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The Great War and the Royal Navy

The British were a people who made it their boast in time of peace that they had "a supreme Fleet, but practically no Army." The British peoples are incurably maritime—by geographical distribution, by instinct, and by political bias, because sea power has always suggested freedom. In the circumstances which came into view in the last days of July, 1914, there was nothing in British policy which rendered necessary the employment of military force on the Continent. Although Brtain had abandoned her former position of splendid isolation, and had formed close friendships with France and Russia, the British Government had its hands entirely free so far as the employment of military force was concerned.

Admiral von der Goltz, writing in 1900, declared that the idea that Germany could not hold her own at sea against Great Britain was "puerile," adding: "Admittedly the maritime superiority of Great Britain is overwhelming now, and no doubt will remain considerable. But, after all, she is compelled to distribute her ships throughout the globe. We may suppose she would recall the greater part of them in the event of war. But the operation would take time to accomplish. Nor could she abandon all her oversea positions. On the other hand, though much smaller, the German Fleet is concentrated at home, and with the proposed increase (Navy Act, 1900) will be strong enough to meet the normal British force in European waters."

The Admiralty's solution of the strategic problems which war with Germany presented was unique in British annals. Never before had the whole of the best and most modern capital ships been assembled as one command and placed under the orders of one flag officer. Even at the Battle of Trafalgar Nelson had with him only twenty-seven ships of the line, or about one-third of the vessels then in commission. If Nelson had suffered defeat, there would still have remained intact another fleet about twice as powerful as that under his orders.

The decision to assemble under the flag of one admiral the new fleet, which had been created under the impulse of Lord Fisher's genius when that officer was First Sea Lord, represented a new departure in strategy. It appeared to ignore, or at least to subordinate, the needs of the oversea Empire. In the early years of the century the British public learnt of distant squadrons being abolished, of cruisers being called home, and of sloops and gunboats being placed out of commission.

If the British nation was to engage in war on terms making victory certain, and military co-operation on the Continent, involving sea transport practicable at once, the utmost possible energy and man-power had to be concentrated in the Grand Fleet; and a well co-ordinated and highly trained fleet is the work of years and not of months, like an army. But that is not all. The weak squadrons which were disestablished did not fit into the great strategic conception; the cruisers which were scrapped were of less speed than submarines; the sloops and gunboats belonged to an era which had ended — too weak to fight, and not sufficiently speedy to run away. It was only — and that is the vital point — by releasing 11,000 or 12,000 trained officers and men from non-fighting ships — vessels that "showed the flag," to quote the phrase of the moment — that it became possible in the time available to obtain crews for what was to become the Grand Fleet, consisting of new ships of superior equipment, swifter, more powerful, and better protected than any before.

The British Isles lie across Germany's path to the outer seas like a great mole, with a very narrow passage to the south and a broader passage to the north. If the enemy intended to break out, he would steer to the north, where the exit is broad and escape is practicable, instead of attempting to force a passage through the twenty miles of sea-water that separate Dover and Calais, and are easily dominated by destroyers and submarines. If a great concentration of British ships were formed to the north — superior in materiel as in moral — the enemy would either to abandon the use of the world's seas or to fight against long odds. In that solution lay the antidote to all the fears of the population of the British Isles — invasion, starvation, the breaking out of cruisers on the trade routes and attacks on the Oversea Dominions, the exposed coast of India, and the unprotected dependencies and Crown colonies. One can imagine the enthusiasm with which Nelson would have spoken of this idea of "containing" the German Fleet.

France having stated in reply to a question from the British Government that she was resolved to respect the neutrality of Belgium, the German Government not only refused to give such an undertaking, but immediately invaded the country whose inviolability Germany had solemnly guaranteed. The touching appeal from the King of the Belgians to King George which followed upon this brutal disregard of treaty obligations led to an inevitable change in British policy.

The British naval mobilization in the early days of August, 1914, rapid and complete, was the first decisive move in the contest. No gun was fired and no casualties sustained, but the enemy suffered defeat and was compelled by the overwhelming and well-organized and highly trained force arrayed against him to retire into his defended ports; and there he has remained, sheltering his ships behind his shore fortifications and minefields. The mobilization of the British Navy was in the nature of an attack. Its success was unqualified.

The Germans had openly confessed to preparations that would have enabled them to adopt any one of three alternative courses of action against the greatest sea Power. In the first place, in times of peace they aimed to maintain their navy on a war footing, and hence the rapid increase in the numbers of officers and men—three or four times as great, in proportion, as in the British Navy. They assumed that the British Navy, on the outbreak of war, would be in much the same condition as the British Army in the autumn of 1899, and that " a bolt from the blue "would radically change the naval situation from the very first, and enable Germany to pursue the war at sea with the advantages flowing from brilliant and successful initiative.

If circumstances precluded the "bolt from the blue" being launched — and no German latterly had entertained any doubt on that point—the German Navy was to retreat into its ports, sallying forth from time to time and dealing heavy strokes at details of the British Fleet—to pursue, in short, a war of attrition. This second alternative was discussed at length by Grand Admiral von Tirpitz in the Memorandum accompanying the German Navy Bill of 1900.

Grand Admiral von Tirpitz condemned the Law of 1898 as inadequate to Germany's needs and convinced the Reichstag that, while something might be said for the theory of " a sortie fleet," in fact, " for the protection of sea trade and colonies there is only one means—a strong battle fleet" which could meet even the British Fleet, and if not victorious, at least so cripple it that it would no longer have the mastery of the sea. That constituted the third alternative—a fleet action in which British seapower would be crippled, if not crushed.

The triumph involved in the rapid mobilization of the British Navy and its dispatch to its war stations was effected, so far as can be judged, without reference to Parliament or Cabinet. In the circumstances which existed in the earliest days of August, as is common knowledge, the politicians hesitated and would have desired to postpone final preparations for war until assured of the possible, if not probable, eventuality. A democracy is always weak in the days which precede action; war involves quick decisions, and quick decisions are impossible for a mob. They cannot be reached by the House of Commons; they are delayed by Cabinet discussions.

Only those who are familiar with the history of war can realize the supreme importance of initiative. On land, Germany obtained this advantage; she was first in the field with her armies, completely organized and completely equipped. It is impossible to read the naval literature of Germany without being impressed with the conviction that the Germans confidently anticipated that their experience on land would also be their experience at sea. They anticipated that the British Admiralty would wait on the Cabinet, that the Cabinet would wait on Parliament, and that Parliament would wait for an indication of popular opinion in the country. No doubt was entertained that delay would consequently occur before orders were issued to the Fleet. Happily for the British people the Admiralty showed no hesitation. Before a decision had been reached that this country had to intervene in the war, in defence of its honor and everything it possessed, the Fleet had been mobilized as a precautionary measure and Germany was thus robbed of the advantage of initiative which she never regained.

The First Lord of the Admiralty, Mr. Churchill, said 15 February 1915 "After the outbreak of war my Noble Friend Lord Kitchener, the Secretary of State for War, had to create an Army eight or ten times as large as any previously maintained or even contemplated 920 in this country, and the War Office has been engaged in vast processes of expansion, improvisation and development entirely without parallel in military experience. Thanks, however, to the generous provision made so readily for the last five years by the House of Commons for the Royal Navy, no such difficulties or labours have confronted the Admiralty. On the declaration of war we were able to count upon a Fleet of sufficient superiority for all our needs, with a good margin for safety in vital matters, fully mobilised, placed in its war stations, supplied and equipped with every requirement down to the smallest detail that could be foreseen, with reserves of ammunition and torpedoes up to and above the regular standard, with ample supplies of fuel and oil, with adequate reserves of stores of all kinds, with complete systems of transport and supply, with full numbers of trained officers and men of all ratings, with a large surplus of reserved and trained men, with adequate establishments for training new men, with an immense programme of new construction rapidly maturing to reinforce the Fleet and replace casualties, and with a prearranged system for accelerating that new construction which has been found to yield satisfactory and even surprising results.....

Most pessimistic prophesies were made as to the supply of oil, but no difficulty has been found in practice in that regard. The estimates which we had formed of the quantity of oil to be consumed by the Fleet in war proved to be much larger than our actual consumption. On the other hand, there has been no difficulty whatever in buying practically any quantity of oil. No single oil ship has been interfered with on passage to this country. The price of oil to-day 921 is substantially below what it was when I last addressed the House on this topic. Indeed we have found it possible to do what we all along wished to do, but hesitated to decide upon, on account of all the gloomy prophecies and views which were entertained—we have found it possible to convert the "Royal Sovereigns" to a completely oil fuel basis, so that this equally with the "Queen Elizabeth" class will enjoy the great advantages of liquid fuel for war purposes......

We have never been a military nation, though now we are going to take a hand in that. We have always relied for our safety on naval power, and in that respect it is not true to say we entered on this War unprepared. On the contrary, the German Army was not more ready for an offensive war on a gigantic scale than was the British Fleet for national defence. "

Page last modified: 29-11-2015 19:01:15 Zulu