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The war at sea

 

For the Royal Navy, the First World War was a bittersweet experience. Although it ended with the defeat of the German High Seas Fleet, Britain's Grand Fleet did not claim the decisive victory over its German counterpart for which public opinion clamoured. There was no repeat of the Battle of Trafalgar. The war at sea was decided by other, less glorious aspects of naval strategy.

 

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Indecisive battles
 

In the early stages of the war, the two fleets fought a number of small-scale battles. Any chance of a German invasion of Britain receded after the Grand Fleet's victory at the Battle of Glossary - opens new windowHeligoland Bight on 28 August 1914. Five months later, with the help of a German codebook fortuitously captured by the Russians, it again inflicted substantial damage on the High Seas Fleet in the North Sea at the Battle of Glossary - opens new windowDogger Bank. However, neither of these victories, nor more distant triumphs such as the Battle of the Glossary - opens new windowFalklands (8 December 1914), proved decisive.

The great set-piece battle that the Grand Fleet desired finally took place on 31 May 1916, when it clashed with the High Seas Fleet at the BattlesBattle of Jutland. After it was over, Britain still controlled the sea, and Germany never again attempted a full-scale naval confrontation. However, the number of British casualties was more than double Germany's, and much of the High Seas Fleet had retreated successfully to base. Both sides thus claimed Jutland as their triumph. British public opinion, as Glossary - opens new windowVera Brittain remarked, was unsure whether it was 'celebrating a glorious naval victory or lamenting an ignominious defeat'.

Battle of the Falklands - opens new window
Battle of the Falklands:
report on casualties (193k)
Transcript

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Blockade
 

Britain ultimately won the war at sea through two strategies that had little in common with full-scale battles such as Jutland: the trade blockade and the convoy system.

Britain used its naval dominance to shut off German access to the North Sea. From November 1914, ships from neutral countries entered this British 'military area' at their own peril. Germany was thus prevented from receiving vital war supplies and foodstuffs throughout the conflict.


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Convoy system - opens new window
Convoy system


Film of merchant vessel - opens new window
Watch film of merchant vessel
being hit by torpedo.
Stills from film - opens new window

This Spotlights on historytrade blockade inflicted on the German population levels of privation unknown in Britain during the war - not least starvation, which killed just over 88,000 in 1915, rising to more than 293,000 in 1918. This contributed greatly to Germany's eventual collapse in 1918.


Submarine warfare
To combat the devastating impact of the British blockade, German submarine warfare became increasingly indiscriminate as the war dragged on. Warships and merchant ships - Allied and neutral alike - were attacked. On 7 May 1915, the German Glossary - opens new windowU-20 submarine infamously sank the British ocean liner Glossary - opens new windowLusitania off the coast of southern Ireland, with the loss of nearly 1,200 lives.

By the spring of 1917, Germany's newly introduced policy of Glossary - opens new windowunrestricted submarine warfare was sinking one in every four ships coming to Britain. Belatedly and reluctantly, the Royal Navy introduced a Glossary - opens new windowconvoy system to protect Allied shipping from submarine attacks. The new strategy worked immediately. By 1918, shipping losses at the hands of enemy torpedoes were declining rapidly.


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The merchant navy
 

Submarine warfare led to high death tolls (an estimated 15,000) among seamen of the merchant navy. The merchant fleet undertook a number of tasks vital to British success: carrying essential supplies to Britain from the empire and Dominions, transporting troops and supporting naval ships.

The seamen - particularly 'Lascars', Asians taken on as cheap labour in colonial ports - frequently had to endure harsh conditions. These men made up more than a fifth of the total killed.


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Indirect pressure
 

British dominance of the sea and the indirect pressure that the Grand Fleet brought to bear on the German war effort, particularly through the blockade, were vital to the Allied victory - which may explain the muted response of the British naval élite when, on 21 November 1918 and in accordance with the recently signed armistice, much of the German High Seas Fleet sailed into the Firth of Forth in Scotland to surrender. As the British commander-in-chief, Glossary - opens new windowAdmiral Sir David Beatty, allegedly remarked: 'This is very nice, but I would give them three salvoes' start for a fight.'


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Further research

The following references give an idea of the sources held by The National Archives on the subject of this chapter. These documents can be seen on site at The National Archives.

Reference
Document
ADM 1/8404/438: Information obtained by crew of HMS Arethusa from German officer on Battle of Heligoland Bight, 27 Nov 1914.
ADM 1/8413/54: Report by Sir David Beatty on Battle of Dogger Bank, 24 Jan 1915.
ADM 137/2658-2659: Material from Admiralty Historical Section on introduction of convoy system, 1917-19.
GFM 6/18-19: German Foreign Ministry files relating to sinking of Lusitania, May 1915-Mar 1917.
HW 7/19-20: Decrypted German telegrams relating to declaration of unrestricted submarine warfare, Jan-May 1917.
See also Source Sheet No. 2: 'The Sinking of the Lusitania'.

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