The day before Haig launched the second phase of his Ypres offensive on the Western Front was another quiet day by the standards of the First World War. China declared war against Germany and Austria-Hungary, but that had been coming for some time and has been covered in an earlier post (14 March, 1917: Breaking China). Spain declared martial law as part of an internal crisis I’ll be talking about quite soon, and the row about sending Labour Party delegates to the Stockholm Peace Conference rumbled on in Britain (16 June, 1917: Peace Wars).
Otherwise I have no particularly interesting anniversaries to commemorate, so I think I’ll spend a couple of hours chatting about cruisers. And why not? Cruisers were relevant to every day of the War and in action all over the world – but what exactly was a cruiser, and why?
The British developed the first cruisers in the 1880s. Smaller and faster than battleships, but still capable of ocean-going operations, they were originally designed for two main roles. Heavy ‘armoured’ cruisers, generally displacing more than 10,000 tons, carrying powerful main armament and fitted with strong side armour, were intended to act as the fast scouting force alongside battleships in confrontations with other fleets. Less expensive ‘protected’ cruisers (anything from 2,000 to 14,000 tons) were equipped only with deck armour, and were tasked with protection of trade routes, troopships or imperial outposts. In the days of sailing navies, all these jobs had been carried out by frigates, which had ceased to exist long before 1914 and were to be reinvented during the Second World War as something completely different.
Much cheaper and more versatile than battleships, and able to dominate any naval situation that didn’t involve battleships, cruisers were particularly crucial to the sprawling operations of the British Royal Navy, which built 42 armoured and 101 protected cruisers between 1885 and 1907. In much the same way as they would render all their existing battleships obsolete by inventing dreadnoughts, the British then made armoured cruisers redundant as fleet components by coming up with the first battlecruisers in 1908.
With the speed of a cruiser and the striking power of a battleship, battlecruisers resembled the latter but with one less turret, less armour protection, more powerful engines and a longer hull. Used as fast screens for battleships in fleet actions, as well as for long-range commerce duties, they were also adopted by the Japanese Navy, which spent the early twentieth century learning to copy the best European naval practices, and the German Navy, which would go on the use them for fleet actions and as commerce raiders.
Battlecruisers were the brainchild of forceful pre-War British First Sea Lord Admiral Fisher, who pushed their construction in the face of strong opposition from many naval professionals. Half greyhound, half Rottweiler, they would go on to play a major role in most North Sea naval actions, and several German ships had a major impact in other theatres, but on the whole the critics were proved right. Though in theory able to outrun anything they couldn’t outgun, their lack of armour made them vulnerable, not just to enemy battlecruisers but also to the mines, submarines and other torpedo craft that were coming into widespread use in the early twentieth century. The last battlecruisers ordered by the wartime Royal Navy, lighter designs for use in the shallow Baltic Sea but in fact deployed on North Sea patrols, were converted into aircraft carriers after the War, marking the end of the experiment.
Meanwhile cruiser development focused on speed, and two types of light cruiser. The larger variety, first developed by the German Navy and copied by the British (as the Town Class), were quick, lightly armoured and heavily armed to operate on fleet approaches or trade routes. The British also designed smaller Scout Class cruisers with very little armour protection, intended for scouting, for long-range screening and as lead ships for destroyer flotillas.
Once replaced by newer designs, old British cruisers were transferred from the main battle fleets or the most dangerous trade routes to perform all sorts of secondary tasks. They led submarine flotillas, they protected dozens of relatively minor ports at home and across the Empire, and (given the dubious value of old, pre-dreadnought battleships) they generally provided the most effective naval support for army operations in secondary theatres. They also patrolled trade routes as protection against surface raiders at the start of the War, along with passenger liners converted as ‘armed merchant cruisers’, and from mid-1917 they led convoy protection squadrons.
I’ve been concentrating on British cruisers, because the Royal Navy needed a lot more cruisers than anyone else and used them for a lot more tasks, but they were central to the wartime operations of most major navies.
The German Navy, as mentioned, used battlecruisers and cruisers as the warhorses of fleet and commerce operations, while Austro-Hungarian, Italian and most French naval activity was confined to the Mediterranean, where dreadnoughts feared to leave port and cruisers were crucial. All three fleets deployed very fast, modern cruisers, light on armour but heavy on armament, as their main naval strike weapons, and they were at the heart of all the major naval actions in the Mediterranean, apart from the Anglo-French shambles at the Dardanelles in 1915.
Although the feeble Ottoman Navy possessed only a few old cruisers, and they were particularly decrepit, the battlecruiser Goeben and the cruiser Breslau, both transferred from the German Navy, were by far its most important weapons in the war for control of the Black Sea (10 August, 1914: Playing Battleships). Meanwhile the Russian Navy possessed few modern cruisers but made extensive use of its older vessels in the Black Sea and the Baltic, outclassing its opposite numbers in the former (whenever the Goeben was out of action) and holding its own against relatively threadbare German naval forces in the latter.
That just left the USA, the world’s second biggest naval power in 1914 and the exception to the norm. The US Navy possessed 12 armoured and 24 protected cruisers when war broke out, but then embarked on a massive naval expansion programme that completely ignored cruisers. That may appear weird at first glance, but in fact it was wise.
Looking at (and supplying) the War from the outside until 1917, the USA was able to tailor its navy to its actual wartime requirements, where Europe’s navies had been built on pre-War predictions. Primarily concerned with protecting an expanding maritime trade network, and far from Europe, the USA had no expectation of needing cruisers for any kind of fleet battle, and once the British had removed any threat to merchant traffic from German surface raiders, cruisers were not the ideal weapon for coping with U-boats and minefields. So although US yards did build six dreadnoughts – necessary statements of power at a time when even Brazil was investing in them – construction was otherwise dedicated to merchant ships, destroyers and other smaller craft.
This was the future. Beginning with mines, submarines and aircraft, small but lethal long-range weapons were taking control of naval warfare by 1914, and though the cruiser would continue to serve fleets, protect trade and dominate small actions for decades to come, its day as a state-of-the-art weapon of war was done.
Unlike the conflict’s great white elephants – the costly, cosseted dreadnoughts – mere obsolescence didn’t leave cruisers watching from the sidelines. Partly because years of total war demanded massive global commitment from navies, in particular the Royal Navy, and partly because older vessels were seen as relatively expendable, First World War cruisers were still enormously important, the basic currency of worldwide naval power in all but the most hotly contested patches of ocean.
That’s a small window on the panoramic impact of cruisers, and me out of time, so an equally nerdy look at another important new kid on the naval block since the 1880s – the destroyer – will have to wait for another quiet day.