Battleships Do Not Themselves a Battle Make – A Study of Naval Warfare in the Great War Era

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by Paul Comben

In the heady and desperately deluded days of August 1914, the doubts of the few were readily drowned out by the confident assertions of the many – “Home Before the Leaves Fall”; “Back by Christmas”; “On to Paris!”; “Forward to Berlin!”; and within the various casts of naval nonsense, “Der Tag” (the day of reckoning) for the Germans, and “A Second Trafalgar” (sink everything in sight) for the British.

Needless to say, none of it ever occurred.

The Times of London presented a little map to readers as the British nation geared up for war, entitled: “Where the Fleets Will Meet.” In essence, all it showed was a map of the North Sea, with a circle in the middle showing where the Royal Navy and the High Sea Fleet would come to a settling of scores. Of course, it was plain commonsense that the fleets, as and when they met, would be somewhere in the North Sea when it happened – there was precious little chance of their being anywhere else. But what was most telling about this small piece of cartography was what went with it by way of expectation – that this naval epic was going to happen within the next few days, and was going to be a full-on battle with ships fighting it out to the death as at Trafalgar, or any other engagement during the Napoleonic period.

This was not purely a British view. Interviewed in 1964 for the BBC’s “The Great War” series (highly recommended), a German naval veteran spoke of how, at the time of the British declaration of war, a fellow High Seas Fleet officer had insisted that he was going to consume nothing but caviar and champagne from then on, as he was convinced they would be all dead before too much more time went by.


Perhaps the most eloquent statement that these assumptions were all going to be proved wrong could be seen in the very first actions of the Grand Fleet as war became a reality. Far from hanging around the German bases like an enraged husband looking to horsewhip some upstart dabbler in his wife’s affections, the main elements of the British fleet moved to the north of Scotland, and by this shift alone, threw out every calculation that had gone into the formulating of the German naval war plan – they had counted on a close blockade they could attack with submarines and mines. In fact, it is no exaggeration to say, that, among all the misfires and miscues that dogged the big plans of 1914, (Plan 17, Schlieffen, Tirpitz) the only plans that came near to working well were the British ones – the BEF arrived in France intact and on time; the fleet moved unhindered to Scapa Flow; and from Scapa Flow, that fleet then proceeded to enforce its wholesale blockade of German commerce as well as its constraint upon the freedom of movement of the German fleet.


But sometimes, and certainly in this case, it is important to understand that plans, and operations carried out (or not carried out) in line with the big scheme of things, depend not only on the astute calculation of whatever is presented as the superior mind, but also on what is implemented through the tensions and susceptibilities of those who can actually have the power to move stuff about. Kaiser Wilhelm II was a distinctly unappetizing blend of bigotry, bombast and braggart outpourings covering up a whole range of chronic insecurities. Thus, after building his fleet of dreadnoughts with due encouragement from that forked beard barnacle, Grand Admiral Tirpitz, one slight and early reverse for his fleet at Helgoland Bight was enough for Wilhelm to order that his precious fleet was to do nothing without his official sanction being obtained first. This, of course, was an utter nonsense, and may be compared to Hitler’s embargo on withdrawals without getting his permission; but beyond the frustrations of the German commanders who stood on the bridge of this or that fine German ship which was going precisely nowhere, there was the adverse effect on the morale of the men, who, by the dictate of their Kaiser, were commanded, in his words, to maintain high morale, a cheery disposition, and to think positively of action and of victory…even if there was not much prospect of either.


Eventually, when Scheer took over command of the fleet from Ingenohl, the navy did begin to return to some more pro-active and aggressive state of action; but until that happened, across the North Sea, Jellicoe found himself with a situation that suited his own disposition rather well. The German fleet was not entirely dormant (witness the Scouting Group’s shelling of British towns), but the main body rarely sallied forth, and Jellicoe saw precious little merit in going to look for a fight if one were not readily available. He was a cautious man by nature, with a shrewd and meticulous aspect to his thoughts. In his opinion, by every measure he employed, just by remaining intact in Scapa Flow he held the winning hand – if the German fleet could not break the blockade, he was winning. If it could not degrade his strength to near parity with the German forces, he was winning. And if, by avoiding battle, and thus keeping concealed from others what he most likely suspected himself, that the German ships were individually better than many of his own, and the High Seas Fleet as a whole more tactically skilled, so much the better.

These factors certainly go some way in explaining why the North Sea was not a scene of blasting mayhem at near all points of the Great War; but it is most certainly not the whole story, either for that theatre, or for the fleets of any other major nation in any other sea/ocean over the same period. For those extra factors, which made the process of engagement, and willingness to engage, a very different prospect in 1914-18 to 1805, we need to go back to the time of the American Civil War, and naval developments which were occurring on both sides of the Atlantic.

Only some seven years separated the Crimean War from the onset of the War Between the States. But whereas photographs of the British and French fleets in the Black Sea, or accounts of actions fought in the Baltic, reveal very little that would have startled a Nelson or a Collingwood, the story of naval conflict in the American Civil War was a very different kettle of fish. Here, ships with no sails, no masts, with guns in turrets, with armoured hides, and driven by steam power, battered away at each other as the new science and manufacturing prowess of the Industrial Revolution finally seeped into the practice of making some ships sink some other ships. It was early days, and much was still to come, but the days of wooden walls and sail power were definitely coming to a close.


During the last decades of the Nineteenth Century, the design of the warship continued to evolve, though the process often took a wrong turn and produced some peculiar hybrids that can only be described as the naval/industrial equivalent of nature’s little mistakes. In Britain, another downturn in relations with the French, with a new Bonaparte on the throne and some nasty looking warships being built, caused the British to respond with big forts carrying big guns, and then in direct answer to French warships, they built a sleek beast of their own – HMS Warrior. Superficially, apart from her funnels, she still looked a bit like a good old ship of the line, with masts rising up from the deck and the guns lining her sides. But, in fact, new science was all over the ship, and the new industry was putting into her what the new science could envisage… and what the old blokes in government were ready to pay for.


The Warrior had engines, backed up with sails; but whereas warships had moved by power of the wind for thousands of years already, Warrior, with her furnaces and boilers, could be aptly described as the product of some latter breeds of genius being capable of going further than Archimedes or da Vinci. From certain perspectives, warships were becoming the embodiment of the most advanced and complicated technological mixes on the planet.

This was certainly true with her guns. Yes, they poked out the sides of the ship, but they were far more powerful than anything Nelson had possessed, and fired out to a far greater range. And to ensure that these guns could be fired from an enduringly viable ship, Warrior had great belts of armour sandwiched between her wooden inner and outer skin. Along with the Monitor in America, these were the first steps forward.

To put it in blunt terms, naval technology was now considerably more complex than the earlier pattern of cutting down some trees, seasoning some timber, tarring a rope, pressing a crew and prodding a big heavy metal ball down a big brass tube filled with gunpowder. Science kept upping the stakes, and because industry could make what science saw in its mind, everything steadily got bigger and far more powerful. Just about any ship at Tsushima, even a Russian one, could have sunk the entirety of both fleets at Trafalgar with no danger to itself. But of course, with that sort of power came a vast increase in expense, with costs often rising exponentially. You can have guns that can fire up to 20,000 yards, fine – but no good unless you also have a system of range finding and gun direction that can keep you on target when the enemy is little more than a speck in the distance. And the shell has not got to just hit the ship; in all likelihood, it will have to penetrate several inches of armour protection if it is to do any real damage at all – and that means more science, more things for industry to do, and more costs to add up.

Again, to put it through an alternative perspective, the costs of maintaining national pride and paying for insecurity and arrogance in 1914 were vastly higher than they had been in 1805; in addition to which, because these fleets of dreadnoughts, super dreadnoughts, battle cruisers and such, were so new, so innovative, so new fangled and fancy, and because they were further tied up with expressions of national will, national strength, national genius, pride and fortitude, no one was that ready to lose as much as one of them – they were simply too ruddy expensive and too tied up with delusions of national identity and supremacy to ever be found being risked on the disadvantaged side of an argument with anyone or anything else.

The mindset of a Jellicoe or of a Kaiser thus becomes that bit easier to comprehend. Both of them wanted to preserve their fleet more than they wanted a battle – the Kaiser for appearances sake, and that at some basic level, he was thoroughly inadequate and without fibre; Jellicoe, because he believed he was winning anyway, and was only prepared to stick at a fight if he could calculate and control every last aspect of it. There is evidence enough through his communications with the Admiralty and the government that he never stopped being utterly obsessed with his numerical margin of capital ships over the German enemy. Detaching anything “big” for even a small amount of time was an anathema to him, and like certain other commanders, there was a tendency for him to enlarge the enemy’s power whilst playing down the strength at his command. Jellicoe was certainly not bereft of positive traits, but it is hard to avoid the conclusion that his barrel of rum was always half empty rather than half full. Later in the war, when assigned to a posh desk, he wrote a doom-laden missive to the government to the effect that the German submarine campaign was bound to succeed given the rate of loss and what could be arithmetically deduced as the point when the Allied war effort would be impossible to sustain. Another recipient of this dire missive was Rear Admiral William Sims of the US Navy. Sims was in London at the time, and got it straight from Jellicoe that the German submarine menace was virtually out of control and a much-needed remedy was nowhere to be found.


Of course, as Sims believed, and as Lloyd George pushed for along with other figures around the Admiralty, the answer lay in convoys – something Jellicoe was hardly the most ardent supporter of. And when “Der Tag/The Second Trafalgar” got its shot at realization on May 31st 1916, there were two things in Jellicoe’s conduct that were utterly predictable – that the British commander would make precisely the right deployment of his fleet, and that when faced with a desperate spoiling attack by the German destroyer flotillas, he would turn away from the torpedoes rather than towards them.

But in some respects he was perfectly correct to be cautious. Science did not stop with the dreadnoughts – there were the cheaply produced but highly effective mines, the submarines and the airships. These weapon types were yet to reach their full potential, or to evolve into better realizations of the initial concept (for airships read long range seaplanes and carrier aircraft) but it certainly remains one of the great ironies of modern era warfare that, even as the battleship was nearing the peak of its power, far cheaper weapons were arriving that could totally negate their presence on the seas and oceans of the world.

But above all else, it was the mindset of politicians and of commanders that kept the main portions of Great War fleets away from potential mass actions or anything else dangerous, and in this respect mines and submarines often did their work by threat, or imagined threat, rather than by anything actually being sunk. It was all a stark contrast to the days of sail, when to see the enemy was to look for battle at the soonest. But while Nelson may have said that no commander can do much wrong if he lay his ship beside the enemy’s, a century more of science, expense, the increasingly complicated relationship between politics, power, monetary outlay and the national armament, all helped cloud the issue. Fighting sail had been around for centuries; dreadnoughts and their closest relations were barely arrived and hardly tried, and maybe we see what all this could do when Admiral Troubridge had his chance to engage the battle cruiser Goeben just a few days into the war. It would simply beggar belief to think that four of Nelson’s frigates would not have gone after an eighty-gunner, but with four armoured cruisers against one battle cruiser, Troubridge thought himself out of the fight, lost his own personal war in an afternoon, and assuredly knowing it was the wrong decision, turned away with tears in his eyes.


Not much later in the war, cheap mines, a few Ottoman guns and a German U boat were sufficient to curtail the Allied naval operation in support of the Gallipoli landings. First out was the Queen Elizabeth, one of the best ships in the British navy, and not the sort of ship to be risked actually doing something it was supposed to have been built for.

But that is enough castigation of the British. One of the most famous pieces of film from the Great War shows the slow, almost surreal sinking of the Austro Hungarian battleship Szent István after receiving hits from an Italian torpedo boat close to the Dalmatian coast. The stricken dreadnought had been out with her three sisters to raid the Otranto barrage in the summer of 1918. This in turn, was part of Admiral Horthy’s intention to get his fleet to do something other than occupy its end of the Adriatic whilst French and Italian forces stared it out from the other end. Over the past years, there had not been much by way of action between the opposing forces, and as the more cooped in, the Austro Hungarian navy, like the Germans, was suffering badly in morale.

Horthy aimed to check this decline with what might be called precipitate action; but, as it turned out, his force was on the receiving end of some seriously precipitate action, and this from a couple of boats which had cost a mere fraction of the capital-hungry status symbols who were meant to be creeping by them unseen. Doubtless the Hungarian admiral thought his return to martial routines and shooting a few malingerers would do wonders, but, in truth, there is something about those few moments of film that tell a different story. Listing over to port, and this by such a degree that the water is already lapping over her decks and flooding the casemates of the secondary batteries, the actions of the crew on the upper structures do not portray instances of rescue, salvage or defiance; instead, the ship appears crewed by a drifting assortment of pusillanimous factors, capable of doing naught to any better effect than cast their oblivious eyes upon a doom they have neither envisaged or ever learnt to believe in.

Immense and prolonged inaction was one aspect of commonality the fleets of 1914-18 had with the Georgian and Napoleonic navies – that you were facing problems if you were home too long, or not home long enough. In the case of the Germans, for all the excellence of their ships, they were to be foiled by geography, by numbers, and by the gathering neuroses of Kaiser Bill. The odd thing was, the Germans did not really need a fleet – they only got one because the detested British had something “Villy” wanted the like for himself. It almost came down to not being a power worthy of respect unless you had some big gun ships. So it was that some largely inconsequential countries with social problems all over the place (think South America) just had to have at least one of the beasts to put in a harbor, strut its stuff along a rival’s coastline, and then return home for a polish and a rub down.

The end of the German High Seas Fleet summed it all up. Any time it might have sallied out was, apparently, never quite the right time. Contrary to popular belief, the Germans did get out of its bases more than once after Jutland, but it was never that keen on going anywhere it could not get back from again. Months of inactivity sapped the spirits of the crews; and then there occurred an act which had as much ghastly surreal fantasy about it as anything that had happened on the decks of the Szent István. With the war totally lost, and the morale of the fleet down at the bilge level, the order came for the entire force to seek a glorious end by a final fight in the North Sea. Had that fight occurred, the Germans would have faced both the entirety of the Grand Fleet as well as strong elements of the American Navy. The most likely result would have been utter defeat against forces notably stronger than at Jutland, and those forces led by Beatty rather than Jellicoe.

The German fleet never left base. It was riddled with political discontent, revolution, and plain despair. The ultimate status symbol of the era thus became, even while the ships still floated, the truest measure of just how far that status had dropped. Then, as the war ended, and the Germans were told to hand their fleet over to the British, those in the German delegation complained about the prospect of having to hand over a fleet that had never been truly defeated in battle. But the reply was apposite – “It only needed to come out”. Indeed, it had only needed to come out…but for most of that war, it never really did, not properly; leastways, not without thinking more of how to get back after a reverse than to go after a triumph.


About the Author


Paul has been involved in the hobby since the early 1970s. Of largely Belgian ancestry on his father’s side, and English (Yorkshire) on his mother’s, after finishing his education he worked in tourism and student services, and also spent some time in the former West Germany. He met his wife Boo in 1990, and they married a couple of years later.

 Paul hails from a long line of former servicemen – one grandfather was a sergeant in the BEF of 1914, whilst two of his great grandfathers were killed serving with the Royal Navy. His own father, who was born in Britain, served with the army in Malaya in the early 1950s.



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