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Forgotten Wrecks of the First World War

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Part 2: War Around the World

The first year of the war was dominated by ‘cruiser warfare’. Isolated German warships based at foreign ports in Germany’s young empire began to attack British and Empire merchant ships around the world. SMS Emden, a German cruiser, was one such ship, which successfully captured or sank 26 ships in the Indian Ocean before it was caught and defeated by the Australian cruiser HMAS Sydney in November 1914. In the Pacific Ocean, a small squadron of vessels under Admiral Graf von Spee defeated a British Squadron off Chile, sinking two British cruisers with all hands. It was the first defeat suffered by the Royal Navy in 100 years and 1,600 men were lost. Already the war at sea had produced a disaster on a worse scale than the loss of the Titanic two years earlier. The Royal Navy, shocked and stunned by the defeat, send a powerful force to find von Spee’s squadron. Less than a month later, at the Falkland Islands, the German force was annihilated with the loss of 1,900 men.

Germany’s cruisers had been mopped up by mid-1915, but closer to home, the maritime war was taking on new significance. Few people realise that Gallipoli began as a naval effort and at first there wasn’t a single soldier involved. It was an attempt by the Royal and French navies to force the Dardanelles Passage so that they could reach Constantinople and force Turkey out of the war, thereby easing pressure on the European theatre. It was only the fleet’s failure in the face of forts and mines that led to the army being sent in, with the aim of neutralising the forts. Churchill believed the eventual failure of the campaign was crucial to lengthening the war. After the war he wrote: “The bones of the six million people who lay buried on battlefields were not defeated by enemy fire at all. They were destroyed entirely by 26 iron balls, which lay anchored to wire ropes under the surface of the Dardanelles strait.”

But it was in the waters around Britain that both sides fought to shorten the war through differing, yet oddly similar strategies. Not only were these efforts crucial to the ending of the war in 1918, but they brought the war into British territory in a way more devastating than any war of the previous 300 years.

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