15: Naval Introduction


In the years leading up to the war the Germans invested heavily in their navy. In this episode we look at what caused them to do this and how the British felt about it. Then we will check out the naval technology that these nations were using in 1914 and how it had changed so drastically in the years leading up to the war.



Hello everyone and welcome to history of the great war episode 15. Today we take a break from the land warfare of 1914 and instead head to the high seas to start talking about the navies in 1914 that were facing off on the oceans all over the world. It is difficult to talk about the navies of the great war without laying a bit of groundwork into some of the naval innovations leading up the war. This will then take us into talking about the naval arms race between Britain and Germany. We will then do a quick overview of the navies of the primary five participants in the war at this point before finishing off with a few quick introductions of important naval personalities that we will be interacting with as the war moves along. I need to preface this episode by saying that before I started this podcast I seriously contemplated starting a podcast covering maritime events in the 19th century so I may end up being a bit long winded here. I have in fact cut down my notes from what I am pretty sure would have been a 2 hour episode just on naval technological advances during the century leading up to the war. I have tried to keep things only to the important points for this episode but if I randomly decide to do a much longer episode later talking just about how we went from ships of the line to the Dreadnought in a century, well, you have been warned.

Navies have played a critical role in warfare for millenia, since the first ships were built men have found ways to use them to attack each other. What I think is the classical view of naval warfare is during the Age of Sail that peaked during the Napoleonic Wars where you get the British national hero of Horatio Nelson and his great victory at Trafalgar. The ships used during this time were made of wood and were propelled by a series of sails which relied on the wind to drive them. They usually had some number of muzzle loading smoothbore cannon, up to well over a hundred, arranged on several decks with enough men to keep them firing as the enemies were firing back. The ships would arrange themselves in a line and commence firing broadsides into their enemies until one side had enough. Often there were boarding actions involved, especially as ships started to have their sails torn up through the course of the battle. It is really important to think about just how close these ships were together with engagement distances sometimes measured in feet. It was really a very brutal stage in naval history with even great victories like Trafalgar requiring great sacrifices on both sides in both men and ships. This was how battles were fought well into the 19th century but a few very important changes started happening around 1850. Two of these changes, and the ones we will cover today were the introduction of naval Steam Power and the usage of Ironclad naval ships.

In a battle situation having wind as our only method of movement can be….problematic. I’m sure you can imagine why. So to solve this problem navies around the world were trying to find ways to provide other methods of movement. In the ancient world when sailing ships weren’t as advanced this was provided by men with oars and in the 19th century navies turned to steam power. Steam power had the potential to replace sail power completely. The usual system was to burn coal to create steam which would then drive some form of propulsion. At first this propulsion was in the form of the paddlewheel and later it would be in the form of the screw propeller. Steam was not without its drawbacks though. The first steam engines weren’t very efficient and hauling the necessary amount of coal for long voyages was problematic. You see ships around the world trying to get around this by implementing a system of dual propulsion with both steam engines and some sails as well. These types of dual mode ships would last for a few decades in what was very clearly a transitional period. The next big change would come in the form of navies putting armor on their ships.

Ships had been built of wood since the beginning of time. As time went by more and more wood was used to provide more protection from incoming cannon shells but there were limits to its utility in this area. Ironclad ships began as really just normal ships of the day with iron plates put on the side to deflect incoming cannon shells. This became even more important as explosive shells became more and more common as time went on. Also around this time you start seeing usage of heated shot, which was a serious fire concern for wooden ships, become more common. A good example of both the utility of ironclads and just how radically naval warfare was changing was the meeting of the CSS Virginia and the USS Monitor off Hampton Roads Virginia during the American Civil War. I had the privilege of visiting the maritime museum in Hampton Roads earlier this year where the original turret of the Monitor is on the display and I highly recommend it if anybody finds themselves in the area. This battle between the Virginia, with its sloped iron sides, and the Monitor with its gun turret as the only thing above the water line really represented a turning point in how wars would be fought upon the waves moving forward. The Virginia was able to quickly dispatch a few old school wooden ships without taking any real damage before being engaged in a day long battle with the Monitor where, again, no really bad damage was sustained. It is one of those classic moments in history, that we again see in 1914, where defensive technologies had taken a big jump, without a similar jump in offensive technologies. The naval cannons at the time could just do nothing against these new iron clads. Over the next several decades navies around the world would iterate on the idea of ironclads with specialized Steam driven ironclad battleships that were still using the rows of cannon ideas from the old wooden ships.

The next big step came with the introduction of what would be called, retroactively, pre-dreadnought battleships. These involved a few different innovations that really set them apart from their predecessors. These new ships featured almost exclusively steel armor instead of a mix of wrought iron and steel that had been prominent in previous ships. These ships often also featured guns of up to 12 inch in diameter. Advancements in metallurgy and casting allowed these guns to be larger and lighter than what had come before. These guns were also breechloading which greatly increased their fire rate. They were often also put in turrets which allowed far wider areas of fire. Battleships would usually have 4 12 inch guns with 2 mounted fore and 2 aft. Not only did the ships carry these large guns but they also had guns of many smaller calibers such as 6 inch guns to deal with smaller cruisers and destroyers and 3 inch guns that were meant to be used against really small craft. The theory at the time was that these battleships, when they met each other would first engage the enemy at long range with the large guns before moving in closer for the kill. As the ships moved closer the smaller guns would start to come into their own with their really fast fire rates and higher accuracy.

After the pre-dreadnoughts came, I will give you one guess, yes, it was the dreadnoughts. These were pioneered by the HMS Dreadnought in 1906. There several innovations on this ship but two of the most notable ones is that the dreadnought was the first “All big gun” ship. This meant that the dreadnought did away with all of those secondary, and tertiary, and even quadranary guns and just mounted more of the big 12 inchers. The dreadnought brought 10 of these large guns to bare, quite a jump from the previous 4. The ships did have a few really small guns to go along with these, but these were always meant to be used against the new torpedo boats that navies were developing and were never planned to be used against other large ships. As navies started building dreadnoughts they had some difficulties deciding the best way to mount all of these large guns with various positionings of turrets to try to provide the maximum amount of firepower at any angle. Eventually everybody would settle on a system whereby there were 3 or 4 turrets with all of them along the centerline of the ship. One set of turrets would be mounted lower than the other set so that the upper one could fire over the lower ones allowing for the widest possible fire arc for all guns aboard the ship. This turret configuration would be used on all battleships built during the two world wars. Another innovation found in the dreadnought was the use of the steam turbine engine instead of the triple-expansion steam engine used in the pre-dreadnoughts. This offered more power with a smaller physical footprint, always important on a ship. The first generation of ships would use coal like their predecessors but later ships would begin to utilize oil as their fuel.

Up to this point we have spent our time talking about surface ships another area of very fast innovation was under the waves. Submarines had first been used for 1775 with a submarine quite appropriately called the Turtle. This was a single man machine with limited underwater endurance, but it did fit the definition of a submarine. During the American Civil War there was a submarine operated by the Confederacy called the HL Hunley which was the first submarine to actually sink a surface ship. Unfortunately for the Hunley it sank soon after, but it did sink a ship first. Both of these vessels were human powered with some sort of human effort needed to operate the propulsion systems. The first mechanically powered submarine was put into service by the French in 1863. Early submarines weren’t really that dangerous, they just didn’t have a good way to project force against an enemy, this was all changed as torpedos became more and more advanced. After the turn of the century some very big changes came into play that were very beneficial for submarines in military service. The first of these was the introduction and adoption of the diesel and electric propulsion systems. These boats had a diesel engine that could be used while the submarine was on the surface and it also had some batteries that could propel the ship while it was underwater. These batteries weren’t the greatest, and in fact the submarines spent most of their time on the service, but they did work. Another big change was the inclusion of periscopes on all submarines. Being able to see your enemy while most of the submarine is underwater gives some obvious benefits. When most people think of world war submarines they think of German U-Boats and while they would be used during world war 1 they would not be nearly as pervasive or effective as they were in world war 2. When the war started Germany had only 20 U-Boats available for use. While they would go on to sink over 5,000 ships during the war they wouldn’t be the massive force that they would be 30 years later.

Before we move into the next topic of this episode I want to introduce a concept that will come up several times later on, the concept of a Fleet in Being. This concept is the thought that if you have a fleet you could use it at any time and the most important part of a fleet is that it still exists. This fact really drives a lot of the action, or inaction, during the world war. The German fleet would end up being a great example, for the most part they were very defensive and passive during the war but even when they weren’t attacking they were able to tie down massive amounts of British resources. If they would have engaged in a large battle and suffered casualties all of those British resources would have been freed up for other purposes. At this stage in history if your navy fought a pitched battle and lost you just straight up wouldn’t have had a fleet anymore. Ships took so long to build and were so expensive that losing any of the your large and new battleships could be absolutely disastrous. This led to every single participant during the war being very skittish about really committing to any large actions. So just keep that in mind as we start discussing the Naval Arms race between Britain and Germany.

Ah, the British, The Royal Navy, Gibraltar, The Nile, Trafalgar, Lord Horatio Nelson. The greatest maritime tradition of any nation on earth. For centuries the premiere navy in the world, and certainly the largest. With such a tradition you would expect the Royal Navy to be a real leader in terms of technology and techniques and in fact in the decades leading up to the first world war this is probably one of the last times that this was true. In 1889 Britain enacted the Naval Defense Act of 1889 which made them adhere to a “two power standard” where the Royal Nave would be as large as the next two largest navies combined. Obviously this could end up being a problem if another power really started building up their navy, like say the Germans, but anyway from 1902 to 1910 the Royal Navy undertook a massive expansion of their navy centered around the new technology introduced with the HMS Dreadnought and they weren’t just driven by this two power standard Britain had a very serious need for a strong navy. In 1914 the British empire stretched all the way around the globe and the goal of the Navy was to safeguard these colonies. The Royal Navy also had naval bases all over the world to facilitate the stationing of ships where they were needed. Another crucial role of the Royal Navy was to keep the home islands supplied with everything that was needed. This was even more crucial in times of war when huge quantities of supplies were needed for the war effort. Cargo ships from all over the world would bring war supplies to Britain during the war, part of why the Germans put emphasis in the U-Boat program, and it was the Navy’s job to make sure these ships got to port.

Britain’s primary enemy for the war was the German Navy which was led by Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz who became the State Secretary for the Imperial Naval Office started in 1898. He believed strongly that Germany needed to drastically expand their navy and viewed Britain as the primary threat to Germany at a time when most German leaders looked to France or Russia as the primary enemies. Tirpitz wanted to get Germany to a 2:3 ratio with the British fleet because he believed that if Germany could get to this 2:3 ratio it would be enough to be a serious threat to Britain. He also believed that Britain would take an offensive stance against Germany in the event of war which would allow Germany’s focus on U-Boats and Mines to really be used to the fullest. Tirpitz began the expansion of the German Navy in 1898 which authorized the creation of 19 battleships which set into motion the Naval Arms Race between Germany and Britain that would take us all the way to the first world war.

Britain wanted to maintain their superiority on the seas, bigger than the next two largest navies, but Germany’s expansion plans made this a problem. At the beginning British leaders weren’t that concerned, just another country building a larger navy, whatever. When the information got to the public that British naval domination could be at risk there was a public outcry. In 1904 the Navy began changing how things were done with the retirement of a huge number of obsolete vessels to cut costs to allow more new construction. They also began consolidating the navy closer to the home islands and not positioning as much strength around the world. All of these changes caused problems for Germany that counted on this dispersion of the British strength to let them maintain at least local superiority. After the defeat of the Russian Navy, seen as the primary threat to Britain at the time, during the Russo-Japanese war Britain began really focusing in on Germany and their new enemy. Admiral Fisher, the leader of the Royal Navy is quoted as saying “our only probably enemy is Germany. Germany keeps her whole fleet always concentrated within a few hours of England. We must therefore keep a Fleet twice as powerful concentrated within a few hours of Germany.” In 1905 with the creation of the Dreadnought the Royal Navy took a big jump up over the rival Germans which resulted in Tirpitz asking for more funding to make more and bigger battleships in the Dreadnought style. This continued until 1912 when Germany simply could not sustain further Naval growth. This meant that Britain would still have the larger navy. This naval race in the decade leading up to the war has always been seen as one of the causes of the first world war. This could have been because the leaders of both countries feared the strength of the other which led to more and more funding being pumped into the navy but I prefer Christopher Clark’s view on the subject in his book The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914. He says that the public outcry in both countries that was used as the catalyst for more naval funding was in fact manufactured by savy naval leaders who used it to justify more and more funding for their branches of the military. Maybe neither side really saw each other as a huge threat but instead just had to convince the governments that the other was a threat so that they could maybe have a few more dollars every year to spend on ships.

So what did all this expansion result in? Well in 1913 the British had 18 dreadnoughts and 28 pre-dreadnought battleships. This was accompanied by a very large number of cruisers and destroyers but not all of these were in the home fleet and were instead spread around the globe. The Grand Fleet which was in the home waters had a total of around 35-40 battleships and battlecruisers with of course many smaller craft surrounding them. When the war started the Grand Fleet was put together and moved to Scapa Flow in the Orkney Islands under the command of Sir John Jellicoe. Winston Churchill would go on to describe Jellicoe as “the only man on either side who could lose the war in the afternoon.” he was of course referencing the crushing blow it would have been for Britain to lose a substantial amount of the Royal Navy. Obviously Jellicoe was under no pressure during his time as Admiral of the British fleet, no pressure at all.

Facing the Royal Navy in the North Sea was the 14 dreadnoughts and 22 pre-dreadnoughts under the command of Admiral von Ingenohl. The fleet would come to be called the High Seas Fleet and it would actually end up spending much of the war in a very passive state. They would do some raiding against the British coastline early in the war but Ingenohl was under orders from the kaiser to not risk the fleet unnecesarily risking the fleet. The Germans had spent a bunch of money on the navy and they didn’t want it to disappear against the numerically superior British. One benefit that the Germans had during the war was the ability to quickly move ships from the north sea facing the British to the Baltic sea facing the Russia. This was possible by using the Kiel Canal which connected the two seas and was completed in 1895. This ability to quickly move ships would be used a few times during the war but was a real advantage of Germany’s central location.

So far we have spent a lot of time talking about the British and German navies so lets just quickly cover the Navies of France, Russia, and Austria-Hungary. All of these navies were far smaller than the two facing each other in the North Sea but they still had an effect on the war. The French were the traditional maritime enemy of the British but in 1914 they had the fourth largest navy in the world. They did not even atttempt to keep up with Britain and Germany in numbers or technology. They had a large percentage of pre-dreadnoughts with only 4 dreadnoughts compared to 17 pre-dreadnoughts. As their friendship with Britain grew before the war more and more responsibility for defense of the north coast of France was passed over the Royal Navy. By 1914 France was putting a lot of faith in Britain entering the war if only to protect their north coast from the German Navy. France chose the mediterranean as the primary theater of operations during the war and in fact almost all of their naval actions would occur within the bounds of the mediterranean sea. The third member of the Entente was Russia and before the Russo-Japanese war they had the third largest navy in the worth. The war was a disaster for them though and by the end of the war they were down to sixth largest. After the war they instituted a massive rebuilding program that did bring their numbers closer to the rest of the great powers, but they were still below. The Russians had a unique strategic problem with the need to have ships in the Baltic, Black Sea, and the Pacific. These areas didn’t have great connections between them which made shifting ships around the world difficult, especially in the winter when the northern route from the Baltic to the Pacific is frozen solid. The one area where the Russians would have a definitive advantage would be in the Black Sea against the Ottomans. The final great power in the war was Austria-Hungary and they had a small navy of 3 dreadnoughts and 6 pre-dreadnoughts. They would spend most of the war in port, again with the fleet in being concept. They did do some quick offensive actions early in the war but after the entry of Italy into the war they were pretty much bottled up for the duration of the conflict.

When I originally started this episode I planned to talk a bit about some of the influential naval personalities we will meet during the war, however since we are now a bit over 20 minutes I think I will hold that until next week so I think that is a good place to stop for the week. Next week we will continue our high seas hijinks by starting to look at what all these ships were up to in 1914. It would not be the most eventful year for the navies but they still played their part during the opening phases of the war.