How many ships did Britain lose during the First World War?
The Admiralty kept detailed records of the events at sea between 1914 and 1918, and in 1919 they published the basic details of every ship lost in the book British Vessels lost at Sea, 1914-1918 (HMSO).
However, this list doesn’t account for vessels lost to the normal hazards of the sea (such as the weather, collisions, groundings or other accidents), only those lost to ‘war causes’. Additionally, 1919 was still quite early and not every vessel could be firmly said to have been lost in the manner stated. Some believed to have been lost to maritime hazards would subsequently be found to have been lost to enemy action or to have been captured. All of this is relevant to the Forgotten Wrecks project as it means that ships like War Knight are not included in the book.
There is an online effort to update these figures (see British Vessels lost at Sea) but it is ongoing and not complete. The original publication therefore remains the most complete list of ‘war loss’ British vessels.
The publication lists the following totals of ship losses:
Fishing Vessels: 675
Auxiliary Vessels: 815
Merchant Vessels: 2,479
Taking just the Merchant ships by year, it is easy to see when the most catastrophic period was. This was a consequence of the all-out effort by the German Navy to destroy the British Mercantile Marine.
British Merchant ship losses 1914: 64
British Merchant ship losses 1915: 278
British Merchant ship losses 1916: 396
British Merchant ship losses 1917: 1,197
British Merchant ship losses 1918: 544
Written and researched by Stephen Fisher (MAT HLF Forgotten Wrecks Research Officer).