Thanks to the strength of the Royal Navy, which remained the largest and most powerful navy in the world throughout the conflict, the British retained essential control of their home waters. They were able to avoid blockade and serious attack, although German warships bombarded English east coast towns, notably Hartlepool, Scarborough, and Whitby, causing great popular outrage by doing so. In the First World War naval power was crucial even if there were no decisive naval battles in the sense of overwhelming victories. The German failure to knock France out in 1914 helped to ensure that the war in part became that of continental versus oceanic power.
Naval power was an important factor at the end of the 19th century. The pre-eminent position of the Royal Navy and the manifest advantages this bestowed upon the British Empire were self-evident: the acquisition and maintenance of colonies; safe passage for commercial traffic; and the ability to deploy troops rapidly at critical trouble spots across the globe. The British had adopted a simple but effective ‘two-power standard’, which sought to maintain its strength at a level equal to the next two strongest naval powers – usually France and Russia.
The rise of Germany in the late nineteenth century brought a third main challenger to Great Britain. The German Navy had been gaining in strength, but it was proving a slow process. German naval deficiencies had been highlighted during the Franco-Prussian War, when the far superior French fleet blockaded both the major German naval bases of Kiel and Wilhelmshaven. The Prussian ironclads had remained quiescent in harbor, strictly forbidden to emerge. After Admiral Alfred Tirpitz became Secretary of State of the Imperial Naval Office in 1897, Germany became committed to building a powerful navy.
Germany’s intense ambitions would be encapsulated within the Navy Act passed by the Reichstag in 1898. This envisaged a navy of nineteen battleships, which was then doubled to thirty-eight in the subsequent Navy Act of 1900. The excuse for this was provided by the high-handed action of the British in stopping and searching three German mail boats for contraband intended for the Boers. The German fleet would embody two principles that would complicate the position of the Royal Navy in the early twentieth century. The first was the concept of the ‘risk fleet’, which although not named, was clearly the Royal Navy.
The British were well aware of the German threat. Their pace of battleship construction increased, more squadrons were recalled to home waters and, as we have seen, the era of ‘splendid isolation’ came to an end with the Entente Cordiale, in which the bulk of naval responsibility for the Mediterranean was handed over to the French, at the same time committing the British Expeditionary Force to fight alongside the French on what would be the Western Front. The British also started to invest technologically in new designs for ships.
The naval race between 1906 and 1914 was of exceptional severity. In both Britain and Germany there were naval scares which caused extravagant spurts in construction. Proposals for ‘naval holidays’ during which both sides would suspend building for a period were sunk by mutual suspicions. Each successive class of battleship brought incremental improvements that raised the stakes ever higher.
The advent of the practical submarine was also crucial, although at this stage neither side truly appreciated its potential; indeed, some within the Royal Navy still regarded it as a somewhat underhand weapon of war. Nevertheless, they could not be ignored, and far-sighted advocates were diligently developing a Royal Navy submarine service that was gradually improving its capabilities, especially after the advent of the long-range torpedo. This mirrored developments in Germany where their U-boats (Unterseeboot) were generally still considered defensive weapons for use against ships trying to impose a close blockade.
The Royal Navy planed a distant blockade, based at the vast natural harbor of Scapa Flow in the Orkneys. The intention was to use the geographical location of Germany to her disadvantage by blocking the 20-mile-wide English Channel and the 200-mile gap between the Orkneys and Norway. Germany would be cut off from the oceans of the world. Only the Baltic and the North Sea would remain open to her unless the iron grip of the Royal Navy could be forcibly loosened. The British Commander-in-Chief of the Grand Fleet facing the Germans across the North Sea was Admiral Sir John Jellicoe.
The Commander-in-Chief of the German High Seas Fleet was Admiral Friedrich von Ingenohl, who had been given clear instructions as to his priorities in the coming war. The Army seemed happy so long as the High Seas Fleet remained intact and protected the Baltic coast from any possible British or Russian landings. At the heart of this timid approach was the concept of a ‘fleet in being’, that is, a fleet powerful enough to threaten British naval supremacy but which did not put the matter to the test in a great battle. For all of Tirpitz’s efforts, now that it had actually come to war the German Navy was once again a bystander – just as in 1870.
The first major action of the naval war came with the Battle of Heligoland Bight. This engagement had its origins in the desire of Commodore Reginald Tyrwhitt of the Harwich Force to launch a raid on German destroyer patrols off the islands of Heligoland in conjunction with a force of submarines commanded by Commodore Roger Keyes. After confused fighting, likely disaster was transformed into a triumph which disguised both the sheer madness of the plans and the endemic ineptitude in both command and control of the operations.
Even without risking the perils of maintaining a close blockade, the British still suffered a draining series of losses from German submarine and mine warfare. There is no doubt, however, that the German U-boat crews faced a considerable ordeal in their living conditions. For the U-boats, restricted by their low speed, success at sea was often a matter of luck. It was crucial for a commander to make the most of rare opportunities. Captain Otto Weddigen, commanding the U-9, certainly made the most of his good fortune when he encountered three obsolescent British armored cruisers, the Aboukir, Cressy and Hogue, patrolling in line off the Dutch coast, and sank them all.
A few weeks later the dreadnought Audacious was sunk by a mine off the Irish coast. Luckily she sank slowly and casualties were minimal, but the loss of this modern dreadnought was a terrible blow; indeed, the Admiralty went to considerable lengths to conceal it from the Germans. A combination of other commitments and the necessity for refits left the Grand Fleet reduced to an advantage of just three dreadnoughts while having an inferiority in numbers of both battlecruisers and destroyers available.
By this time Jellicoe had got a grip of his new responsibilities. Although the British populace had cheerfully expected a great naval battle within days of the declaration of war, Jellicoe was well aware that the Germans would merely wait until losses eroded the Grand Fleet to their level – and he had no intention of falling into such an obvious trap. He was not willing to risk casting away the British global naval advantage for the sake of personal glory in combat. This cautious approach was fully endorsed by the Admiralty. Jellicoe’s caution reveals that Tirpitz was entirely right in his frustration at the inactivity of the High Seas Fleet: the British did indeed fear the consequences of a pitched battle unless it was fought to their advantage within strictly and controlled circumstances.
The British utilized a potent combination of minefields, destroyers and the pre-dreadnoughts of the Channel Fleet based in the Medway, which effectively blocked off the English Channel. The German High Seas Fleet would be confined to the North Sea; that in consequence would be an area of contested waters, with neither side truly holding sway. But the rest of the oceans of the world would be relatively secure for British commerce and military expeditions – save only for the depredations of any German commerce-raiders.
In the absence of any great fleet actions, and with a constant drip of losses, the mood in the Royal Navy was somewhat despondent at this stage of the war. This was exacerbated by the difficulties encountered in dealing with the German commerce-raiders, the light cruisers Dresden, Karlsruhe and Leipzig, and the threatening German East Asiatic Squadron, commanded by the resourceful Vice Admiral Maximilian von Spee, consisting of the two armoured cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau accompanied by the light cruisers Nürnberg, Emden, Leipzig and Dresden.
Von Spee’s greatest triumph came when he engaged the British South American Squadron, commanded by Rear Admiral Sir Christopher Cradock, at the Battle of Coronel, off Chile. The encounter was to prove short-lived. It was a cruel battle in which both the Good Hope and the Monmouth were sunk with the loss of all hands. The Otranto had early on been told to make a run for it, while the Glasgow bore a charmed life, escaping with only minor damage.
At the Admiralty, the First Sea Lord Prince Louis of Battenberg had been under increasing populist press attack over his German ancestry and had been replaced by Sir John Fisher. He would prove a disastrous choice – a muddled mixture of irrationality, rashness and an increasing inability, at the age of seventy-three, to maintain a coherent line of thought that meant he was unable to resist the misguided enthusiasm of his combative First Lord Sir Winston Churchill. But Fisher was seen to his best advantage in this early crisis: action was his watchword as he overruled Jellicoe’s protests and dispatched three battlecruisers to hunt down von Spee.
The British ships were busy coaling when von Spee arrived intent on destroying the harbor installations and any ships within it. Once they had sorted themselves out the British ships emerged to begin a long stern chase. The disparity of speed was such that it was only a matter of time before the Germans were reeled in one by one and destroyed. Von Spee died in the battle.
The victory of the Falklands terminated the high seas activity of the German navy. After the Falklands, indeed, the oceans belonged to the Entente and the only persistent naval surface fighting, pending a clash of the capital fleets in the North Sea, took place in landlocked waters: in the Black Sea, the Baltic and the Adriatic. The Mediterranean was wholly controlled by the Royal and French Navies, assisted by the Italian after Italy's entry. Their command of it was to be disturbed only by the appearance of German U-boats there in October 1915.
Von Ingenohl was tempted by the evident absence of British battlecruisers in the hunt for von Spee to launch a series of raids on the east coast of Britain. These raids were intended to provoke an unconsidered response from the British that might allow the chance of isolating and destroying elements of the Grand Fleet. Unknown to the Germans, their secret naval ciphers had been passed to the Admiralty by the Russians after they had been recovered from the wreck of the Magdeburg. A special department was set up to decode the German signals, known as Room 40.
The first German tip and run raid on Yarmouth came too early for Room 40. For the next raid, von Ingenohl planned a bombardment of British east coast towns by the battlecruisers of the 1st Scouting Force commanded by Admiral Franz von Hipper, with the further intention of trying to draw Jellicoe into a freshly laid minefield. Two days before it happened, the Admiralty were notified by Room 40 of the imminent raid. Both sides attempted to trap the other, but the operations were inconclusive – except for the people of Scarborough, Hartlepool and Whitby, who found the German shells crashing down on them. In the end von Ingenohl lacked the nerve to close the trap.
Admiral Augustin de Lapeyrère, commanding the French Mediterranean fleet at the outset of World War I, was noted for his scorn of submarine warfare and his conviction that battleships would be the key to victory. In December 1914 Lapeyrère’s flagship, the dreadnought Jean Bart, was leading a sweep of the southern Adriatic when an Austrian submarine, U-12, hit the battleship with a single torpedo. Lapeyrère reached Malta safely, but the incident was a shock.
On Christmas Day 1914 the Royal Naval Air Service executed the first air raid launched from the sea. Three converted cross-Channel steamers carried nine Short seaplanes to within flying range of Cuxhaven, escorted by Commodore Reginald Tyrwhitt’s Harwich Force. Their objective was to bomb Zeppelin airship sheds, but they missed their target in low cloud. They caused some panic in Wilhelmshaven, where a battlecruiser and cruiser collided taking evasive action.
The Mediterranean had long been regarded as a 'British Lake' thanks to the Royal Navy's prestigious fleet based on Malta. It now had to be carefully partitioned to give the participating fleets their areas of operational responsibility. Four areas each were allotted to Britain and France, and the Italian navy was given three. Apart from the ex-German warships Goeben and Breslau the Ottoman navy possessed few modern ships other than some torpedo boats; the old Turkish battleship Messudieh was sunk off Chanak in December 1914 by the British submarine.
The saga of the Goeben remains an epic. Together with its escorting cruiser Breslau this modern battlecruiser had been very publicly on display at Constantinople in the summer of 1914 but slipped away on the eve of the European war. It materialized off the French North African ports of Bone and Philippeville to bombard them before heading off to the east, impotently shadowed by the British Mediterranean fleet, which was unable to take action until Britain had formally declared war on Germany. Both ships arrived in Constantinople and were given to the Turks by the Germans. For much of the war they operated in the Black Sea, a considerable threat to the Russian fleet.
Britain and France signed a naval convention under which the French navy was responsible for much of the Mediterranean, whereas the British took responsibility for the remainder of the world. As a result, there were no French warships in the North Sea, the key area of conflict between the British and German surface fleets. Aside from providing the bulk of troops on the Western Front, the French role was more than might appear, as it helped provide the Royal Navy with a sufficient margin of power over the Germans to survive losses.