Beyond the Trenches with the U.S. Navy in the First World War: #Reviewing Crisis at Sea

Crisis at Sea: The United States Navy in European Waters in World War I. William N. Still, Jr. Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 2007.

Reflecting back on what was then simply The Great War, Vice Admiral William S. Sims took a realistic view of his service’s place in the conflict. “This was an army war,” he conceded, forthrightly, to his wife, “and the army should receive more recognition than the navy.”[1] If Sims could have foreseen how prophetic his words were, he might have been inclined to hedge a bit. At the centennial of American entry into World War I, the army dominates the historical literature, and a casual observer could be forgiven for wondering if the navy played any part at all. Sims and his brethren receive their due, however, in Crisis at Sea: The United States Navy in European Waters in World War I, an exhaustive study of the U.S. Navy in the European theater. William Still, former director of the Maritime History and Underwater Archaeology program at East Carolina University and author of multiple books on the U.S. Navy, brings a remarkable attention to detail in his latest volume, providing a thorough account of America’s role at sea in the First World War. Eleven years after its publication, this is still the definitive resource for its subject, and likely will remain so for many years to come.

The value of Crisis at Sea lies in its breadth. Still is encyclopedic in his coverage, touching on virtually every aspect of naval warfare. There is no central argument, per se, though every chapter contains analysis. Rather, this book aims to give readers a total picture of the Navy in European waters during the war. Operations, while hardly ignored, get rather scant attention, but Still balances these with extensive discussion of strategy and tactics; civil-military relations; technology; coalition warfare; command structure; training, health, and morale of enlisted personnel; and the ever-essential logistics. That does not mean, however, that Crisis at Sea lacks nothing. At over 500 pages of text, this is a difficult book to criticize for leaving out material, yet it bears mention that the perspective on nearly every page is exclusively naval. The larger political and cultural context the Navy operated in, or the course of the war on land and how it shaped naval planning, is absent here. As the title indicates, the navy in the Pacific receives no discussion. This is an understandable decision in light of the miniscule part that ocean played in World War I, but it also means that Still ignores tensions with Japan that foreshadowed the next world war.

At the center of the book stands Sims, the commander of all American naval forces in European waters. A largely forgotten figure today, Sims is the subject of only two biographical works––one is a document collection of his most significant writings, and the other is a biography written by his son-in-law.[2] This is unfortunate, for Sims played an outsize role in the Navy during a crucial period, to the point that his headquarters in London became known as “Simsadus.” His friend, Admiral William V. Pratt, later commented that “probably no man in our recent naval history has left a more indelible stamp of his personality than Admiral Sims.”[3] Still is inclined to agree, arguing that Sims defined U.S. naval policy during the war. Sims played an essential role in convincing the Navy to abandon construction of a larger battleship fleet in favor of anti-submarine craft, and he consistently pressed for closer coordination and cooperation with the Allies; these were both crucial steps in winning the war. That is not to say Still gives the admiral unvarnished praise, however. Crisis at Sea is blunt in noting Sims’ egotism, abrasiveness, his often unreasonable demands on the Navy Department, and his at times unfair criticism of subordinates.  

Rear-Admiral William Sowden Sims, U.S.N. (From The Life of Admiral Hahan, Charles Carlisle Taylor/Wikimedia)

Countering his shortcomings was the collegial relationship Sims built with his naval counterparts in Britain, which was a key component of the remarkable unity that the two navies enjoyed. It helped immensely, of course, that Sims arrived in London convinced that the most effective strategy was for the nation to swallow its pride and cooperate with the British to the fullest possible extent. Not surprisingly, Sims’ cooperation looked a great deal like subordination to his superiors in Washington, and his single-minded support of the British viewpoint on nearly every area of disagreement prompted Woodrow Wilson to complain that he should have worn a British uniform, while one of his fellow admirals accused him of “subserviency.”[4] Notably, in the matter of convoys, Sims would have prioritized getting desperately-needed supplies to Britain over protecting troopships loaded with American doughboys, priorities that Wilson and the Navy Department found backward.

Sims’ differences with the Navy Department grew out of the reality that the navy was trying to balance American war aims and strategies with those of a nation that had already expended vast blood and treasure in the battle against the Central Powers. World War I was the first real instance of the United States fighting as part of an international coalition, at least since the alliance with France in the Revolutionary War. In addition to fighting the Central Powers, the U.S. also had to grapple with prioritizing its own strategic aims—and maintaining its own freedom of operation—while still keeping Allied victory as the foremost objective.

Still goes into great detail on U.S. naval relations with the British (remarkably good), the French (sometimes strained), and the Italians (dreadful). Such relations involved far more than the interactions of governments or officers. The United States established naval facilities in its partners’ territory and vied with its allies for scarce resources. Meanwhile, the enlisted ranks interacted afloat and ashore. Every aspect of coalition warfare receives due coverage here, though from an exclusively naval perspective. Readers interested in the overall picture of Allied relations in World War I—and how the navy fit into that larger picture—will need to look elsewhere.[5]   

This limited perspective extends to the sailors who manned America’s fleets. Still touches on the usual topics for sailors in World War I: their relations with European civilians, discipline and morale, and their performance in combat. World War I fell in the midst of the Progressive Era, and thus problems of drunkenness, sexually-transmitted diseases, and general morality took on greater importance with high command than such issues usually do, though efforts to constrain such behavior were, naturally, only marginally successful. Still’s focus, however, is purely military, and so the reader gets little of the social context sailors come from, or the larger culture that shaped the high command’s handling of non-military concerns. Crisis at Sea nonetheless gives a good overview of what life was like “over there” for American seamen.

USS San Diego, 28 Jan 1915 (

The United States joined the fight against Germany and its allies at a transformative moment in warfare. Battle was extending both beneath the waves and into the skies on a scale never before seen, and scarcely imagined. The story of the war is thus largely a story of tactical and technological development, and these themes figure prominently in Still’s study. The development of naval aviation is here, but gets surprisingly limited treatment. The various methods the fleets experimented with to combat submarines, however, are discussed in detail. Ultimately, it was the convoy system that stymied the submarine menace, but efforts to develop underwater detection, aerial torpedoes, and effective Allied submarines all paid significant dividends in the next global war.[6]

Crisis at Sea should appeal to anyone interested in World War I. It covers a severely understudied aspect of the conflict in thorough fashion, and as far as the U.S. Navy’s role this book has no peer. That said, it is unsurprising that it has not reached a significant popular audience since its publication. The topical organization makes it repetitive at times, and it is possible to use it as more of a reference, or even a quasi-encyclopedia, than a monograph. The comprehensive bibliography, all 51 pages, provides an excellent resource for anyone looking for more information on a specific aspect of the war. It is still worth reading in its entirety though. For all the fame (or infamy) of the trenches, the sea was an essential theater of the war. In overcoming the U-boat campaign, the Allies were able to get the troops who overcame the Germans to the trenches and keep the British economy alive through the end of the war. Any understanding of the First World War must include its naval component, and Still’s study is a crucial resource for any library on the conflict.

Thomas Sheppard holds a PhD in military history from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He currently lives in Washington DC, where he writes on history, politics, and military affairs. The opinions expressed here are entirely his own, and do not reflect those of any other agency.

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Header Image: Color postcard view of WWI subchasers (Subchasers of World War I)


[1] William N. Still Jr., Crisis at Sea: The United States Navy in European Waters in World War I (Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 2006), 513.

[2] Benjamin F. Armstrong, ed., 21st Century Sims: Innovation, Education, and Leadership for the Modern Era (21st Century Foundations) (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2015); Elting Morison, Admiral Sims and the Modern American Navy (Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1942).

[3] Still, Crisis at Sea, 21.   

[4] Still, Crisis at Sea, 25.

[5] Kathleen Burk, Britain, America and the Sinews of War, 1914-1918 (Boston: George Allen & Unwin, 1985); Michael Simpson, ed., Anglo-American Naval Relations 1917-1919 (Aldershot, England: Scholar Press for the Navy Records Society, 1991).

[6] Still, Crisis at Sea, 377-378.