Term Paper: World War I Great Britain's Failure

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World War I

Great Britain's Failure to Use Its Navy to Its Full Effectiveness in World War I

As World War I began, Great Britain was considered the supreme power in terms of naval force. Yet, the German Navy had been upgrading enough to make it of significant British concern during the war. In particular, the use of German U-boats as a threat to both military and merchant vessels complicated Great Britain's naval choices. Though many history texts take it for granted that Britain was the stronger of the two navies, the only major naval battle (at Jutland) between the two forces resulted in heavy British losses. While the Royal Navy had both experience and opportunity to strike more forcefully at Germany by sea, they instead spent most of the war only blockading. With politics affecting many of the nation's naval policies and citizen morale weighing heavily on the wartime government, naval decisions were forced -- or avoided -- on many accounts. As such, there is evidence that Great Britain did not use the Royal Navy to its full abilities during World War I, mainly out of fear that a defeat of costly victory at sea would lose them the war by lowering morale of the British populace.

In the decade leading up to World War I, Great Britain was the world's major naval force. As an island nation, it had centuries of experience with naval travel. It had early defined itself as a colonizing world power with considerable sea forces. Sea forces, after all, were its only means of trade and communications prior to the twentieth century. While it had a foothold on areas around the globe, Great Britain's supremacy necessitated protecting the nation's home shores and the numerous sea-lanes it used for trade. The issue of trade routes was of particular importance in the coming war, and was recognized by Great Britain and Germany alike.

Despite the fact that it had maintained supremacy, Great Britain's naval forces were weaker than was ideal in the first decade of the twentieth century. Great Britain's liberal government after 1905 spent time debating the high costs of upkeep for the Royal Navy. Spending on the navy fell. Production did continue due to the rising pressures of Germany's fleet. However, government finances and poor planning related to liberal naval policies did affect the ability of Britain to adequately manage its fleet during the war. Additionally, older ships like the aging Bacchantes were not taken out of service, though they were risky to keep in the water. Rivalry with Germany kept Great Britain's guard up, and despite complaints from some British leaders, and England remained confident that no other nation would dare to attack them by sea.

The idea that the Royal Navy was all-powerful at sea was a pivotal notion for the people of the British Isles. Though they understood its importance, the push for less military spending exemplified Great Britain's assumption of strength. British citizens, as well, assumed that any war undertaken at sea would prove winnable for the British navy, a point that would later prove dangerous. As U-boats and water mines caused loss of British lives in the early years of the war, citizens were critical of the government rather than rallying to the war cause. Knowing that Britain had superior forces, why did the government "let" Germany keep its U-boats? The answer was that most people were uninformed of both the problems within the Royal Navy and the rising power of the German navy. In turn, leadership in England had the difficult job of keeping morale high without admitting that Germany was a formidable force.

Heading into the First World War, the German Navy was indeed formidable. Germany had begun planning for a navy that could rival Great Britain's as early as 1898. Naval laws instituted by Germany from 1898 to 1912 and into the war years were a clear indication of Germany's desire to rival Britain's fleet. Between 1906 and 1914, the increasing naval focus of the two nations started a naval race that also spurred animosity between the two powers.

The animosity was strong with England, who's survival depended on its navy. Germany, however, built a navy when their resources could have supplied their future plans for domination in mainland Europe. This choice, according to German Grand Admiral von Tirpitz, was not considered to lead to imminent war with England. Rather, Tirpitz felt that a strong Germany navy could induce Great Britain to accept certain security demands, since a naval battle would add up to unacceptable losses for both nations.

Germany had many plans in the early 1900s, many of which involved the British naval forces. In the years leading up to the war Germany envisioned many contingencies for what would happen if they were to attack or be involved in military actions. Though most of their plans were never carried through during the war, their early plans for combat did include power through control of enemy trade vessels. In the documentation of these plans, Germany explains that any naval policy in a war against Britain would have to curtail the movement of enemy merchant ships. By disrupting the British economy, the plans cite that Great Britain would be subject to social unrest and would give into demands or negotiate on Germany's terms.

In other words, Admiral Tirpitz viewed the naval arms build-up between Great Britain and Germany as a bluff for political pressure. Germany also purported that it was justified in building a navy to protect its merchant marines, though this was a not-so clever ruse; the boats built by the German navy were major warships not designed or ready for lengthy sea trips.

Perhaps recognizing that conflict of either a military or tactical nature was imminent, Great Britain sent Lord Haldane, War Minister, to negotiate with Germany in 1912. It was Britain's hope that the two nations could agree to stop their naval increases amicably. Instead, Germany offered to keep their fleet in check if Britain promised neutrality in a war between Germany and France; Britain refused. Germany again offered to keep its fleet in check in 1914 -- the eve of war -- in return for British neutrality in the event of both a war with France and with Russia; if Britain outwardly expressed its plans to stay neutral, the Kaiser believed that these forces would not fight the German military advances. When Britain refused again, the Kaiser responded that any war occurring as a result of their decision would be Britain's fault. He further denied any blame for the war that followed, saying instead that he would like to publicly prove that Britain could have stopped a major and costly war by agreeing to his demands.

Entering the Great War, Great Britain had power in both its naval military power and its control over economic shipping of goods, including food. It was on the latter that Germany focused its attentions in the long run. In the beginning, though, the numbers and experience of the Royal Navy far exceeded the Germany fleet and likely kept the Germany navy from becoming bold and venturing into the open sea. The Royal Navy's Grand Fleet under Admiral Sir John Jellicoe was the foundation of the British forces in the North Sea from the summer of 1914, the very beginning of the war. The force consisted of 20 dreadnoughts / super dreadnoughts, 4 battle cruisers, 8 armored cruisers, 13 pre-dreadnoughts, 6 light cruisers, and 41 destroyers. The force anchored at Scapa Flow in the North Sea in July 1914 and became an important part of Great Britain's blockade strategy. Though the British Navy felt prepared for battle in August of 1914, Jellicoe's forces saw little combat until the Battle at Jutland nearly two years later.

Once the war began Great Britain had many things to attend to, as its territorial concerns stretched across the globe. While the protection of its own nations was of course important, it also had to protect the Suez rout to the Far East, the Cape route around the tip of Africa, routes to Australia and the South Pacific, and the North Atlantic routes to Canada and North America. Great Britain's commitments in mainland Europe required naval protection of British Expeditionary Forces (BEF) as they were transported to the continent. Sumida contends that this split in forces actually made Britain's navy less formidable, in that the forces were so far apart that they could not respond to one another in times of need. Finally, Britain also expected that Germany would execute a North Sea naval attack early in the war.

In 1914 Germany had surpassed the United States as the second largest naval power in the world. Yet, a German attack failed to materialize early in the war. Germany was concerned with naval battles in the Baltic Sea. Its efforts in other areas consisted mainly of U-boat attacks and mines. In response, the Royal Navy for the most part sat still. One significant battle… [END OF PREVIEW]

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