On the 5 August 1914, Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty, sent a wireless message to all Royal Navy ships that read ‘War, Germany, Act’. Both the German and British fleets by this point in time had over a dozen dreadnought battleships each. The world was about to see the two largest navies in the world go head to head.
But the dreadnoughts only saw action in a major battle once during World War One - at the Battle of Jutland, two years into the war. In this video, curator Will Martin explores what happened to the great naval battles of the First World War, and how the u-boats and merchant ships came to play the pivotal role.
How the naval arms race changed
Just a matter of hours after Britain entered the First World War, the first naval action took place.
On the night of the 4th of August 1914 a fishing boat off the coast of East Anglia spotted a suspicious ship. The ship looked like a British steamer of the Great Eastern Railway that operated between Harwich and the hook of Holland, but they had observed it in the middle of the night throwing things over the side. The next morning they signalled to a patrol of Royal Navy ships.
What the fishing boats had spotted was the Königin Luise - a steam ferry that had been requisitioned by the Kaiserliche Marine to operate as an auxiliary minelayer, disguised and painted to represent a British steamer.
When the British ships sighted Königin Luise, her captain Commander Biermann attempted to escape at full speed. HMS Lance and HMS Landrail gave chase and when in range, HMS Lance opened fire. Commander Biermann attempted to draw the British ships through the minefield his ship had just laid, but HMS Amphion had also caught up with the fight. Under heavy fire, the Königin Luise was capsized and sank. She was the first German naval loss of the war.
The British ships continued their patrol and then set course for home, steering west of where they believed the mines to be laid, but the course was chosen wrongly. HMS Amphion struck a mine and became the first British naval loss of the war, with those killed and injured, the first British casualties.
And in front of me here we have a life belt from the Königin Luise which had presumably been taken from the water at the time and it survived all these years. It's thought that 75 of 100 crew were pulled from the water by the Royal Navy ships but actually other figures suggest that a only 46 of the 100 survived, and I think that must have come following the sinking of HMS Amphion.
The first shots had been fired, the first vessels had been sunk. But this was far from the action that Britain and Germany had been preparing for this wasn't a battle between two dreadnoughts it was a light cruiser giving chase to a steam ferry.
When Britain entered the war, the world believed it was about to see the two largest navies go head-to-head Both the German and British fleets by this point in time had over a dozen dreadnought battleships each. But the dreadnaughts only saw action in a major battle once during World War One.
The Royal Navy prior to WW1 had the most powerful fleet in the world. The Naval Defence Act of 1889 was drawn up to ensure Britain’s naval superiority, with the ‘two power standard’. This meant that the Royal Navy was required to have battleships at least equal in number to the combined strength of the next two largest navies, which at the time was France and Russia. But Germany no longer felt Britain should dominate the seas.
Weltpolitik was the policy designed by Kaiser Wilhelm at the end of the 19th century intended to expand German overseas territories to create an empire equal to that of Britain. To achieve this, he needed a powerful navy as a deterrent to prevent British naval intervention.
But to Britain, German Weltpolitik policy and naval expansion was seen as a direct threat to British security and their overseas interests.
When naval strategist and innovator, Admiral John ‘Jacky’ Fisher became First Sea Lord in 1904, he ordered studies into the design of a battleship armed with 12-in guns and which could achieve a speed of 21 knots. The result was HMS Dreadnought, the first ship of its kind and one which made all other battleships obsolete. Laid down in 1905, powered by steam turbines, heavily armed and larger than any other battleship to date, HMS Dreadnought entered service in 1906.
HMS Dreadnaught set a new standard for warships, forcing all other significant naval powers to develop their own similar ships, which became collectively known as dreadnoughts. But the rush to produce dreadnoughts was really a two-horse race between Britain and Germany in terms of numbers.
Germany’s first dreadnought, Nassau, was launched in 1908. In both countries, public pressure, encouraged by the press and politicians, increased the pressure for one-upmanship, demanding more battleships.
By 1914, Germany had 17 dreadnoughts, Britain had 29.
Through it all England holds the Seas. It is a heritage, a tradition. Lying in the Firth of Forth is the British Grand Fleet. Mighty dreadnoughts manned by sturdy men.
The naval arms race, the arrival of the dreadnoughts, and historical decisive naval battles such as Trafalgar, had led to a belief that the war would be decided by an almighty naval battle. But the truth is that with the exception of small-scale confrontations including the Battle of Coronel and the Battle of the Falklands in late 1914, no major confrontation of fleets materialised prior to the Battle of Jutland in 1916, because neither side could afford to lose its formidable, yet very expensive dreadnoughts. In fact, the ships themselves were superb mutual deterrents.
It quickly became clear that the most important immediate need of each navy was for the protection of the vital merchant ships.
Britain looked to blockade German supply lines using its large fleet of smaller cruisers and destroyers, supported by submarines to prevent merchant ships reaching German ports. To cause similar damage to Britain, Germany began its campaign of ‘Handelskrieg’ or trade war using the surface ships and merchant ships converted into auxiliary cruisers.
When the Battle of Jutland did happen almost two years into the war; both the British and German fleets took significant losses.
The outcome of the battle and the nature of the war at sea from the outset had demonstrated that the path to victory could not be decided by one almighty naval battle. Instead, it would be a long campaign in which merchant ships played a significant part.
Merchant ships of every description remained at sea throughout the First World War, moving food, supplies and people around the world. Many were requisitioned into war work, such as hospital and troopships, while others were converted to minelayers and armed merchant cruisers. Without these ships and their crews, none of the nations involved would have been able to wage war.
Here in front of me are two posters from the First World War, one from 1914 which shows the importance of collecting money to to go towards dreadnoughts due to the naval arms race, and this one here from 1917 instead shows an emphasis on merchant shipping and the war against the U-boats. In the background of this one we can see a merchant ship just about to ram a U-Boat, which became one of the the main things that merchant ships would do as a defense mechanism.
Early in the war the emphasis was on the dreadnoughts due to the naval arms race because it was still thought that a major clash of between the two fleets would occur, but by 1917, we can see that actually the most important aspect of the war was the war on the merchant ships and making sure that the merchant ships got through and the U-boats were defeated. As the war progressed it became very apparent to the Germans that their U-Boat campaign against the British was a successful one and so U-Boat building increased. The Germans started with 20 in 1914 and ended up with 140 by 1917. This poster shows how public consciousness of the threat of U-boats had grown by 1917.
It was quickly apparent that deception and disguise were more important than naval ships designed to threaten.
During the early months of the war, attacks against merchant shipping still adhered to Cruiser Rules. This meant that under International Maritime Law, no merchant ship, neutral or otherwise could be attacked on sight. They first had to be boarded and the cargo inspected, and only if the ship was found to belong to the enemy could it be sunk or taken as a prize after the crew had been allowed to abandon ship.
The dangers and effectiveness of the U-Boat were proven just a month into the war, when on 22 September 1914, one submarine, U-9, sank three obsolete Royal Navy ships consecutively: HMS Aboukir, HMS Cressy and HMS Hogue, with the loss of 1,459 lives.
The submarine had sunk all three ships within the hour. The dangers of the U-boats was immediately clear.
Like their surface ship counterparts, U-Boats also adhered to Cruiser Rules initially, but the dangers of surfacing to communicate with merchant ships only to be rammed, soon saw U-Boat commanders ignoring the rules and attacking ships on sight. By February 1915, the Kaiserliche Marine adopted a policy of unrestricted submarine warfare to prevent U-Boat losses. It was only following the sinking of the RMS Lusitania in May 1915 and the SS Arabic in August the same year that the Germans relaxed unrestricted warfare on merchant ships to pacify the outrage from the United States. But it wasn’t just the U-boats using underhand tactics - deception and disguise was employed extensively on both sides.
Germany used merchant ships as commerce raiders to attack British merchant ships.
And Britain did exactly the same in the form of ‘mystery ships’ which became known as Q-Ships.
Q-ships were unassuming merchant ships, from fishing trawlers to fully rigged sailing ships, that were heavily armed, but their weapons were concealed. They were used to lure U-Boats to the surface by pretending to carry out the U-Boat commander’s instructions to stop; some even had boat teams climb into lifeboats to give the impression of abandoning ship in fear. Then, with the U-Boat close and on the surface, the guns would be revealed, and the multiple guns of the average Q-Ship quickly destroyed the submarine, often with all hands being lost.
HMS Hyderabad was the only purpose-built Q-ship of World War I, launched in 1917. Above the waterline she looked just like an ordinary merchant ship, but in fact she was heavily armed with hidden guns.
The contrast between the design of HMS Dreadnaught and HMS Hyderabad demonstrates just how much naval strategy had changed in the first 3 years of the war.
For Britain, the idea of blockading German sea routes with its superior numbers of surface ships had long been a strategy in the event of any potential war. For Germany, the U-Boat proved to be its best long-term weapon in its ‘Handelskrieg’ against merchant ships and therefore, more U-Boats were built. Germany had 20 in 1914; by 1917 it had 140.
Ultimately, it was the merchant ships that played the pivotal role in the great navies of the First World War, and the battles that took place in Britain and Germany’s efforts to defend their trade routes became the central cause for loss of life at sea during World War One.