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Forgotten Wrecks of the First World War

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Part 3: War at Home

The war in home waters was complicated not only by strategic and tactical factors (such as the use of submarines, torpedoes and mines) and the dangers of operating in narrow straits and close to shore, but by complex political factors that threatened to incur the wrath of neutral nations should they be challenged. In 1909, all of the world’s major maritime powers had agreed a set of rules to govern maritime actions in the event of a war. In essence, the Declaration of London sought to protect civilian merchant traffic and the right to free trade across the world’s seas, especially between neutral nations and belligerents. Most nations had codified the rules and written them into their own constitutions. However, only the United States had actually ratified the declaration and so were bound to abide by it.

Germany and Austro-Hungary declared that they would operate according to the declaration’s rules as long as other nations did so. On 20th August 1914, the British government and the Royal Navy declared that they would also, but with certain modifications. In fact these modifications began a series of usurps of the declaration that would culminate in its almost total abandonment by 1917.

The declaration prevented nations from imposing a distant blockade to disrupt the travel of merchant shipping to and from a nation’s ports. In essence it was considered illegal to interfere with shipping and trade at sea – such actions could only be taken in a close blockade, around the enemy’s own ports. The Royal Navy’s blockade that commenced in August directly violated this when it essentially sealed the northern and southern entries to the North Sea. Maritime traffic was required to enter the North Sea through the Dover Straits where it could easily be intercepted by the Royal Navy and inspected for contraband. This contraband was material that might be used for war, such as arms, artillery and ammunition. Even if it was bound for the neutral countries of Denmark, Norway or The Netherlands, this material could be seized by the British.

In September the definition of contraband was extended to include materials that might be used to help make weapons for war. So steel, rubber or iron ore could also be seized. Finally in March 1915, the British government extended the definition of contraband to include materials for the civil population of Germany, including foodstuffs and the products required to grow food (such as fertilizers). This was an almost total violation of the Declaration of London, but there can be little doubt that it was one of the most important elements in winning the war.

The blockade also set up a battleground in the North Sea, with the Royal Navy operating from its base at Scapa Flow, whilst the German High Seas Fleet remained in its ports on the north coast of Germany. Throughout 1914 and 1915, both sides tried to instigate an engagement where they could gain the upper hand, by bring their full fleet to bear on a smaller force and wearing down the enemy piecemeal, or enticing the enemy fleet through a minefield or into range of a submarine flotilla. Several small skirmishes occurred as each side tried to create the ideal battle.

Eventually this led to the confrontation at Jutland, the largest battleship encounter in history.[i] Despite its scale, the battle was somewhat inconclusive. Tactically the Germans won by inflicting more casualties on the Royal Navy than the British did on the German fleet. But strategically the status quo was maintained and Britain maintained command of the North Sea. Crucially, Germany was unable to break the blockade.

But Germany had a different weapon it could use to break the deadlock, one that ironically neither side had thought much of before the war.

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[i] Many other battles claim to be larger, but in terms of a battleship battle, and in terms of tonnage committed to direct action with one another, Jutland is clear winner over Philippine Sea (1944) and Leyte Gulf (1944).