#Reviewing Bayly's War

Bayly’s War: The Battle for the Western Approaches in the First World War. Steven Dunn. Barnesley, UK: Seaforth Publishing, 2018.

The part that Queenstown played in the Great War is not generally known, by reason of the very necessary veil of secrecy that was drawn over its work. Someday the full story will be told...[1]

It is hard to picture a seeming worse fit for a job than Admiral Lewis Bayly as commander in southern Ireland during the First World War. Disgraced and out of favor with the men at the top of the British Navy at the beginning of the war, Bayly also possessed the liabilities of having badly underestimated the submarine threat, loathing the Irish population that surrounded him, and being so profoundly anti-social the Admiralty feared he was sure to alienate their new American allies once the United States entered the fight. Nevertheless, Bayly overcame his own prejudices and prevented the submarine threat off the Irish coast from crippling the war effort. So argues naval historian Steven R. Dunn, who finds that Bayly’s command was, if not wildly successful, perfectly capable at the job it was assigned.

Although not a biography per se, Bayly’s War takes the time to flesh out its titular subject’s career up to the war, setting the context for his command of British—and later American—naval forces in Ireland. It was not a promising background. Bayly started his naval career by getting himself recalled as naval attaché to the United States due to his abrasive personality and general lack of diplomatic tact. Adding to this, his wartime performance offered little to inspire confidence. Bayly underestimated the threat that submarines posed, and his failure to take adequate precautions against an undersea attack led to the torpedoing of HMS Formidable in 1915, a disaster that cost 600 British lives and so infuriated the Admiralty that Bayly suffered a blistering formal censure and was sent to direct the Royal Naval College at Greenwich.[2] Had he not enjoyed the support of no less than Winston Churchill, Bayly’s career might have been finished. But when the situation at Queenstown became dire, the Admiralty granted him a second chance.

Queenstown—present-day Cohb—is situated on the western coast of Ireland and controlled one of the crucial sea-lanes of the British Empire, the Western Approaches. The section of the Atlantic extending some 300 miles from the British coast, the Western Approaches offered an ideal area for German U-boats to hunt in, and catastrophic British shipping losses in this region threatened to cripple the war effort. The task of defending the Approaches fell to British naval forces in Ireland, and Bayly assumed control all such forces in mid-1915, unifying what had been a divided command under his sole leadership.

Dunn somewhat softens the popular image of Bayly as a brutal taskmaster; he could indeed be a demanding officer, but the crisis facing Britain called for demanding leadership and high standards. Yet, Bayly also took a keen interest in the well-being of those under his command and made sure they received the recognition they deserved for their service. Perhaps Bayly’s most remarkable accomplishment was the relationship he developed with the Americans under his command. Far from the aloof, unpleasable martinet he was portrayed as, the Americans at Queenstown found Bayly a genuinely caring superior, one who deeply appreciated their hard work and went above and beyond in seeing to their well-being. He opened his home to officers at the station on a regular basis, ensuring they returned from difficult patrols to find a hot meal and a sense of home. Indeed, Bayly and Vice Admiral William Sims, the commander of American naval forces in Europe, developed such a strong rapport that Bayly left Sims in charge of the station during an absence, the first time British sailors served under American command. For his part, Bayly understood that Americans taking orders from a British admiral was a touchy subject across the Atlantic, and he took pains to assure his American subordinates that they were a valued and vital part of the station.

Admiral Sir Lewis Bayly, Commander in Chief, Western Approaches, during the joint British-U.S. antisubmarine campaign in World War I. (Wikimedia)

Admiral Sir Lewis Bayly, Commander in Chief, Western Approaches, during the joint British-U.S. antisubmarine campaign in World War I. (Wikimedia)

Bayly’s War succeeds admirably as a theater study. The reader gets the full story of the Western Approaches. The evolution of tactics, the way the theater fit into the war effort as a whole, the experiences of personnel on the station, and especially the impact of the commander and his relations with those above and below on the chain-of-command all receive due attention. In the process, Dunn avoids the temptation to overstate Bayly’s success, conceding “it can hardly be claimed that [Bayly’s] Command was successful in protecting trade beyond a certain low attainment.”[3] The submarines sunk by Bayly’s forces were likewise far fewer than the commander would have wished. Still, while Dunn cannot regard Bayly as an unqualified success in World War I, his overall assessment is positive. He credits Bayly with choosing his subordinates wisely and managing the integration with American naval forces almost perfectly. Crucially, no American troop ships were lost coming into the Western Approaches—or anywhere else—enabling over two million American men to reach the Western Front and help break the back of the German army.

With the recent centennial of the Great War, a wealth of new books have emerged. The war at sea gets decidedly less attention in the literature, with scholars and popular historians alike showing a marked preference for the wars in the trenches. Even those works that discuss the war at sea tend to give the Western Approaches limited attention.[4] Readers have to go back to 1934 to find a study dedicated to the submarine war in Queenstown.[5] It was nevertheless an important theater of the U-boat war, and a major site of Anglo-American unity. Readers interested in either topic will find Bayly’s War a valuable resource; while the technology of World War I is more distant to us than the War of 1812 was to Bayly and Sims, the difficulties of confronting an enemy’s adaptation or maintaining harmony in multinational operations are timeless, and the Allied experience in the Western Approaches still has much to teach us.

It is possible to critique Dunn for not saying enough to set Bayly’s command in the context of the overall war at sea, and some comparative discussion of the submarine war in this theater with that of the Mediteranean or French coast would be illuminating. That said, Dunn more than compensates for this lack of breadth with impressive depth, offering up thoroughly detailed accounts of numerous individual cruises and officers who served under Bayly.   

The popular conception of World War I centers on hellish trench warfare and all its horrors. While it is undeniable that the war was won and lost on the Western Front, the lines stretching back across the Atlantic that brought men and desperately needed supplies into the theater of operations played an essential part in Allied victory. Although he will never have the notoriety of a Pershing or Foch, Bayly did his part to sustain the Allied war effort, and it is fitting that he and the men he led get their due here.

The popular conception of World War I centers on hellish trench warfare and all its horrors…

Thomas Sheppard earned his doctorate in military history at the University of North Carolina and currently works as a historian for Naval History and Heritage Command. He is currently working on a documentary history of the U.S. Navy in World War I. The views expressed are the author’s own and do not represent those of the Department of the Navy, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

Have a response or an idea for your own article? Follow the logo below, and you too can contribute to The Bridge:

Enjoy what you just read? Please help spread the word to new readers by sharing it on social media.

Header Image: Postcard showing "Sinking of a hostile armed troop carrier by German submarine in the Mediterranean Sea” painted by Willy Stöwer (Wikimedia)


[1] The Times of London, June 17, 1919, quoted in Dunn, Bayly’s War, 9.

[2] For Bayly’s career prior to the Western Approaches, see Dunn, Bayly’s War, 53-56.

[3] Dunn, Bayly’s War, 271.

[4] Paul G. Halpern, A Naval History of World War I (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1994); Robert K. Massie, Castles of Steel: Britain, Germany, and the Winning of the Great War at Sea (New York: Random House, 2003); Lawrence Sondhaus, The Great War at Sea: A Naval History of the First World War (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2014)

[5] Keble E. Chatterton, Danger Zone: The Story of the Queenstown Command (Rich & Cowan Ltd., 1934).