Naval Warfare in World War I was mainly characterized by the efforts of the Allied Powers, with their larger fleets and surrounding position, to blockade the Central Powers by sea, and the efforts of the Central Powers to break that blockade or to establish an effective blockade of the United Kingdom and France with submarines and raiders.
The naval arms race between Britain and Germany to build dreadnought battleships in the early 20th century is the subject of a number of books. Germany’s attempt to build a battleship fleet to match that of the United Kingdom, the dominant naval power on the 19th-century and an island country that depended on seaborne trade for survival, is often listed as a major reason for the enmity between those two countries that led the UK to enter World War I. German leaders desired a navy in proportion to their military and economic strength that could free their overseas trade and colonial empire from dependence on Britain’s good will, but such a fleet would inevitably threaten Britain’s own trade and empire.
Ever since the first Moroccan crisis there had been an arms race, over their respective navies. However there were events leading up to this. Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan was an American naval officer, extremely interested in British naval history. In 1887, he published The Influence of Sea Power upon History, in which he argued that every nation that had ruled the waves, from Rome to Great Britain, had prospered and thrived, while those that lacked naval supremacy, such as Hannibal’s Carthage or Napoleon’s France, had not.
Naval arms race
Mahan’s thesis was highly influential and lead to an explosion of new naval construction worldwide. The US congress immediately ordered the building of three battleships. Japan, whose British trained navy wiped out the Russian fleet at the Battle of Tsushima, helped to reinforce the concept of naval power as the dominant factor in conflict. However, the book made the most impact in Germany. The German Kaiser Wilhelm II had been brought up amongst the Royal Navy, when he visited his grandmother, Queen Victoria. In 1898 came the first German Fleet Act, two years later a second doubled the number of ships to be built, to 19 battleships and 23 cruisers in the next 20 years. In another decade, Germany would go from a naval ranking lower than Austria to having the second largest battle fleet in the world. For the first time since Trafalgar, Britain had an aggressive and truly dangerous rival to worry about.
Mahan wrote in his book that not only world peace or the empire, but Britain’s very survival depended on the Royal Navy ruling the waves. So when the great naval review of June 1897 for the Queen’s diamond Jubilee took place, it was in an atmosphere of unease and uncertainty. The question everyone wanted to know the answer to was how Britain was going to stay ahead. But Mahan couldn’t give any answers. The man who thought he could was Jackie Fisher, then Commander in Chief, Mediterranean Fleet. He believed there were “Five strategic keys to the empire and world economic system: Gibraltar, Alexandria and Suez, Singapore, the Cape of Good Hope, and the Straits of Dover.” His job was to keep hold of all of them.
When he became First Sea Lord, Fisher began drawing up plans for a naval war against Germany. “Germany keeps her whole fleet always concentrated within a few hours of England,” he told the Prince of Wales in 1906. “We must therefore keep a fleet twice as powerful within a few hours of Germany.” He thus began work on HMS Dreadnought, launched at Portsmouth in 1906, and she made all previous warships obsolete. She had steam turbine engines, making her the fastest capital ship then afloat, capable of doing 21 kn – certainly faster than any threatening submarine. She carried ten 12–inch guns, whereas her biggest and closest competitors carried only four. The dreadnoughts guns were emplaced in five turrets, one fore, two in wing turrets, and two aft. Fisher proclaimed, “We shall have ten Dreadnoughts at sea before a single foreign Dreadnought is launched, and we have thirty percent more cruisers than Germany and France put together!”.
Admiral Alfred Tirpitz had also often visited Portsmouth as a naval cadet and admired and envied the Royal Navy. Like the Kaiser, Tirpitz believed Germany’s future dominant role in the world depended on a navy powerful enough to challenge it. He demanded large numbers of battleships. Even when Dreadnought was launched making his previously constructed 15 battleships obsolete, he believed that eventually Germany’s technological and industrial might would allow Germany to out-build Britain ship for ship. Using the threat of his own resignation he forced the Reichstag to build three dreadnoughts and a battle cruiser. He also put aside money for a future submarine branch. At the rate that Tirpitz insisted upon, Germany would have thirteen in 1912, to Britain’s 16.
When this was leaked out to the British public in spring 1909, there was public outcry. The public demanded eight new battleships instead of the four the government had planned for that year. As Winston Churchill put it, “The Admiralty had demanded six ships; the economists offered four; and we finally compromised on eight”. So the pro-navy party had won — but at what cost? Tirpitz had no option but to consider Britain’s new dreadnought building program as a direct threat to Germany. He had to respond, raising the stakes further. However, the commitment of funds to out-build the Germans meant Britain was abandoning any notion of a two-power standard for naval superiority. No amount of money would allow Britain to compete with Germany and Russia or the USA, or even Italy. Thus a new policy, of dominance over the world’s second leading sea power by a 60% margin went into effect. Fisher’s staff had been getting increasingly annoyed by the way he refused to tolerate any difference in opinion, and the eight dreadnought demand had been the last straw. Thus on January 25, 1910, Fisher left the admiralty. Shortly after Fisher’s resignation, Churchill became First Lord of the Admiralty. Under him, the race would be continued; indeed Lloyd George nearly resigned when Churchill presented him with the naval budget of 1914 of 50 million pounds.
By the start of the war Germany had an impressive fleet both of capital ships and submarines. Other nations had smaller fleets, generally with a lower proportion of battleships and a larger proportion of smaller ships like destroyers and submarines. Naval technology
Naval technology in World War I was dominated by the battleship. Battleships were built along the dreadnought model, with several large turrets of equally sized big guns. In general terms, British ships had larger guns and were equipped and manned for quicker fire than their German counterparts. In contrast, the German ships had better optical equipment and range finding, and were much better compartmentalized and able to deal with damage.
Many of the individual parts of ships had recently improved dramatically. The introduction of the turbine led to much higher performance, as well as taking up less room and thereby allowing for improved layout. Whereas pre-dreadnought battleships were generally limited to about 12–17 kn, modern ships were capable of at least 20 kn, and in the latest British classes, 24 kn. The introduction of the gyroscope and centralized fire control, led to dramatic improvements in gunnery.
One class of ship that appeared just before the war was the battlecruiser. There were two schools of thought on battlecruiser design. The first, the British design, were armed like their heavier dreadnought cousins, but deliberately lacked armour to save weight in order to improve speed. The concept was that these ships would be able to outgun anything smaller than themselves, and run away from anything larger. The German designs opted to trade slightly smaller main armament for speed, while keeping relatively heavy armour.
The torpedo boat caused considerable worry for many naval planners. In theory a large number of these inexpensive ships could attack in masses and overwhelm a dreadnought force. This led to the introduction of ships dedicated to keeping them away from the fleets, the torpedo boat destroyers, or simply destroyers. Although the mass raid continued to be a possibility, another solution was found in the form of the submarine, increasingly in use. The submarine could approach underwater, safe from the guns of both the capital ships and the destroyers, and fire a salvo as deadly as a torpedo boat’s. Limited range and speed, especially underwater, made these weapons difficult to use tactically.
Oil was just being introduced to replace coal, containing as much as 40% more energy per volume, extending range and further improving internal layout. Another advantage was that oil gave off considerably less smoke, making visual detection more difficult.
Radio was in early use, with naval ships commonly equipped with radio telegraph, merchant ships less so. Sonar was in its infancy by the end of the war.
Aviation was primarily focused on reconnaissance, with the aircraft carrier being developed over the course of the war, and bomber aircraft capable of lifting only relatively light loads.
Naval mines were also increasingly well developed. Defensive mines along coasts made it more difficult for capital ships to get close enough to conduct bombardment or support attacks. The first battleship sinking in the war — that of HMS Audacious — was the result of her striking a naval mine on 27 October 1914. Suitably placed mines also served to restrict the freedom of movement of submarines.