Last Month’s Talk
The Branch always looks forward to the talks by Professor John Derry. Once again they were not disappointed as he analysed the effectiveness of the German High Seas Fleet.
British domination of the seas had existed for many years. However, the works of the American Alfred Mahan in the late 19th century on sea power influenced the German Von Tirpitz that Germany should have a strong navy if it was to consolidate its position as a world power. This influenced both the former and Kaiser Wilhelm II that it needed an effective navy to secure this. The Kaiser, being the eldest grandchild of Queen Victoria and jealous of her fleet believed the German state, unified after the Franco-Prussian War, should have a fleet as effective as the Royal Navy. However, Mahan’s views would be questioned in Germany. Many thought that the security of the land mass of the new nation was more important. The dominance of the German Army brought about friction between the two services, especially when it came to funding. Germany wanted to avoid a concurrent war on two fronts, and Army expenditure would suffer if funds were diverted to sea power.
The recovery of France from its defeat in 1871 and its growing partnership with Russia brought about the Schlieffen Plan, as amended subsequently by von Moltke the younger, to offset this concern to the German Army. Nevertheless, the Kaiser still wanted a Grand Fleet to rival his Grandmother’s Navy. Thus Germany began to expand its sea power which internally led to poor relations between its two armed forces. Unfortunately, the development of the Dreadnoughts by Britain pushed it ahead of its continental regal cousins. By 1914 Britain had superiority at sea. This was necessary, but also a structural problem, as it had to protect is overseas possessions, whereas, whilst Wilhelm II wanted colonial equality, it was still behind Perfidious Albion in overseas possessions. This brought about fundamental differences in the construction and nature of the two fleets. Britain had to plan for global protection, whereas the Germans would basically be active in the North Sea.
Britain had superiority by 1914, but German ships were of very good quality and helped by excellent electrical and chemical engineering. Their range finder was also superior. Thus Germany’s aim was to damage the British Navy to the extent that its command of the seas was reduced. Mahan’s ideas on a fleet in being meant Germany’s navy could not be ignored by Britain.
Early in the war Germany did have some success with raiders and action at Coronel when Admiral Craddock’s rash attack in November 1914 saw the sinking of the two main British warships Good Hope and Monmouth. However, the situation was reversed at the Falklands a month later when a superior British force sank the four German Capital ships previously involved.
This caused the German Navy to concentrate on submarine warfare, although no British soldiers were ever lost on ships transporting them to the Western Front. (Nor did the USA lose any from 1917). Initially, surface raids were carried out on England’s North East coast and there were civilian casualties in Hartlepool and Scarborough. This was one of the many self-incriminating acts that was to reflect badly on Imperial Germany’s conduct of the war and played on by the Allies.
Germany then turned to submarine warfare as a means of affecting British supplies and countering the Blockade by the Royal Navy which increasingly restrained the supply of essential products to German ports. However, the cruelty of German military forces initially seen in the invasion of Belgium and France was also levied against the perceived brutality of Germany in actions such as the sinking of the Lusitainia in May 1915. This was aggravated by the death of 128 Americans, notwithstanding the German accusation that the ship was carry war ordnance. It tempered the German desire to hit back at the continuing effect of the Royal Navy’s blockade.
The continued bitterness between the two German military bodies increased as the Army compared its high losses on both European Fronts and the lacklustre efforts of their naval counterparts. However, in early 1916 the two nations were to face one another two major conflicts on land and at sea. As the Britain and its Allies were planning for an attack on the Somme, Germany was preparing to try to relieve the increasingly burdensome effect of the Royal Navy Blockade. The onset of what was to become known as the Turnip winter encouraged a plan to lessen the Royal Navy’s dominance of the North Sea.
The only major sea battle between the two powers during the war has been repeatedly analysed and studied by historians ever since. Whilst the Royal Navy suffered the heavier losses, it did not bring about the end of the naval blockade nor the destruction of the Royal Navy. Poor intelligence from Room 40 and the ignoring of safety rules to achieve a faster rate of fire caused several British capital ships to suffer shattering explosions as enemy shells penetrated ammunition magazines. Although British losses at Jutland were heavy, it ensured the German High Seas fleet never lived up to its name for the rest of the war as it languished in harbour.
The lack of a total victory caused the Germans to return to unrestricted submarine warfare in early February 1917. This act which angered the Americans was made worse by the subsequent release by the British of the Zimmerman telegram. The British had intercepted a message by the German Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs to the Mexican government promising help to Mexico to recover lost lands in the USA if they helped Germany should it be attacked by the USA. Although British actions were basically illegal, by releasing it at a relevant time it fuelled the resentment in the USA over Germany’s actions and contributed to the former’s entry into the war.
At the time this was critical as U boats were dominating the sea war. The provision of protection by the USA navy and forming of convoys in protected water helped relieve the effects of the U boat campaign. It also eventually brought to the field a huge source of fresh manpower that offset the demise of the Russian forces. This led to the final gamble by the German army to win in the spring of 1918 before our new Ally could have an effect on the war. During the German advances their soldiers were shocked to see huge stacks of food supplies left by the BEF, as they had been told the submarines were causing starvation in England and on the Western Front. This was exacerbated by continual stories of their families actually facing starvation at home. This was eventually to lead to the Armistice in November 1918.
Despite its qualities, the High Seas Fleet was a white elephant. Money spent on it was denied to the Army as it fought a war on two fronts. The Fleet, excluding submarines, was cooped up in port. Morale declined with poor conditions and lack of leave and leisure. Mutinies and Sailors Councils added to the tensions. In 1918 The Kaiser was forced to abdicate and flee to Holland.
The essential battleground for the determination of the First World War was always the Western Front. Despite the efforts of Churchill (Half American) and Lloyd George (a contrived Welshman), it was possible to end the war in the West and force a cessation in the other theatres.
Professor Derry observed that Bismarck would not have allowed this to happen as it was a distraction to the land war. He also quoted Foch who posed the question as to why did Germany take the risk and cost of funding a war, when given its increasing industrial and financial might it would soon have been the dominant country in Europe. Unfortunately another erstwhile leader was to make the same mistake 25 years later, when the inanimate namesake of the above was to be involved in a similar naval engagement.
Yet another superb and engaging talk by probably our favourite speaker which kept the audience spellbound.