The War at Sea: The first battles
The first naval engagements of the war
author Paul Boșcu, July 2018
During the Great War naval power was crucial even though there were no decisive battles. In the beginning the British retained essential control of their home waters and were able to avoid blockade and serious attack. Nevertheless, German warships bombarded English east coast towns, notably Hartlepool, Scarborough, and Whitby causing great popular outrage by doing so.

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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.

Britain was able to maintain the flow of men and munitions to the army in France unmolested, to retain trade links that permitted the mobilization of British and imperial resources, and to use stop and search to impede the flow of contraband to Germany. The last was the crucial aspect of economic warfare.

Britain declared that the North Sea would be a military area with shipping subject to Admiralty control. Germany, however, continued to receive imports at the beginning of the war through neutral ports, notably the leading Dutch port, Rotterdam. This access to trade was gradually reduced as the Entente steadily increased pressure on neutral states to stop the lucrative practice of re-exporting their imports to Germany, with particular pressure on the Dutch not to re-export food to neighboring Germany.

Britain’s supply system was that of a country that could not feed itself: nearly two-thirds of British food consumption was imported. Britain also had an imperial economy that relied on global trade, and a military system that required troop movements within the vast empire. All this, and the capacity for ready responsiveness it indicated, was challenged by German warships. However, those outside Europe were hunted down by Britain and its allies in the early stages of the war.

Entente success in blockading the North Sea, the English Channel, and the Adriatic (where Germany’s ally Austria had a coastline in modern Croatia and Slovenia), and in capturing Germany’s overseas colonies, ensured that, after the initial stages of the war, and despite the use of submarines and new surface raiders, the range of effective German naval operations was small.

Entente sea power was crucial in supporting operations against German colonies and, in particular, wireless stations and ports, with the Japanese capturing undefended German possessions in the northwest Pacific, as well as Germany’s base of Tsingtao on the coast of China. French and British forces conquered German colonies in the southwest Pacific and Africa.

Before the war, German naval expansion, perceived as a threat to British security, triggered an expensive arms race in which the two countries competed to build bigger and better battleships. Given this build-up, World War I undoubtedly proved a disappointment to naval enthusiasts. Although major engagements between surface warships did occur, a decisive Trafalgar-style battle simply did not come off. Instead the British and German battle fleets sparred and shadow-boxed indecisively while struggling to come to terms with the deadly threat posed by unglamorous submarines and mines.

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 British naval dominance was based on a navy grown organically from a thriving maritime commerce, which in turn was driven by the need to service and harvest the produce of overseas colonies. Indeed, there were enormous difficulties in creating a powerful navy without such a background, for a modern navy demanded considerable investment, not only in the technical demands of constructing and manning state-of-the-art fighting ships, but also in the infrastructure of dockyards, ports and naval bases.

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.

The origins and effects of British naval domination were spelled out by the American naval historian Alfred Mahan in his definitive work The Influence of Sea Power Upon History: 1660–1783, a masterpiece which gained much currency with Kaiser Wilhelm II, who became enamored with the prospect of projecting German military strength overseas by means of a strong fleet.

After the humiliation suffered in the Franco-Prussian war, the German Navy stumbled on, unsure of its purpose: was it coastal defense, piratical commerce raiding, or was there really the commitment required to become a major naval power? This confusion continued until Tirpitz became Secretary of State.

Tirpitz was a splendid figure: bald, extravagantly bearded, bad-tempered, yet at the same time capable of exerting great charm and persuasiveness. Throughout his career he was driven by the belief that Germany must create her own battle fleet within a strictly limited timescale: ‘Two lines of thought were emerging at that time: the tactical necessity for a battle fleet, if we were striving for sea-power and wanted to build ships to some purpose; and the political necessity of establishing a protecting navy for Germany’s maritime interests which were growing at such an irresistible pace. The navy never seemed to me to be an end in itself, but always a function of these maritime interests. Without sea-power Germany’s position in the world resembled a mollusc without a shell. The flag had to follow trade, as other older states had realized long before it began to dawn upon us.’ (Admiral Alfred Tirpitz, Secretary of State of the Imperial Naval Office)

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.

‘To protect Germany’s sea trade and colonies in the existing circumstances there is only one means – Germany must have a battle fleet so strong that even for the adversary with the greatest sea power a war against it would involve such dangers as to imperil his position in the world. For this purpose it is not necessary that the German battle fleet should be as strong as that of the greatest naval power, for a great naval power will not, as a rule, be in a position to concentrate all its striking forces against us. But even if it should succeed in meeting us with considerable superiority of strength, the defeat of a strong German fleet would so substantially weaken the enemy that, in spite of victory he might have obtained, his own position in the world would no longer be secured by an adequate fleet.’ (Memorandum, Naval Act, 1900) Although the Royal Navy was never mentioned, there could be no confusion as to who this ‘greatest naval power’ was.

The introduction of German battlecruisers meant that the battlecruisers ended up fighting each other, and their thin armor meant that both sides delivered blows that they themselves could not withstand. The battlecruisers would prove to be the main protagonists in the engagements between the British and German fleets, and as such the intended function of the class was compromised and the ships were proven to be distressingly vulnerable.

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.

There were other challenges to the Royal Navy. Technology was on the march and the conventional pattern of battleship design was in danger of drifting into obsolescence due to cumulative advances in gunnery and propulsion. At the Admiralty the First Sea Lord, Sir John Fisher, had the responsibility of coordinating Britain’s response to this threatening situation. If they were too slow in responding, the Royal Navy would fall behind her competitors; but if they took a wrong turn in the design of the new battleships, she could lose years. The British had to get it right first time.

When the final designs emerged for the prototype that would give its name to a generation of capital ships, the Dreadnought, they certainly represented a marked step forward. She was armed with ten 12-inch guns which allowed a broadside of eight 12-inch guns, with armor plate that fully matched conventional standards but was also capable of an impressive 21 knots powered by the very latest Parsons turbine engines. Once Fisher had made his decision, its execution was stunning: the Dreadnought was laid down on 2 October 1905 and was finally fitted out and completed by December 1906.

The naval race had been rebooted from scratch, but the Royal Navy had managed to secure a huge advantage. While other nations pondered how to respond, British shipyards resounded with hammering and riveting as the new generation of dreadnoughts took shape on the stocks. The Germans began their own dreadnought programme in July 1907 but not only had the British secured a crucial lead, they had the determination to press home their advantage.

The other one of Fisher’s innovations became his great passion: the battlecruiser. This was an entirely new class of ship with a strong main armament of eight 12-inch guns, but with only the relatively thin armor of a cruiser. It was intended to be used to clear the seas of any commerce-raiding cruisers which found themselves unable to fight or flee. For Fisher, the battlecruisers rather than the dreadnoughts would be the real future: he believed that speed would be their armor. This became his mantra and he constantly campaigned for bigger guns and more speed over the next few years, as summed up in a letter to the First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, in December 1911: ‘The first desideratum of all is speed! Your fools don’t see it – they are always running about to see where they can put on a little more armour! To make it safer! You don’t go into battle to be safe! No, you go into battle to hit the other fellow in the eye first so that he can’t see you! Yes! You hit him first, you hit him hard and you keep on hitting. That’s your safety! You don’t get hit back? Well that’s the improved 13.5-inch gun! You don’t care a damn then whether your bottom’s dirty or a compartment bashed in with a torpedo making you draw water, because you have a big margin of speed over your Noah’s Ark Dreadnought of 21 knots!’

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.

For the British, the situation was complicated by the proliferation of dreadnoughts under construction all around the world, but particularly in the Mediterranean where the French dreadnought fleet would soon be joined by a conglomeration of Italian, Austrian and Turkish dreadnoughts over the next few years. The permutations seemed endless and the costs ruinous, for these mighty ships were the very pinnacle of modern technology.

Size may not have been everything, but it certainly allowed for heavier guns, improved armor protection and better engines. In just eight years the Dreadnought went from being the mistress of all she surveyed to being nearly obsolete upon the advent of the super-dreadnoughts under construction in 1914.

In contrast to the British fixation on guns and speed, the Germans concentrated their efforts on making their ships as near-unsinkable as possible. German armor was generally thicker and covered far more of the vital areas. The German ships also had the advantage of being built only for service in the North Sea and North Atlantic, so for the brief periods that they were at sea their crews could put up with the discomfort caused by cramped mess decks and a high level of bulkhead subdivision below decks. This was impossible to countenance for British ships and crews operating in a global role.

Tirpitz explained his philosophy: ‘So long as a ship is afloat, it retains a certain fighting value and can afterwards be easily repaired. Thus the deadly injury of that part of a ship below the water line is the ultimate aim of the weapon of attack, and the increasing of the buoyancy of the vessel the main object of protective measures. As soon as the Navy Bill was settled I caused this question of buoyancy to be taken up with great thoroughness. We soon found out that we had to experiment with real explosions in order to gain sufficient experience. As we could not sacrifice modern ships, and could not learn enough from the older ones, we built a section of a modern ship by itself and carried out experimental explosions on it, with torpedo heads, carefully studying the result every time. We tested the possibility of weakening the force of the explosion by letting the explosive gases burst in empty compartments without meeting with any resistance. We ascertained the most suitable kind of steel for the different structural parts, and found further that the effect of the explosion was nullified if we compelled it to pulverise coal in any considerable quantity. This resulted in a special arrangement of a portion of the coal bunkers. We were then able to meet the force of the explosion, which had been weakened in this way, by a strong, carefully constructed steel wall which finally secured the safety of the interior of the ship. This ‘torpedo bulkhead’ was carried without interruption the whole length of the vital parts of the ship. These experiments, which were continued through many years, and on which we did not hesitate to expend millions, yielded moreover information concerning the most suitable use of material and the construction of the adjoining parts of the ship. In addition to this, the whole of the underwater parts of the ship were designed for the event of failure to localize the effects of the explosion, or of several hits being made, and so forth; endless labor was expended upon details such as the pumping system or the possibility of speedily restoring a listing ship to a vertical position by flooding certain compartments. Finally, we completely abandoned the practice of connecting the compartments below the water line by doors. The buoyancy which was attained by our system stood the test. In contrast to the British ships, ours were well-nigh indestructible.’

The German construction work was watched carefully by the Admiralty, but it had little time to react and was also restricted by physical factors such as the size of available dry docks. There would be few better examples of the importance of careful research and preparation to the practical business of war at sea. The differences in characteristics of the opposing dreadnoughts and battlecruisers would define the nature of the encounters between the British and German fleets during the Great War. Time and time again British ships would be sunk and lost forever, while far more severely damaged German ships would struggle home to fight again.

Fleets found they could not set out to sea without screens of destroyers to protect them from the depredations of their opposing numbers and to threaten the torpedoing of enemy dreadnoughts should they be given half a chance. The necessity of maintaining a destroyer escort severely restricted the movement potential of the main fleets as destroyers had a far more limited range than the great battleships. Unlike the old fleets of sailing ships that could remain out at sea for months, modern fleets could only make short-lived two or three day sorties.

Germany had also built up a formidable fleet of destroyers. These fast, lightly armed ships were originally described as torpedo boat destroyers, but were now themselves also armed with torpedoes and as such posed a potent threat to the mighty dreadnoughts.

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.

Once submerged, the U-boat provided an undetectable menace against which no effective countermeasure had been developed. The freedom of the North Sea in particular was soon greatly restricted once war was declared. The ease with which capital ships could be sunk by mines and submarines had been predicted before the war, yet navies were slow to develop countermeasures. They had continued to create ever bigger, faster, and more heavily gunned battleships, which over time would become irrelevant.

Another near-invisible weapon was the mine which was a potent weapon against all forms of shipping, whether employed to defend a specific port or to deny whole areas and sea lanes from passage. Minesweeping methods were soon developed, but they were both time-consuming and dangerous – especially in hostile waters.

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.

On the outbreak of war the capital ships deployed in the British Grand Fleet numbered twenty dreadnoughts, eight pre-dreadnoughts and just four battlecruisers (three were stationed in the Mediterranean); while opposing them were the German High Seas Fleet of thirteen dreadnoughts, sixteen pre-dreadnoughts and three battlecruisers. Both fleets had numerous squadrons of cruisers, light cruisers and the ubiquitous destroyer flotillas. There were also nineteen British pre-dreadnoughts in the Channel Fleet at Medway.

The British did have one very real advantage: they had mobilized their fleet early. A test mobilization of the whole fleet had culminated in the Spithead Review on 20 July 1914. After the review, although the ships had then dispersed to their home ports, the First Sea Lord, Prince Louis of Battenberg, decided to halt the dispersal of the reservists pending the resolution of the July crisis – or war. This greatly simplified matters when the Grand Fleet and all other naval units were required to take up their war stations.

Jellicoe had joined the Navy as a cadet at twelve years old. He became a gunnery specialist, earning the approval of Fisher and rapid promotion. He had seen active service in the Boxer Rebellion and had been badly wounded in the left lung while trying to rescue the European embassy staff besieged in Peking. On recovery he served in a variety of senior sea and staff appointments, always demonstrating a remarkable capacity for hard work and a logical rigor in his approach to any problems placed before him. Jellicoe’s evident abilities, combined with his success in naval exercises held in 1913, had earmarked him for future command of the Grand Fleet. On the outbreak of war, despite his anguished protests, he was immediately brought in to replace the incumbent Admiral Sir George Callaghan, who was considered too old for the stresses of wartime command.

At first the British were in a quandary, for although the Grand Fleet was theoretically based at Scapa, that base was without defenses of any kind and hence wide open to deadly surprise submarine attack. In effect the fleet was safer at sea screened by destroyers than as sitting ducks in a harbor well within the operational range of the more modern German U-boats. Hence the Grand Fleet spent a fair amount of time sweeping down into the North Sea while at the same time fulfilling its other main role of covering the safe transport of the BEF across the Channel.

Britain entered World War I with clear naval superiority over Germany. Yet the Royal Navy could not bottle up the German navy with a close blockade of enemy ports because of the extreme vulnerability of its large surface warships to submarines, mines, and torpedo boats. British naval dominance of the entrances to the English Channel and the North Sea was enough to close Germany off from world trade. But this blockade was so distant that squadrons of German warships were able to sortie from harbor.

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.

Ingenohl’s instructions did not originate from Admiral Tirpitz, who as Secretary of State of the Imperial Naval Office found himself restricted to an administrative role with no influence on operational decisions. Instead they reflected the cautious policy of the Kaiser himself, who still took a great interest in the fleet he had created, and were also influenced by the Chancellor, Bethmann-Hollweg, who saw an intact fleet as a considerable bargaining tool in any peace negotiations.

By adopting the ‘fleet in being’ concept, the German fleet could continue to threaten maritime communications, challenging British command of the sea and hamstringing Britain in the exercise of her naval power. The Royal Navy would constantly have to be on its guard against the emergence of the German fleet from Wilhelmshaven.

The Germans’ superficially attractive position – it entailed doing nothing – had one very serious drawback that Tirpitz clearly identified: ‘It was simply nonsense to pack the fleet in cotton wool. The “fleet in being” had some meaning for England, for her fleet thus achieved its purpose of commanding the seas. But the principle was meaningless for Germany, whose object must be to keep the seas free for herself. Besides, we could not allow the war to develop into a war of exhaustion, but must attempt to shorten matters. The world prestige of the English rests in the main on the very belief in the invincibility of their armada. A German sea victory, or even a doubtful success for England, would have worked the gravest injury to England’s position. Any penetration of British naval power would awaken the Indian, Egyptian and other questions, deprive England of the further allies that she needed to encompass our defeat, and incline her to peace. England understood the danger, and appreciated our strength, better than we did at home. That was why she hesitated to enter the war, and that is why, when she had entered, she avoided battle. In the first year our prospects were good, and even later they were still tolerable. Even an unfavorable sea battle would not have made our prospects materially worse. It could be safely assumed that the losses of the enemy would be as great as ours. Nothing, indeed, that could happen to our fleet could be worse than its retention in idleness.’

In essence, German strategy was to weaken the Royal Navy by piecemeal sinkings until numbers were even enough for a showdown. The caution of Admiral Jellicoe, commander of the Grand Fleet, ensured that this never happened. His determination to keep the British fleet intact was matched by Kaiser Wilhelm’s concern to preserve his prized warships.

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.

Jellicoe was unenthusiastic at such an inherently risky operation, but the Admiralty approved the plans, allowing the detachment of the 1st Battlecruiser Squadron under Vice Admiral Sir David Beatty to provide a degree of back-up. The situation was extremely chaotic as poor staff work meant that most of the British forces had no idea who exactly was at sea, leaving a huge potential for disaster.

Confusion summed up the whole course of the fighting as Tyrwhitt aboard the light cruiser Arethusa led the Harwich Force into the Heligoland Bight: ‘Our battlecruisers were scattered by, and made violent attempts to sink a squadron of our own submarines. Our light cruisers, sent into support, were in two cases supposed to be enemy by our destroyers sighting them. In one case two of our light cruisers chased two of our torpedo boat destroyers at full speed to the west, each supposing the other to be the enemy. They blocked the air with wireless at the very time when Arethusa and her destroyers were being overwhelmed by superior forces.’ (Commander Reginald Drax, HMS Lion, 1st Battlecruiser Squadron)

Running battles followed as the Germans retreated before unleashing their own trap as a strong force of light cruisers emerged from the mists. Then, just as all seemed lost, Beatty and the battlecruisers swept up and overwhelmed the outclassed German light forces, sinking three light cruisers and a destroyer. Although the Arethusa had been badly damaged, the British only had 75 casualties in contrast to some 1,200 suffered by the Germans.

Cruisers played the decisive role in an engagement that started as a clash between British and German squadrons of light cruisers and destroyers. The Germans lost three light cruisers and one destroyer. In contrast, although one British light cruiser and two destroyers were badly damaged, the fact that none was lost helped ensure that the battle was presented to the public as a striking victory. In practice, it was not so much a coherent, highly structured battle but rather a series of individual ship engagements conducted in poor visibility caused by dense fog.

The British were hindered by the general lack of coordination in the Admiralty, the force composition for the raid, the limitations of, and constraints on, gunnery and torpedo skills (which ensured that the heavy use of ammunition and torpedoes brought few successes), and the quality of the British shells, of which many failed to explode. British torpedoes also faced problems. Given these and other deficiencies, it is unsurprising that the British did not inflict heavier losses on the Germans in this battle.

The Germans were also affected by serious tactical problems, and communications were an issue. In addition, there was a poor command response to the British raid and, in particular, a lack of coordination and an inaccurate assessment of likely and actual developments. Most significantly, the battle reflected, and strengthened, a sense of psychological inferiority on the German part. This confirmed their cautious use of the fleet.

The belief that the British would not send heavy units into the Bight had proved misplaced, while the Germans were both properly, and yet overly anxious about risking their better ships, which greatly affected their response to the raid. Wilhelm II felt justified in his instructions that battle was to be sought only under the most favorable circumstances. These restrictions were now underlined.

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.

One enlightening account as to the living conditions on a U-boat was left by Lieutenant Johannes Speiss, who was an officer aboard the U-9, captained by Otto Weddigen: ‘Far forward in the pressure hull, which was cylindrical, was the forward torpedo room containing two torpedo tubes and two reserve torpedoes. Further astern was the warrant officers’ compartment, which contained only small bunks and was particularly wet and cold. Then came the commanding officer’s cabin, fitted with only a small bunk and clothes closet, no desk being furnished. Whenever a torpedo had to be loaded forward or the tube prepared for a shot, both cabins had to be completely cleared out. Bunks and clothes cabinets then had to be moved into the adjacent officers’ compartment, which was no light task owing to the lack of space in the latter compartment. In order to live at all in the officers’ compartments a certain degree of finesse was required. The watch officer’s bunk was too small to permit him to lie on his back. He was forced to lie on one side and then, being wedged between the bulkhead to the right and the clothes-press on the left, to hold fast against the movements of the boat in a seaway. On the port side of the officers’ compartment was the berth of the Chief Engineer, while the center of the compartment served as a passageway through the boat. On each side was a small upholstered transom between which a folding table could be inserted. Two folding camp-chairs completed the furniture. While the Commanding Officer, Watch Officer and Chief Engineer took their meals, men had to pass back and forth through the boat, and each time anyone passed, the table had to be folded. Further aft, the crew space was separated from the officers’ compartment by a watertight bulkhead with a round watertight door for passage. On one side of the crew space a small electric range was supposed to serve for cooking – but the electric heating coil and the bake-oven short-circuited every time an attempt was made to use them. Meals were always prepared on deck! For this purpose we had a small paraffin stove. This had the particular advantage of being serviceable even in a high wind. The crew space had bunks for only a few of the crew – the rest slept in hammocks, when not on watch or on board the submarine mother-ship while in port. The living spaces were not cased with wood. Since the temperature inside the boat was considerably greater than the sea outside, moisture in the air condensed on the steel hull-plates; the condensation had a very disconcerting way of dropping on a sleeping face, with every movement of the vessel. It was in reality like a damp cellar. From a hygienic standpoint the sleeping arrangements left much to be desired; one awoke in the morning with considerable mucus in the nostrils and a so-called “oil-head”.’

Captain Weddigen later described the sinking of the British ships: ‘I loosed one of my torpedoes at the middle ship. I was then about 12 feet under water, and got the shot off in good shape, my men handling the boat as if she had been a skiff. I climbed to the surface to get a sight through my tube of the effect, and discovered that the shot had gone straight and true, striking the ship, which I later learned was the Aboukir, under one of her magazines, which in exploding helped the torpedo’s work of destruction. There was a fountain of water, a burst of smoke, a flash of fire, and part of the cruiser rose in the air. Then I heard a roar and felt reverberations sent through the water by the detonation. She had been broken apart, and sank in a few minutes. I submerged at once. But I had stayed on top long enough to see the other cruisers, which I learned were the Cressy and the Hogue, turn and steam full speed to their dying sister, whose plight they could not understand, unless it had been due to an accident. As I reached my torpedo depth I sent a second charge at the nearest of the oncoming vessels, which was the Hogue. The English were playing my game, for I had scarcely to move out of my position, which was a great aid, since it helped to keep me from detection. The attack on the Hogue went true. But this time I did not have the advantageous aid of having the torpedo detonate under the magazine, so for twenty minutes the Hogue lay wounded and helpless on the surface before she heaved, half turned over and sank. By this time, the third cruiser knew of course that the enemy was upon her, she steamed a zigzag course, and this made it necessary for me to get nearer to the Cressy. When I got within suitable range I sent away my third attack. This time I sent a second torpedo after the first to make the strike doubly certain. My crew were aiming like sharpshooters and both torpedoes went to their bull’s-eye. My luck was with me again, for the enemy was made useless and at once began sinking by her head. Then she careened far over, but all the while her men stayed at the guns looking for their invisible foe. Then she eventually suffered a boiler explosion and completely turned turtle. With her keel uppermost she floated until the air got out from under her and then she sank with a loud sound, as if from a creature in pain.’ Weddigen was awarded the Iron Cross for his exploit. He was killed in March 1915 when his submarine U-29 was rammed by the battleship Dreadnought in Pentland Firth.

The sequence of events as, one by one, the Aboukir, Hogue and Cressy were dispatched was slightly absurd, but although the obsolescent cruisers themselves were of little military value, the human cost was appalling, with 1,459 deaths.

In 1914, the loss of ships to German submarines and mines cost the British more men and major ships than the Germans lost in battle, but the impact of these British losses was less dramatic in terms of the perhaps crucial sense of relative advantage. Indeed, submarines and mines appeared to be a means only to snipe at the British naval advantage rather than be an effective counter to it.

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.

If the High Seas Fleet had chosen that moment; if von Ingenohl had followed the bolder policies espoused by Tirpitz rather than the voice of caution, then he could well have met the Grand Fleet at sea on near-equal terms.

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 experience gained of German methods since the commencement of the war makes it possible and very desirable to consider the manner in which these methods are likely to be made use of tactically in a fleet action. The Germans have shown that they rely to a very great extent on submarines, mines and torpedoes, and there can be no doubt whatever that they will endeavour to make the fullest use of these weapons in a fleet action, especially since they possess an actual superiority over us in these particular directions. It, therefore, becomes necessary to consider our own tactical methods in relation to these forms of attack. In the first place, it is evident that the Germans cannot rely with certainty upon having their full complement of submarines and minelayers present in a fleet action, unless the battle is fought in waters selected by them and in the southern area of the North Sea. Aircraft, also, could only be brought into action in this locality. My object will therefore be to fight the fleet action in the northern portion of the North Sea.’ (Admiral Sir John Jellicoe, HMS Iron Duke, Grand Fleet)

Jellicoe also outlined the cautious tactical approach he would take in any battle: ‘ If, for instance, the enemy battle fleet were to turn away from an advancing fleet, I should assume that the intention was to lead us over mines and submarines, and should decline to be so drawn. I desire particularly to draw the attention of Their Lordships to this point, since it may be deemed a refusal of battle, and, indeed, might possibly result in failure to bring the enemy to action as soon as is expected and hoped. Such a result would be absolutely repugnant to the feelings of all British naval officers and men, but with new and untried methods of warfare new tactics must be devised to meet them. I feel that such tactics, if not understood, may bring odium upon me, but so long as I have the confidence of their Lordships I intend to pursue what is, in my considered opinion, the proper course to defeat and annihilate the enemy’s battle fleet, without regard to uninstructed opinion or criticism. The situation is a difficult one. It is quite within the bounds of possibility that half our battle fleet might be disabled by underwater attack before the guns opened fire at all, if a false move is made, and I feel that I must constantly bear in mind the great probability of such attack and be prepared tactically to prevent its success.’

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 view of this, many British officers were surprised by what they saw as the passive approach of the German Navy: ‘When your adversary is very quiet one is always inclined to think they are up to some very deep laid scheme and it is the same with us now. One never imagined that the German Battle Fleet would come out until they had endeavoured to reduce some of our superiority but we did imagine they would drive home attacks with destroyers, submarines and mines with all their might and that they would make a very determined attack on our commerce during the first few days of the war, but their attempts in all directions seem to have been very poor ones. For instance, one would have thought that they would have sent their battlecruisers out into the Atlantic because until we had discovered it they could have created a pretty kettle of fish as none of the cruisers we have on trade protection could either fight them or run from them. Even after they had been discovered it would have taken some time for our battlecruisers to have hunted them down.’ (Commander Dudley Pound, HMS St Vincent, Grand Fleet) Although they did briefly consider such an operation, the Germans were not willing to sacrifice their battlecruisers and their crews on such a speculative venture. They would bide their time and hope the British would do something stupid.

Economic warfare was supported by a system of preemptive purchasing, for example of Norwegian fish and pyrites, that was important to the international control of raw materials, as well as greatly influencing neutral economies. In particular, cutting off trade with Germany lessened American economic and financial interest in its success. Intelligence about shipping and commercial movements was also crucial to the blockade.

Economic warfare made it difficult for planners in Berlin to realize schemes for increased production. It contributed greatly to the sense of frustration and anger that increasingly affected German strategy and that, along with German failure to win on land, led to unrestricted submarine warfare. In turn, economic warfare only really became effective once the United States, hitherto the leading neutral, entered the war.

Alongside resources, geography was a key factor, with the Germans bottled up in the North Sea by Britain’s location athwart their routes to the oceans. The German route to the Atlantic was threatened by the major base of Scapa Flow in the Orkneys, which anchored the British naval position. Moreover, in 1909, a new base forward of Scapa Flow, at Rosyth on the Firth of Forth, in east Scotland, had been begun in order to help the British Grand Fleet contest the North Sea.

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.

Assisted by a collection of colliers and supply ships, the German East Asiatic Squadron ships created havoc across the whole of the Pacific Ocean for several months, preying on the sea lanes and even threatening the troop convoys dispatched from Australia and New Zealand. The detached exploits of the Emden, in particular, became the stuff of legend before she was sunk by the Sydney at the Cocos Islands in November 1914.

Though few in numbers, the German East Asiatic Squadron represented a major threat to Entente shipping. It was a major weakness of British naval planning that its own cruiser fleet consisted either of old, so-called ‘armored’ ships too slow to catch their German equivalents, and too poorly protected and armed to harm them if taken at a disadvantage, or of light cruisers which had speed to match that of the Germans but lacked the firepower to fight.

The British Navy lacked, moreover, any concerted plan to deal with an aggressive German cruising campaign. Its vast network of coaling stations diminished the incentive to plan for resupplying a pursuit across oceanic distances; the Germans, by contrast, had a train of colliers and began at once to capture prizes as a source of coal, food and water.

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.

Spee exploited his advantage. Deterred from operating in the northern Pacific by the menace of the large Japanese fleet which cruised widely and aggressively in the early months of the war, mopping up many of the German island possessions, Spee acted against the French possessions in Tahiti and the Marquesas but met resistance and found coaling difficult. He therefore decided to transfer from the Pacific to the South Atlantic, signalling Dresden, Leipzig and his colliers to meet him near Easter Island, the most remote inhabited spot on the globe.

Interception of von Spee’s unsecured signals alerted Christopher Cradock, the British admiral commanding the South American station, of his intentions. Passing through the Straits of Magellan, Cradock brought his squadron into Chilean waters. Hearing that Glasgow was at Coronel, he waited outside for the old cruisers to appear. When they did he kept out of range until darkness fell, then opened fire.

Cradock impotently tried to close the range to allow his out-gunned ships some chance to inflict damage, but to no avail as Lieutenant Ernst Knoop observed from the Scharnhorst: ‘In most cases hits by high explosive shells were immediately followed by outbreaks of fire. Twice I observed what I believed to be an explosion of ammunition. The flames shot up immediately after hits by high explosive shells and were distinguishable from the other fires by their dimensions and outline. Some hits, probably on the decks, sent up showers of sparks over a wide area. When armor was hit thick black clouds with sharp outlines were observed. Hits were so frequent that it was impossible to note them in chronological order. The Good Hope received serious hits in the fore part of the ship, on the upper bridge, on the mast about 30 feet above the deck, on the after side of the foretop, also hit repeatedly amidships, most of these causing fires. The after battery was hit several times and fires broke out. The flames in the interior of the ship could be seen through the portholes. Two shells struck the ship near the after turret. The Monmouth was hit on her fore 6-inch turret. The high explosive shell blew off the roof. A terrific explosion of charges must then have blown the whole turret off the forecastle for it disappeared completely. I observed that many shells struck the ship amidships. A huge column of fire, almost as high as the mast and 60 to 90 feet across, suddenly shot up on the starboard side. Between thirty and forty hits were counted in all. At times three or four fires were burning simultaneously.’

The Battle of Coronel demonstrated the brutal consequences of a one-sided naval battle. Yet von Spee was doomed, too. Knowing that he had little chance of ever getting back to Germany, he saw it as his duty to maximize the damage he could inflict before the inevitable British retaliation burst upon him. It would not take long.

Coronel was the first British defeat at sea for a hundred years. The outrage it caused was enormous, far exceeding that following the loss of Hogue, Cressy and Aboukir.

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 Princess Royal was sent from the Grand Fleet to guard the West Indies, while the Invincible and Inflexible were sent from the Mediterranean to the South Atlantic under the command of Vice Admiral Doveton Sturdee. Here, in company with a further three armored cruisers (Carnarvon, Cornwall and Kent) and two light cruisers (Glasgow and Bristol), they made their way to join the old pre-dreadnought Canopus at Port Stanley on the Falkland Islands.

Fisher at once set in motion a panoceanic redeployment of forces designed to intercept Spee wherever he moved. The Cape, South American and West African stations were reinforced, while the Japanese navy also repositioned units, thus threatening Spee's freedom of action in the Indian, Atlantic and Pacific oceans.

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.

For a moment, there may have been the theoretical opportunity for the Scharnhorst and the Gneisenau to rake the near-helpless British ships in harbor, but the beached Canopus fired a long-range salvo of 12-inch shells which, not unnaturally, panicked the Germans who could already see the distinctive tripod masts of the battlecruisers.

‘This was a very bitter pill to swallow. We choked a little at the neck, the throat contracted and stiffened, for that meant a life and death grapple, or rather a fight ending in honorable death. The old law of naval warfare, which ordains that the less powerful and the less swift ships should be vanquished in free waters and in fine weather, was again to be exemplified in our case. It would have been vain to harbor the slightest illusion in this respect, for the sky remained clear; there was not the slightest cloud presaging bad weather to be seen, nor any wisp of fog to throw over us its friendly mantle and hide us from the enemy’s sight. (Commander Hans Pochhammer, SMS Gneisenau, East Asiatic Squadron)

During the battle, von Spee played his poor hand as best he could. He freed his faster light cruisers to try and escape independently. Meanwhile, like Craddock before him, he struggled to close the range to enable his guns to damage the mighty battlecruisers. But it was all for nothing and both his ships were steadily smashed to pieces: ‘As we passed the Scharnhorst we noticed that she lay deeper than usual heeled slightly to the larboard. There was a large hole in the fore end and a similar one in the quarter deck. Smoke was rising from the ship and flames were visible in the interior through shell holes and portholes. But her gun thundered incessantly; the starboard batteries now came into action and brought fresh force into the fray. But it looked as if her fate was sealed. She moved more slowly in the water and suffered considerably under the hail of enemy shells. The Admiral must have felt that his ship was nearing her end. Just as he had previously sacrificed his armored cruisers to save his light cruisers, so he proposed to sacrifice the Scharnhorst to save the Gneisenau. Determined to get the last ounce out of his resources and to fight as long as he could float, and in this way facilitate the escape of our ship, he swung round to the enemy on the starboard in the hope of damaging him by firing torpedoes! The water had now risen to the fore upper deck. Fires were raging fore and aft, but the Admiral’s flag floated proudly from the foremast, as also did the battle flags from the after mast and the gaff. The Scharnhorst gradually heeled over to larboard, and her bows became more and more submerged. Her fore turret was about six and a half feet above the water when it fired its last shot, then – the screws revolved in the air and the ship swiftly slid head first into the abyss.’ (Commander Hans Pochhammer, SMS Gneisenau, East Asiatic Squadron)

The Scharnhorst went down with the gallant admiral and all hands. Then it was the turn of the Gneisenau: ‘I felt the ship giving way under me. I heard the roaring and surging of the water come nearer and nearer, and was filled with the idea that I should be very cold. When the upper deck was submerged the speed at which the ship was capsizing somewhat diminished, owing to the resistance set up, and then the ship continued to turn on her axis. The sea invaded a corner of the bridge, caught me and those who were with me and tossed us away, a movement which I involuntarily accelerated by a vigorous push off. I was caught up by a whirlpool and dragged into an abyss. The water eddied and murmured around me and droned in my ears. But even before suffering from loss of breath I felt as if I were being drawn upwards by invisible hands. I opened my eyes and noticed it was brighter, “Keep cool!” I thought to myself and then began to strike out. I came to the surface. The sea was heaving. The swell was due partly to the wind, which must have sprung up in the late afternoon, and partly to the displacement of water produced by the capsizing of our ship. The latter I saw a hundred or so yards away, her keel in the air. The red paint on her bottom glistened in the sunset.’ (Commander Hans Pochhammer, SMS Gneisenau, East Asiatic Squadron) In the end Pochhammer and some 200 of his men were saved from the Gneisenau.

The light cruisers Nürnberg and Leipzig were also overtaken and sank, although the Dresden escaped, to be eventually sunk by the vengeful Glasgow in March 1915.

The Battle of the Falklands was of little significance other than in restoring the damage to its reputation suffered by the Royal Navy at the Battle of Coronel a month earlier. In a sense, Admiral von Spee and his men were already doomed from the moment they commenced their mission: far from home, with finite resources, sailing the seas with their enemies all around them. Their conduct was a tribute to the spirit that had been engendered within the German Navy.

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.

Inside the Adriatic, cordoned at its bottom end by an Italian mine barrier anchored on Otranto, the Austrians waged a tit-for-tat war with the Italians after they entered the war in 1915, of which the only strategic point was to deny the Entente more direct amphibious access to the Balkan war zone than the Mediterranean coast allowed. A similar war was waged in the Baltic between Germany's light forces and pre-dreadnoughts and Russia's Baltic fleet.

From a naval point of view, the war in the Baltic was most notable for what did not happen there. Fisher, as ready with bad as with good ideas, had advocated a large-scale naval penetration of the Baltic as early as 1908. In 1914 he converted Churchill, equally undiscriminating if a strategic project were grand enough, and even secured funds to build three huge shallow-draft battlecruisers to make the attempt. Fortunately, better sense prevailed and the monsters, which could outrun destroyers at speed, were spared inevitable destruction in the Baltic's narrow waters to become post-war aircraft carriers.

In the Black Sea, where Russia maintained the second of her three fleets, her command was complete. The Turks, after their declaration of hostilities in November 1914, had neither sufficient nor good enough ships to challenge, and the Russians, albeit sporadically and inefficiently, mined Turkish waters and attacked Turkish ports and shipping at will. Such operations, however, were peripheral. Turkey did not depend on sea lines of communication to sustain her war effort.

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 British did have one huge theoretical advantage in this game of cat and mouse: Room 40 was augmented by the use of wireless directional stations dotted along the east coast that could identify the location of German units by taking cross-bearings on any wireless traffic.

The British naval war effort had suffered from an inadequate war staff, but it proved able to adapt to the strategic circumstances of 1914. By the end of the year, foreshadowing events in the Second World War, the Entente, working concert, had cracked the three German naval codes. While the Germans appeared oblivious to this, the Royal Navy repeatedly, through slovenliness or mistrust, arguably failed to exploit this advantage to its full potential.

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.

The intelligence proved more of a hazard than a boon to Jellicoe. The Admiralty did not realise that Hipper would be supported by the whole of the High Seas Fleet and interfered in Jellicoe’s dispositions to insist that he deploy just Beatty’s four battlecruisers and the six dreadnoughts of the 2nd Battle Squadron with accompanying light forces.

At the first reports of fighting between the respective destroyer screens, von Ingenohl reversed his course towards Germany, thereby abandoning Hipper to his fate. However, Beatty missed any chance to come to grips with Hipper’s battlecruisers, in circumstances of deep confusion exacerbated by unclear signals from Beatty aboard his flagship Lion that allowed Hipper to escape unscathed. It had been a mutually unsatisfying non-event and yet both Hipper and Beatty had come close to disaster. How close was not necessarily appreciated at the time.

The immediate consequence was an outcry in the British popular press over the Navy’s apparent inability to prevent these raids on British coastal towns. However, in truth, there was little the Admiralty could do. The North Sea was not controlled by the Royal Navy – this was the penalty for the distant blockade – and so all that could be done was to move Beatty to a new base at Rosyth in the Firth of Forth to allow a slightly quicker response should Room 40 give warning of another raid.

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.

The explosion missed the forward magazine and the ship’s compartmentalized hull served to keep her afloat. The damage to one of its most modern warships was a severe shock to the French Navy.

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 seaplanes were lowered onto the sea by cranes. Seven succeeded in taking off. Three of the seaplanes found their way back to their tenders. The pilots of the others were all rescued, three by British submarines and one by a Dutch trawler.

Earlier in the year the aircraft of the British Royal Naval Air Service conducted effective raids from Antwerp in September and October 1914. Twenty-pound bombs were dropped on Zeppelin sheds at Düsseldorf, destroying one airship. The Zeppelin base at Friedrichshafen on Lake Constance was also attacked. As a result of this success, the British Admiralty developed an interest in strategic bombing.

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.

Problems of command, control and coordination afflicted the Entente naval staffs as much as their army colleagues. No Naval Staff, equating to the Army's General Staff, existed in the Royal Navy before 1912 and it would be 40 years before a truly Joint Central Staff was created in Whitehall. In 1914 the Admiralty was unaware that the Army's staff had been conducting highly secret staff talks with their French opposite numbers for many years in order to ensure the rapid deployment of an Expeditionary Force to the continent in the event of war.

The Entente system of operational responsibility was quite inflexible; if a valuable troopship under destroyer escort left one national zone it had to be picked up by a destroyer from another navy: U-boat commanders were not slow to acquire this intelligence and capitalized on it whenever a handover went amiss. Strong resistance by naval commanders to the institution of a convoy system led to appalling shipping losses as the U-boat campaign got under way.

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.

Both ships evaded pursuit and arrived off the Dardanelles to be given free passage up to Constantinople on the orders of Enver Pasha. Following the confiscation of the two Turkish super-dreadnoughts nearing completion in Britain, the Germans presented Goeben and Breslau to the Ottoman navy in a shrewd diplomatic move that did much to bring the Turks into the war on the side of the Central Powers.

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.

With British as well as French warships present, German and Austrian naval power was outnumbered and outclassed in the Mediterranean, which enabled France to move troops from North Africa safely and also greatly affected the military and political options for Italy.