Something that has always struck me about warfare, is that sometimes one of the belligerents can win, without actually ‘winning’. Rather, by not losing. And I guess that could be said about the naval war between 1914 and 1918. The onus was clearly on the German High Seas Fleet to knock the British Grand Fleet off of its perch. Given its numerical inferiority this would have taken something qute special. Hence the Royal Navy could afford to go to battle and not win, as long it was not outright defeated. For the Germans, on the other hand, nothing less than decisive victory would do.
The Great War was in part sparked by the Kaiser’s desire to build a blue-water fleet, modelled on the Royal Navy. In this he was eagerly encouraged by Admiral Von Tirpitz. The problem was, the Germans were starting from such a handicapped position – the Royal Navy was by far the largest on the waves, and had known nothing but victory for hundreds of years. Added to this, the Germans desired to develop an overseas empire – which could only be done with the help of a significant ocean going navy.
The Great War was possibly the last European conflict in which it was thought possible that both sides massed fleets could collide in set-piece battle, a la Trafalgar. In fact, this was eagerly awaited by the British public, supremely confident of a knockout blow in Nelsonian style. In fact, the stalemate at Jutland was a great disappointment to a public used to victory at sea. But what was lost on many people, was that unless the Germans could send the majority of the Grand Fleet to the bottom of the ocean, the Dreadnoughts would still keep the German fleet bottled up in harbour.In the end, the Grand Fleet possessed enough strength – muscle and numerical – to maintain superiority in the North Sea.
For the first time in hundreds of years, a foreign fleet actually bombarded the British Isles. Early on in the war German Battleships shelled North Eastern towns, including Hartlepool and Scarborough. Although little damage was done, there was a significant dent in civilian morale. British citizens expected the Royal Navy to keep foes well away. However, the Grand Fleet was stationed at Scapa Flow in the Orkneys, in order to guard the exit from the North Sea between Scotland and Iceland. Although this kept the Germans bottled up and the fleet far enough away to strike back flexibly, it meant that, if they got their timings right, the Germans could mount hit and run raids on the North Sea Coast.
In amongst the last throes of Nelsonian battles, the seeds of future conflicts could be seen. Sea mines began to make their appearance on the waves (more of them in the coming days), air power became a factor, in the shape of the new zeppelins and embryonic aircraft, and not least, submarine warfare became a significant factor in the war. The Germans, in particular, identified weapons such as the mine and the submarine as assets that could be used from a position of weakness to attack the allies at sea, in particular Britain. At times later in the war, British Government figures became seriously concerned that German submarines might sink enough merchant shipping to cut Britain’s lifeline and force her out of the war – something that would be a very real risk just over 20 years later.
In fact, the are many echoes of the Second World War, that were first rung in the first. When HMS Hood was destroyed in 1941, it was due to inadequate armoured protection, that had been sacrificed in order to give her more speed. The very same thing had happened to a number of Battlecruisers at Jutland in 1916, yet the lessons were not learnt. It could also be argued that there were enough warnings between 1914 and 1918 about the growing importance of airpower, submarines and mines, but knowledge of these aspects of naval warfare were sadly neglected between the wars, leading to costly mistakes and the re-learning of lessons after 1939.
As someone who, one – is writing a book about the First World War, and two – doesn’t actually know much about the First World War, books like this are a godsend. It helps me put the hundreds of Portsmouth men who died at Jutland into much more fitting context.