Germany’s naval program had been one of the key reasons why Britain and Germany found themselves on opposite sides when the First World War began. Naval construction and attendant technological developments spurred competition between these two powers over the size and strength of their navies, and yet, when war actually came, the two great fleets spent most of the war in a strangely passive pose. The commanders of both fleets desired a decision, but one under circumstances that favored their side, and so a major engagement happened only once: in 1916, in the Battle of Jutland.
The Kaiser had wanted a powerful and modern navy because he wanted to improve the standing of his nation, a newcomer to Great Power status; such a navy would raise German prestige and assist Germany in building colonies among the few territories unclaimed by other Great Powers. As London observes (page 9), Admiral von Tirpitz also convinced him that a long-term policy of naval expansion would bolster his government in the face of socialist agitation. Tirpitz envisioned a fleet so powerful as to deter any future engagement, even by the British.
Such a goal was unacceptable to Britain. It was, after all, and island nation, wholly dependent on its sea-lanes. Regardless of the ultimate destination, German vessels must necessarily have sailed through the North Sea, which Britain saw as vital to its own security. If the Germans were determined to build a large navy, British leaders were equally determined to build one even larger.
In 1906 the arms race took on a new dimension, and one not wholly favorable to the British, with the construction of the HMS Dreadnought. It was the first modern battleship, having dispensed with smaller weapons to carry only ten guns, each with a diameter of 12 inches. Other innovations, such as its turbine engines, helped in outclassing all other warships; that fact, however, served to negate the advantage the British had in its existing fleet. All of the Great Powers began to construct dreadnought-type battleships, and henceforth the power of navies would be defined by new vessels of this type. Essentially, this forced Britain and Germany to begin afresh in their competition, with success being defined largely by the speed of new construction.
A similar development, the growth of battlecruisers, was also important. In size and armament, battlecruisers were comparable to battleships, but they were equipped with much less armor and therefore capable of faster speeds. Their speed was, in fact, intended to make up for their lack of armor. Some of the effect was lost, however, in the decision to keep the battlecruisers with the main fleets and to use them as additional battleships, rather than to break off in independent action like other cruisers. Finally, there was more variation between British and German battlecruisers than there was with battleships; German battlecruisers carried more armor, while British battlecruisers were faster.
When war began in 1914, Britain had the larger fleet with 20 battleships and 9 battlecruisers; Germany had 13 battleships and 4 battlecruisers. Both sides had further vessels in construction, but at a comparable rate. The British numerical advantage was expected to remain steady, and somewhat to German surprise, nearly all of it was directed towards them. Britain’s allies took up the naval obligations in the Mediterranean and the Pacific, so that Britain could focus on its own seas. Immediately, Germany found itself blockaded.
The German response to this challenge was characteristic: since Germany was outnumbered by its foes, its only hope was in finding a way to fight, and defeat, a portion of the enemy’s strength, rather than all of it. Sometimes, from the wars of Frederick the Great to the Battle of Tannenberg in 1914, this strategy worked. At sea, however, the British failed to oblige. The Royal Navy preferred to enforce its blockade from a distance, frustrating German efforts to force a battle that could change the balance of power.
Early in 1915, the Germans tried to force Britain’s hand with a series of small sorties, often involving the shelling of British coastal cities, that could lure out a larger force in response. When the German squadron retreated, submarines or mines could take their toll on the British force and improve the odds for the Germans. The plan never worked, however. Sometimes, weather and human miscalculation prevented any meaningful exchange; in other cases, such as the Dogger Bank incident in January 1915, a conflict did result, and the Germans took slightly greater losses. The bulk of the German High Sea Fleet remained in port, posing a definite threat but achieving nothing.
In spite of its own challenges, which included micromanagement by its admirals, the Royal Navy had an enormous advantage: a series of lucky captures early in the war ensured that it was able to decode all German naval signals. For about a year, the Germans concluded that surface engagements were fruitless, and focused their efforts on the submarine war. Nothing changed until the second commander of the German fleet stepped down for health reasons, and Admiral Reinhard Scheer replaced him.
Scheer hoped to force the kind of engagement Germany had sought the year before. He sent out a smaller force, commanded by Admiral Hipper, to sail towards Norway, hoping to lure out a significant force of British ships intended to intercept them. Scheer would follow with the rest of the High Seas Fleet, so when the two smaller forces engaged, German reinforcements would prove decisive. If the Germans could sink five or six more battleships than they lost, themselves, or even strike a comparable blow against battlecruisers, the disparity in overall forces might be rectified and the High Seas Fleet would be able to go on the offensive without risking total destruction. Scheer did not count on the British deciphering his radio signals.
The Royal Navy decided to give the Germans the prize they sought as a way of forcing a total engagement that favored the British: the bulk of the Royal Navy against the bulk of the High Seas Fleet. Admiral Jellicoe sent out Admiral Beatty in a smaller force led by a group of battlecruisers to engage Hipper. Jellicoe himself led the rest of the fleet further north, to surprise the Germans by keeping out of sight until the rest of the German fleet had arrived. In such a major engagement, Jellicoe believed, the British must necessarily be victorious, possibly ending the naval war at a stroke.
The course of the battle must be detailed elsewhere. What matters here is that the battle resulted in a strategic draw. The Germans sank more ships than the British: three British battlecruisers, three other cruisers, and 8 destroyers were lost, in contrast to one German battlecruiser, one obsolete battleship, three cruisers and 5 destroyers. On the other hand, the British had had a significantly larger force from the beginning, and these losses did nothing to redress the disparity. The battle itself was a draw, then, but a draw that inured to the benefit of the party remaining in the field, that is, the British.
Never again did German surface forces go out to fight in World War I. The Germans relied on submarines for the rest of the war, while the British maintained their blockade until the armistice. Jutland was the largest naval engagement of its kind, but it was decisive only in that it had failed to be decisive: the strategic circumstances that preceded it were affirmed, and they continued for the remainder of the war.
Halpern, Paul G. “The War at Sea” in Hew Strachan, ed. The Oxford Illustrated History of the First World War. Oxford, 1998.
Haythornthwaite, Philip J. The World War One Source Book. Arms and Armour Press, 1992.
London, Charles. Jutland 1916: Clash of the Dreadnoughts. Osprey, 2000.
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