Category Archives: Naval Warfare

15 JUNE, 1915: ‘Do so, Mister Allnut…’

Schedules matter in time of war, as any warrior knows, so Poppycock owes the world an apology for losing the plot and arriving late with this. Fact is, I started back on 15 June and then embarked on a fairly long and complex voyage over land and sea that kept the logistics department far too occupied to bother about writing. Unforgivable, obviously, but also oddly appropriate, because on 15 June 1915 a small group of British servicemen set out on a very long, very complex journey that would end with them arriving rather late on the scene at one of the First World War’s more bizarre battlefields.

I refer to what was known as the Naval Africa Expedition, a British military adventure, part Boys’ Own and part bonkers, that attracted plenty of straight-faced public attention in its aftermath and provided indirect inspiration for one of Hollywood’s classic movies, but is largely forgotten today. Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin.

This is a story about Lake Tanganyika, Africa’s second largest lake. The Lake stretches 675km from north to south, but is only between 15 and 50km wide. In 1914, the Belgian Congo and German East Africa faced each other across this narrow strip of water, although a small portion of the southwestern shore belonged to British Northern Rhodesia. When war broke out in Europe, two armed German boats took control of the lake, sinking the only Belgian ship big enough to carry armament on 22 August and dispatching the Lake’s two small British boats later in the year.  Map, please…


The German boats and their guns – towed on a raft at a snail-like two knots – were now able to raid the western shoreline, threaten Allied trade and dominate relations with local tribes. By way of cementing control a much bigger German ship, the 1200-ton Goetzen, was dismantled and taken to Kigoma for reconstruction – a rugged enterprise involving 5,000 crates and a very difficult overland journey from Dar-Es-Salaam. The Goetzen was eventually launched on 9 June 1915, and later equipped with bigger guns from the cruiser Königsberg, which had been hunted down by British naval forces in the nearby Rufugi Delta. By that time Allied countermeasures were underway – but still a long way from making any difference.

Belgian authorities in the Congo had been demanding all sorts of military assistance since August 1914, but all a hard-pressed home government eventually managed was an old torpedo boat, without torpedoes, and a plan (eventually abandoned) to build a new, 800-ton ship at the Lake. The British Admiralty agreed to lend the Belgians four Short seaplanes, but they didn’t arrive near the Lake until the end of 1915. Meanwhile, in April 1915, a veteran hunter and ivory poacher named John Lee arrived in London from South Africa and pitched a plan to the Admiralty that would, he claimed, shorten the already vexing battle for German East Africa. According to details worked out in advance by Lee, transporting two modern, armed motorboats to the Lake would outclass the slow, old German vessels and quickly restore control to the Allies.

The British Admiralty, which possessed no accurate charts for the region, jumped at the challenge, citing the Navy’s duty to ‘fight the enemy wherever there is water to float a ship’, and assembled a volunteer force for the purpose. Three officers and 24 ratings were put under the command of the Navy’s oldest lieutenant commander, Geoffrey Spicer-Simson.  Lee (now commissioned as a lieutenant) went ahead with a small advance party to prepare the route, and the rest of the group waited for the boats before leaving London aboard the liner Llanstephen Castle, bound for Cape Town, on 15 June. The boats had meanwhile been named Mimi and Toutou by Spicer-Simson, after the Admiralty had vetoed his original choice of Cat and Dog.  If that looks like a sign of eccentricity to come, it was.

The 6,000-mile trip to Cape Town ended on 2 July, and a 2,600-mile railway journey saw the expedition arrive at Port Elizabeth, in the Belgian Congo, on 26 July. The hardest part of the odyssey – a 150-mile trek across mountainous country and 140 rivers or gorges, cutting through jungle much of the way – brought the boats to the town of Sankisia by the end of September, after which it was 15 miles by light railway to Bukama, another 400 miles floating down the Lualaba River to Kabalo and a final 175 miles by rail to the little Belgian Port of Lukuga, on the western shore of Lake Tanganikya. Spicer-Simson, already proving a paragon of energy, didn’t like the tactical position he found at Lukuga and built his own harbour facilities a little down the coast, finally getting the boats afloat on the Lake two days before Christmas.

Mimi and Toutou went into action on Boxing Day 1915, attacking and capturing one German boat, which was renamed Fifi and added to Spicer-Simson’s strength. Communications around the Lake were sketchy at the time, to say the least, and the second small German craft didn’t come looking for its mate until 16 February, when it was chased, disabled and scuttled after a twelve-hour fight.

At this point Spicer-Simson knew nothing of the Goetzen‘s size or relatively huge armament, and the captain of the Goetzen still thought shore batteries were responsible for any damage suffered by the smaller boats. Next day, when the Goetzen came looking, both sides had their eyes opened. Spicer-Simson took one look at the Goetzen‘s armament, decided he needed a bigger ship, and suspended operations while he toured British East Africa in a vain for search of one. Captain Zimmer of the Goetzen discovered he had a new enemy on the Lake, but was almost immediately required to donate his guns to German land forces in East Africa and devote his energies to troop transport. With British forces keeping a low profile and unaware that the Goetzen‘s guns were now dummies, military stalemate set in until June.

By now, eccentricity was getting the better of Spicer-Simson, and he’d come over a bit Heart of Darkness. Wearing a grass skirt and showing off his impressive array of tattoos to awestruck local tribespeople, he became well known around the Lake and set himself up as form of deity-cum-magistrate, a policy that may have helped wean several tribes away from pro-German activities but certainly bewildered his subordinates.

Increasingly frustrated by lack of action, Spicer-Simson eventually took his flotilla south to aid Rhodesian forces in the siege of German-held Bismarckburg. The town fell on 8 June, but Spicer-Simson infuriated the Rhodesians by refusing to intervene and prevent the garrison from escaping. A few days later, after the aforementioned Belgian seaplanes had attacked the Goetzen to very limited effect, an emotional Spicer-Simson suddenly invalided himself home. His timing was good. A British offensive in German East Africa took the main Dar-Es-Salaam railway in mid-July, cutting off supplies to the Goetzen, which obeyed orders to scuttle on 27 July, an act that brought fighting on Lake Tanganyika to an end.

It wasn’t quite the end for Spicer-Simson, who returned to Britain with tales of heroic derring-do that were largely fiction but were lapped up by the popular press and earned him a spell in the spotlight as a war hero. The Royal Navy was careful not to burst the propaganda bubble, interviewed the rest of the party (all of whom returned alive), awarded everyone involved medals, promoted Spicer-Simson to Commander… and never gave him another active command.

7 MAY, 1915: Victims and Values

A hundred years ago today, the giant passenger liner SS Lusitania went down off the coast of western Ireland. En route from the USA to Britain, it had turned directly into the path of the German submarine U-20 and been holed to starboard by a single torpedo. After a second, larger explosion it had rolled onto its side, preventing the launch of more than half its lifeboats, and within twenty minutes it had sunk. Of more than 1,900 people on board, 1,198 lost their lives. If you’ve been listening to the radio, watching the television and hearing about it in the heritage corner, you won’t have learned much.

Maybe that’s not fair. You will have learned that a German U-boat sank a very big ship, and you will have learned how it feels to be the descendant of somebody killed at sea or rescued from the sea. More detailed reports may have included the phrase ‘international outrage’, but only in passing and with no attempt at context. Poppycock wonders why, when the full story is neither boring nor complicated, various editors felt compelled to serve up yet another saccharine-soaked reminder that the really important thing about the First World War is its ability to tug at modern heartstrings. The answer presumably lies somewhere between a desperate need to attract the Downton Abbey constituency and a lazy preference for the lowest common denominator, but it’s not my job to work out why you’re being fed slurry or why nobody seems to mind. My job is to snipe from the sidelines, but now I’ll put down the rifle and supply some information.

For all the loss of civilian life involved, the real significance of the Lusitania incident lay in its value to the British as a weapon in the propaganda war for hearts and minds in the United States. The German declaration of unrestricted submarine warfare had already soured relations between Washington and Berlin, and the death of 124 Americans aboard the Lusitania was a godsend for allied propagandists.

According to pro-British media all over the world, the loss of a civilian liner was an outrageous consequence of Germany’s barbaric submarine policy, which allowed U-boats to sink anything that might be construed as valuable to the Entente war effort. The British also claimed, repeatedly and vehemently, that a second torpedo, launched to ensure maximum casualties, had caused the second explosion.

German propaganda initially greeted the sinking as a success but soon changed its tune.  Berlin sought to limit diplomatic damage by issuing apologies to the United States, renewing restrictions on U-boat commanders, denying that a second torpedo had been launched and insisting that the second explosion was caused by the Lusitania‘s secret cargo of heavy munitions.

German protestations fell on deaf ears.  The British version of the story was generally accepted at the time and had a powerful, long-term effect on popular and political opinion in the USA. It also passed into Anglo-American folklore as the truth, and is the (often unspoken) subtext for much of today’s commemorative coverage.

Evidence from the wreck of the Lusitania reveals a rather different truth. The vessel wasn’t carrying a secret cargo of heavy munitions, but might have been carrying small arms and ammunition for the British military, a regular (and cynical) practice that complicated attempts to immunise passenger and hospital ships from attack at sea. These would not have caused the second explosion, but neither did the U-20, which fired no second torpedo, and modern analysts accept that coal dust igniting in the ship’s almost empty fuel bunkers was responsible for the fatal blast.

So the high death toll that made the Lusitania such big news was down to an accident, but even if the heritage industry was telling us that it’s no excuse for treating the loss like a second Titanic. Our mass media could, perhaps should be commemorating one of the most important propaganda victories of that or any war, a vital step on the road to an American intervention that defined the century to come, but I suppose it’s hard to commemorate propaganda without acknowledging its existence.

28 MARCH, 1915: Spring Fever

The way European wars used to be conducted – by people, and outdoors – spring and autumn were the peak fighting seasons. These were the seasons when extreme weather was least likely to interfere with the process, and when it was easiest for armies to live off the land, so offensive military planning through the ages timed its opening gambits for when the ice had melted or the harvest had been gathered.

The innate optimism that comes with emergence from winter hibernation, and the fact that high summer is less of a dangerous overshoot than deep winter, probably explain why spring campaigns have tended to be more ambitious than their autumn counterparts, and more eagerly anticipated by those in the know. The spring campaigns of 1915, as planned by all the main European belligerents, were the most eagerly anticipated military actions in history, both because mass literacy meant more people than ever before were in the know, and because everyone in the know expected the year’s spring offensives to bring the greatest war ever seen to a final decision.

On the Eastern and Western Fronts, German, Austro-Hungarian, Russian, French and British armies were swelling, straining economies were producing more and bigger guns, and generals were plotting massed assaults that would surely, this time, overwhelm enemy resistance by their sheer scale. The Russians had started the seasonal ball rolling by finally capturing the besieged Polish fortress of Przemysl (and claiming 120,000 Habsburg prisoners) on 22 March, but this was the culmination of a long, painstaking campaign, essentially a leftover from 1914, and as the month drew to a close the mass-communicated world was braced for the hammer blows to come.

But while the Great Powers of Europe prepared to applaud the predicted sacrifice of lives by the hundred thousand, the wider world was getting worked up about a practice that occasionally killed a few hundred people. On 28 March, 80 kilometres off the coast of St. David’s Head in Wales, the German submarine U-28 torpedoed and sank the SS Falaba, a British passenger and cargo vessel bound for West Africa, killing 104 of the 240 people on board and igniting a powder keg of global outrage that had been waiting to blow since Germany’s introduction of unrestricted submarine warfare a couple of weeks before.

The modern public mind thinks of U-boats as a Second World War phenomenon, but though First World War submarines were relatively few in number – not to mention slow, unreliable, of limited range, able to carry only a few weapons and operated by crews working in cramped, hot, airless, sometimes poisonous conditions – they punched well above their weight and had a huge impact on contemporary public thinking.

Because submarines were new and terrifyingly sneaky by the standards of the day, they appalled the world at large and attracted condemnation as a barbaric weapon. And once the German Navy gave its U-boats licence to attack anything found leaving or approaching Britain, they became the most emotive wartime issue facing neutral states the world over, because civilians, neutral citizens and ultimately neutral ships were also put at risk. Risk became reality when the Falada went down.

The U-28 had surfaced and warned the Falada of its impending destruction, but given the casualty figures the world preferred to believe a British claim that the U-boat’s captain had opened fire a mere five minutes later, over German insistence that the Falada was given a full 23 minutes’ grace. Even more seriously for German diplomacy, the dead included neutrals, and although the demise of a substantial (though uncertain) number of Africans on board passed without comment at the time, the death of a single American mining engineer, Leon Thresher, did enormous damage to Germany’s reputation across the Atlantic. The incident dominated headlines in the United States, was denounced as ‘a massacre’, ‘murder’ and ‘an act of piracy’, and brought the first demands – ignored for now by the Wilson administration – for war against Germany.

On the bright side for the German Navy, which could never muster more than six of the floating death traps to patrol British waters at any given time, the practical effects of U-boats were almost as sensational as their diplomatic impact. By the end of March they had sunk some 85,000 tons of British shipping. They hadn’t come close to starving Britain, but they had certainly alarmed the world’s great sea trader and would continue to be a substantial thorn in the British Empire’s side during the next few months.  So, two weeks in and the economic war at sea is hotting up, but on balance it’s currently doing Germany a little more harm than good.

As a postscript, by way of illustrating the fragility of Great War submarines and because it’s a good story, it’s worth mentioning that Fate eventually got her own back on the U-28, which dispatched forty ships before being sunk on 2 September 1917. Official records merely state that the submarine was caught in the blast when its last victim, the British armed steamer Olive Branch, exploded – but another source claims that the exploding steamer sent a truck flying into the air, which landed on the U-boat and sank it.  The world of 1915 may have seen U-boat crews as arch-villains, but they suffered and died in conditions that ranked with most terrible thrown up by a terrible war.


15 MARCH, 1915: It’s The Economy, Stupid…

In a world pregnant with the seed of modern propaganda techniques, the second week of March 1915 looked pretty good to the British public. On 10 March, the BEF launched the first independent British attack of any size on the Western Front, up in northeast France, just west of Lille, and after three days of heavy fighting a great triumph was declared. In fact, the Battle of Neuve Chapelle gained the BEF two square kilometres of territory (including what was left of the eponymous village) at a cost of 12,000 or so casualties on each side, and its tactical lessons – that initial gains, easily enough achieved with sufficient firepower, were impossible to exploit – remained unlearned.

More triumphalism followed the Royal Navy’s sinking of the SS Dresden, the last of the German Navy’s raiding cruisers to remain at sea, off the coast of neutral Chile on 14 March, though little was made of the routine and ruthless manner in which the helpless ship was pounded to destruction. The British press was meanwhile presenting Anglo-French attempts to force a passage through the Dardanelles as a string of small successes, when in fact they were a series of blundering failures, and making much of steady Russian gains against Austro-Hungarian forces defending the long-besieged Polish fortress of Przemysl, which were genuine enough but strategically irrelevant.

The week’s most strategically significant War story was held back until the following Monday, 15 March, when the British government announced its decision, made the previous Thursday, to extend the Royal Navy’s blockade against the Central Powers.  This was big news, in theory a major step on the road to defeating Germany, yet it  was given a relatively low-key reception by British propaganda. Why was that?

The new blockade rules declared an absolute embargo on all goods bound for the Central Powers, including for the first time food, and claimed any neutral vessel intercepted in the course of such trade as a British prize. They were recognised as retaliation for a German declaration, made on 4 February and put into practice from 22 February, that the waters around Britain and Ireland were a ‘war zone’, and that enemy merchant shipping would be sunk without warning by its submarines.

Both announcements were extremely important because ships were the one and only key to global trade. Without freedom to trade across the seas – without money from exports or access to imports of raw materials and food – the world’s most developed economies could not function and grow as capitalism intended, so any nation denied access to sea trade would, in theory, find it impossible to fight a major war for very long.

These factors applied wherever merchant shipping operated, underpinning wars fought by, among others, the Russian, French, Italian, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman navies, but they were of particular importance to the war efforts of Britain and Germany. Britain, the world’s naval superpower, devoted a lot of strategic thinking and resources to blockading German trade all over the world, in the confident belief, eventually almost justified, that this would win the War. Germany was meanwhile determined to stifle vital seaborne supplies to Britain, a nation that depended on imports to feed its population, and was ready by early 1915 to make maximum possible use of submarines for the job.

Both announcements also sparked anger and outrage in neutral states. German authorisation of unannounced submarine attacks was widely regarded as barbaric, and everybody recognised that the policy would put neutral vessels at risk. The British blockade had been making it difficult for neutral nations to carry on their usual business, let alone profit from the War, since August 1914, and this latest extension was seen as high-handed, greedy interference with legitimate trade.

Britain, its media and public were not too bothered about being thought high-handed, and identification with martial aggression was unlikely to damage the German regime’s self-image, so London and Berlin were happy enough to ride roughshod over international outrage, even at a time when neutrals of every size were being courted as possible allies… or would have been but for the one neutral power nobody wanted to upset, the United States.

Rich in raw materials and cash, and a maritime trading power rising to rival Britain, the United States was the one neutral certain to make a decisive difference if it joined either side at war.  Politically divided between strict neutrality and varying degrees of support for the Entente powers, the USA was already an important economic influence on the War, having sold goods worth more than 800 million dollars to the Entente by the end of 1914 and, thanks to the Royal Navy’s blockade, almost nothing to the Central Powers. This trend would continue, so that by the time the US entered the War in April 1917 Britain and France would have spent a staggering eight billion dollars on American goods, compared with 27 million dollars spent by the Central Powers – but by the spring of 1915 it was already quite clear that, if and when the USA abandoned neutrality, it would do so in support of its major creditors.

The reason Germany made minor concessions to international opinion before putting submarine warfare into effect, and the explanation for Britain’s relatively sheepish flexing of its blockade muscle, were two sides of the same coin. Germany was terrified of outraging US public opinion to the point of war, but hoped to starve Britain before that happened; Britain was equally afraid of souring American opinion to the point of delaying or debarring US alliance with the Entente, but wasn’t about to let go its death grip on the German economy.  As news of the economic world war’s latest escalation broke around the world on the Ides of March 1915, it remained to be seen if either submarines or blockades could end the War before US military involvement became a live issue.

Watch this space…

19 FEBRUARY, 1915: Hell’s Gateway

A hundred years ago today, the first shots were fired in what became known as the Gallipoli campaign, one of the First World War’s most notorious cock-ups or, if you look at it from the other side, the defensive victory that saved Ottoman Turkey (at least for the time being) and made the name of Kemal Ataturk, one of post-War Europe’s most important political leaders.

The land campaign on the Gallipoli Peninsula holds a guaranteed place in the small pantheon of war stories from beyond the Western Front considered important by the British heritage industry, albeit largely because British command failures and genuinely shocking fighting conditions support the reassuring and popular ‘lions led by donkeys’ view of the conflict. The same view is broadly accepted by the Australian commemorative industry, though in the context of Gallipoli’s totemic role in bringing national identity to the squabbling, competing states that made up Australia in 1914.

So the soldiers’ war in Gallipoli will be remembered in detail, and I’ll have no more than occasional sidelights to add, but ground fighting on the front didn’t get underway until April 1915. The shots fired on 19 February were the start a purely naval campaign, an Anglo-French attempt to force a passage through the heavily defended Dardanelles Straits and take Constantinople by sea. Land forces would be dragged into the fray in the wake of its initial failures.

The naval attack was intended to knock the Ottoman Empire out of the War, enable direct collaboration with Russian forces in the Black Sea and persuade all sorts of minor European nations to join the Allied side. Given that the Western Front already bore the mark of a hugely expensive stalemate, this seemed a tempting option to some strategists, particularly the all-action minister in charge of the British Royal Navy, First Lord of the Admiralty Winston Churchill. A simple map, borrowed and removable on request, illustrates the temptation nicely.


A purely naval attack on the Dardanelles had been deemed impossible by a British study in 1907, on the grounds that ships’ guns would be unable to subdue strong Turkish shore defences. Even if warships were able to ‘force’ a passage through the straits, enemy control of fortresses on the shoreline would force them to return. This was still true in 1915, but Churchill, one of the most strident voices for diversity of the British war effort away from the Western Front, was having none of it.

Never short on eloquence, energy or enthusiasm, Churchill ordered Admiral Carden – commanding the fleet of largely obsolete warships patrolling off the straits since August 1914’s Goeben fiasco – to carry out a raid against forts at the entrance to the Straits in November. Lucky British shooting caused considerable damage, alerted Turkish commanders to the danger of attack and told Churchill what he wanted to hear. In early January, the First Lord asked Carden for advice on the best way to force the straits with ships alone, and then mis-sold the admiral’s cautious reply to the British cabinet as a positive response. By the end of the month, despite the fact that no qualified authority had actually suggested it would work, Carden’s preferred option had become an authorised plan of action.

Most British naval strategists, led by fiery First Sea Lord Admiral Fisher, regarded success as impossible without the support of ground forces to control the coast, but political optimism outweighed their mounting opposition and Churchill was able to assemble a powerful fleet for the task. When Carden’s operation began on 19 February he commanded one modern battleship, three battlecruisers, twelve pre-Dreadnought battleships and four cruisers, along with the seaplane carrier Ark Royal and a full supporting cast of destroyers, minesweepers (trawlers with civilian crews) and submarines. Carden was also supported by a French Navy force based on four more pre-Dreadnoughts, because although sceptical about the operation’s chances, the French government wasn’t about to be left out of anything that might affect its economic ambitions in the eastern Mediterranean.

Carden’s plan was hardly daring. He intended to force the straits in three stages, moving slowly and deliberately to maximise the damage to Turkish morale. Stage one involved destroying the outer forts with long, steady bombardments, beginning with an attack by heavy guns beyond the range of defensive fire; stage two concentrated on coastal batteries and minefields; and the third wave would destroy Turkish forts further inside the straits. By the end of the first day, the plan was looking unlikely to succeed.

Turkish defences had been strengthened since the heads-up of November. Minefields had been extended, an additional 24 German mobile howitzers had arrived and the siting arrangements for defensive artillery had been improved… but these had nothing to do with the ineffectual performance of Carden’s forces on 19 February. British aircraft performed poorly as artillery spotters, their reports were often ignored anyway, and observation problems contributed to lousy shooting that left most Turkish positions undamaged.

Bad weather prevented further efforts until 25 February, when Carden moved his ships closer to the targets and the outer forts were silenced – but after this small success the plan fell apart completely, as minesweeping was rendered impossible by shore batteries that could not be attacked until the mines were swept. The big guns of the modern battleship Queen Elizabeth did cause serious damage to the shore batteries when deployed on 5 March, but this was missed by British reconnaissance and the ship was withdrawn when it came under retaliatory fire from a mobile battery.

Churchill had always claimed that the operation could be called off and redefined as a raid if it went badly, but instead the stakes were raised, as the British and French governments responded to stalemate by sending ground forces to support their navies. Some 18,000 French colonial troops sailed for the Dardanelles on 10 March, and two days later General Hamilton took command of 75,000 British and Imperial troops ordered to the front.

As the invasion force gathered off the Gallipoli peninsula, and intelligence reported desperate Turkish ammunition shortages, Churchill remained convinced that victory was just a push away and ordered Carden to make a last dash for Constantinople. Carden suffered a nervous breakdown after ordering the attack on 17 March, and it began the following day under the command of his deputy, Admiral de Robeck. An unmitigated disaster, and a story for another day, it marked the end of the Gallipoli campaign’s opening phase, the point at which an audacious but ineptly planned adventure became a ghastly strategic error, and a living Hell for those sent to carry it out.

24 JANUARY, 1915: Ruling The Waves… Quietly

I was going to talk about the United States today, a hundred years on from Secretary of State Bryan’s letter refuting claims by the Central Powers that Washington was favouring the Entente. Then again, better opportunities to discuss the USA are going to crop up later, so I’ll make one small point and move on. This is it.

The Royal Navy had effectively prevented trade between the US and the Central Powers since the start of the War, while transatlantic business with the Entente powers was undergoing a prolonged and massive boom. Under the circumstances American traders either looked a world-historical gift horse in the mouth, or they favoured the only customers available. Bryan’s protestations may have been politically accurate – the US was neutral and on the whole committed to taking that position seriously – but British sea power rendered them meaningless in practical terms.

A reminder of the Royal Navy’s importance seems appropriate, because 24 January 1915 also produced that rare First World War phenomenon, a sea battle.

Fought in the middle of the North Sea, the Battle of the Dogger Bank wasn’t much of a battle, but then neither of the forces concerned – the Royal Navy’s home fleets and the German Navy’s High Seas Fleet – was remotely interested in fighting a major action unless they were quite sure of winning. In fact this extended skirmish bore the hallmarks of a publicity stunt, in that it was indirectly promoted by the need for hugely expensive navies to look as if they were doing something.

It looks unfair with hindsight, given that the Royal Navy was performing vital war work all over the world, but the Admiralty was getting a lot of stick from British politicians, press and public by the end of 1914. Its biggest and best warships, widely regarded as invincible before the War, had spent most of the last few months sitting quietly in home ports, and when daring to venture out had suffered a number of high-profile losses to mines and torpedoes. For all its enormous and controversial cost, the Navy had not apparently hastened the War to an early conclusion and, most damning of all in the public mind, it hadn’t even neutralised the manifest (and massively hyped) threat of the German High Seas Fleet, itself largely confined to brooding in its bases. When Admiral Hipper’s squadron of five fast, modern battlecruisers came out of Germany in December 1914, bombarded the English east coast and escaped scot free, popular disappointment in the Royal Navy turned to outrage.

The Navy, thus far reasonably content for its home fleets to act as successful deterrents, decided it had better do something. Five equally quick British battlecuisers under Admiral Beatty were moved south from Cromarty in northern Scotland to Rosyth.  Here’s a map, nicked form the Net and removable on request, by way of making the geography clear.


When the Navy’s secret decoding unit, known as Room 40, reported that four of Hipper’s squadron (one had been put temporarily out of action by Cuxhaven Raid on Christmas Day) were to mount a second raid, Beatty’s force steamed out to ambush it on the evening of 23 January. Accompanied by six light cruisers, and later joined by cruisers and destroyers from Harwich, they made first contact with light forces screening Hipper’s battlecruisers at 7.20 next morning. In the belief that he was facing dreadnoughts, slower but with bigger guns, Hipper ran for home, but the miscalculation allowed Beatty’s ships to get within firing range by nine o’clock, and the two forces began exchanging gunfire in parallel lines half an hour later.

Despite some confusion in their signalling, the British drew first blood, damaging the Seydlitz and bringing the older Blücher to a virtual standstill, but concentrated German fire had brought Beatty’s flagship, the Lion, to a stop by eleven o’clock. At this point a phantom submarine sighting and fear of a possible minefield persuaded Beatty to withdraw his main force, and an attempt to send his most powerful ships in further pursuit of Hipper’s out-gunned squadron was thwarted by another bout of bad signalling, which sent them instead to gather round and finish off the Blücher. With the Royal Navy’s Grand Fleet – ordered to sea from Scapa Flow as something of an afterthought – still more than 200 kilometres to the north, the chance of a major victory was lost, and Hipper got home without further interruption.

Both sides trumpeted the battle as a victory – and reacted as if beaten. High Seas Fleet commander Ingelhohl, blamed for not providing Hipper with direct support, was replaced in February, and Beatty’s second-in-command was transferrred to the Canary Islands. And although British propaganda gave a narrow points victory enough lustre to assuage public opinion in the immediate aftermath, the engagement later became part of popular history’s case against the wartime Royal Navy for bumbling incompetence and reluctance to fight.

There is something to be said for the argument. British signalling had been poor, and would remain a problem because the lessons of the January North Sea were not learned, but charges of reluctance to fight, unlike those levelled at Navy commanders chasing the Goeben back in August, are unjustified.

For all that Beatty, Hipper and their superiors would take a major naval victory, they were also aware that pursuit of one risked something much more strategically valuable.

For the British, maintaining deterrent status around home waters was enough, so long as the Navy was carrying out its role guarding trade and blockading enemy ports. Losing that status would be a disaster. For the High Seas Fleet, its mere existence kept a disproportionally enormous weight of British sea power occupied, and a major defeat might unleash all those dreadnoughts into the wider War. When the stakes are thousands of lives, ships so expensive they dominated national economies and the strategic balance of power in the war to end wars, perhaps posterity should forgive a little caution.

25 DECEMBER, 1914: Bah! Humbug!

Poppycock’s War is running a little late, but then it’s Christmas and everyone knows war stops for Christmas. At least, it did in 1914, or so last week’s heritage commemorations would have you believe.

It’s been hard to miss the centenary of that football truce on the Western Front, and it’s been heartwarming stuff. The spirit of Christmas soothes mankind’s savage breast, ordinary men default to goodwill and a kick-about when the chance arises, there’s a whiff of honourable conduct in the air… it’s all very Old World, very British, and you could be forgiven for thinking the Football Truce reflected the respectful politesse of a bygone age. Well maybe, but let’s balance the picture with a glance at what the Royal Navy was up to on Christmas Day 1914.

On the evening of 24 December, three converted cross-Channel steamers, HMS Engadine, HMS Empress and HMS Riviera, left Harwich for positions off the north German coast. Escorted by two light cruisers and ten destroyers, each steamer carried three Short seaplanes, which were lowered into the water some 70 miles from Germany early on Christmas morning. Replacing wheels with floats to create seaplanes was almost as old as flight itself, but taking off from anything but calm water was still a lottery and only seven of the aircraft managed the feat before flying on to celebrate the festive season by carrying out the world’s first naval air raid.

Their official mission was ‘air reconnaissance’ of German military installations in Heligoland, Cuxhaven and the major naval base at Wilhelmshaven, locations far beyond the range of any land-based Allied aircraft, but the Navy also hoped to bomb the coastal airfield at Nordholtz, just south of Cuxhaven, which housed the half dozen Zeppelins then being used as very effective support for German ground operations on the Western Front. The raid’s underlying purpose was a more strategically significant attempt to provoke the German Navy’s High Seas Fleet into leaving port, and ten British submarines had been stationed off the coast to ambush any warships coming out of Wilhelmshaven.

None of the above really worked. Gathering coastal mist prevented any of the seaplanes from finding Cuxhaven, let alone attacking Nordholtz, and they eventually dropped small bomb loads on Wilhelmshaven, inflicting minor damage on seaplane base, a cruiser and a submarine. Some valuable reconnaissance was carried out, and the bombing did provoke the battlecruiser Von Der Tann into evasive manoeuvres that ended in collision with a cruiser, but the High Seas Fleet wasn’t tempted out to sea. Meanwhile all seven Short seaplanes received hits from ground fire, and only two made it back to the British fleet, although all the aircrew involved came through the mission unscathed. The only two men not picked up by British ships were rescued by a Dutch trawler and interned in the Netherlands.

Though the Royal Navy’s Christmas present to Germany, known to posterity as the Cuxhaven Raid, failed in almost every practical respect, its long-term influence was both significant and malign. Trumpeted by the British as a technical triumph, it confirmed the potential of naval air power to both sides, prompting rapid improvements in coastal anti-aircraft defences and encouraging the development of genuine aircraft carriers during the next few years. The raid also encouraged advocates of long-range strategic bombing, adding weight to the theory that aerial attacks on civilian or infrastructural targets could bring an enemy to its knees, while the outrage it caused in Berlin has been credited with influencing the German High command’s decision to use Zeppelins against Allied cities in 1915.

So that was a Merry Christmas from the Royal Navy, scaring a lot of people and giving a mighty leg-up to the theory that would see civilians bombed into oblivion all over the world to no real strategic effect for the next thirty years. Then again, the Navy was merely adhering to Britain’s military policy of the day and demonstrating aggression, essentially for its own sake and in defiance of any seasonal lull in the fighting. The same thinking, designed to keep the nation in warlike mood and the enemy on his toes, lay behind the British Army’s continuous trench raids all along the Western Front that winter, and the military’s stern disapproval of pacifist episodes like the football match.

Did the War take a Christmas pause? Not really, and not if the British had anything to do with it.

26 NOVEMBER, 1914: A World Policeman’s Lot…

Late November, winter is settling in all over Europe and the 1914 fighting season is drawing to a close. Trench warfare in Belgium and northeastern France, while hardly quiet, will be defined by defensive successes during the next few months, and operations around Poland in the east are coagulating into a long winter stalemate. In the south, where the weather stays warmer, the battered but unbeaten Serbian army is regrouping for one last effort to repel a third planned Austrian invasion, while over in Armenia and Georgia the first Ottoman offensive is grinding to a halt in foul conditions. Even in the Middle East, where winter is more battle-friendly than summer, British imperial forces are resting on their laurels after taking Basra on 23 November, waiting until spring to begin a reckless advance up the rivers towards Baghdad.

A hundred years on, relative calm on the battlefronts gives me a chance to focus on a tragedy that was relatively insignificant, though only in the context of mass carnage. On 26 November 1914 the British battleship HMS Bulwark exploded while moored at Sheerness in the River Medway, so this seems a good day to talk about the everyday dangers of serving aboard a major warship in 1914, and about the everyday wartime importance of Britain’s massive, hugely expensive Royal Navy.

The Bulwark had been completed in 1902, only to be rendered obsolete as a front-line weapon four years later, when the arrival of HMS Dreadnought signalled a fundamental upgrade in battleship technology. After service in the Mediterranean, Channel and Home Fleets, Bulwark was reduced to reserve status in 1910, but as naval rivalry with Germany heated up she was refitted and returned to Channel service in 1912. When war broke out she performed patrol duties in the Channel, based at Portland, tasked with protecting the southern English coast from the predations of German minelayers, submarines and torpedo boats, from attack by major German warships and from the possibility, taken seriously at the time, of a full-scale German invasion.

Protection of Britain’s long coastline was just part of an enormous workload that meant few serviceable Royal Navy ships could malinger in reserve once war broke out. The Navy’s other basic responsibilities included protecting colonies and trade routes all over the world, imposing blockades on enemy ports and maintaining a battle fleet bigger than any likely combination of opposing fleets put together.

It’s often said that the First World War’s massive battle fleets were outdated by the time the war began and served little practical purpose. True enough, hugely expensive dreadnoughts and battlecruisers had become fatally vulnerable to cheap, easily deployed mines and torpedoes, and contemporary fleets served primarily as deterrents, but the populist idea that the Royal Navy therefore failed to pull its weight in the Great War could hardly be further from the truth.

The Navy’s maintenance of trade routes was vital to Britain’s wartime survival, as was the connected battle against enemy submarines, and denying imports to Germany was one of the War’s slow-burning strategic successes.  The service also acquitted itself more than adequately throughout the four-year battle for control of the Channel that was an (often forgotten) adjunct to nearby fighting on the Western Front, and acted as vital support to coastal and supply operations on all the other Allied fronts.

There were major failures, and heritage commemoration’s fascination with them – particularly the ill-conceived Dardanelles operation in 1915 and the inert performance at Jutland the following year – tends to preserve the myth of naval irrelevance.  There were also plenty of individual screw-ups to write home about, some of them grimly entertaining, but these were inevitable when such a gigantic organisation was stretched to the limit and relying on emergency staff. The high-profile failures weren’t the whole story, and they shouldn’t replace the Navy’s vital contribution to survival and victory in the modern public mind.

All of which brings me meandering back to HMS Bulwark. She served a short stint in early November as host to the court martial of Admiral Troubridge (in charge of shambolic attempts to intercept the Goeben back in August), and was then transferred from Portland to Sheerness, in the Medway estuary, as part of the battle group on watch for German attacks across the North Sea.

On 26 November the battle group was at anchor off Sheerness, having completed a set of North Sea exercises, and at ten to eight in the morning most of the Bulwark‘s crew were having breakfast while the ship took on coal and a marine band played on deck – when the ship exploded. The blast tore the ship to pieces, shook buildings in Southend, nine kilometres away, and scattered personal items belonging to the crew all over northern Kent. All 51 officers and all but fourteen of the 759 crewmen on board were killed at the scene, and five of the survivors later died of their wounds.


Saboteurs, mines and U-boats were immediately installed as chief suspects by much of the British press, encouraged by persistent rumours of suspicious foreigners around the docks, but the Navy inquest that followed decided the disaster had been a tragic accident. The same public paranoia followed explosions that destroyed HMS Natal in 1915 and HMS Vanguard in 1917, but contemporary warships, crammed full of oil or coal, explosive devices and relatively primitive electrical equipment (not to mention hundreds of smokers), were always likely to explode if flame found the wrong feeding ground. That’s all that happened on the Bulwark, but it was enough to cause instant, total destruction, and it was a stark reminder of another fundamental fact of naval warfare often overlooked, then and now:  an armed warship was a very dangerous place to work.

29 OCTOBER, 1914: Self-basting Turkey

Remember the Goeben and the Breslau? Chased across the Mediterranean by the British right at the start of the War, the two German warships made it to Constantinople and were transferred to the then neutral Ottoman Navy, crews and all, as the Yavuz Sultan Selim and the Medilli. The incident had been a clear indication that the Central Powers, and Germany in particular, were winning the contest to bring the Ottoman Empire into the War as an ally. That contest eventually ended a hundred years ago today, when the German vessels and various Ottoman naval units attacked Russian Black Sea naval bases, committing the Empire to four years of war that would end in its ruin.

The attacks weren’t preceded by a declaration of war, but something like them wasn’t entirely unexpected. Germany had long been the most important European influence, economically and militarily, in Constantinople, and only some fairly blinkered optimism on the part of British and French diplomats had enabled the Ottoman regime to maintain an appearance of undecided neutrality during the first months of the War.

This isn’t the place to delve into the conspiracies and complexities of a crumbling Ottoman Empire (almost always referred to as Turkey by contemporary Europeans), but a powerful, militarist faction within a divided government had been pushing for war in alliance with Berlin, partly because it expected Germany to win the war but primarily with a view to reversing Russian expansion towards the Mediterranean via the Black Sea and the Balkans. Led by war minister Enver Pasha, interior minister Talaat Pasha and navy minister Djemal Pasha – and quietly supported by the elderly and politically impotent Sultan, Mohammed V – the war party had signed a secret defensive pact with Germany as early as July 1914. Enver, the faction’s driving force and a veritable paragon of reckless ambition, had since made an offer of alliance to Russia, but when it was ignored he pushed ahead with plans to engineer an incident in the Black Sea that would trigger war against Russia.

The captain of the ex-Goeben, now Admiral Souchon of the Ottoman Navy, had no intention of settling for a mere incident. Under instructions from Berlin and probably in collusion with Enver, but otherwise in secret, Souchon steamed his fearsome battlecruiser, the smaller but deadly ex-Breslau and a selection of relatively fast, light Ottoman gunboats all the way across the Black Sea to launch simultaneous surprise raids on Russian bases at Sevastopol, Theodosia, Novorossisk and Odessa.

All this geography calls for a map of the Ottoman Empire, borrowed as ever and removable on request, and the map calls for a bit of additional information. Theodosia (known by far too many other names to list) sits high on the eastern Black Sea coast of Crimea, while Novorossisk (ditto) is on the Russian Caucasian coast, east of Ekaterinodar (ditto).


The attacks began before dawn on 29 October. The element of surprise was lost when torpedo boats struck Odessa before units were in position elsewhere, and although the raids sank a few small ships, bombarded ports and laid minefields they achieved nothing of strategic importance, leaving the Russian Black Sea fleet’s big warships untouched. They did achieve their political purpose, reducing opponents of war in Constantinople to outraged impotence when war against Russia and France was confirmed two days later.

The British, their diplomats apparently shocked by this ‘sudden’ turn of events, waited until 5 November before declaring war, but political reluctance masked a degree of military readiness. Well aware of oil’s importance to the war effort, the British had deployed Royal Navy warships on the approaches to Basra by late September and an Indian Army expeditionary force had put to sea in mid-October. Though the Ottoman Empire would indeed spend the next three years fighting Russia in the Black Sea and the Caucasus, Enver Pasha’s optimistic vision of war was already a mirage, and the bulk of Ottoman resources would be committed to fighting a long, losing war against the British in the Middle East.

So that was the Sick Man of Europe, as the Ottoman Empire was also known, leaping for oblivion with what little strength he could muster, and in the process throwing the Middle East open to redesign in its modern form. There’s a lot more to be said about the Ottoman experience of world war during the next few years, and about the Islamic experience, but for the moment I’ll sign off with another, slightly fainter echo connecting then and now.

The Empire was founded on the Islamic faith, and the Sultan’s declaration of war came with a jihad attached, summoning the world of Islam to all-out war against the empires of Russia, France and Britain. For all that it created some fear in Britain of revolt among the large Moslem population in northern India, the jihad turned out to be a non-event, serving mainly to illustrate the limits of the Sultanate’s influence among competing branches of Islam.  And if that sounds like a familiar story, it won’t be last time the Ottoman Empire’s Great War throws up striking and direct links with today’s geopolitics.

22 SEPTEMBER, 1914: Das Boot

Popular views of the First World War tend to be obscured by the monolith of the Second, in all its screen-friendly pomp. Submarine warfare, for example, is so thoroughly established as a Second World War story that a lot of well-educated people I meet have no idea it took place at all during the First. It did.

Conducted by men in slow, often experimental boats, operating in appallingly unhealthy and uncomfortable conditions, submarine warfare spread terror across the seas during the First World War, had globally important diplomatic and political effects, and threatened, as in the 1940s, to warp the War’s military course. It was also big news at the time, but although both submarines and their potential had been a fact of military life for some years when the War began, it took the events of 22 September to embed its underwater menace in the popular imagination.

Between six-twenty five and about eight in the morning, in an area of the North Sea off the Dutch coast known as the ‘Broad Fourteens’, the German submarine U-9 torpedoed and sank three Royal Navy cruisers, killing more than 1,400 crew. The action made global headlines and sparked outcry in the British press, focused on criticism of the Navy’s failure to prepare against the threat of submarines. The critics had a point.

The three patrolling cruisers had all been obsolete, slow and unable to carry out the relatively fast zigzag manoeuvres recommended as protection against surface attack. Known as the ‘livebait squadron’, they were largely crewed by cadets and reservists, operating without protection from faster destroyers, and should probably have been spared active service – but their commanders hadn’t even considered the possibility of submarine attack and had contrived to make the ships easy targets during the action.

To make matters worse, the U-9 was – as its number suggests – one of the German Navy’s first operational submarines, in service since 1910. In the context of rapid design advances it was hardly less obsolete than the cruisers it sank, and superior boats were already available to both the British and German services. The British public (not to mention British merchant fleets) trembled at the havoc they might cause, and British naval officers awoke from the collective denial that had been warping their responses to submarine technology for years.

At the very top of the Royal Navy, principally in the person of recently retired arch-reformer Admiral Sir John Fisher, the realities of submarine warfare had been understood for some time. The Navy had built plenty of submarines, among the best in the world, and though strategic priorities meant it saw little need for them as offensive weapons, the threat posed to all forms of surface shipping by invisible attackers with torpedoes was no secret. Here’s where it got a little weird. A large number of British naval officers, important figures from senior admirals down to combat level, simply refused to accept that submarines and torpedoes had changed the game for navies at war.

Surface fleets had ruled the waves for hundreds of years, and the British had long been the unchallenged masters of fleet warfare. Vast amounts of money and manpower had been invested in making the Royal Navy the mightiest weapon of naval warfare ever seen – but it all counted for nothing if cheap little submarines could destroy battleships and devastate trade routes. So they couldn’t.

Sneaky underwater attacks were immoral, ran the argument, against the rules of war and would never be carried out by any civilised nation. Better to carry on building Dreadnoughts and perfecting fleet operations, it went on, and despite decrees to the contrary from above this attitude extended to a neglect of anti-submarine tactics as war approached. The attitude came home to roost on 22 September.

Submarine warfare would prove persistently difficult to carry out in pursuit of any organised, strategic goal, and anti-submarine measures would quickly develop the capacity to limit its impact, inflicting terrible casualties on submarine fleets. That story goes for both world wars, but nobody knew it in September 1914. What the whole world did know, and never forgot, in the aftermath of U-9’s exploits was that something invisible and deadly had been added to the terrors of modern warfare.

Like other new weapons of the time, submarines weren’t war-winners.  Their direct military impact was peripheral but, like the heavy bombers foreshadowed by raids on Paris, they would cast a long shadow over the decades to come. Nuclear-armed, they still stalk the oceans today.

There you go: important, direct consequences for the future of humanity, ideally with a little craziness thrown in; that’s the First World War I’m talking about.