The war on land quickly spread to the sea, with the first major battle on the water occurring on August 28, 1914, in a corner of the North Sea known as Helgoland Bight. The bight, a partly enclosed patch of water on the north coast of Germany, sheltered several German naval bases and offered a good position from which Germany could strike out at Britain. However, the cautious German High Seas Fleet rarely sailed far from port.
Eager for a fight, two British commodores, Reginald Tyrwhitt and Roger Keyes, conceived a plan to bait the Germans into the open sea, where they would be vulnerable. Under the plan, a small group of British ships would venture into the bight until spotted by German patrols and would then turn and flee out to sea, where a larger British force would be waiting.
In spite of some minor mishaps, the plan succeeded. For the first couple of hours, German ships slipped in and out of a thick fog bank to fire on the British ships. In time, however, the Germans were lured into open water. After a battle that lasted nearly eight hours, Germany lost three cruisers and 1,200 men, while Britain lost only thirty-five sailors and not a single ship. This early defeat intimidated Kaiser Wilhelm II, who insisted that the German navy, of which he was very proud, be kept off the open seas and used primarily as a defensive weapon.
The German submarine fleet, however, was used aggressively. Submarines armed with torpedoes were a new type of weapon at the time, and while many military leaders viewed them with skepticism and even disdain, they proved quite effective. Although the Germans had been developing a fleet of large warships in recent years, they recognized that it was still far inferior to that of Britain. It was almost by accident that they realized the edge that their experimental fleet of submarines gave them.
During September and October 1914, German U-boats sank four British armored cruisers and warships, killing more than 2,000 sailors. British naval commanders quickly became wary of this threat and therefore kept their fleet well clear of the waters of the North Sea. Though Britain did have a submarine fleet of its own, British naval leaders generally considered submarines to be “cowardly weapons” and discouraged their use.
Another “cowardly weapon” played a major role in the war at sea—mines. Under a treaty signed at the Hague in 1907, sea mining was limited to areas within three miles of an enemy’s coastline, so as not to endanger neutral ships. However, both Britain and Germany quickly came to ignore this agreement, and the North Sea became a place of great danger to all ships that dared enter it. This situation was especially problematic for the neutral countries of Norway and Sweden, which depended heavily on the North Sea for commerce.