By Tom Anderson
On June 28th 1914, Bosnian Serb nationalist Gavrilo Princip shot Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and this triggered a sequence of events which led to the greatest war the world had ever seen. The story of the First World War is reasonably well known, at least to a certain level of detail, and will not be covered here—not least because it is already well served by my colleague David Flin’s excellent article series on the subject. However, it is worthy of deeper consideration as to how this era impacted on naval history.
This is a topic frequently neglected in popular treatments of the war. It is fair to say that the British popular vision of the war suggests that it consisted entirely of men miserably living in barbed-wire strewn muddy trenches, before rising in futile attacks to be mown down by enemy machine gun fire, all for the sake of advancing a few hundred yards across No Man’s Land, only for the enemy to retake it anyway by sundown. While this image certainly arose for good reason (and consumed many more British, French and German lives than any other front), the misery of the Western Front was not the only theatre of battle of the Great War. We could talk about the Eastern Front, the Arab Revolt, the Far Eastern battles, the Balkans and much more; but given the theme of this article series, we’re instead going to focus on the naval aspect.
World War I feels curiously… uncomfortable when viewed in historical context. One can appreciate to a certain extent why its commanders gained such a negative reputation for fruitlessly throwing away lives on futile attacks. It was as though all the foreshadowing and frantic study of the auguries of the past few decades had led them to highly dubious conclusions.
In part, this seems driven by the very arbitrary oddities of the alliance system that the war was based on. Study of the international diplomacy of the late 19th and early 20th century will swiftly reveal that that system could have been very different (indeed, the titular board game Diplomacy is based on that idea). Britain and France had hardly seemed like natural allies before the Entente Cordiale of 1904.
Both countries had regarded Russia with intense suspicion, republican France due to the reactionary government of tsarism, imperial Britain because of the ‘Great Game’ rivalry between the two Empires in northern India and central Asia. Most British jingoism of the late 19th century targets Russia as the primary potential aggressor, often being portrayed as an octopus with tentacles extending throughout the world. French propaganda of the same era conversely portrays Britain as a spider with the head of John Bull for similar reasons. Russia had also formerly been allied with Germany and Austria-Hungary as the Three Emperors’ League (the successor to the old Holy Alliance) with shared values of anti-revolutionary conservatism and suppressing Polish nationalism. For that matter, Germany had only come into being because Prussia had defeated Austria in the wars of the 1860s. The alliances we ended up with seem almost inexplicable on the face of it.
Yet by 1907 the alliance structure had firmed up. Germany’s dramatic success against France in 1870 had changed the balance of power in Europe, and only the diplomatic genius of Bismarck had prevented other powers from uniting against her. Kaiser Wilhelm II had ‘dropped the pilot’ of Bismarck (leading to the formerly isolated France successfully signing treaties with Russia) and antagonised Britain by seeking to match her in a naval arms race. This point is particularly important from a British perspective. The late 19th century involved an alarmist genre of ‘invasion literature’ in which wild-eyed theorists warned their home country’s literate populace that the great enemy of the day was about to invade with vast military superiority. (H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds was a deliberate deconstruction of this genre, with Martians from beyond Earth altogether as the invaders). The first of these was George Tomkyns Chesney’s “The Battle of Dorking” (1871), penned in the aftermath of Germany’s shock victory over France, in which the Germans next move on to Britain. It is striking that between 1870 and 1903, however, most British invasion literature novels instead portrayed the French as the invaders. The Germans becoming the foe again in stories such as Erskine Childers’ “The Riddle of the Sands” (1903) and John Buchan’s “The Thirty-Nine Steps” (written prior to the war but published during it) is indicative of what Kaiser Bill’s antagonistic policies had done for Germany’s image in the UK.
Other countries also had their own genres of paranoid invasion literature at the time, but it was in island Britain, used to having overwhelming naval superiority to protect it, that they had particular influence. At the same time (as previously discussed) naval theorists such as Alfred Thayer Mahan were suggesting that possession of a powerful battleship fleet, capable of winning a single decisive battle to dominate the seas, was the key to winning any future war. Other schools of thought, such as France’s “Jeune École,” instead argued that big fleets of submarines and surface cruisers, capable of raiding enemy commerce, would be the important factor. Both theories were fundamentally based on the idea that the world was now so economically interconnected that blockades to starve the enemy (both literally and in terms of industrial raw materials) were the key to victory. They merely disagreed on how to obtain this goal. Of course, some utopians argued that the world’s economic interconnectivity therefore made it inconceivable that war could ever happen – but stop me if you’ve heard this one before…
The lessons of the precursors to World War I seemed to teach the lesson that naval power of some kind would be crucial. The Spanish-American War, beginning with the blowing up of the USS Maine and climaxing with the decisive defeat of two Spanish naval squadrons in the Philippines and Cuba; the Russo-Japanese War, with Japan’s shock naval defeat of Russia at Tsushima and the revolutionary mutiny of the battleship Potemkin; the Italo-Turkish War, where Italian ships bombarded Ottoman positions in Libya and prevented reinforcement by sea. But the final alliance system meant that a lot of the assumptions that had gone into the grand naval warfare plans were rendered obsolete. Britain’s great navy was on the same side as lesser, but still significant, blue-water naval powers such as Japan and, ultimately, the United States. Russia was able to exert naval force in the Baltic Sea, while France and later Italy (which had craftily signed treaties with both sides in the leadup to war) could dominate the Mediterranean together with Britain.
Conversely, the other side—the name ‘Central Powers’ was apt—consisted largely of land-warfare focused nations in the middle of Europe. A world map of the First World War looks misleadingly one-sided in terms of land area due to the lack of Central Powers territory outside Europe, with the only exception being the roll-up of German colonies in Africa and Oceania.
One could be forgiven that the Austro-Hungarian Imperial and Royal Navy’s only purpose was to provide backstories for Hungary’s later fascist dictator Admiral Horthy and The Sound of Music’s Captain von Trapp. In reality there were some Mediterranean engagements such as the Bombardment of Ancona in 1915 by that navy, as well as acts of sabotage against Italian battleships by Austro-Hungarian spies. Italy responded using innovative technologies and tactics, including MAS motor torpedo boats and ‘manned torpedoes’ (torpedoes guided by a diver who ejects before impact). These were also used in the Second World War against Britain to relatively great effect. However, Italy has retained a poor reputation from the World Wars, overshadowed by its army’s rather inferior performance in the Alps in World War I and North Africa in World War II. As with the enduring image of the Western Front, land has far predominated over water in public images of the First World War—a far cry from what those naval theorists of the preceding era might have imagined.
Ironically, the Ottoman Empire’s decision to side with the Central Powers was in part driven by Winston Churchill’s decision to seize two dreadnoughts being built in British shipyards for the Ottoman Navy (Sultân Osmân-ı Evvel and Reşadiye—they were instead commissioned into the Royal Navy as HMS Agincourt and HMS Erin respectively. The Germans provided replacements in the wake of the pro-British faction in Constantinople being alienated by Churchill’s decision, and the Turks went on to join the Central Powers. In hindsight Churchill’s decision had such drastic consequences I could consider it in one of my ‘Consequences in AH’ articles: it led to the disaster of Gallipoli and therefore the creation of the Australian national identity as we know it, to the carved-up borders of the Middle East and therefore the historical forces that continue to drive geopolitics to this day…
Yet in the war itself, Ottoman naval forces played little role other than to contest the Black Sea with Russia (the Ottomans entered the war by a 1914 surprise naval raid on Russian coastal cities on that sea, which would likely be far better known if the Central Powers had won the war). Unable to stand up to the potent Mediterranean navies of the Entente, the Ottoman navy did not sortie into the Med until 1918, at which point it was promptly defeated at the Battle of Imbros.
So the only significant naval power on the Central Powers’ side was Germany, with its Hochseeflotten (High Seas Fleet) from Kaiser Bill’s arms race, plus a large number of submarines (U-boats) and commerce raiding cruisers. Some of the latter were abroad when war broke out and raided Entente shipping, gradually being hunted down. Perhaps the most successful of these was the SMS Emden. The German East Asian Squadron, however, was stationed at the German colony of Tsingtao in China, and was made homeless when a joint Anglo-Japanese siege took the base in 1914. Under Admiral Graf Maximilian von Spee, the Squadron attempted to make it back to Europe by rounding the Horn of South America. The Squadron met the British West Indies Squadron under Admiral Sir Christopher Cradock at the Battle of Coronel (off Chile) in November 1914 and the Germans carried the day, sinking two British armoured cruisers for no ships lost of their own.
This was a huge shock to the system of the British Admiralty, being the first Royal Navy defeat for over a century. More modern ships were sent, and von Spee’s force was finally defeated at the Battle of the Falkland Islands in December 1914.( This was the main reason the Falkland Islands were known to historians prior to the 1982 war). This represented the effective elimination of any significant German surface naval force outside Germany itself; this aspect of the war, at least, was indeed ‘over by Christmas ’. Despite that, von Spee’s achievements when badly outnumbered and outmatched led to his name, and that of his ships, becoming attached to German vessels of the next war.
This reveals a clue as to why the naval aspects of World War I are often ignored; after the end of 1914, the Central Powers were trapped in Europe and there was no further naval conflict beyond that theatre for the rest of the war. The only real exception to this was Germany’s use of its U-boat fleet to sink Entente commerce with considerable effect, but this came with a number of risks. In 1915 the Germans sank the British ocean liner RMS Lusitania on the grounds it was carrying munitions – but it was also carrying 128 American citizens. Two years later, after Germany proclaimed ‘unrestricted submarine warfare’, America would finally enter the war on the Entente side. As a consequence of Germany’s U-boat success, the Entente developed the convoy system to protect its shipping, with destroyers guarding merchant ships. Notably, Germany’s early U-boats (which much more resembled slightly sleeker versions of surface ships than the submarines we know today) would often attack merchant vessels on the surface, using their deck guns, rather than firing torpedoes from a submerged position. This was typically only used against targets capable of shooting back.
Europe did, however, see the greatest naval battle of the war. Britain had successfully enforced a blockade of Germany almost since the start of the war, using her superior naval strength coupled to minefields blocking the entrances to the North Sea (which, until the war led to a series of patriotic renamings, was often called the German Ocean). The Germans sought to draw out a portion of Britain’s Grand Fleet to engage, as the entire fleet was too large for the High Seas Fleet to match. To do this, the High Seas Fleet launched several controversial raids and bombardments on the British coastline from 1914 to 1916, with targets including Hartlepool, Whitby, Scarborough, Yarmouth and Lowestoft. The resulting civilian deaths (as well as those from ‘baby-killer’ Zeppelin raids) led to outrage in British recruitment propaganda, but failed to provoke the naval response the Germans had hoped for. Finally in May 1916 the High Seas Fleet under Admiral Scheer sortied in earnest. However, Britain had successfully broken German codes (history would repeat itself in World War II) and Jellicoe was able to intercept the High Seas Fleet with a force that outnumbered it by a three-to-two margin.
The Battle of Jutland (in Britain) or the Battle of the Skagerrak (in Germany) – both dubiously named after the nearby Danish mainland and strait between Denmark and Sweden, respectively – has been relentlessly analysed by naval experts, and I will not even attempt to deal with the details here. Both sides claimed victory. Scheer inflicted twice as many losses on Jellicoe as vice versa and was able to escape with the bulk of his fleet, which suggests a rather underwhelming performance from the Grand Fleet considering Britain’s numerical advantage. On the other hand, the British had prevented the Germans from breaking out and changing the status quo of the war; the blockade survived. One reason sometimes cited for Britain’s underperformance was the inferior quality of the shells fired by British dreadnoughts—Drake’s Drum by SLP author Nick Sumner begins by exploring what might have happened at Jutland if this flaw had been recognised after the earlier battles with von Spee’s fleet.
Really, the most important lesson to take from the war was how ill-founded most of the planning and predictions before it had been. After all the money and resources that had been sunk into the blue-water dreadnought battleship fleets so prized by Thayer, Jutland was only the third—and last—battle ever fought between battleships, the others being the Battles of the Yellow Sea and Tsushima in the Russo-Japanese War. The High Seas Fleet returned to port and did nothing for the rest of the war. That is, until, it precipitated the war’s end in October-November 1918, when German Naval Command insisted the fleet once again sortie to force a futile last battle with the Royal Navy. The German crews mutinied at Wilhelmshaven and Kiel, triggering the German Revolution and the abdication of Kaiser Wilhelm.
Though the blockade had gradually worn down Germany, it had been far less effective than either Thayer or the Jeune École had imagined. A more globally trade-isolated nation than Germany for most of the war would be difficult to imagine, yet Germany had fought on. The assumption that she could be cut off from munitions (manufactured from guano nitrates imported from South America) had been shattered by the genius of the Haber-Bosch Process, meaning explosives could be synthetically produced from atmospheric nitrogen via ammonia. It would be a difficult achievement to cut off a nation from air! German armies had also taken much of the industry of Belgium and France in the opening months of the war, and held on to them till the end. In the final two years of the war, the Germans had also finally defeated Russia and (temporarily) taken a vast swathe of Russian territory by the punishing Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, giving Germany access to new resources such as the breadbasket of Ukraine. The blockade unquestionably played a huge part in Germany’s eventual defeat, but had never proved as rapidly decisive as expected. (It is interesting to consider that things might have been very different if the war had broken out just a few years earlier—the Haber-Bosch Process was only first achieved effectively in 1910 and large-scale production only started in 1913).
Though it would remain romanticised by its fans ever afterwards, the dreadnought battleship had fundamentally failed at its role of decisively, rapidly winning wars. The First World War also germinated the seeds of the technology that would reluctantly force even the most fanatical of those supporters to admit that the days of dreadnoughts were over. For during the war, as an experiment, Britain had built the first aircraft carriers…
Tom Anderson is the author of SLP books including the Look To The West series (Diverge and Conquer, Uncharted Territory, Equal and Opposite Reactions), The Twilight's Last Gleaming, Not An English Word, The Curse of Maggie, The Unreformed Kingdom, and The Surly Bonds of Earth