Britain and Germany: The War at Sea 1914-1918 (Parts I and II)
2nd and 16th July 2019
Club member Peter Stubbs’ talk on the war at sea between Britain and Germany during World War I, was presented at two consecutive meetings. At the first, he described how the Naval Defence Act of 1889 required the British navy to be increased in strength such that it became at least as powerful as the world’s next two largest navies combined. This was to safeguard the trading routes between Britain and its Empire upon which it relied for providing the vast amounts of raw materials needed for food and industry. At the time, the greatest threat was seen to come from France and Russia, rather than the German states, many of which had previously been allies of Britain. However, all this was to change when the German Emperor, Kaiser Wilhelm II, embarked on a course aimed at making Germany into a major world power by rapidly expanding his own navy.
The British response to this escalation of Germany's naval capabilities was to modernise the Royal Navy. This included the introduction of the Dreadnought class of battleships together with their escort destroyers and submarines. Hence, as the speaker explained, although Germany at the outbreak of hostilities in 1914 was the pre-eminent European power on land, Britain still retained its dominance at sea. Throughout that year, there were several skirmishes between the British and German fleets, many of them inconclusive, until on the 7th December, a major battle was fought in the waters around the Falkland Islands. On this occasion, the Royal Navy was clearly victorious which resulted in Britain re-establishing her control over the seas around the world except for the North Sea and the Western Approaches.
In his second talk, Peter described how vulnerable Britain still remained closer to home. On 16th December 1914, the Germans launched an attack by shelling from warships on Scarborough, Whitby and Hartlepool. These were predominantly civilian targets and the resulting outrage at this unprovoked action served to boost recruitment to the British war effort and to sway previously neutral countries towards the British cause.
The conventional war at sea continued until the Battle of Jutland in 1916. Both sides suffered heavy losses but thereafter the German High Seas Fleet remained in port for the rest of the war. In effect, the surface war was ended. However, the German navy deployed submarines which, by attacking merchant shipping, threatened Britain’s essential supplies of imports. One such attack, in this case on a passenger liner, RMS Lusitania, eventually led to the United States declaring war on Germany. The enormous losses caused by submarines were becoming unsustainable but, finally, the situation was resolved by Britain employing the convoy system whereby groups of merchant ships were escorted throughout their voyage by warships.
At the end of the war in 1918, the German fleet was interned at Scapa Flow where the ships were manned with skeleton crews of German sailors under British guard. It was in the following year, while negotiations over their disposal were in progress among the victorious allies, that the ships were scuttled by the German crews themselves.
This was a fascinating and absorbing story which demonstrated the enormous amount of research which Peter had carried out into his subject.
Ian Johnston and Peter Stubbs