The Historical Section of the Department of the Navy published seven monographs on the U.S. Navy and World War I between 1920 and 1923. The monograph Digest Catalogue of Laws and Joint Resolutions: The Navy and the World War was the third in the series and was published in 1920. This 2017 essay from NHHC historian Jon Middaugh provides an introduction to the monograph as part of the centennial commemoration of World War I. The text of the monograph itself along with a downloadable PDF is available in the Navy Department Library Online Reading Room.
A compilation of wartime legislation may appear mundane when compared with the subjects of the other six monographs in this series, which focus on submarine and mine warfare, strategic planning, and other critical aspects of World War I. Just a glance at the table of contents for the Digest Catalogue of Laws and Joint Resolutions, however, invites the reader to consider the potentially overwhelming array of changes and challenges that the Navy faced within a brief period. When leaders and Sailors entered the conflict, they did so within a rapidly expanding and recently reorganized institution. They had to incorporate transformative technologies and face highly dangerous and unorthodox threats. The catalogue suggests, in brief, how dynamic and transformative periods of war can be for countries, organizations, and individuals waging the fight. Reviewing the legislation of a century ago, today’s naval leaders might envision how an organization entering a war likely will evolve quickly and emerge as something new when peace returns.
Significant changes occurred in the war’s first years as the United States attempted to prepare for conflict while also maintaining neutrality. In 1915 Congress passed laws creating the Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) and forming the Coast Guard from the combination of the Life-Saving Service and Revenue-Cutter Service. That same year also featured the establishment of the Naval Reserve. The CNO position, Coast Guard, and reserves had antecedents and have all evolved in the last one hundred years, but they illustrate the profound institutional legacy of World War I.
These organizational changes occurred alongside a tremendous increase in the number of personnel. When the United States entered the war in April 1917, the Navy had just over 79,000 officers and men, 11,500 of whom were reservists. When the armistice stopped hostilities in November 1918, the Navy’s enlisted ranks included 217,000 regulars and 271,000 reservists; 10,500 regular officers were supplemented by 20,700 reserve officers.[i] This included all members of the recently created Coast Guard, which during periods of war was required by the 1915 legislation to transfer its personnel and ships to the Navy. Administering, training and supplying such a diverse influx of manpower added significantly to the long list of responsibilities facing the Navy’s military and civilian leaders.
The catalogue sheds light on the difficulty of forecasting the quantity and types of ships a war will demand, even one that is just about to begin. In 1913 Congress cut naval appropriations, but in the next years began to boost funding and in 1916 approved a dramatic increase.[ii] When the United States entered the war there was a scramble to incorporate private yachts into the fleet as expedient antisubmarine vessels. The total of commissioned ships in service rose from 342 at the war’s beginning to 774 at the armistice.[iii] While these numbers and sense of commitment may have been impressive, the type and timing of ships purchased proved more problematic. The 1916 act, for example, prioritized construction of a battle fleet because Mahanian views prevailed at the time. Less than a year later it had become clear that legislators and naval planners had failed to appreciate the strategic threat that submarines would pose. In addition, most of the ships with keels laid after April 1917 did not see action before hostilities ended a year and a half later. As historian William Still notes, “the prewar navy fought most of the war.”[iv]
The acquisition of new bases and introduction of new technologies receive many entries in the Catalogue. In 1917 the United States acquired the Virgin Islands from Denmark for $25 million—the highest price the United States had ever paid for a new acquisition—and assigned the Navy to administer it. That same year the Navy took over North Island in San Diego, which assumed a prominent place in early naval aviation efforts. The airplane’s potential began to revolutionize aspects of naval warfare, especially when combined with other developments such as a strategic submarine campaign and the transition from coal to oil-powered ships. The adoption of radio, meanwhile, initiated important changes in ship to ship and ship to shore communications. While change may be a constant, periods of war accelerate change. Sometimes what wars introduce, however, is wholly unanticipated.
On 1 October 1918, the Catalogue notes, Congress appropriated $1,000,000 to combat the Spanish influenza. The first notable outbreak within the Navy had occurred earlier that January and then fairly quickly spread to Europe, but through the late summer many senior leaders remained focused on fighting the war rather than illness. Shortly after Congress’ appropriation, however, Admiral William S. Sims, Commander of U.S. Naval Forces in Europe, cabled the Navy Department that “there is no doubt that [the flu epidemic] is now a greater danger to people on ship-board than the Submarine is.” Indeed the flu and complications from it ultimately killed over 5,000 Sailors, more than double the number lost to enemy action. Across the world it would kill tens of millions and thus provide a tragic reminder of how major wars tend to introduce the unexpected.[v]
In the first decades of the twenty-first century, observers who note the rapid pace of change and the complexity of challenges facing the Navy can benefit from considering World War I. A century ago the Navy’s civilian and military leaders managed an incredible expansion of their organization while fighting a large-scale war that showcased many new technologies. The scale, multiplicity, and interrelationship of challenges sometimes obscured how serious things could quickly become, as was the case with the submarine threat in the spring of 1917 and the influenza epidemic in 1918. Today’s leaders can profit from incorporating historical perspective and a degree of flexibility into their efforts to prepare for conflict, for often it is only with hindsight that potential threats and effective actions become obvious.
—Jon Middaugh, NHHC
[i] William N. Still, Jr. Crisis at Sea: The United States Navy in European Waters in World War I (Gainesville, FL: University of Florida Press, 2006), 191.
[ii] John Hattendorf, “Rear Admiral Charles H. Stockton, the Naval War College, and the Law of Naval Warfare,” in Michael N. Schmitt and Leslie C. Green, eds., The Law of Armed Conflict into the Next Millennium (Newport, RI: Naval War College, 1998), lviii; Norman Friedman, “How Promise Turned to Disappointment,” Naval History, vol. 30 no. 4 (August 2016), 26-31.
[iii] Still, 307.
[iv] William Sowden Sims, The Victory at Sea (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1921), 3-49; Still, 5-6.
[v] Still, 224-225.
Navy Department, Office of Naval Records and Library Historical Section, “Digest Catalogue of Laws and Joint Resolutions,” June 1920.
Schmitt, Michael N. and Leslie C. Green, eds. The Law of Armed Conflict into the Next Millennium. Newport, RI: Naval War College, 1998.
Sims, William S. The Victory at Sea. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, Page & Company, 1921.
Still, William. N. Still, Jr. Crisis at Sea: The United States Navy in European Waters in World War I. Gainesville, FL: University of Florida Press, 2006.
U.S. Navy, Chief of Naval Operations. “A Design for Maintaining Maritime Superiority, version 1.0.” January 2016.