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The Sinking of SMS Zenta 16 August 1914

France did not declare war on Austria-Hungary until 12 August 1914, with Britain following suit the next day. Vice Admiral Augustin Boué de Lapeyrère, the commander of Anglo-French naval forces in the Mediterranean was ordered to take the offensive against the Austro-Hungarians. His initial task of protecting French troops moving from North Africa to France had by then been largely completed.

The French navy’s war plans had assumed that it would be fighting both Austria-Hungary and its ally Italy, so it had no plan to fight only Austria-Hungary. An attack on the enemy’s main base at Pola, now Pula in Croatia, was thought to be too risky.

De Lapeyrère decided that a sweep into the Adriatic to relieve the Austro-Hungarians blockade of Montenegro might provoke the enemy’s main battle fleet into coming out to fight. This would give the Allies an opportunity to win a decisive victory.

The Austro-Hungarian fleet was heavily outnumbered by the Allied one, which consisted mostly of French ships, but included a few British cruisers and destroyers. The British Mediterranean Fleet’s battlecruisers were watching the Dardanelles in case the German battlecruiser SMS Goeben and light cruiser SMS Breslau came out. Other British ships had been sent to the Red Sea in case German cruisers attempted to attack troopships heading from India to Egypt.

De Lapeyrère’s plan was to take his main battle fleet, showing no lights, along the Italian coast as far as the latitude of the Austrian base at Cattaro, now Kotor in Montenegro. They would then head towards Cattaro and destroy the Austro-Hungarian blockade force, which would have been driven towards them by a force of light cruisers commanded by the British Rear Admiral Ernest Troubridge.

The trap swung shut on 16 August, but caught only the small and old Austro-Hungarian light cruiser SMS Zenta. It fought gallantly but was overwhelmed and sunk in ten minutes. The action was sufficiently close to the coast that the survivors were able to make the shore. A destroyer escaped.

Unsurprisingly, the Austro-Hungarian fleet did not come out to face an enemy that heavily outnumbered it. Paul Halpern notes that ‘[a] curious feature of many prewar plans was the near total absence of what to do next if the enemy fleet did not come out to do battle.’[1]

The Austro-Hungarian naval plan was to maintain a fleet in being. The Allies were hampered by a lack of bases and the French navy’s shortage of colliers and oilers to fuel a fleet that consumed 5,000 tons of coal and 1,000 tons of oil per day.[2] De Lapeyrère was forced to rotate his ships between the Adriatic and Malta.

 

[1] P. G. Halpern, A Naval History of World War I (London: UCL Press, 1994), p. 59.

[2] Figures from Ibid.

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SMS Goeben and Breslau Escape to Constantinople August 1914

At the outbreak of war the Royal Navy’s Mediterranean Fleet was commanded by Admiral Sir Archibald Berkley Milne, a well connected officer whose career had benefitted from his service on the royal yacht. His father had commanded the RN’s North America and West Indies Station during the American Civil War and his grandfather had also been an admiral.

Milne had been told by the Admiralty on 30 July that in the event of war:

‘The attitude of Italy is, however, uncertain, and it is especially important that your squadron should not be seriously engaged with Austrian ships before we know what Italy will do. Your first task should be to aid the transportation of their African Army, and if possible, bringing to action individual fast German ships, particularly Goeben, who may interfere with that transportation…Do not at this stage be brought to action against superior forces, except in combination with the French, as part of a general battle. The speed of your squadron is sufficient to enable you to choose your moment.’[1]

The German Mediterranean squadron, commanded by Rear Admiral Wilhelm Souchon, consisted of the battlecruiser SMS Goeben and the light cruiser SMS Breslau.

Goeben was armed with 11 inch guns compared with the 12 inch guns of the three British battlecruisers, HMS Inflexible, Indefatigable and Indomitable, in the Mediterranean. However, she had 12 of them compared with eight in the British ships and was faster and better armoured than them. Rear Admiral Ernest Troubridge’s First Cruiser Squadron included four armoured cruisers, HMS Defence, Black Prince, Duke of Edinburgh and Warrior. They were armed with 9.2 inch and either 6 inch or 7.5 inch guns.

 Goeben’s broadside was 6,680 lbs, more than any individual ship, but far less than the combined totals of 15,300 lbs for the British battlecruisers and 8,680 lbs for the armoured cruisers. [2]

Breslau was faster than the four British light cruisers, but was armed with 12 4.1 inch guns compared with HMS Gloucester‘s two 6 inch and 10 4 inch and the other three British ships’ eight 6 inch guns. The British also had 16 destroyers, but they were of the relatively slow Beagle class, the last coal fired British destroyers.

The bulk of the French navy was in the Mediterranean under the command of Vice Admiral Augustin Boué de Lapeyrère. He had been Minister of Marine from 1909-11, producing a coherent plan for the expansion of the French navy after a period in which it lacked a strategy because of frequent change in the Minister of Marine.

De Lapeyrère divided the French Mediterranean fleet, the 1ère armée navale into three group. One consisted of six semi-dreadnoughts, three armoured cruisers and twelve destroyers; the second of a dreadnought, five pre-dreadnoughts, three armoured cruisers and twelve destroyers; and the last of four older pre-dreadnoughts. Its main task at the outbreak of war was to protect the transit of the French XIX Corps from Algeria to France.

Britain and France had agreed that their combined forces in the Mediterranean would be commanded by a French admiral. As Milne was senior to de Lapeyrère, this meant that the British contingent would be commanded at sea by Troubridge. The combined Anglo-French fleet comfortably outnumbered the Austro-Hungarian navy and the German Mediterranean squadron,

The two sides would have been evenly balanced had Italy entered the war on the side of its Triple Alliance, but it declared its neutrality on 2 August. Fear that the long Italian coastline was vulnerable to Anglo-French naval attacks was a factor in this decision. It was justified on the grounds that the alliance was defensive and Austria-Hungary was the aggressor in the war.

Robert Halpern describes Italian neutrality in 1914 ‘as being one of their biggest services to the British and French during the war.’[3] See this post for the naval balance in 1914.

Milne was told by the Admiralty on at 12:55 pm on 3 August that ‘the Italian Government have declared neutrality. You are to respect this neutrality rigidly and should not allow any of H.M. ships to come within 6 miles of the Italian coast.’[4]

As well as meaning that his fleet was outnumbered, Italian neutrality restricted the options open to the Austro-Hungarian fleet commander Admiral Anton Haus. He could have moved his fleet into the Mediterranean had Italy been allied to Austria-Hungary, but the location of its only major base at Pola, now Pula in Croatia, meant that it was now restricted to the Adriatic.

The Chief of the Austrian General Staff Field Marshall Franz Conrad von Hötzendorff, supported by Foreign Minister Count Leopold Berchtold, wanted the fleet to move to the Black Sea to operate against the Russians. He feared that it would soon be destroyed by the Anglo-French fleet. Haus rejected this: his fleet would lack bases, coal stocks and a fleet train in the Black Sea; the Allies might destroy it in transit; and the Austro-Hungarian Adriatic coast would be left unprotected.

Goeben was at Pola undergoing repairs to her boilers when Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia on 28 July. Souchon, according to Robert Massie, did not want to be ‘subordinate to an Austrian admiral not inclined to fight Britain and France.’[5] He therefore sailed the next day with the repairs incomplete. He had difficulties obtaining coal from Italian ports, but replenished his supplies from German merchant ships at Messina.

On the evening of 3 August, the day that Germany declared war on France, Goeben and Breslau fired the first shots of the naval war when they bombarded the French ports of Philippeville and Bône in Algeria.

Souchon’s subsequent options appeared to be to attempt to exit the Mediterranean via the Straits of Gibraltar or to return to Pola, possibly first attacking the French troop transports.

Unknown to the Allies, Germany and the Ottoman Empire had signed an alliance on 2 August. In the early hours of 4 August Souchon received a signal ordering him to make for Constantinople, now Istanbul. Goeben did not have enough coal to make the voyage at its normal cruising speed, so he ordered a return to Messina to refuel.

Milne, aware that the German had been at Taranto, guessed correctly that she would then make for Messina, but they had left by the time that the light cruiser HMS Chatham arrived. At 6:30 pm [times quoted are local unless otherwise stated] he was ordered that ‘two battle-cruisers must proceed to Straits of Gibraltar at high speed ready to prevent Goeben leaving Mediterranean.’[6]

At 10:46 am on 4 August Indomitable and Indefatigable reported that they had sighted Goeben and Breslau. Britain and Germany were not yet at war, but the British ships, later joined by the light cruiser HMS Dublin, tailed the German ones. The British battlecruisers could not keep up with the Germans, losing sight of them at 5 pm. Dublin stayed in touch with them until 10:25 pm.[7]

The British vessels needed their hulls to be de-fouled and their engines overhauled. They had peace rather than war complements, which meant that they were short of stokers. Coal fired ships needed more stokers in order to maintain full speed, so carried more in wartime than in peacetime.

Indomitable reported that the Germans were making 26-27 knots.[8] Arthur Marder says that Goeben ‘managed to increase her speed to 24 knots for a short period. Her mean speed from noon to 8 pm was 22.5 knot.’[9] This exaggeration of the speed of the German ships would have consequences later.

War between Britain and Germany began at 11 pm British time (midnight Central European) on 4 August, but neither Britain nor France was yet at war with Austria-Hungary.

The German ships reached Messina in the early hours of 5 August. Milne argued that his orders to stay more than six miles from the Italian coast meant that he could not follow the Germans into the straits of Messina because they were only two miles wide. He further claimed that the Germans could have escaped from any ship more than six miles from the Italian coast because of their greater speed.

Milne expected Souchon move north out of the Straits of Messina, head west and attack the French troop transports. Alternatively, he could take the south exit and head for the Adriatic.

Milne took his flagship HMS Inflexible to join Indefatigable well to the west of the Straits of Messina. Indomitable was sent to Bizerte to refill her coal bunkers. Troubridge and his armoured cruisers were near Corfu in case Souchon headed for the Adriatic. The light cruiser HMS Gloucester was the closest British warship to Messina, covering the south exit.

At 10 am on 6 August Indomitable informed Milne that ‘[t]he French Admiral reports first transport left Algerian coast and French Fleet will not probably be free until 10th August as second shipment is necessary.’[10]

Milne appeared not to realise that the troopships were now sufficiently protected since at 4:33 pm he offered the French the assistance of ‘two battle-cruisers and 1 light cruisers’ if the Germans had sailed undetected.[11]

Souchon sailed at 5:00 pm. His plan was to feint towards Pola, before turning towards Constantinople after dark. Half an hour after issuing his orders he was informed by the German Admiralty that ‘[a]rrival Constantinople not possible for political reasons’, but decided to go ahead anyway.[12]

Milne was informed of the German departure by Gloucester at 6:16 pm.[13] He then headed west, as his orders prevented him entering the Straits of Messina and the Germans might still turn west towards the transports after exiting the southern end of the Straits.

Too late, a signal from the Admiralty told him that ‘[i]f Goeben goes south from Messina, you should follow through the Straits, irrespective of territorial waters.’[14] It was sent at 7:45 pm, but not received until 10:54 pm.

Gloucester, under the command of Captain Howard Kelly, followed the Germans as Goeben tried to sail as quickly as possible. Kelly managed to keep his superiors informed of the German movements despite their attempts to jam his ship’s wireless transmissions, Souchon did not know that Gloucester was alone, so could not take the chance of turning back to sink her.

Unknown to Souchon, the risk of a major action had already passed. Troubridge, with his four armoured cruisers and eight destroyers, was positioned off Cephalonia, south of Corfu. However, his destroyers were short of coal. The light cruiser Dublin, captained by Howard Kelly’s brother John, and the destroyers HMS Beagle and Bulldog were on the way to join him. John Kelly intended to be in position to attack Goeben at 3:30 am on 7 August, but his ships failed to find the enemy.

Troubridge at first assumed that Souchon was heading for the Adriatic and that he was heading south in order to shake off Southampton. He headed north, with the intention of engaging them in narrow waters where he could choose his range.

At midnight, however, he realised that the Germans were going to the eastern Mediterranean. He could intercept them, but the action would take place in daylight. E. W. R. Lumby says that Troubridge believed that his squadron could defeat the enemy only ‘by night, in half light, or in narrow waters.’[15]

Troubridge had earlier told Milne that ‘I consider a battle-cruiser to be a superior force to a cruiser squadron, unless they can get within their range of her.’ Milne replied ‘That question won’t arise as you will have the Indomitable and Indefatigable with you’, which in the event he did not.[16]

Although he thought that to do so would break his orders not to engage a superior force, Troubridge had reluctantly decided to attack, telling his Flag Captain Fawcet Wray at 2:45 am on 7 August that ‘[t]he Mediterranean [Fleet] will stink if we don’t attack her.’ He later explained to his court martial that thought that the Fleet ought not to have allowed Goeben to escape from the Straits of Messina.

However, at 3:30 am Wray persuaded Troubridge that engaging Goeben was ‘likely to be the suicide of your squadron.’[17] Goeben was faster and had longer ranged guns, so would be able to stand off and destroy the British squadron. At 4:49 am Troubridge signalled to Milne that:

‘Being only able to meet Goeben outside the range of our guns and inside his I have abandoned the chase with my squadron request instructions for light cruisers. Goeben evidently going to Eastern Mediterranean. I had hoped to have met her before daylight.’[18]

Wray later claimed that his advice ‘was not given with the intention of dissuading [Troubridge] from continuing the chase of the Goeben’, stating that ‘I actually remonstrated with him when I realised that he had decided to abandon the chase.’[19] His objection was to the idea that the British squadron might ‘lie across Goeben’s bows and more or less go bald-headed for her.’[20]

Gloucester continued to pursue the enemy. She exchanged fire with Breslau at 1:35 pm. Goeben then joined in, forcing Gloucester to withdraw, but Souchon could not afford to waste coal engaging a light cruiser. Only Breslau was hit, but she suffered no casualties and her speed was unaffected.

Goeben was pushing her machinery and men to the limit. Massie says that leaks of boiling water from her partially repaired boiler tubes meant that ‘[f]our men were scalded to death.’[21] The chase continued until the ships reached Cape Matapan at 4:40 pm. Gloucester was almost out of coal and Kelly had been explicitly ordered by Milne to go no further.

The British still had one chance. Milne took his battlecruisers east, but slowly. On 8 August, the Admiralty erroneously signalled him that Britain was at war with Austria-Hungary. An over-zealous clerk had seen a telegram prepared in advance of the declaration of war and sent it too soon. Milne therefore abandoned the chase until he was informed of the mistake.

The Germans were delayed by Goeben’s need to coal, so Milne might have caught them without the 24 hour delay caused by the telegram error. They reached the Dardanelles on the evening on 10 August, still not knowing if they would be welcome, which they were.

The next evening the British light cruiser HMS Weymouth, sent ahead of the battlecruisers by Milne, was turned away from the Dardanelles after being informed that Goeben and Breslau were now the Ottoman ships Yavuz Sultan Selim and Midilli. They formally changed hands on 16 August, but retained their German crews, who wore fezzes on ceremonial occasions. Souchon was appointed commander of the Ottoman fleet on 23 September.

The presence of these two ships in Turks led the British keeping Indomitable, Indefatigable, Defence, Gloucester and all available destroyers in the eastern Aegean. They were nominally under de Lapeyrère’s command, but effectively the force was separate from the Allied fleet in the rest of the Mediterranean.

Of the British commanders, only Howard Kelly, who was made a Companion of the Bath, came out of this well.

Milne was cleared of any blame, but did not receive another appointment. He had previously been told his next position would be the prestigious Nore Command. This went instead to Admiral Sir George Callaghan, who had been removed from command of the Grand Fleet on the outbreak of war, five months before his term was due to expire. Admiral of the Fleet Lord Fisher, who had previously called Milne ‘a serpent of the lowest order’ when Milne took Admiral Lord Charles Beresford’s side in his feud with Fisher, said that he would ‘have shot Sir Berkeley Milne for the Goeben.’[22]

Milne’s best option would seem to me to have been the one that Marder proposes, namely to close the north exit of the Straits of Messina with two battlecruisers and the south one with the other one and Troubridge’s squadron.[23] Since their guns had a range of over six miles, the ships could have waited outside Italian territorial waters.

Troubridge initially remained in command of the RN forces in the Aegean, but was then called in front of a Court of Inquiry. It sent him for a Court Martial, where he was defended by a leading barrister, Leslie Scott KC MP, and acquitted. This made it hard for the Admiralty to refuse him further employment, but he was giving only shore based jobs. He was knighted and finished his career with the rank of Admiral.

Although Goeben was vastly superior to any of Troubridge’s ships, he had four armoured cruisers, two light cruisers and a number of destroyers. I would agree with Admiral Prince Louis Battenberg, the First Sea Lord, argued that ‘[s]uperior speed (which undoubtedly existed) in a single ship can be nullified by proper tactical dispositions of four units.’[24]

It is difficult to see how Goeben could have kept out of the gun range of all the armoured cruisers and the torpedo range of all the light cruisers and destroyers. Any damage that reduced her speed would have enabled the British battlecruisers to catch her and steaming at full speed during a battle would have used a lot of her coal.

Commenting on Troubridge’s acquittal, Rear Admiral Frederick Tudor, the Third Sea Lord, thought that Troubridge’s ships ‘stood a chance of being severely punished’ if they had attacked. but that it was ‘out of the question’ that Goeben had enough ammunition to destroyed all of them.[25]

One point that perhaps says a lot about the RN’s attitude to ship design is that the arguments over Troubridge’s conduct revolved around the relative speeds, firepower and gun ranges of the ships involved. Little was said about the Goeben’s superior armour.

Wray was, according to Marder, ‘virtually ostracised’ in the RN.[26] However, he received a number of commands during the rest of the war and was awarded the DSO when captaining HMS Talbot in the Dardanelles. He was promoted to Rear Admiral on retirement and later to Vice Admiral on the Retired List.

Finally, the Admiralty must take a lot of blame. It sent a series of confusing orders instead of giving the local commanders all the facts and then leaving them to make the decisions.

Its order to Milne quoted at the beginning of this post told him to avoid battle with ‘superior forces’ but to seek battle Goeben, whilst noting his squadron’s speed. Taken together these comments appear to mean that the ‘superior forces’ were the Austrian battleships, but this was not explicitly stated, resulting in Troubridge concluding that Goeben was a ‘superior force’, with which he should avoid battle.

 

[1] Admiralty to C.-in-C., 3:10 pm, 30 July 1914 quoted in E. W. R. Lumby, Policy and Operations in the Mediterranean, 1912-14 (London: Navy Records Society, 1970), p. 146. Orginal source National Archives ADM 137/19

[2] Figures from A. J. Marder, From the Dreadnought to Scapa Flow; the Royal Navy in the Fisher Era, 1904-1919, 5 vols. (London: Oxford University Press, 1961-70). ii, p. 21

[3] P. G. Halpern, A Naval History of World War I (London: UCL Press, 1994), p. 52.

[4] Admiralty to C.-in-C. and Admiral Superintendent, Malta, 12:55 pm 3 August 1914 quoted in Lumby, Policy, p. 157. Original Source ADM 137/19.

[5] R. K. Massie, Castles of Steel: Britain, Germany, and the Winning of the Great War at Sea (London: Jonathan Cape, 2004), p. 27.

[6] Admiralty to C.-in-C. 6:30 pm 3 August 1914 quoted in  Lumby, Policy, p. 153. Original source ADM 137/19.

[7] Times in this paragraphs are from signals quoted in Ibid., pp. 163-64. Original sources Naval Staff Monograph No. 21, The Mediterranean 1914-15, Appendix B.

[8] Signal of 4:10 pm 3 August quoted in Ibid., p. 160. Original source ‘Naval Staff Monograph No. 21′, Appendix B.

[9] Marder, From. ii, p. 23. His source is Hermann Lorey, Der Krieg zur See, 1914-1918. Der Krieg in den turkischen Gewassern (Berlin, 1928-38, 2 vols.), vol. i, pp. 6-7.

[10] Signal of 10:00 am 6 August 1914 quoted in Lumby, Policy, p. 170. Original source ‘Naval Staff Monograph 21′, Appendix B.

[11] Signal of 4:33 pm quoted in Ibid., p. 171. Original source ‘Naval Staff Monograph 21′, Appendix B.

[12] Quoted in J. S. Corbett, H. Newbolt, Naval Operations, 5 vols. (London: HMSO, 1938). i. p. 63.

[13] Signal of 6:16pm 6 August 1914 quoted in Lumby, Policy, p. 172. Original source ‘Naval Staff Monograph 21′, Appendix B.

[14] Signal of 7:45 pm quoted in Ibid., p. 173. Original source ADM 137/19.

[15] Ibid., p. 142.

[16] The Court of Inquiry and the Court Martial 7 September to 9 November 1914 Ibid., p. 367. Original source ADM 156/76

[17] Ibid., p. 324.

[18] Signal of 4:49 am 7 August 1914 quoted in Ibid., p. 181. Original source ‘Naval Staff Monograph 21′, Appendix B

[19] ‘Declaration of Captain Fawcet Wray, 3 August 1917′ Ibid., p. 404. Original source Roskill Paper, which are now ar Churchill Ciollege, Cambridge..

[20] Ibid., p. 406.

[21] Massie, Castles, p. 44.

[22] Quoted in Marder, From. ii. pp. 32-33.

[23] Ibid. ii, p. 24

[24] Ibid. ii, p. 33.

[25] ‘Minutes commenting upon the Court Martial Proceedings, By the Third Sea Lord, 9 December 1914′ Lumby, Policy, p. 398. Original source ADM 156/76.

[26] Marder, From. ii, p. 27, note 5.

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HMS Birmingham Sinks U15 on 9 August 1914

The U-boat became the German navy’s main weapon in both the World Wars of the twentieth century, but Germany was initially slow to adopt the submarine. Holger Herwig notes that Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, the architect of the German navy, favoured battleships and had little time for either cruiser warfare or submarines.[1] The first U-boat was not completed until late 1906. Rudolf Diesel was German, but the first U-boats with diesel engines were not introduced until 1910. French submarines had used diesel engines from 1904. The switch to the diesel engine meant that the U-boat was considered a potentially decisive weapon for the first time, but against the enemy battle fleet, not merchant shipping.

In 1914 Germany possessed only 24 operational boats. Another four were used for training and 16 were under construction. Only 10 of the operational boats had diesel engines; the others used Körting heavy fuel oil engines that produced a great deal of smoke and sparks. This made them very visible on the surface and required ventilation pipes; stowing these slowed diving.

On 6 August 1914 the German navy sent 10 U-boats into the North Sea, but U9 had to return home early because of engine problems. Two days later the dreadnought HMS Monarch, carrying out gunnery practice near Fair Isle, between Shetland and Orkney, was narrowly missed by a torpedo fired by a U-boat.

Paul Halpern comments that Roger Keyes, then Captain (S), the commander of the RN’s submarines, later wrote ‘that the fact that the Monarch was performing such a task within 500 miles of Helgoland was an example of the navy’s general ignorance of submarine powers and limitations.’[2] The RN had proved in 1910 that its submarines could operate more than 500 miles away from their bases, but apparently did not consider the possibility that the Germans could do the same.

About dawn on 9 August the light cruiser HMS Birmingham, part of a screen 30 miles ahead of the Grand Fleet, observed through the mist a submarine stationary on the surface. The sounds of hammering coming from the submarine, which was U15, suggested that her crew were trying to repair an engine fault.

Birmingham closed the range and opened fire. U15 moved forward slowly, but Birmingham rammed her and cut her in two. U15 sank with all hands. Robert Massie says that 23 men went down with her, although Conway’s All the World’s Fighting Ships 1906-1921 gives her normal crew as 29.[3]

The need for ships meant that only temporary repairs could be carried out to Birmingham at first, so she retained two scars along her bows for some months. U15’s sister boat U13 also failed to return home from the cruise, probably after hitting a mine.

This mission had cost the Germans two U-boats in return for minor, self-inflicted damage to a light cruiser and had shown that the early U-boats were mechanically unreliable. R. H. Gibson and Maurice Prendergast state in the history of the German Submarine War 1914-1918 that:

Not even the hardiest optimist could pretend that the submarine had vindicated its war value by this expedition. Yet, had the Germans known, the effect of the cruise had caused uneasiness to their opponents…it was confidently predicted by some – but not by naval officers – that all other U-boats would soon follow U15 to the bottom.[4]

As soon as the requirement to cover the crossing of the British Expeditionary Force to France was over, Admiral Sir John Jellicoe withdrew his Grand Fleet north west of Orkney. Future sweeps into the North Sea were carried out as quickly as possible.

Jellicoe was concerned that Scapa Flow was poorly defended, so ordered the preparation of a secondary base at Loch Ewe on the west coast of Scotland. Halpern notes that ‘Jellicoe actually felt safer at sea than he did in Scapa Flow.’[5]

This German cruise featured the first attack by a submarine launched torpedo on a moving warship. The Turtle, which made several unsuccessful attacks on British ships in the American War of Independence, and the CSS Hunley, which sank the USS Housatonic in the American Civil War, attacked by attaching explosive devices to the hulls of stationary ships. U15 was the first submarine to be sunk by an enemy ship in the war.

[1] H. H. Herwig, ‘Luxury’ Fleet: The Imperial German Navy, 1888-1918 (London: Allen & Unwin, 1980), p. 88.

[2] P. G. Halpern, A Naval History of World War I (London: UCL Press, 1994), p. 29.

[3] R. Gray, Conway’s All the World’s Fighting Ships, 1906-1921 (London: Conway Maritime Press, 1985), p. 175; R. K. Massie, Castles of Steel: Britain, Germany, and the Winning of the Great War at Sea (London: Jonathan Cape, 2004), p. 79.

[4] R. H. Gibson, M. Prendergast, The German Submarine War, 1914-1918. (London: Constable, 1931), pp. 3-4.

[5] Halpern, Naval, p. 29.

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First British Action and Casualties of WWI 6 August 1914

Most of the hits on the first page of a Google search on ‘first British casualty of wwi’ state that it was Private John Parr of the 4th Battalion of the Middlesex Regiment, who was killed on 21 August 1914. The Daily Mail reports that Henry Hadley, a languages teacher working in Berlin in 1914, was shot by a German soldier on 3 August after an argument on a train that was taking him out of Germany. He died at 3:15 am German time on 5 August, three and a quarter hours after Britain declared war.

Only the Great War Forum states, correctly, that the first British servicemen to by killed by enemy action in the First World War were members of the crew of HMS Amphion, which struck a mine and sank at 6:30 am on 6 August with the loss of about 150 men. The poster Crooneart says that the first dead are considered to be Stokers 1st Class Jesse Foster and Albert Martin,  Stoker 2nd Class William Dick and Leading Stoker Henry Copland, who are all given as dying at 6:30 am on 6 August. Presumably they were in the part of the ship closest to the explosion and were killed instantly.

To be fair to Wikipedia, its entry on Parr does link to its entries on Amphion and Hadley, but the other sites produced by the search appear to assume that first British casualty means first British soldier killed, ignoring naval casualties.

At dawn on 5 August, the Harwich Force of two destroyer flotillas, supported by armoured cruisers and submarines, sailed on a sweep towards the Dutch coast. Captain H. C Fox, captain of Amphion, was in command of the 3rd Destroyer Flotilla. At 10:15 am a British trawler informed the destroyer HMS Laurel that it had seen a ship ‘throwing things overboard’[1]

Correctly assuming that the ‘things’ were mines, Fox ordered his flotilla to spread out and search for the suspicious ship. The destroyers HMS Lance and Landrail sped ahead to the point at which the trawler had seen her. Around 11 am they spotted the German minelayer Königin Luise, which in peacetime ferried passengers between Hamburg and Heligoland. She was painted in the colours of  a British steamer of the Great Eastern Railway.

Lance and Landrail, supported by Amphion, gave chase and sank Königin Luise by noon. This was the first ship to be sunk in the war and the first casualties to be inflicted on the enemy by British. The shots fired were not, however, the first ones of the naval war; the German Mediterranean squadron of the battlecruiser SMS Goeben and the light cruiser SMS Breslau had bombarded the French ports of Philippeville and Bône in Algeria on the evening of 3 August.

On the way back to Harwich Amphion spotted another steamer in Great Eastern Railway colours, this one flying a German flag. The flotilla opened fire, but the steamer then raised the British Red Ensign. She was the Great Eastern Railway steamer St Petersburg and was carrying the German ambassador, his wife and staff to the neutral Netherlands on their way back to Germany. The destroyers initially ignored Fox’s orders to cease fire, and he had to place Amphion between them and the St Petersburg in order to stop them firing.

At 6:30 am on 6 August Amphion struck one of Königin Luise’s mines. The crew were ordered to abandon ship, but she hit another mine almost immediately and sank quickly. As well as about 150 of her own men, 18 survivors of Königin Luise went down with Amphion.

 

[1] Quoted in J. S. Corbett, H. Newbolt, Naval Operations, 5 vols. (London: HMSO, 1938) vol. i, p. 38.

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Britain cuts German Cable Communications 5 August 1914

In the early hours of 5 August 1914, only a few hours after war was declared, Britain carried out something that seemed to be minor, but was actually vital. A British cable ship severed five German overseas underwater cables, which passed from Emden through the English Channel to Vigo, Tenerife, the Azores and the USA

This cut direct German communications to outside Europe, most significantly to the United States. The British could now intercept German signals to their embassies. They were sent in code, but British codebreakers were eventually able to read them.

Most significantly, Britain intercepted the Zimmerman Telegram, sent to the German Ambassador to Mexico. If the USA went to war with Germany, he was to offer the Mexicans an alliance with the promise that they would receive Texas, New Mexico and Arizona. Its revelation helped to push the USA into war with Germany.

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Pre WWI British Naval War Plans

As in previous wars, Britain intended to blockade its Continental enemies in order to prevent them from trading with the rest of the world. In 1908 Admiral Sir John ‘Jacky’ Fisher, the First Sea Lord, decided that the traditional close blockade was no longer viable because of the threat from torpedo armed vessels. He therefore ordered that the blockade ships should withdraw 170 miles at night.

In 1911 Admiral Sir Arthur Wilson, his successor, reinstated the plan for a close blockade. However, as well as being very risky, it required twice as many destroyers as the Royal Navy (RN) possessed, since one would be in port refuelling and one on the way to or from the port for each one on duty.

In mid-1912, the Admiralty considered replacing the close blockade with an observational one across the North Sea in the middle of 1912. This was rejected because it was still vulnerable to German attack and needed too many ships. Admiral Prince Louis Battenberg, who was appointed First Sea Lord in December 1912, called this idea ‘plain stupid.’[1]

A policy of distant blockade was introduced in July 1914. The Channel Fleet would block access to the English Channel. A line of cruisers from the Shetlands to Norway would prevent German trade with the rest of the world. They would be safe from the enemy because the Grand Fleet, the RN’s strongest force, including most of its dreadnoughts and battlecruisers, would frequently patrol the North Sea from its base at Scapa Flow in the Orkneys.

A good performance by submarines in the 1913 fleet manoeuvres led to suggestions that the close blockade might be reinstated using submarines. Nicholas Lambert notes that ‘[s]ufficient evidence has survived…to contradict widespread assertions of myopia among British naval officers with regard to the submarine.’[2] Admiral Sir John Jellicoe wrote that submarines ‘can undoubtedly carry out a blockade of the enemy’s coast in the old sense of the word.’[3]

There were not enough submarines to adopt such a policy in 1914, but it was intended to increase submarine construction in later years. The Naval Estimates had risen from £31.3 million in 1907-8 to £48.7 million in 1913-14. It could be reduced by replacing a planned battleship with a number of submarines. Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty, wrote in the first draft of The World Crisis, his history of the First World War, that the margin of 60 per cent over Germany could be maintained by regarding dreadnoughts ‘not as capital ships, but as units of power which could, if desirable, be expressed in any other form.’[4]

The British switch to a distant blockade ruined German plans to whittle down the RN by attacks on British ships carrying out a close blockade. Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, the Secretary of State for the Imperial Navy Office, asked Admiral Friedrich von Ingenohl, the commander of the High Seas Fleet, Germany’s main naval force, in May 1914 ‘[w]hat will you do if they do not come [into the Heligoland Bight]‘?[5] Neither appeared to have an answer to this question.

Lambert argues in a recent book, Planning Armageddon, that the Admiralty planned to conduct economic warfare against Germany in a huge scale.[6] Britain would use its effective monopolies in banking, communications and shipping to disrupt the global economy and paralyse Germany. The plan was not carried out because of fears about the impact on Britain and neutral countries, especially the USA.

In the Mediterranean Austria-Hungary and Italy, although both members of the Triple Alliance with Germany, each regarded the other as its principal naval rival. They were building against each other, but their alliance meant that the Admiralty had to allow for the possibility that they would combine against Britain and France.

After a period of neglect of its navy, France laid down its first dreadnoughts in 1910. A new naval programme was announced in 1912, with 16 dreadnoughts planned, although the need to prioritise the army during the war meant that only seven were completed, plus another that was converted to an aircraft carrier.

Britain and France had undertaken a series of naval conversations, but were not formally allied. Britain, which had to match the threat from Germany in the North Sea, reduced its Mediterranean fleet. France, which could not match Germany on its own, moved most of its fleet to the Mediterranean.

Churchill was wary that the Anglo-French naval conversations had restricted British freedom of choice. He argued that both parties would have made the same dispositions of their fleets even without the talks as they were the logical  measures to take:

‘the French…are not strong enough to face Germany alone, still less to maintain themselves in two theatres. They therefore rightly concentrate their Navy in the Mediterranean where it can be safe and superior and can assure their African communications. Neither is it true that we are relying on France to maintain our position in the Mediterranean.’[7]

The Cabinet decided that Britain would deploy a Mediterranean fleet of a one power standard excluding France in 1915 when enough ships would be available, meaning a fleet of six dreadnoughts and the two newest pre-dreadnoughts. In the interval, the Mediterranean fleet would be made up of enough battlecruisers and armoured cruisers to ensure that Anglo-French strength exceeded the combined Triple Alliance fleet, including the German Mediterranean squadron of a battlecruiser and a light cruiser.

Despite the absence of a formal alliance between Britain and France Sir Edward Grey, the British Foreign Secretary, told the House of Commons on 3 August, the day before Britain declared war, that the naval conversations gave Britain a moral obligation to France:

‘the Northern and Western Coasts of France are absolutely undefended…The French fleet is in the Mediterranean, and has for some years been concentrated there because of the feeling of confidence and friendship which has existed between the two countries.’[8]

RN ships in the rest of the world were mostly old, with the exception of the battlecruiser HMAS Australia, the flagship of the Royal Australian Navy. Their wartime role would be to protect trade and hunt down the German cruisers that were stationed overseas.

 

[1] Quoted in H. Strachan, The First World War: Vol. 1, to Arms (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), p. 395.

[2] N. A. Lambert, Sir John Fisher’s Naval Revolution (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1999), p. 290.

[3] Quoted in Ibid., p. 289.

[4] Quoted in Ibid., p. 299.

[5] Quoted in P. G. Halpern, A Naval History of World War I (London: UCL Press, 1994), p. 23.

[6] N. A. Lambert, Planning Armageddon: British Economic Warfare and the First World War (Cambridge, MA; London: Harvard University Press, 2012).

[7] Quoted in A. J. Marder, From the Dreadnought to Scapa Flow; the Royal Navy in the Fisher Era, 1904-1919, 5 vols. (London: Oxford University Press, 1961-70). vol. v, p. 306

[8] Quoted in C. M. Clark, The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 (London: Penguin, 2013), p. 544.

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The Naval Balance of Power in 1914

In 1914 the British Royal Navy (RN) remained the largest in the world. Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, supported by Kaiser Wilhelm II, had attempted to create a German navy that could match the RN, but the British had comfortably maintained their lead in the subsequent naval arms race.

Britain had traditionally aimed to have a navy that was equal in strength to the next two in the world, the two power standard. In 1912 this was replaced by a measure of a 60 per cent superiority to the second largest navy. This was then the German navy; Germany was the only one of the world’s leading naval powers that Britain was then likely to fight.

The Press, public and politicians measured the strength of navies by the number of dreadnought battleships and battlecruisers. However, navies also had a large number of other types of warships.

Naval Strengths in August 1914

Naval strength 1914

Source: P. G. Halpern, A Naval History of World War I, (London: UCL Press, 1994), pp. 7-20.

British numbers include the Royal Australian Navy’s battlecruiser and three light cruisers and three dreadnoughts being built in Britain for foreign countries that were requisitioned for the RN at the outbreak of war; two that had just been completed for the Ottoman Empire and a Chilean one that was still under construction. There were fears that the Ottoman ones might be sold to Germany, which would have left the RN below its target of a 60 per cent margin over Germany. Another Chilean dreadnought under construction in Britain that was completed as a British aircraft carrier is not included.

German numbers include a dreadnought that was never completed and a battlecruiser and a light cruiser that were transferred to the Ottoman Empire just after the outbreak of war. The German SMS Blücher is classified as an armoured cruiser above because she was armed with 8.2 inch guns. In the words of Robert Massie, she ‘was the supreme embodiment of the armoured cruiser.’[1]

Russia needed three separate fleets. Its Asian one was small and consisted mostly of old ships. The Baltic and Black Sea ones contained all the battleships, armoured cruisers and planned dreadnoughts. The Baltic fleet was the biggest.

One of the Japanese battlecruisers building was completed in August 1914. Nine small and old US submarines, based in the Philippines, that were suitable only for coastal defence are excluded. Some numbers are given as ranges because of doubts over the usefulness of some older vessels. The only other countries with dreadnoughts were Brazil and Argentina, with two each, and Spain, which had one in service and two more building.

Warship Types

Pre-dreadnought battleships carried a number of guns of differing calibres, which were intended to carry out different roles. They normally had a main armament of four 12 inch guns, although some had smaller but faster firing main guns. A secondary battery, most commonly of 6 inch guns, although some had smaller or larger guns, was intended to deal with smaller opponents. Some pre-dreadnoughts carried an intermediate battery of 8-10 inch guns in order to increase their firepower against enemy battleships.

Pre-dreadnoughts were made obsolete in 1906 by HMS Dreadnought, which carried an armament of 10 12 inch guns, supplemented by only 24 12 pounders to deal with torpedo boats. A single calibre armament was both more powerful than a mixed one and superior for fire control purposes. The range of guns was increasing, making the old tactic of overwhelming ships with a hail of fire from many guns at short range obsolete. She was the first battleship to be powered by steam turbines and the first to be constructed to burn a mixture of fuel and oil, although others had been converted to do so. She was capable of 21 knots, fast for a battleship.

Dreadnought’s secondary armament proved to be inadequate. The next British battleship, HMS Bellerophon, carried 16 4 inch guns and later dreadnoughts had secondary armaments of 6 inch guns.

Although Dreadnought made British as well as foreign battleships obsolete, the decision of Admiral Sir John ‘Jacky’ Fisher, the First Sea Lord, to move first ensured that Britain maintained its naval supremacy. Most subsequent battleships were dreadnoughts, but some that took on many of Dreadnought’s innovations but retained a mixed armament were built. These were known as semi-dreadnoughts.

Armoured cruisers were large ships with an armoured belt protecting their sides and an armoured deck. They were faster than battleships, but had weaker armour and a main armament of 8-10 inch guns. Protected cruisers were an old and smaller type that had armoured decks but no side belts.

HMS Dreadnought was followed by HMS Invincible, generally regarded as the first of a new type, the battlecruiser. She had a battleship armament of 12 inch guns, but was faster and more lightly armoured. Fisher, who thought that speed was a better protection than armour, saw the battlecruiser as the eventual successor to the battleship. Nicholas Lambert and Jon Sumida argue that he intended to use torpedo armed destroyers and submarines for home defence, with battlecruisers protecting Britain’s global trade.[2] This idea was not supported by his successors.

Invincible was originally rated as an armoured cruiser, but the term battlecruiser was later adopted because of the main armament of these ships was the same size as that of battleships. Previous armoured cruisers carried smaller guns than pre-dreadnought battleships. Only Germany and Japan followed Britain in building battlecruisers, although other navies planned to do so.

The RN, needing reconnaissance ships, built 4 inch gun armed scout cruisers for a period, but these proved to be too small and slow. They were succeeded by light cruisers, originally called light armoured cruisers because they had some armour. British ones had either a main armament entirely of 6 inch guns or a mixture of 4 and 6 inch guns. Germany moved from 4.1 to 5.9 inch guns as the main armament of its light cruisers in 1914.

Torpedo boats were introduced in the late nineteenth century as cheap vessels that could attack battleships with the newly invented motorised torpedo. The torpedoes used in the American Civil War were static weapons that were renamed mines after the development of the motor torpedo.

Destroyers, originally called torpedo boat destroyers, were developed to defend battle fleets. The two types eventually merged. The rapid development of warships in the early twentieth century meant that the oldest destroyers were slower than the newest battlecruisers.

Submarines were in their infancy and views differed over their utility and employment. Should they be used to attack enemy battle fleets, to raid enemy commerce or just for coastal defence?

Coast defence ships were small, slow and short ranged battleships. Navies also had many smaller vessels, not listed above, that were used for tasks such as minesweeping, trade protection, shore bombardment and colonial policing. The British used armed merchant cruisers for trade protection and blockade duties during the war, and the Germans armed merchantmen as commerce raiders.

The older ships were very vulnerable to underwater attack by torpedoes and mines and the older cruisers were too slow to perform scouting duties. However, the RN, which had a large superiority in older ships, found them to be very useful for blockade and trade protection and in secondary theatres.

The Royal Navy versus the German Navy

British dreadnoughts generally had larger guns than contemporary German ones, initially 12 versus 11.1 inch guns, then 13.5 versus 12 inch guns. Britain laid down its first 15 inch gun armed ships in 1912 and had 10 building at the start of the war. Germany followed in 1913, but had only three under construction at the outbreak of war, one of which was never completed. Most other countries armed their dreadnoughts with 12 inch guns, but the first 14 inch armed Japanese and US ones entered service in 1914.

British ships were mostly faster but worse protected than equivalent German ones. The German propellant was more stable than the British one and British shells had a tendency to break up on contact with armour. The British have often been criticised for the poor anti-flash protection for their magazines. However, the Germans initially made the same mistake, which they corrected after the battlecruiser SMS Seydlitz almost blew up at the Battle of Dogger Bank in 1915.

Before the war Arthur Pollen, a British civilian, had designed a fire control system using an analogue computer to predict ranges. Andrew Gordon describes it ‘as important a development for gunnery as John Harrison’s chronometer had been for navigation 150 years before.’[3] It allowed for frequent changes in range and bearing, so ships equipped with it would not have to remain in line ahead formation.

The British instead adopted a cheaper system designed by Captain Frederick Dreyer. It used parts of Pollen’s system to plot bearings mechanically, but still required manual input of ranges, meaning that ships had to stay in straight lines. The RN was also slow to adopt Admiral Sir Percy Scott’s system of director firing, in which one officer controlled the main armament. Only eight battleships had it at the start of the war and two of the Grand Fleet’s dreadnoughts still lacked at the Battle of Jutland in 1916.

However, the Germans had nothing comparable to Dreyer’s system, never mind Pollen’s. They did have a system of director firing, but their main gunnery strength was their stereoscopic sights. These, according to Arthur Marder, required a man with ‘excellent and identical vision in both eyes’, but were superior to the British ones, especially in poor light.[4]

Another British weakness was that the RN’s main bases of Plymouth, Portsmouth and Chatham were positioned for a war with France rather than Germany. A new major base at Rosyth, on the Firth of Forth, was not ready in 1914. For much of the war, it was used only by the battlecruisers. The anchorages at Cromarty and Scapa Flow had no protection against submarines and Harwich was suitable only for light forces. The Kiel Canal allowed Germany to quickly and safely move its ships between the North and Baltic Seas.

The RN’s biggest advantage, apart from numbers, was that its sailors were long service professionals and thus better trained and more experienced than the three year conscripts who made up a large proportion of German naval personnel. The large British merchant navy provided a further source of trained seamen. Tirpitz had thought that conscription would be an advantage for Germany because it would be able to recruit more sailors than Britain, but he was wrong.

 

[1] R. K. Massie, Castles of Steel: Britain, Germany, and the Winning of the Great War at Sea (London: Jonathan Cape, 2004), p. 381.

[2] N. A. Lambert, Sir John Fisher’s Naval Revolution (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1999); J. T. Sumida, In Defence of Naval Supremacy: Finance, Technology and British Naval Policy, 1889-1914 (Boston MA, London: Unwin Hyman, 1989).

[3] G. A. H. Gordon, The Rules of the Game: Jutland and British Naval Command (London: John Murray, 1996), p. 351.

[4] A. J. Marder, From the Dreadnought to Scapa Flow; the Royal Navy in the Fisher Era, 1904-1919, 5 vols. (London: Oxford University Press, 1961-70). vol. i. p. 416.

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The Naval Arms Race Before 1914

In 1914, the British Royal Navy (RN) had dominated the world’s oceans for over a century. There were, according to Paul Halpern, periods in the nineteenth century when the ‘innovative’ French navy was able to offer ‘a credible threat’, but this was no longer the case by the end of the nineteenth century.[1]

British naval strategy was based on the two power standard, meaning that the RN should be as strong as the next two navies combined. In 1818 Lord Castlereagh, the Foreign Secretary, stated that a Franco-Russian alliance was the ‘only one that can prove really formidable to the liberties of Europe.’[2]

According to Arthur Marder, the two power standard dated back to 1770. It was not, however, clearly stated to be an official policy until the Naval Defence Act of 1889; the First Lord of the Admiralty, Lord George Hamilton, then told the House of Commons ‘that our [naval] establishment should be on a scale that it should be at least equal to the naval strength of any two other countries.’[3]

The Admiralty insisted that the calculation of the relative strengths of navies was a complex exercise, involving many factors. However, it was easier for politicians and the public to gauge the two power standard by a comparison of the number of battleships possessed by the RN and the next two largest navies, which were then those of France and Russia.

The increase in the size of the German navy meant that in October 1902 Lord Selborne, the First Lord, asked for ‘equality plus a margin’, defined as an RN equal to the French and Russian navies plus six battleships and 14 armoured cruisers by December 1907.[4]

Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany was a keen reader of the works of the American naval theorist Admiral Alfred Mahan. Wilhelm believed that Germany needed a large navy in order to be able to be taken seriously as a world power. In 1897 he settled a dispute about the future shape of the German navy by replacing Admiral Friedrich von Hollman, an advocate of a fleet of fast commerce raiders, with Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz as Secretary of State for the Imperial Navy Office. Tirpitz’s preference for a battle fleet that could challenge the RN in European waters was in tune with Wilhelm’s own wishes.

The size of the German navy was determined by series of Naval Laws, passed in 1898, 1900, 1906, 1908 and 1912. Tirpitz believed that Germany could build a fleet that would certainly deter and perhaps even defeat the RN. Germany had a bigger economy, its use of conscription would mean that it could recruit more sailors than Britain, which relied on volunteers, and the RN’s global commitments meant that it could not keep all its fleet in home waters. Tirpitz aimed at a 2:3 ratio between the German navy and the RN.

Wilhelm and Tirpitz hoped that, even if the German navy was not big enough to defeat the RN, the Germans should be able to inflict such damage on the RN that it would not be to defend the British Empire. This should mean that Britain would make concessions in colonial disputes; German attempts to expand their overseas empire had run into the problem that they had little to offer the other colonial powers in negotiations about matters outside Europe.

Tirpitz failed to realise that the British would make sure that they maintained the margin that they needed in order to retain their naval supremacy. Admiral Sir John ‘Jacky’ Fisher, appointed First Sea Lord in 1904, carried out a large number of reforms that made the RN more efficient. The Naval Estimates fell from £36.9 million in 1904-5 to £31.5 million in 1906-7, but the RN increased in fighting power.

One of Fisher’s innovations was the construction of HMS Dreadnought, the world’s first battleship with a main armament of a large number of big guns of the same size and the first with turbine engines. Previous battleships, henceforth called pre-dreadnoughts, had a small number of big guns and a greater mixture of gun calibres. She made all other battleships obsolete, which might appear to be a disadvantage for Britain, which was starting from a position of dominance.

However, all big gun battleships were being considered in other countries: the USS South Carolina was designed before Dreadnought, although built later; the Japanese HIMS Satsuma, laid down before Dreadnought, was originally intended to have an all big gun armament, but this had to be changed because of shortages of 12 inch guns; and the Italian designer Vittorio Cuniberti had published plans for an all big gun battleship.

By moving first, Fisher ensured that Britain seized an early lead. The RN had seven dreadnoughts and three battlecruisers, faster ships with the armament of a dreadnought but inferior armour, by May 1910, when the first two German dreadnoughts were completed. The United States Navy then had four dreadnoughts, two of which were inferior to any of the British dreadnoughts. No other navy had any.

The Liberal government elected in the UK in 1905 had hoped to cut defence spending in order to finance greater social spending. However, the growth in the size of the German navy meant that the British Naval Estimates had to be increased to £35.7 million in 1909-10, with further rises in subsequent years.

David Lloyd George, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, increased taxes significantly in his 1909-10 budget. It was popularly known as the ‘People’s Budget’ because it was claimed that the higher taxes on the well off were intended to finance social reform. However, the tax increases allowed both social and defence spending to rise, meaning that the RN continued to maintain its margin over the German navy.

Christopher Clark argues that ‘British policy makers were less obsessed with, and less alarmed by, German naval building than is often supposed.’[5] Britain wanted to remain the dominant naval power and focused on all its potential naval rivals, not just Germany. The Entente Cordiale signed with France in 1904 and the Anglo-Russian Convention of 1907 were intended to iron out potential colonial disputes.

Since the passing of Tirpitz’s first Naval Law in 1898, the naval balance of power had changed. Britain signed an alliance with Japan in 1902, allowing it to reduce the size of its fleet in the Far East. The Russians then suffered disastrous naval losses in their defeat in the Russo-Japanese War in 1904-5.

The French navy slipped to fourth place because of a lack of a coherent naval policy. Ministers of Marine did not stay long in office and Conway’s All the World’s Fighting Ships 1906-1921 notes that each one’s ‘chief aim in office was probably to undo their predecessor’s work.’[6]

In March 1912 Winston Churchill, the First Lord, announced that the strength of the RN would now be based on a 60 per cent superiority over the German navy. Eric Grove notes that ‘this is often seen as a concession of weakness but, given the size of other fleets, in effect was still a two power standard.’[7]

If the difference between the German fleet and the third biggest one, then the USN, was big enough, one + 60 per cent might put produce a larger RN than the two power standard. Moreover, the USA and Germany, unlike France and Russia in the 1890s, were unlikely to combine.

The month before Churchill’s statement, Lord Haldane, the Secretary of State for War, who had attended Göttingen University, had visited Germany in an attempt to negotiate an end to the Anglo-German naval race. His mission failed, because Germany wanted Britain in return to promise to remain neutral in any war between Germany and another European country in which Germany was not the aggressor. Britain had, according to Christopher Clark ‘an understandable disinclination to give away something for nothing: Britain was winning the naval arms race hands down and enjoyed unchallenged superiority.’[8]

The following table shows the average annual naval expenditure of the leading naval powers in the years leading up to the war. Germany and Austria-Hungary had shorter coastlines and fewer bases, so were able to spend a higher proportion of their total expenditure on construction. The USA had many bases, partly because of its long coastlines but mainly because, in the words of Phillips O’Brien, politicians ‘still looked upon the navy as a source of money for their constituents and not as a vital arm of national defence.’[9]

Great Powers Average Naval Expenditure p.a. 1910-14

Great Powers naval expenditure

Source: I. Johnston, I. L. Buxton, The Battleship Builders: Constructing and Arming British Capital Ships (Barnsley: Seaforth, 2013), p. 236.

The naval balance of power in 1914 is the subject of the next post in this series.

 

[1] P. G. Halpern, A Naval History of World War I (London: UCL Press, 1994), p. 1.

[2] Quoted in E. Grove, The Royal Navy since 1815 : A New Short History (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), p. 2.

[3] Quoted in A. J. Marder, From the Dreadnought to Scapa Flow; the Royal Navy in the Fisher Era, 1904-1919, 5 vols. (London: Oxford University Press, 1961-70). vol. i, p. 123.

[4] Quoted in Grove, Royal Navy, p. 87.

[5] C. M. Clark, The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 (London: Penguin, 2013), p. 149.

[6] R. Gray, Conway’s All the World’s Fighting Ships, 1906-1921 (London: Conway Maritime Press, 1985), p. 190.

[7] Grove, Royal Navy, p. 102.

[8] Clark, Sleepwalkers, p. 319.

[9] P. P. O’Brien, British and American Naval Power: Politics and Policy, 1900-1936 (Westport, CT: Praeger, 1998), p. 65.

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Month of Madness – BBC Radio 4

BBC radio has just broadcast a series of five 15 minute episodes about the Month of Madness that led to the First World War. It was presented and written by Professor Christopher Clark, author of The Sleepwalkers, an acclaimed history of the causes of the war.

The programme is available on the BBC i Player from this link. Unlike TV ones, radio programmes appear to remain available indefinitely, and I do not think that there are any geographical restrictions on listening to them.

Episode one, Sarajevo

This covered the impact of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, and his wife by Gavrilo Princep, a Bosnian Serb nationalist on 28 June 1914. Franz Ferdinand was a moderate reformer who wanted to turn the Austro-Hungarian Empire into a United States of Greater Austria, consisting of 15 or 16 federal districts, each dominated by a different ethnic group: the Empire had 11 official nationalities. Clark argues that he was assassinated because he was a moderate: extremists fear moderate opponents more than hardliners, because moderates offer the possibility of peaceful change.

The assassination succeeded by luck. An attempt earlier in the day failed, other assassins lost their nerve and Princep got his chance only because Franz Ferdinand’s driver took a wrong turn.

Serbian nationalists wanted to incorporate Bosnia-Herzegovnia into a Greater Serbia because Serbs were the largest of its national groups, although at 43% they were still a minority. Princep and his fellow Bosnian Serb assassins were ‘abstinent’ young men, with little time for alcohol or women. Clark notes that they were the type of ‘sombre’ young men who join terrorist groups today.

The killing of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne by a Serbian nationalist meant that Austria-Hungary would take action against Serbia. However, whether a Balkan conflict became a European war depended on the decisions taken by other countries in the next few weeks.

Episode 2, Vienna

This explores how the Austro-Hungarians reacted to the assassination of Franz Ferdinand. There was widespread shock; as with the assassination of JFK, people were able to remember years afterwards where they were when they learnt the news. Emperor Franz Josef did not get on well with his heir, but it is a myth that he received the news coldly. Eye witnesses stated that he was clearly upset.

The assassins were trained and equipped in Serbia, with backing from the Black Hand, a shadowy network whose objectives included the liberation of Bosnian Serbs from Austrian rule. It was headed by Dragutin Dimitrijević, also known as Apis, the head of Serbian Military Intelligence. The civilian Serbian government was unable to act against the members of the Black Hand because they were too well connected.

A consensus emerged quickly in the Austrian Foreign Ministry and General Staff that action must be taken against Serbia. As a minimum a very harsh ultimatum should be sent, but most wanted a war that would settle their issues with Serbia.

Two days after the assassination Count Leopold von Berchtold, the Austro-Hungarian foreign minister, told Emperor Franz Josef, that Austria-Hungary could no longer be patient with Serbia. The Emperor agreed. In previous Balkan crises Franz Ferdinand had urged caution, but nobody did so now that he was dead.

Clark says that the ultimatum prepared by Berchtold was a very firm one. He thinks that it can be questioned whether it was really completely unacceptable to a sovereign country, but the Austro-Hungarians certainly intended it to be rejected. They wanted ‘war on a neighbour that they saw as as impossibly turbulent and provocative.’

The Austro-Hungarians concentrated almost all of their attention on Serbia. They had no exit strategy, did not have clear objectives for their action, did not consider the risks involved and were not prepared for the major war that followed. They did realise that they needed support from their ally Germany, since Russia might come to the aid of Serbia.

Episode 3, Berlin.

This discusses Germany’s blank cheque to Austria-Hungary for war against Serbia. Kaiser Wilhelm II got on well with Franz Ferdinand and agreed with him on many issues. Until now, the Germans had been urging the Austro-Hungarians to try to find peaceful solutions to their difficulties with Serbia; this now changed.

On 5 July the Austro-Hungarian ambassador presented letters from Franz Josef and his foreign minister to the Kaiser. The Kaiser and his general staff realised that Austro-Hungarians wanted war with Serbia, and promised to support whatever Austria-Hungary did, the so-called blank cheque. This came without conditions, so Germany was agreeing to support Austria-Hungary even if Russia intervened. The Austro-Hungarian ambassador told his government that the Kaiser thought Austria-Hungary should not delay if it wanted military action against Serbia.

The Germans did not think at this stage that Russia would intervene against Austria-Hungary, but knew that there was a risk that it would. If Germany stood by its ally, Russia’s ally France would join what would then be a continental war. The German Chancellor Theobald von Bethman-Hollweg said that if Germany advised Austria-Hungary to act, it would say that Germany pushed it into war. If Germany urged caution, Austria-Hungary would claim that it had been abandoned and Germany would lose its only reliable ally.

Russian military power was also growing. It and France had one million more soldiers that Austria-Hungary and Germany in 1914. Russia had embarked upon a massive rearmament programme, which was financed by France, but it would take time to complete. Germany and Austria-Hungary might win a war now, but not one in three years time.

However, the Germans thought that the Russian would not go to war. Tsar Nicholas II would surely not support regicide, Russia had no formal alliance with Serbia and why would Russia go to war now when it would be much stronger in three years time.

The Germans stuck to a policy of localisation. Nothing should be done that would escalate the crisis. Political and military officials, including the Kaiser went on holiday. When he returned on 27 July, he said that the Serbian reply to the Austro-Hungarian note meant that a war was now unnecessary. He now urged peace, something that did not surprise his critics in the German army, who regarded him as somebody who talked aggressively but would argue for peace in the end.

Clark argues that the failure of the Kaiser’s last minute attempt to prevent a war shows that he was not as powerful as many have claimed. The Germans did not have a plan for continental war, but were willing to risk one, something in which they were not alone.

Episode 4, The French in St Petersburg 

This looks at the dangerous impact of the extension of the Franco-Russian alliance. By chance, Raymond Poincaré, the French President, was on long planned state visit to France’s ally Russia for much of the crisis, arriving on 20 July. The minutes of the summit have been lost, but the meetings can be reconstructed from the notes and diaries of those present, including Count Louis de Robien, a young French diplomat. He was appalled by the bellicose tone of the meetings. On his return to France on 28 July, Poincaré was greeted as if the country was already at war.

The France and Russia had been allied since the early 1890s, but both had urged caution on the other until the beginning of 1912. Poincaré then assured Russia that France would support it if it took action against Austria-Hungary in the Balkans, even if Russia was not itself threatened with attack. The French were becoming concerned that they could not rely on British help, so felt that they had to remain close to Russia. This was a defensive strategy, with the object of never having to fight Germany alone, but it carried serious risks.

Russia had no serious conflicts of interest with Germany, but Austria-Hungary was a long-standing rival of Russia in the Balkans, which were becoming more important in Russian thinking because of their proximity to the Turkish Straits. All sea traffic to and from the Black Sea had to pass through them, including 80% of Russia’s grain exports, a vital source of revenue. Russian nationalists also felt close to other Orthodox and Slavic nations, such as Serbia.

This encouraged Serbian leaders to believe that they could afford to have poor relations with Austria-Hungary, because Russia would support Serbia in a conflict. Clark does not believe that France and Russia wanted or planned a war, but they increased the risk of one by linking their strategy to the uncertain Balkan situation.

During the Franc0-Russian summit Poincaré urged Russia to be firm; Clark says this was ‘enthusiastically received.’ Poincare’s policy of closer relations with Russia ensured that France would not have to fight Germany alone, but made the situation more complex. The French had to assure the Russians of their support, but also had to make certain that the British did not think that France was escalating the crisis.

By the end of July it was difficult to see how a war could be avoided, but the question of whether or not Britain would enter it remained. Both France and Germany acted cautiously, the former hoping that Britain would support it, the latter that Britain would remain neutral. Neither considered backing down or putting peace ahead of prestige. De Robain said that both sides had determined to ‘hold firm…in a tragic poker game.’

Episode 5, London

This explores how British decision-makers reacted in the July Crisis of 1914. Britain was more concerned by the threat of civil war in Ireland, where the Protestant Unionists of the north opposed the government’s intention to grant the Catholic Nationalists of the south demand for Home Rule.

The key player was the Foreign Secretary Sir Edward Grey. Although a Liberal MP, he favoured what Clark calls ‘a secretive, even conspiratorial’ way of operating, believing that foreign policy was too important to be decided by Parliamentary debates. He knew little of foreign countries, spoke no foreign languages and felt uncomfortable in the company of foreigners.

For much of the crisis the British did not consider the possibility that they might be drawn into war. Grey did not raise it in Cabinet until 24 July. Over recent years he had allowed the 1904 Entente Cordiale with France to deepen into something close to a strategic partnership, but the majority of the Cabinet strongly opposed any binding commitment to France, and thus Russia. The French wanted the Entente to be a British commitment to stand by France, but for Grey it had to be a looser agreement that did not bind Britain, which did not know the terms of the Franco-Russian alliance.

On 3 August Grey justified British entry into the war on three grounds: the moral obligations resulting from the Anglo-French friendship, especially the strategic partnership between the two navies; if Germany won, Britain would face a Continent dominated by one power, whilst a Franco-Russian victory would mean a Russian threat to Britain’s Asian empire; and the German breach of Belgian neutrality.

Clark says that the German invasion of Belgium was:

‘a gross offense against international law which endowed the Entente war effort with a lasting sense of moral superiority, but it was not the true reason for British intervention…the decision was made on a cool calculation of national interest.’

However, public anger over the invasion of Belgium helped to win support for the declaration of war.

Clark’s conclusions was that the men who made the decisions ‘were walking in watchful steps’ towards war. There was an ‘intricate structure of..interlocking commitments’, which became mixed up with ‘the volatile politics of a region inflamed by repeated conflict.’ There was an atmosphere of distrust and provocation. No one power was to blame for a war that resulted from ‘a shared European political culture.’

A very interesting a thought provoking programme. Clark does not attempt to blame any one country or alliance for the war. I have just started reading his book, where he says that he is more interested in question of ‘how’ rather than ‘why’ the war began.

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1914: Day by Day: BBC Radio 4

BBC Radio 4 today started broadcasting a series of daily programmes in which the Canadian historian Prof. Margaret MacMillan gives a five minute summary of the news from each day from 27 June 1914 up until the outbreak of the First World War.

Each programme is broadcast at 4:55 pm on BBC Radio 4, and all will be available on the I-Player from this link once they have been broadcast. Radio programmes normally stay on the I-Player indefinitely, and I think that, unlike TV ones, there are no geographical restrictions on listening to them.

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