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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.