Into the Intro: The Great War at Sea


Go Into the Intro of The Great War at Sea

Submarine warfare was crucial to Allied victory in World War I. In this excerpt from The Great War at Sea, Lawrence Sondhaus unveils the Great War beyond the trenches.


In the Great War of 1914–18, a conflict distinctive first and foremost for its unprecedented bloodshed, less than 1 percent of the 8.5 million combatant deaths were naval personnel lost at sea. Such a disproportionate distribution of the human sacrifice might lead one to conclude that the Great War at sea had, at best, a peripheral significance to the final outcome, and yet no serious scholar has ever made such an argument. Prior to 1914, in history’s most expensive arms race to date, Britain defied the expectations of Germany in making the financial sacrifice necessary to maintain its naval superiority. Largely because of this superiority, the Allies were able to keep the fleets of the Central Powers contained in the North Sea, Baltic, and Adriatic, and to impose blockades on Germany and Austria-Hungary that, by 1916, contributed to serious food shortages in both countries. Faced with an insurmountable Allied supremacy in surface warships, the Central Powers attempted to revolutionize naval warfare by giving a central, offensive role to the submarine, a vessel originally conceived for a peripheral, defensive role (primarily as a harbor defender, against enemy blockade). In refocusing their efforts on undersea warfare, they created the issues that prompted the United States to intervene in a war in Europe, an unprecedented and, ultimately, decisive development. The focus on submarine warfare also caused the Central Powers to leave their capital ships rusting at anchor for much of the war, with dire consequences for the morale of most of their seamen. In 1917–18, Germany and Austria-Hungary (along with Russia, whose Baltic and Black Sea fleets had been similarly idled) experienced serious naval mutinies, and revolutionary movements in all three countries attracted significant numbers of sailors. By the end of the war, the victory of the Allies against the submarine challenge, following on their earlier success in sweeping the seas of German cruisers and other surface raiders, left them free to use the world’s sea lanes to transport supplies and troops to Europe from their overseas territories, and eventually from the United States, without which their ultimate victory could not have been accomplished. Thus, while the overwhelming majority of the effort, and the casualties, came on land, the action at sea was undeniably decisive to the outcome of the war.

While the overwhelming majority of the effort, and the casualties, came on land, the action at sea was undeniably decisive to the outcome of the war.

Each of the following chapters is framed to explain why the naval war mattered in the course of the Great War. For example, in Chapter 3, discussion of the early Allied victory in the naval war beyond Europe (1914–15) emphasizes the significance of this triumph for the subsequent free movement of food, fuel, and other materials essential to the Allied war effort, and, of course, for the exploitation of the manpower of the British dominions and India, the French colonies, and the United States, millions of troops whose deployment facilitated Allied victories on land in Africa, the Middle East, and, later in the war, in Europe. Chapter 4 discusses the role of naval considerations in prompting the Ottoman Empire to join the Central Powers and Italy to join the Allies, and the sequence of events that allowed the Allies to secure the Mediterranean in a way they would not in the Second World War, at least until 1943–45. Chapters 5 and 8, which deal primarily with German submarine warfare and the Allied response to it, address the complexities of the wartime Anglo-American relationship, both before and after the entry of the United States into the war in April 1917, and the impact of the Allied blockade of the Central Powers in determining the overall outcome of the war. Finally, the Anglo-American relationship at the peace conference and into the early postwar era will dominate the Conclusion, which will address the naval consequences of the emergence of the United States as the world’s leading economic power and net creditor, and Britain’s unaccustomed role as debtor, factors which provided the context for the Washington Naval Treaty (1922) and the interwar regime of naval disarmament.

Each chapter also highlights how the naval dimension of the Great War mattered in the evolution of warfare at sea. For example, Chapters 1 and 2 include discussion of the pre-1914 quest of navies to secure a prominent strategic role, as well as their efforts to adjust to dramatic improvements in the speed and firepower of warships. Chapter 2 highlights the role of wireless communication in the global naval

campaign of 1914–15, foreshadowing its significance during the rest of the war and in the Second World War. Chapter 5 focuses on the introduction of unrestricted submarine warfare and the Allied countermeasures against it, such as Q-ships (armed merchantmen with concealed guns) and the antisubmarine barrages at the Straits of Dover and Otranto. Chapter 6 uses the Allied failure at Gallipoli as a case study of unsuccessful combined (navy–army) operations, and compares it with the failure of the German combined operations at Riga the same year, discussing the lessons learned that influenced future combined operations. In Chapter 7, analysis of the Battle of Jutland compares the British and German navies in a variety of areas: command, control, and communications; tactical and operational cooperation across ship types; design, durability, and performance of ship types; firepower and fire control. Chapter 8, on the resumption of unrestricted submarine warfare and the entry of the United States into the war, discusses the political and practical challenges that had to be overcome in order to develop an effective inter-Allied system of convoys. Chapter 9, encompassing the final operations involving Russia, includes the second, successful German combined operation at Riga, and discusses its impact on the future of amphibious warfare. In general, the comprehensive approach recognizes the war’s place in naval history as the last in which every country considered a Great Power – eight in this case – possessed truly significant naval power. The conclusion highlights the role of the postwar disarmament talks, coming in the wake of the demise of the navies of the Central Powers, as a step in the broader process of reducing the number of great naval powers to the three of the Second World War, two of the Cold War, and one in the twenty-first century.

As in my general study of the war, the chapters presented here reflect a synthesis of the best scholarship on the subject, and also benefit from my own expertise on Germany and Austria-Hungary. In comparison with other general English-language accounts of the topic, this account of the naval war places greater emphasis on the strategies and operations of the Central Powers, reflecting my broader conclusion that at sea, as well as on land, the Great War may be conceptualized as a series of Allied reactions to the actions of Germany and Austria-Hungary, and my conviction that understanding their actions is key to understanding the war as a whole.

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