Discover more about the First World War at Sea
The First World War at Sea
At the outbreak of the First World War, the Royal Navy was the most powerful maritime force in the world. Soon after Britain's declaration of war in 1914, the Royal Navy established a blockade intended to cut off supply routes to the Central Powers and strangle their war economies. Around the world, from the Pacific to the South Atlantic, German raiders were gradually eliminated. Minefields and patrols were established to guard the entrances to the English Channel and the North Sea. German mines, meanwhile, proved a constant menace in British coastal waters, accounting for the loss of more than 1,800 merchant vessels. By early 1915, all supplies bound for Germany and Austria-Hungary by sea were routinely confiscated, while Germany began to use its small fleet of submarines - Unterseeboots or U-boats - to break the blockade and to attack British naval vessels and merchant shipping. Several warships were sunk, but cargo ships were initially given time to surrender.
In February 1915, Germany declared the waters around Britain a war zone and lifted the restrictions on its U-boat commanders, who began to attack merchant ships without warning. In May 1915, the passenger liner Lusitania sank after a torpedo hit, resulting in the deaths of nearly 1,200 of those on board, including more than 120 American citizens. Although the vessel was carrying munitions, the episode contributed to international criticism of Germany and provided powerful material for Allied propaganda. Reaction in America was particularly negative and, after the sinking of another passenger ship, SS Sussex, Germany was forced to reinstate a more restricted approach.
RMS Luitania which was sunk by German Submarine U20 on 7 May 1915. IWM Q43227.
Germany's High Seas Fleet was powerful, but was no match for the full force of Admiral Sir John Jellicoe's Grand Fleet, based at Scapa Flow in Orkney. The German naval commander Admiral Scheer developed a strategy which employed small raiding parties to attack eastern coastal towns such as Great Yarmouth and Hartlepool, or merchant ships, in an attempt to lure out British warships which could be picked off by submarines or led into a strong German fleet waiting over the horizon. After a few smaller engagements over the course of 1915 and 1916, a full-scale battle became increasingly likely, particularly because British naval intelligence was able to decrypt German radio messages and gain vital information about the movements of the German fleet.
On 30 May 1916, British forces put to sea aiming to intercept the German High Seas Fleet. In the vanguard was Admiral Sir David Beatty's battlecruiser squadron, which encountered its German equivalent, commanded by Admiral Franz von Hipper, at 2.28 p.m. on the afternoon of 31 May. During the gunnery duel which ensued, as both forces sailed south, Beatty's flagship HMS Lion suffered damage, and HMS Indefatigable and HMS Queen Mary exploded and sank when German shells penetrated their magazines.
Sick or wounded sailor being transferred for medical treatment. Scapa was an important base for hospital ships. NMRN 1995/114.1.
On sighting the High Seas Fleet, Beatty turned north towards the Grand Fleet. In pursuit, Scheer's forces found Jellicoe's dreadnoughts deployed across his path, and the full weight of British fire focused on his ships. Although the battlecruiser HMS Invincible was sunk in the ensuing engagement, the High Seas Fleet faced imminent disaster and so Scheer turned away in retreat. As the two forces moved south, the Germans twice escaped through smokescreens and destroyer attacks, losing ships as they went. As night fell, Jellicoe deployed his forces to cover the escape routes to the south, while Scheer made for the Danish coast to the east, passing behind the main British fleet and escaping under cover of darkness.
Around 100,000 men fought at Jutland in 150 British and 100 German vessels. In all, the British lost 14 ships and more than 6,000 Commonwealth sailors and marines were killed, while the German fleet lost 11 ships and around 2,500 men. Despite negative public reaction in Britain at the outcome, the Royal Navy retained command of the sea and was soon ready for action again. It took several weeks before the High Seas Fleet was able to venture out once more and, unable to break British dominance at sea with his warships, Scheer turned back to submarines.
The British Grand Fleet cruising in line in the North Sea on the eve of the Battle of Jutland, May 1916. IWM Q 18121.
Along with the failure of the High Seas Fleet to damage Britain's dominance in the North Sea, and the impact of the battles of Verdun and the Somme, food shortages in Germany heightened support for the resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare in February 1917. U-boats had achieved significant success at the end of 1916, sinking more than a million tons of shipping in the autumn and winter. It was evident that adopting unrestricted sinking would inevitably draw America into the war, so it was imperative for Germany that her submarines should bring Britain to the negotiating table before the full might of American arms could be brought to bear on the Western Front. In March 1917, U-boats sank three American merchant vessels, and the USA declared war on Germany the following month.
Over the spring of 1917, the U-boats achieved great success, causing deep concern to British political and naval leaders. But the introduction of protective convoys dramatically altered the fortunes of the German submarine fleet, which failed to win its wager against the combined power of the Allies and America. In late 1918, mutinies among German sailors helped to precipitate the decision of the German high command to seek an Armistice.
Sailors played an important logistical role across the world, enabling the movement of men, armaments and supplies. Allied forces on the Western Front relied heavily on the Royal Navy's control of the English Channel, and every other theatre of war where Commonwealth forces were engaged depended to some degree on seaborne supplies. Whether serving aboard submarines or dreadnoughts, minesweepers or merchant vessels, sailors made a vital contribution to the war effort, helping to create the conditions for Allied victory. Such was the global reach of the Royal and merchant navies that their graves can be found from north Russia to South Africa, from America to the Far East. Yet most sailors who died during the war have no grave but the sea, and their names are inscribed on naval memorials erected along the shorelines from which they sailed.