World War I (1914–1919)

by: History SparkNotes

The War at Sea

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.

Importance of the War at Sea

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.