War at Sea: World on Fire

  August 21, 2021   Read time 3 min
War at Sea: World on Fire
The British government had initially shared the continental illusion that the war would be ended in a matter of months— not through a military decision but from a collapse of the financial system that enabled the economy of the belligerent powers to function at all.

There was general surprise when the incoming Secretary of State for War, Britain’s most distinguished living soldier Lord Kitchener, warned his civilian colleagues to plan for a war lasting for at least three years, but historical precedent gave no reason to suppose that it would be over any more quickly. Even if Germany were as successful by land as had been Napoleon, the war was likely to go on as it had in the days of Napoleon; and, like Napoleon, Germany would ultimately be defeated by British ‘command of the sea’. The main concern of the Royal Navy was to ensure that this would be the case.

About the importance of that ‘command’ no one was in any doubt. Orthodox naval opinion, in Germany as well as in Britain, believed that it was won or lost by a clash of great battle fleets, as it had been in the age of Nelson. The victor would then be able to starve his opponent into surrender, or at least so disrupt his trade that his economy would collapse and he would no longer be able to continue the war. In spite of Tirpitz’s building programme, the German High Seas Fleet was still in no position to challenge the British Grand Fleet; but the British were too wary of the lethal power of mines and torpedoes to seek out the German fleet in its North Sea bases or impose a close blockade on the German coast.

Their caution appeared justified when on 22 September 1914 a German submarine sank three British cruisers in the English Channel, with a loss of 1,500 lives. The Grand Fleet therefore remained in harbour at Scapa Flow, in the extreme north of Scotland, watching in case the German fleet attempted a sortie. Its opponents in the German High Seas Fleet did the same, while the Royal Navy swept German shipping from the seas. The few German commerce-raiders at sea when war broke out were quickly hunted down, though not before a squadron under Admiral Graf von Spee destroyed a British detachment at Coronel off the coast of Chile on 1 November 1914—to be destroyed in its turn in the Battle of the Falkland Islands a month later.

German cruisers bombarded English coastal towns during the winter of 1914–15, and there was a clash on the Dogger Bank in January, but otherwise both fleets remained inactive. After two years a new German commander, Admiral Scheer, lost patience. On 31 May 1916 he led the High Seas Fleet out into the North Sea to challenge the Grand Fleet to battle. The British took up the challenge, and the two fleets clashed off the Danish coast in what for the British became known as the Battle of Jutland, for the Germans as that of the Skaggerak.

The unprecedented nature of the encounter and the failure of signal communications made the battle itself inconclusive. The Germans sank fourteen British ships totalling 110,000 tons as against their own loss of eleven ships totalling 62,000 tons, and so were able plausibly to claim a tactical victory. But the strategic situation remained unchanged. British ships continued to dominate the world’s oceans, and the German High Seas Fleet to rot in harbour until the end of the war.