing on some useful contemporary material, Philpott ignores an overlooked source, in the form of officer’s reflective essays, which students who attended the RAF Staff College at Andover wrote during the inter-war period. These are an underused source written by the professional officers who stayed in the post-war RAF, served during the First World War, and were an attempt to by the service to develop a body of reflective knowledge concerning relevant personal experience in numerous areas. Utilising these would have enriched this work.

These challenges distort what should have been a useful addition to the growing historiography of both the Royal Navy and RFC in the First World War. Grounded in a socio-cultural framework inspired by Joanna Bourke’s An Intimate History of Killing (1999), who supervised the thesis that this book is based on, Philpott does at times offers some interesting insights. For example, the chapter on the home front (pp. 134-162) illustrates the shared experience between service personnel and civilians. However, again, in this chapter, Philpott introduces the Royal Naval Air Service, which early in the war played a vital role in the air defence of Great Britain but adds a further complication in terms of the comparative approach utilised. Overall, while elements of the discussion provided may be useful to readers, this work would have benefitted from focussing on just one of the services considered. Indeed, if Philpott’s assertion quoted at the start of this review is true then it begs the question of why this was not undertaken. A gap remains for a study of either the Royal Navy or RFC from the perspective of experience and motivation that would add much to our understanding of the First World War. Once these are undertaken, a more thorough comparative approach can then be considered. This gap remains to be filled.

Thanks to I.B. Tauris for the review copy.

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3 responses to “Book Review – Air and Sea Power in World War I

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