Part 1: An Overview
The war at sea is an often overlooked element of the First World War. Today’s common image of the war is the trenches and mud of the Western Front and the maritime war is often considered something of a sideshow. Whilst some actions of the war are quite well known (Jutland and the sinking of the Lusitania are names that most people will recognise), the true scale of the war at sea and its strategic importance are often overlooked.
Whilst the local bookshop most likely stocks dozens of books about the trenches (and, ironically, numerous books about the Second World War at sea), there are rarely many books about the First World War at sea. Sometimes even quite thick books that claim to be the definitive history of the war deal with major naval engagements in a mere sentence, or as a diversion from the deeper story of the fighting in France.
In fact, whilst the Western Front was the most important frontline with the enemy, it was also a stalemate. It was at sea that both Britain and Germany hoped to be able to deliver a knockout blow that could turn the tide of the war.
Although the First World War was the first truly global conflict, involving countries from every continent on earth, most of the land based fighting actually took place in Europe. It was the war at sea was that took the fighting around the world. Significant actions that would affect the course of the war took place in every ocean in every corner of the globe[i].
[i] The internationally recognised border of the Antarctic Ocean has moved steadily south since the First World War. Although the chase between British and German ships that led to the Battles of Coronel and the Falklands occurred within the 1914 Antarctic Ocean, today they would be considered to have been in the South Atlantic.