Sunday, 24 August 2014

British Sea Power in the Great War

"I see no ships"

At the outbreak war of in 1914 Britain was the undoubted greatest world sea power. As an island and colonial power, Britain did not need a large army. The British professional standing army mustered a 125,000, many of these men were overseas. Although it was small, in comparison to continental armies, it was highly professional and well trained. It was designed to cope with police actions and small wars in British colonial interests and consequently unsuited for a great land conflict.

Therefore Britain's main contribution at the outset of war was its navy. Its army would only become important in deciding the outcome, if the war became prolonged. But as mentioned elsewhere, no one expected a long war.

At the outbreak of war the British navy swept away German naval commerce in an instant. This would not be an encumbrance if the war was short. However, if the war was prolonged then the denial of munitions and food from overseas would be an important factor in Germany's ability to wage war. By 1918 the German civilian population were undergoing severe privation and even starvation due to the British naval blockade.

The German army was Germany's prime instrument of war. Although Germany had a large navy, it was never exercised fully. Only on one occasion did it sally en mass from German ports to take on the British fleet. The outcome of the battle of Jutland in May 1916 was indecisive. On the basis of ships sunk and lives lost, the Germans came out on top. However, it was the German fleet that fled back to port and left the British fleet resplendent upon the high seas. The Germans never chanced their fleet in a major sea action with the British again. Instead they engaged in small scale raids on the English, east coast inflicting civilian causalities but having no material impact on the war. After Jutland the German High Fleet ceased to be a tactical or strategical instrument of war.

The situation for the British was somewhat different. The British fleet was a decisive factor in allied power. The fact the fleet existed, whether stationed on the high seas or in port, mattered little. The Germans of course also had their U boats, but that story will have to wait for another time. Churchill, after the battle of Jutland, had this to say: "Jellicoe (British admiral) is the only man, on both sides, who could lose the war in an afternoon." Typical Churchillian prose you might say, but on this occasion he was dead right. The situation for Germany was different. If Germany lost all it's ships in an afternoon it would not affect the German ability to wage war. For the Germans the best strategy was to aggressively engage the British navy. By destroying British warships it could influence the war's outcome even at the cost of losing its own navy. Instead the German navy remained impotent in German dock. A magnificent instrument of war wasted.

In November 1918 with the signing of the armistice, Germany was defeated. However, the German fleet received it's final order to engage the British in a final death ride. But, the years of enforced idleness in port had sapped the moral of the German sailors and they refused to carry out the order; at this stage of the war, who could blame them.

In the final analysis Germany was too preoccupied with the war on land and failed to appreciate how the High Seas Fleet could effectively engage the British. The Western front held a hypnotic fascination for the Germans and they failed to grasp the strategic importance of their superb navy, until it was too late : A wasted asset left to rot in port.          

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