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.
The war at sea soon brought the Ottoman Empire, previously an officially neutral power, into the fray. At the start of the war, the Ottoman Empire, centered on what is now Turkey, had remained neutral but generally was friendlier with the Central Powers than with Britain, France, and Russia. Germany was anxious for more allies, especially in the Mediterranean, and high-placed Ottoman officials—such as Minister of War Enver Pasha—believed that an alliance with Germany could help bolster the faltering empire, then known as the “sick man of Europe.” In a secret treaty signed on August 2, 1914, Turkey promised to aid Germany in the event that Russia attacked Austria-Hungary.
Later that month, two German warships, the Goeben and the Breslau , docked in Constantinople, avoiding pursuit by the British navy. The Ottomans bought the ships and renamed them, incorporating them into the Ottoman navy. The sale was primarily technical, as German crews would be allowed to remain on board and in control of both vessels.
On October 27, the Goeben and the Breslau, now sailing under Ottoman flags, entered the Black Sea, ostensibly to practice maneuvers. On October 29, under the command of German Admiral Wilhelm Souchon (who may have been working in collaboration with Turkish Minister of War, Pasha), the two ships appeared unexpectedly off the Russian coast, fired on several Russian seaports, sank a Russian gunboat and six merchant ships, and set fire to a Russian oil depot. Russia, believing that the attack had come from Turkey, promptly began an invasion of Turkey from the east. Britain and France also responded by attacking Turkish forts along the Dardanelles. Turkey then responded by declaring war on all three. In a single stroke, Admiral Souchon had helped manipulate the Turks into entering the war on the German side.
Not long after Turkey became involved, the sea war spread even further, to South America. The German East Asia Squadron, a small defensive fleet under Vice Admiral Maximilian von Spee, had been based on the Caroline Islands in the western Pacific, near China, when the war broke out in August 1914. However, Spee knew that his ships would never be able to stand up against the Japanese navy, which would soon move against him (Japan had entered the war on August 22). Therefore, the East Asia Squadron fled the area and set forth on a two-month journey across the Pacific Ocean to Chile, which had a large German population and would offer a safer base of operations from which Spee could prey upon British shipping routes.
On November 1, the German East Asia Squadron encountered the British West Indian Squadron, which had been diverted from its patrol duties in South America and the Caribbean specifically to destroy Spee’s forces and remove the threat to British shipping routes. The British squadron, led by Rear Admiral Sir Christopher Cradock, consisted of obsolete cruisers ill-matched for a fight with Spee’s faster and better-armed ships. In the Battle of Coronel that ensued, Cradock’s squadron was obliterated, and two ships were lost. Cradock himself perished, along with 1,600 British sailors—the Royal Navy’s first defeat in a hundred years.
A month later, on December 8, 1914, the Royal Navy had an opportunity to take revenge on Admiral Spee, whose East Asia Squadron had by this time made its way around Cape Horn and into the South Atlantic. Spee’s task was merely to disrupt British trade and supply routes as much as possible, but he also made a fateful decision to attack the British colony on the Falkland Islands off of Argentina, which he believed would be undefended and an easy victory. Spee’s aims in this attack were to destroy the British coaling station and radio station there, which was critical to British military communications. The mission was a fatal mistake.
As it turned out, an entire British squadron happened to be in port that morning taking on coal. The squadron was far better equipped than Cradock’s had been, with two modern battle cruisers that were faster and better armed than Spee’s ships. The all-day pursuit and battle that followed resulted in the destruction of the German East Asia Squadron: Spee went down with his ship, the Scharnhorst, and three other German ships and 2,100 German sailors were also lost.
The range and power of the warring nations’ naval fleets, along with their ambition to control the world’s waterways, were major reasons that World War I spread so quickly. Naval warfare had always been unpredictable (because of the role of weather and other factors), but new technologies made it even more so. Mines, torpedoes, and submarines introduced new threats that made even the greatest warships vulnerable. Compared to giant dreadnoughts, which took years to build and were manned by hundreds of men, submarines were cheap and generally used a crew of fewer than two dozen. Mines were cheaper still and, once laid, required no crew at all.
However, both Britain and Germany were still deciding how best to use these new naval forces, and both were reluctant to commit their main fleets to heavy battles. The Battle of Coronel, the Battle of the Falkland Islands, and other early sea battles quickly made it clear how naval warfare could be used to project power over long distances. In World War I, naval power was more often used to maintain control of trade routes than to capture new territory. As it turned out, great sea battles between large surface fleets were rare in the war; instead, the submarine came to own the seas, and Germany became the undisputed master at employing this new technology.