The Great War at Sea 1914-1918, Part 1

By John Slaughter

This article was published in the April 2015 edition of Soul Search, the Journal of The Sole Society

Ed: At the last Annual Gathering John Slaughter gave a talk on the Great War at Sea, and edited version of the first half is reproduced here and the second half will be in the August journal.

Outbreak of War
At the outbreak of war and for many years previously Britain had been acknowledged as the dominant Naval Power and its navy held a superiority over the German Navy. Also Britain could effectively block both ends of the North Sea thus preventing German trade with the outside world. British naval planning leading up to the war had been formulated on this basis. It was recognised that the northern end of the blockade would be the most vulnerable to a German attack and resources were mainly centred at Scapa Flow.
As a consequence the German fleet remained largely in harbour behind a screen of mines, though it occasionally attempted to lure the British fleet into battle in the hopes of weakening them enough to break the blockade or allow attacks on British shipping and trade.
The first naval battle, the First Battle of Heligoland Bight, took place on 28th August 1914. The British plan was to ambush German destroyers on their daily patrols. The result was a British victory. Three German light cruisers, two torpedo boats and one destroyer were sunk with the loss of many lives. British losses were much smaller with heavy damage to one light cruiser only. The effect on the German government and in particular the Kaiser was to restrict still further the freedom of action of the German fleet.
Though outgunned and outfought with surface ships the German Navy harassed British shipping by means of U boats. In August 1914, a flotilla of ten U-boats sailed from their base in Heligoland to attack Royal Navy warships in the North Sea. Their aim was to sink capital ships of the British Fleet, and so reduce British superiority. The first sortie was not a success. Only one attack was carried out, a torpedo that missed its target but with the loss of two of the ten U-boats. Later in a the month, the U-boats achieved success, when the cruiser HMS Pathfinder was sunk. On 22nd September, three armoured cruisers (Aboukir, Hogue and Cressy) were lost in a single action. On board the Hogue that day was Petty Officer Reuben John Sewell and on board the Cressy was Stoker Henry Sewell. Others of our names to lose their lives in this initial U boat campaign was Private Thomas Sewell on HMS Hawke and Seaman Robert Samuel Saul on HMS Formidable. By the end of the initial campaign the U-boats had sunk nine warships while losing five of their own number.

HMS Cresey, sunk by a U-boat, Stoker Henry Sewell lost his life aboard
HMS Cresey, sunk by a U-boat, Stoker Henry Sewell lost his life aboard

Naval Battles
The British navy had at that time a considerable stranglehold on the North Sea but the situation was less clear cut in other parts of the world. In the seas around South America British and German naval forces met in November 1914 at the Battle of Coronel off the coast of Chile. German forces led by Vice-Admiral Graf Maximilian von Spee defeated a Royal Navy squadron. Spee had an easy victory, destroying two enemy armoured cruisers for just three men injured. Amongst those that lost their lives that day were Leading Seaman Charles Thomas Saul and Stoker 1st Class Alfred John George Solley. British losses amounted to 1,570 men killed.
Shock at the scale of these losses resulted in an immediate response and the sending of more ships which in turn destroyed Spee and the majority of his squadron at the Battle of the Falkland Islands on 8th December 1914. Spee attempted to raid the British supply base at Stanley in the Falkland Islands, notwithstanding that a large British squadron had arrived in the port only the day before, clearly a failure of German Intelligence. The advance cruisers of the German squadron had been detected early on by the British. It was not long before the British battlecruisers and cruisers were in hot pursuit and all the German vessels, except two, were hunted down and sunk. German losses greatly exceeded British loses.
Another skirmish took place in the North Sea between British and German forces on 24th January 1915, near the Dogger Bank. The British had advance intelligence that a German raiding squadron was heading for Dogger Bank, so dispatched their own naval forces to intercept it. They found the Germans at the expected time and place; surprised, the smaller and slower German squadron fled for home. During the chase lasting several hours, the British slowly caught up with the Germans and engaged them with long-range gunfire. The Germans lost one armoured cruiser and had one battlecruiser heavily damaged but the remainder made it back to port.
By the end of 1914 start of 1915 the War had reached somewhat of a stalemate not just on land but also on the seas where Britain held the upper hand confining the German Navy largely to port. There was a feeling for a ‘grand gesture’, something to give momentum, another Trafalgar. The idea was developed for a Naval attack on the Dardanelles. The military justification for the attack was that, if successful, it would open up a supply route for Russia, Britain’s ally, and relieve the pressure on Russia from the Ottoman Empire. It was also hoped that it would encourage Bulgaria and Romania to join the allied side. The Dardanelles had been closed to Allied shipping in October 1914, a decision it appears that was taken by German military advisers without reference to the Ottoman government. The Dardanelles were defended by a system of fortified and mobile artillery and by a series of ten minefields laid across the straits containing a total of 370 mines. Several attacks on the defences were made by the Allies with little success. The decisive battle was to take place on 18th March 1915 when the British plan was to knock out the defences guarding the first five minefields which would be cleared overnight with similar events taking place on the following day. The main reason for the failure of the plan was a line of about 20 to 26 mines that had been laid just inside the entrance to the Straits some ten days previously and which had failed to be spotted by either reconnaissance planes or ships. On the day of the attack civilian trawlers sweeping for mines discovered and destroyed three mines in an area thought to be clear but this information was not passed on. As a consequence Bouvet, a French battleship , struck a mine, capsized and sunk within a couple of minutes killing 639 crewmen. Not realising she had hit a mine the British pressed on with the attack. Around 4pm HMS Inflexible struck a mine near where the Bouvet went down killing 30 crewmen and had to be beached on the island of Tenedos. Other casualties of the mines were HMS Irresistible and Ocean. In this conflict the Ottoman Empire had far fewer casualties than the British and French.
The failure of the naval assault lead to the idea that land forces could advance around the backs of the Dardanelles forts and capture Constantinople. On 25th April 1915 the army launched the Gallipoli Campaign, significant naval forces being devoted to this operation. The Gallipoli landings were the largest amphibious operation of the War. As we know the land campaign also proved to be a failure and was abandoned. The only area where the Allies had any significant success was with submarines and forced the Ottomans to abandon the Dardanelles as a transport route. To be continued….

The Ottoman Empire’s Torpedo boat Muavenet-i Milliye which saw service during the Dardanelles Campaign
The Ottoman Empire’s Torpedo boat Muavenet-i Milliye which saw service during the Dardanelles Campaign