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Forgotten Wrecks of the First World War

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The War At Sea



The First World War was the first truly global conflict and the war at sea was no exception. In fact it was the campaigns at sea that took the war to the most remote corners of the globe. Actions took place as far away as the Pacific and Indian Oceans, although the most significant actions were primarily fought between British and German ships. 

Early in the war, Germany began attacking British trade routes in a bid to force the army to despatch forces to its Imperial colonies – forces the army could not afford to remove from the Western Front. In late 1914, German raiders in the Pacific inflicted the first defeat for a hundred years on the Royal Navy at the Battle of Coronel and a solitary German cruiser caused chaos in the Indian Ocean, but by early 1915, Germany’s overseas squadrons had been defeated.

In the North Sea, the Imperial German Navy’s High Seas Fleet and the Royal Navy’s Grand Fleet constantly sought to force a battle on their own terms that could end the war. Britain also tried to blockade Germany, but could not stop the High Seas Fleet from making incursions into British waters in an effort to lure the Grand Fleet into a battle nearer German ports. The anticipated battle finally came in spring 1916, when the largest ever battleship fleet action took place off Jutland. Although the High Seas Fleet dealt a severe blow to the Grand Fleet, the British were able to maintain their blockade and dominance of the North Sea until the end of the war.

Germany had plans for a blockade of its own, and saw its true strength in submarines. The Imperial German Navy adopted a policy of unrestricted submarine warfare and U-boats were responsible for so many merchant ship losses that Britain was soon at risk of being starved out of the war. However, an overhaul of the Dover Patrol and a barrage across the straits stopped the U-boats from taking the most direct route to the English Channel. This, combined with improved anti-submarine technology soon turned the tables.

By late 1918, the worsening effect of the British blockade on the German populace and a wildly optimistic plan for a fleet attack in the North Sea drove German sailors to mutiny. The revolution quickly spread and the Kaiser was forced to abdicate, precipitating the end of the war.

Find out more about the war at sea on our history pages.

Part 1: Overview

Part 2: War Around the World

Part 3: War at Home

Part 4: Breaking the Blockad