Category: great war

The First Battle of the Atlantic, 1914-1918 Pi…

The First Battle of the Atlantic, 1914-1918

Pictured – British sailors watch the torpedo-boat destroyer HMS Tempest drop depth charges in the North Sea.

Unlike World War II, the Great War was primarily a ground war. Although the naval arms race between Britain and Germany had been a chief reason for the escalation of tensions in Europe, and theorists like A.T. Mahan believed a nation’s might depended on its control of the oceans, sea power played only a limited role in determining victory and defeat between 1914 and 1918.

That is not to say that navies played no important role in the Great War. True, there were hardly any great fleet actions, with the exception of Jutland in 1916, and even this battle between the world’s two great dreadnought fleets was indecisive. Yet sea power remained vital for the survival of Britain as an island-nation, and by extension for maintaining the supply routes that fed the Entente war machine on the mainland. It was here, in the unglamourous daily work of merchantmen, submarines, and convoys, that navies played their largest role in World War I.

The naval balance in 1914 tipped heavily toward the Allies because of the mighty Royal Navy. By 1915 the British had chased Germany’s few colonial squadrons and merchant raiders from the high seas, and commenced the blockade which steadily reduced the Central Powers to starvation. The blockade stopped all food and supplies from coming into
Germany, even shipping from neutral states, which was perfectly legal
under the laws of maritime war.

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Looking aft in the control room of a U-boat. First World War
submarines were primitive, able to submerge for only a few hours at a
time.

Unable to take on the British on the surface, Germany’s High Command
turned to another weapon which they believed could even the odds, the
submarine, or in German, the Unterseeboot: the U-boat. First World War submarines were primitive machines, unable to remain underwater for very long. But they could slip through the blockade into the North Sea and the wider Atlantic, and there sink shipping which Britain depended on. Legally, a submarine could capture merchant shipping if they allowed the crew to leave the vessel, and then towed it to a friendly port. Obviously, this was tactical suicide for U-boat commanders who needed to sink shipping fast and get away before British destroyers responded.

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German submariners take advantage of fair weather for a shower on deck.

Therefore the Germans began unrestricted submarine warfare. Merchant shipping was sunk with no warning. Moreover, because most shipping came from the neutral Americas, U-boats destroyed any merchant ships they saw, without worrying if they flew an Allied flag or not. For a time this aggressive strategy turned the Atlantic into a maritime graveyard. In February 1917, for example, U-boats sank 520,000 tons of merchant shipping, in April an incredible 860,000 tons. The British government began emergency rationing as supplies to the island dried up.



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A Royal Navy convoy escorts shipping across the Atlantic. Destroyers protect the convoy while an airship keeps watch for a U-boats periscope.

Yet the U-boat campaign cost Germany strategically by provoking the Americans into the war. Unrestricted greatly hurt Germany’s reputation abroad, especially after disasters like the sinking of the Lusitania, an unarmed passenger ship which went down with 1,198 people, over 128 of them Americans. Wilson declared war on Germany in April 1917.

The U-boats also failed tactically. After years of pressure, the Royal Navy began organizing shipping into convoys. Destroyers and airships protected these flocks of merchantmen, herding them away from predatory U-boat wolfpacks. U-boats began to be sunk in large numbers, although the greatest success of the convoy system was merely that it prevented the Germans from being able to find many targets in the great and wide Atlantic. Without individual ships traveling independently, the U-boats’ opportunities dried up.

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German U-boats are surrendered after the Armistice. The Treaty of Versailles forbade Germany from ever constructing them again.

When the war ended, 15,000 Allied and neutral merchant sailors had died because of the U-boat campaign. About 5,000 German submariners joined them at the bottom of the sea. The U-boat campaign was a crafty attempt by Germany to even the odds with the Entente, but ultimately a failed one which only briefly threatened the Allied war effort. The First Battle of the Atlantic was an important era in the evolution of naval warfare, but perhaps not a decisive part of the First World War, except that it drew the Americans onto the Allied side. In the next world war, the Atlantic battle would be re-fought, but this time on a much more dramatic scale.

October 21, 1918 – U-Boats Ordered Home 

October 21, 1918 – U-Boats Ordered Home 

Pictured – A U-boat beached and abandoned on the Belgian coast.

The war had come to its last days, but men were still dying at sea. On October 21 a German submarine sank the merchantman Saint Barcham in the Irish Sea. She went down with eight crewman.

The torpedo which sank Saint Barcham was the last one fired by a submarine during the Great War. That day the High Seas Fleet ordered all U-boats still hunting the Atlantic to come home. Woodrow Wilson demanded the end of unrestricted submarine warfare before any peace negotiations began. In any case, the whole of the Belgian coast, with its U-boat bases, had fallen back into Entente hands. The Great War’s U-boat campaign, the First Battle of the Atlatnic, had seen 15,000 sailors, mostly British merchant mariners, killed. Another 5,000 German submariners joined them at the bottom of the sea.

Germany’s Naval Staff still had bellicose plans in mind. Several days later they would issue an order for the entire High Seas Fleet to sail for the English Channel and take on the Royal Navy’s Grand Fleet. It was to be a death ride for the Kaiser’s prized battleships.

October 20, 1918 – Germans Squabble Over Peace…

October 20, 1918 – Germans Squabble Over Peace

Picture – The Kaiser, running short on time.

While Allied troops drew nearer to the German border, the Kaiser’s leadership in Berlin debated what to do. The new Chancellor, Prince Max, and the civilian government favored peace. They replied to an American note that day promising to end the unrestricted submarine campaign, part of Wilson’s preconditions for negotiation.

The military went back and forth between despondency and manic proposals to continue the war. Ludendorff told his generals to form a new line of battle stretching down from Antwerp, and told them use everything in their arsenals to devastate Belgium “so that 1914 will be child’s play compared to it.” More realistically, the Minister for War General Scheüch promised to find 600,000 reinforcements for the front, but added that if the oilfields in Romania fell into the hands of the Allied army advancing north from the Balkans, then the military could only fight on for six weeks.

The generals closest to the front-line had the best idea of the situation. Writing from Belgium, where his wretched army had lost most of its artillery and horses and hemorrhaged men every day, Prince Rupprecht of Bavaria told his superiors that “we must obtain peace before the enemy breaks into Germany.”

October 19, 1918 – Liberation of Bruges and Ze…

October 19, 1918 – Liberation of Bruges and Zeebrugge, Belgian Coast Clear of Germans

Pictured – To the victors: women grin for the camera and sit on an abandoned German coastal gun.

On October 19, the Belgian Army presented the Yser Medal to all its men who had participated in the desperate battle for survival in October 1914. That month the remnants of Belgium’s tiny army had held off German attacks on the Yser River, preserving a sliver of their homeland from occupation.

Four years later and the Belgians had gone on the attack to liberate their country. The Yser Medal came in coordination with their greatest triumph of the war as Zeebrugge and Bruges fell back into Belgian hands. Zeebrugge in particular had been an important U-boat base. With the liberation of these cities the entire Belgian North Sea coast had been taken out of German hands.

October 18, 1918 – Czechoslovakian Declaration…

October 18, 1918 – Czechoslovakian Declaration of Independence

Pictured – The democracy of the New World lends support to democracy in the Old.

Emperor Charles I’s attempt to turn the Austro-Hungarian Empire into a federation was a move made out of desperation to stave off the regime’s imminent collapse. It had no chance of success and only revealed the total weakness of Habsburg power; the empire was dead, Charles just did not know it yet.

Of the Dual Monarchy’s subject peoples, the Czechoslovaks had come closest to complete independence already. They had a provisional government in the United States ready to step into power, and an army, the Czech Legion, fighting against the Central Powers (and Bolsheviks) on the Eastern Front.

Czech National Council leader Tomáš

Masaryk cemented his leadership of the future nation on October 18, issuing a declaration of independence from Washington D.C. The Declaration, couched in Wilsonian language to appeal to the Americans, listed a litany of Habsburg abuses and laid out a parliamentary system and a list of fundamental rights.

Vive les Allies! A crowd in Lille celebrates t…

Vive les Allies! A crowd in Lille celebrates their liberation, October 17 1918.

October 17, 1918 – Lille Liberated

October 17, 1918 – Lille Liberated

Pictured – The joy of liberation: a youngster carries a British soldier’s rifle as Lille is freed without a shot.

Lille was one of the largest and most important cities occupied by the Germans during World War I. The city had fallen to the Kaiser’s army on 13 October, 1914, and since then been a major base, serving as an army headquarters as well as an aerodrome hub. Four years later saw the Germans in the midst of evacuation. They abandoned Lille in October, taking everything of value and destroying what remained. Many of the city’s population had been carted off to Germany long ago as forced labor.

The city fell to British troops without a shot on the 17th. That the Germans have given up one of their greatest prizes was proof to soldiers and civilians alike that the war was near its end. Crowds cheered the Tommies and children ran up to greet the friendly soldiers who ended their long occupation. The first French soldier to enter was the son of LIlle’s mayor. Honorary visitors thronged to the city, first Prime Minister Clemenceau, then his President Raymond Poincaré, then British General Birdwood, whose men had liberated the town, and who had been proclaimed a citizen of Lille in gratitude.

The same day King Albert of Belgium rode into Ostend and Zeebrugge, Germany’s major navy bases on the  North Sea. As the Western Front collapsed, Germany’s military leaders almost fell into madness, unable to process defeat after such a total war. Grand Admiral Tirpitz wrote to Prince Max urging “resolute reinforcement” of the lines, and a “relentless prosectuion” of the U-boat campaign, for “every German must understand that if we do not fight on, we fall to the level of wage-slaves to our enemies.” Luddendorff declared his army would fight on, and that an Allied breakthrough was “unlikely.” He planned a new defensive line based on Antwerp. These mad statements foreshadowed the suicidal militarism of the German right that would throw Europe back into war and see Germany utterly destroyed in 1945.

Spanish flu panic spreads through North Americ…

Spanish flu panic spreads through North America. The flu began in a Kansas army base and killed 50 to 100 million people by the time it ended in 1919. In contrast the Great War killed 12 million.

October 16, 1918 – Emperor Charles Proposes Fe…

October 16, 1918 – Emperor Charles Proposes Federal Freedom to Subject Nationalities in a United States of Austria

Pictured – A map of the 1910 plan for a United States of Greater Austria. The 1918 proposal would have given federal sovereignty to the six principal Hapsburg nationalities besides Austria and Hungary.

The Dual Monarchy of the Hapsburg Empire was a complex beast, but in short, Charles I was the Emperor of Austria and the King of Hungary, and the governments of these two nations ran the empire. Under them were a number of subject peoples: Czechs, Slovaks, Poles, Croats, Slovenes, Serbs, Romanians, Italians, and Bosnians. It was a cosmopolitan, multicultural empire, which had no place in world where nationalism had become the order of the day.

All the more so because Austria-Hungary had experienced nothing but defeat and disaster since it and Germany had plunged into war in 1914. The army had been mauled, and unrest brewed among many of the empire’s nations; the Czechs in particular saw independence looming. 

Charles had taken the throne in 1916 from his geriatric granduncle Franz Josef. He was a reformer and against the war. In a last, desperate move to save the empire he inherited, he proposed on October 16 a federal union that would give political sovereignty to the Czechs, Slovaks, Poles, Croats, Slovenes, and Romanians. It had no hope. Not only would the Allies reject it, so would the peoples of the Dual Monarchy, who desired independence on the basis of ethnic nationalism, not plural unions. This last attempt to save the ancient Hapsburg Empire was as historian Elizabeth Wiskemann writes, “spoken by nothing but a voice from the grave.”

October 14, 1918 – Spanish Flu Death Toll Clim…

October 14, 1918 – Spanish Flu Death Toll Climbs

Pictured – Victims of the 20th century’s worst pandemic.

Countless books on the Great War are published every year, yet curiously few on the Spanish Flu, the worst pandemic of modern history. The virus began spreading throughout the world in 1917, originating in a Kansas army depot and soon infecting millions throughout every continent (it was called Spanish because the neutral Spanish press called attention to it earlier than others).

On October 15 it was announced that 1,500 Berliners had died of the disease. The flu had already ravaged the malnourished German army, which contributed to its rapid collapse in fall 1918. Healthier Allied soldiers had started to succumb as well; a Canadian air ace named Frank Quiqley downed thirty-four German planes but died of the flu on October 19. The disease was also taking its toll in the United States, where it had begun. Philadelphia would lose one percent of its population by the end of 1919. In London 2,225 people died that week, more than had been killed in four years of Zeppelin and bomber raids.

In Asia, Africa, and in the Pacific millions died of the flu. It killed 24% of Western Samoans, for example, and 14 million in India alone. That the flu affected the colonial world the worst is doubtless one reason it is overshadowed by the Great War in history. When the Great Flu passed in 1919 as quickly as it had come, it had taken at least 50 million, possibly as many as 100 million with it, compared to the 12 million who died in the Great War.