16: War Upon the Seas


After last week’s introduction to the Naval situation in 1914 this week we look at the composition of the British and German Navies. Then we will delve into how the two nations planned to use their very expensive ships. Finally, we will follow them as we discover what they actually did in 1914.



Hello everyone and welcome to history of the great war episode 16. This week is the second and last part of our check in with the navies in 1914. Today we will be learning about three influential people when it came to the British and German navies and then we will look at a piece of the strategic plan of both nations with the British Blockade of Germany and the German U-Boat campaign in the atlantic. We will then cover the major naval actions that occurred during the 1914 calendar year before having a more general discussion about what role people thought navies would play in the war in contrast to the role they would actually end up playing. As I said this is the last part of the duo of episodes about the navies of 1914 and we probably won’t be back to discuss more naval action until we dive headfirst into the Gallipoli campaign early next year. One thing I would like everybody to keep in mind because I think it really does a good job of giving the root cause for a lot of the action of the navies in 1914, comes from the excellent book Catastrophe 1914: Europe Goes to War by Max Hastings. It references the greatest ghost of the Royal Navy on 1914, Horatio Nelson whose shadow reached out to them from a century in the past to place upon the sailors and ships of 1914 expectations that were very hard to meet. The reason for the lack of large battles can be summed up by the quote “In Nelson’s time, it was an extraordinary occurrence for a line-of-battle ship to fall victim to any save a vessel of comparable size. In 1914, by contrast, while dreadnoughts remained impregnable to smaller ships’ guns, they were highly vulnerable to mines and torpedoes, the latter enabling small warships to wield immense destructive power, in a fashion that seemed monstrously unfair to the schoolboy minds of some sailors.”

In our tour of three influential personalities we will start with First Sea Lord Jackie Fisher of Britain. Fisher had begun his career in the Royal navy in 1854 as a midshipman and over the next 5 decades slowly rose through the ranks of the navy becoming commander in 1869, Captain in 1876, Admiral in 1890, Second Sea Lrod in 1902 and finally First Sea Lord in 1904. For those unfamiliar with the terminology the First Sea Lord is very similar to the army Chief of Staff position. They are the highest ranking person in the navy, the top of the food chain. Fisher was an advocate for naval modernization and he pushed strongly for it during his time as First Sea Lord. He saw the benefit of choosing quality over quantity and because of this he would take 150 ships out of service soon after becoming First Sea Lord. This allowed the naval budget to decline while increasing the number of new modern ships that were available. Under his leadership the Dreadnought was created, in 1906, with all of the technological advances that we discussed in the last episode and it was also during his time that the idea of Battlecruisers came to the forefront. We haven’t discussed Battlecruisers yet but they were battleships that had most of their defensive armor removed so they were lighter and faster. There are certainly some drawbacks there but at the time lighter and faster seemed like a really good plan. In 1909 Fisher would become Baron Fisher and he would use the motto, just think about this one after I say it “Fear God and Dread Nought” get it? Dread nought? As in don’t dread but also dreadnought? It’s great right? Love it. Anyway….Fisher would then retire in 1911 only to be recalled when the war started at the age of 74. We will be meeting Fisher again next year when we start really throwing around the words like The Dardanelles and Gallipoli.

Our second character for today is quite the character, Winston Churchill. While an entire podcast could be dedicated to Churchill’s career up to 1914 what we are mostly concerned with is the fact that in 1911 he became the First Lord of the Admirality, this is a political title that made him the leader of the board of the Lords Commissioners, sometimes called the Sea Lords. When he came into the position he favored Fisher’s policy of modernization and wanted to take it one step further by converting ships to use oil instead of coal, this did start happening before the war began. I don’t necessarily want to go too much into Churchill’s actions during this episode because we will be discussing them a lot during the Gallipoli campaign. In my mind the British naval war takes on three distinct phases the war Before Gallipoli, from Gallipoli to Jutland, and from Jutland to the end of the war. Churchill and Fisher will play decisive roles in the first two phases and when we get to phase two we will spend probably far too long looking at the political maneuvering that would result in the campaign, its failure, and the resignation of both Churchill and Fisher soon after.

But enough about those pesky Brits, lets move over to the German side and talk about Admiral Tirpitz. Tirpitz was the leader of the German navy from 1897 to 1916. He was the father of the modern German navy by taking it from a tiny force to the second largest navy in the world. He was just a cadet in 1865 and would rise through the ranks much like Fisher had, he would eventually be put in command of torpedo development for the German navy, a station that at the time was right at the bleeding edge of technology. In 1890 he would become Chief of Staff of the Baltic Squadron of the navy and it is around this point that he starts having influence over Naval decisions as a whole, gaining the ear of the Kaiser particularly with his believe that Germany needed a large force of modern battleships. Soon after the Kaiser found out about Tirpitz’s views he was moved to Berlin to work on national naval strategy. Tirpitz would become State Secretary of the Imperial Naval Office in 1897 and instantly began politicking for a bill that would give the navy a massive funding boost. Up to this point the navy had been getting piecemeal yearly budgets that could change drastically from year to year. In his proposed bill Tirpitz wanted a guaranteed yearly allotment. Tirpitz really knew how to play the politics game and he got 58 million a year in funding over 8 years. This was quite the victory for the German navy and 3 years later Tirpitz would follow it up with a request for more funding, funding that would allow him to double the number of ships. It is also in this second bill that Tirpitz outlines what is now known as Tirpitz’s Risk Theory. In this theory he stated that Germany didn’t have to have the largest navy, just one big enough that if Britain wanted to destroy it the Germans could cause enough harm to cripple the Royal Navy and keep them from meeting all of their commitments around the world. To this end he sought the 2:3 German to British navy ratio that we talked about last episode. During the war Tirpitz would take on a strictly administrative role, although he would play a role later on when Germany started their campaign of unrestricted submarine warfare.

Life aboard surface ships in 1914 was a study in contrasts between the types of ships and the positioning of the sailors on the ships themselves. I thought I would throw this bit of information in so that you can have something of a picture of what life was like during the battles we will be talking about later. The one thing sailors almost always had plenty of was food, they often ate better, especially later in the war, than the civilians back home. On the larger british ships the number of eggs that were fixed for the men in the morning numbered in the thousands. The first big difference aboard ships was between the newer ships with oil fired boilers and the older ships that relied on coal. The Oil was easier to interact with and far cleaner burning. By contrast the coal ships had to have men shoveling coal into the boilers to keep the ship moving which was a very hot and nasty job, but somebody had to do it. Another split was the difference between the large ships and the small ships. The officers on the larger ships saw their roles as more prestigious, which for the most part they were throughout the war. The smaller ships were considered a lesser posting and were therefore treated as such in the social microcosm of the navy. Aboard the ships there was also a delineation between the different areas of work on the ship, the posting with the most amenities was as high on the ship as possible, these men spent their days in the fresh air of the tower or on deck, which while it could be freezing due to the spray was still better than the alternative. The first alternative was working the guns, this was hot and sweaty work while in action but was still at a point in the ship where fresh air was plentiful and the heating and cooling systems were likely to work at least most of the time. Finally at the bottom of the ships was the worst spot to be, down in the engine rooms where it was hot and stuffy, especially on the coal fired ships, these men farthest down in the ship were also far more likely to die in the event of the ship striking a mine, being hit by a torpedo, or being in action.

As I mentioned last week the main British fleet was called the Grand Fleet and it was based in Scapa Flow in the Orkney islands. The British planned to use this fleet to blockade the German fleet to prevent it from escaping the north sea into the atlantic and to keep merchant shipments from reaching Germany from the outside world. There are two kinds of blockades a close blockade, where you keep the enemy fleet very closely tied up in their port and a distant blockade where you let the enemy fleet travel around a small area but you try to make sure they stay within that designated small area. The British chose the second of these options for their blockade of the German High Seas Fleet. This was one of the reasons that the British blockade wasn’t the most effective early in the war. It can be difficult to coordinate patrols over the distances we are talking about here, which were hundreds of miles of open ocean. Another problem for the British was the fact that they were signatories of the 1856 Declaration of Paris and the 1909 Declaration of London which put some limitations on how pervasive British search and seizure activities could be while blockading the ports. This forced the British to allow a lot of the ships through where later in the war the shipments were stopped. The Royal navy was also hamstrung by the fact that Britain as a nation was so pervasive in merchant shipments at the time, this meant that early in the war there were instances of British financed shipments being sent from foreign countries on British owned ships to Germany. In essence some British businesses were giving Germany war supplies. All of these difficulties isn’t to say that the British blockade early in the war wasn’t effective there were almost instant economic effects like the shortage of horses and other draught animals that Germany suffered fairly early in the war. At this stage horses were very important for agricultural practices but also very useful for armies. The attrition rate for the animals was pretty high at the front so while Britain and France could purchase animals from overseas the Germans were stuck with the problem of having to rob more horses from the economy. The British really wouldn’t sort out their blockade until 1917, and after that point it became very efficient when it came to stopping shipments of any kind from entering Germany. For the first year of the war the primary result of the British blockade was to keep the main German fleet stuck in the North sea. The German navy wouldn’t come out to fight because the british were the superior force but the British couldn’t go attack due to the huge dangers of attacking a fleet in a protected port. This comes back to that Fleet in Being concept we talked about last week, the Germans had a fleet and they really wanted to keep it. This lack of large scale action resulted in a lot of bored sailors. In his book Catastrophe 1914 Max Hastings has a few quotes from German sailors at around this time that I thought I would just go ahead and quote since they do a fine job of encapsulating the boredom experienced by the sailors at this time Seaman Richard Stumpf says “Boredom feeds depression, everywhere people express disgruntlement at our inactivity” while Reinhold Knobloch says “Morale slides because we thought the war would be something different…nothing is going on…a tremendous carelessness and boredom prevails on board. The men of the army are envied.” There were still actions that occurred that involved small pieces of the larger fleets, but it wouldn’t be until 1916 that a large confrontation would take place. We will talk about a few of those early confrontations now.

The first naval action that we will talk about to day was the confrontation at Heligoland Bight that happened in the third week of August 1914. The battle plan was conceived by two British men, the submarine commodore Roger Keyes and the commodore Reginald Tyrwhitt. The goal of the operation was to lure a small piece of the german fleet out of harbor at a time of day when the tide was at the lowest so that the biggest German ships would not be able to leave port. Then the British would ambush the small German force hopefully dealing with the ships quickly before the tide rose again unleashing the German dreadnoughts. The two British commodores appealed directly to Churchill who, or course, loved the plan from the instant he heard about it. The British would use 3 submarines as the bait and there would be about 50 British ships waiting for the Germans. All of the British ships were smaller ships, just destroyers and cruisers, so they could not stand up to the German dreadnoughts should they appear. The commander of the Grand Fleet, Admiral Jellicoe aparently didn’t even know about the plan that was happening until the day that it began on August 26th. When he found out what was going to happen he immediately wanted to sortie the entire British fleet. Jellicoe was very concerned that any British action that did not involve the entire fleet would results in loses that would reduce the British advantage. This large sortie was veto’d by his commanders but he was able to convince them to send out some of the battlecruisers that were available. These battlecruisers were put under the command of Vice-Admiral Sir David Beatty who was known for his skill and his bold decisive actions. He was also only 43 at the time. I have been saying the age of many of the commanders throughout this entire series just so I can point out men like Beatty who were far younger than most men of their rank. This quick promotion is the greatest indicator of his skill, and maybe luck, up to this point in his career.

The ships stationed at Heligoland bight didn’t know that these Battlecruisers would be coming to their aid. The British wireless signalling system was not very advanced which made it difficult to communicate over large distances. Early on the 27th the battle really got going when the submarines surfaced near German forces and were spotted before they started running away. Just as the British planned the low tide kept the larger German ships in port but some light cruisers and destroyers were sent in pursuit of the submarines. The fighting between ships would begin at around 8AM with the area of the battle covered in a thick mist. The destroyers of both navies spent some time firing at each other but with the arrival of the German cruisers the British destroyers retreated further back to their own cruisers. The cruisers then engaged each other that resulted in damage to both sides. Arethusa the british flagship was badly damaged before being able, with her last servicable gun, to get a lucky hit on a German cruiser that put it out of action. While this was occuring the destroyers were still engaging each other with the result being another German destroyer sunk. The British destroyers were attempting to rescue some of the men stranded in the ocean when more German cruisers arrived resulting in the British leaving any survivors, to get away from the advancing Germans. In an event typical of the early months of the war a British submarine rescued a few more survivors before leaving the rest with water, biscuits, a compass, and directions to the nearest land, which was quite neighborly of them.

Around this time some cruisers from Beatty’s force, not the battlecruisers that were still a few hours away, began to arrive on the scene. The first British cruiser to be seen through the mist caused quite a stir amongst the royal navy sailors before it was identified as friendly. When Tyrwhitt found out that Beatty was on his way he sent the following message, and I quote “Am attacked by large cruisers…respectfully request that I may be supported. Am hard pressed.” Upon receipt fo this message Beatty put his 5 battlecruisers on course to Tyrwhitt at maximum cruising speed. While the battlecruisers were steaming to the rescue the German Cruiser Mainz arrived on the scene and just began wrecking house. It was only turned away when a group of several British cruisers were dispatched to stop the Mainz from having its way with some destroyers. The Mainz tried to turn and run but was caught by the British and taken out. I am sure you have noticed a pattern already so you can probably guess what happened next, 8 more German light cruisers arrvied and attacked the British cruisers that had just put the Mainz out of action. Thankfully for the British it is right about now that Beatty arrives with his larger ships and they moved as quickly as possible to engage. For an hour they fired at the German ships before realizing that time may have been about up for the operation. The tide was slowly rising and soon the German dreadnoughts would be able to join ghte battle. With this fact in the mind the British rounded up their ships and retreated from the area. It was only an hour after the British were gone that the German battleships appeared on the scene. In total the Germans lost 3 light cruisers and the destroyer while the British had 1 light cruiser and 3 destroyers damaged but all 4 ships were able to make it back to port. It was a British victory and back home it was celebrated as such. This came at a really important time for British with its armies in full retreat after the battle of Mons news of a naval victory had a positive effect on morale on the home front. On the other side the German defeat, in terms of material, wasn’t catastrophic, a few small ships lost wasn’t going to break the navy. After the battle Beatty would right about the Germans who he had faced “Poor devils, they fought their ships like men and went down with colours flying like seaman against overwhelming odds…Whatever their faults, they are gallant.” The problem with the Germans was that this action reinforced the belief that the Royal Navy was superior to the Germans. This damaging of the psyche would result in the Germans being even more cautious than they had been up to this point.

After Heligoland Bight there were two raids on the British countryside by the German navy at Yarmouth and Scarborough. Yarmouth occurred in October and was a small engagement with just a few ships. The German ships shelled the town of Yarmouth for a bit and then went back the way they had come from a fear of a British response. The ability for the German navy to get in close to the British shore and execute the raid successfully was very encouraging to the commanders of the High Seas Fleet leading almost directly to the raid in December of Scarborough. This was a far larger operation with the German Battlecruiser squadron forming the core of the raid, with the normal cruisers, light cruisers, and destroyers. The German High Seas Fleet even came out of port and moved to the each of Dogger Bank to provide assistance if needed. To face this raid the British sent a sizeable force that included 6 dreadnoughts. While the raid was occurring the German Battlecruisers and destroyers would be engaged by the British but they were still able to fire several shells at the British towns which resulted in several hundred casualties. The British force, once again under the command of Beatty arrived in all of its strength soon afterwards and gave pursuit of the retreating Germans. Unknown to Beatty he was rapidly approaching the full force of the German High seas fleet which drastically outnumbered his own small force. Thankfully for Beatty the Germans decided to retreat because they believed that Beatty’s force was just the vanguard of the entire Grand Fleet. If the Germans would have attacked there almost certainly would have been some significant losses on the side of the royal navy that would have went a long way to evening out the numbers of ships on both sides. Even with this chance missed the Germans had still won a propaganda victory, once again they had been able to fire shells on the British countryside and get out with very few losses. This raid also caused the British to strongly criticize the navy. The Royal Navy was the largest in the world, millions of pounds had been spent on the ships, but somehow the Germans were still able to attack twice and pay very little for the privilege.

Overall in 1914 the actions of the German and British navies can probably be considered a bit anticlimactic. This were the largest navies in the world facing off in their home waters and yet there hadn’t been a decisive action on either side. Both sides had spent a ton of money on their navies and yet the war at sea was no closer to being won or lost on either side after 5 months of fighting. On land the armies were throwing haymakers at each other but at sea they were just jabbing back and forth a bit. This inaction by the two largest fleets would be an influence on the decisions made in 1915 by the navies. To once again go back to Catastrophe 1914 “For both sides deterrrence and defence, preservation of assets in being, became the dominant theme of the next four years, at the expense of offensive action” Now, I think that is all for our high seas action for now. Next week we travel back to the good old land warfare of north eastern France and western Belgium. The Race to the Sea ends at a town that would be etched into the British collective conciousness for generations, Ypres.