15 JANUARY, 1916: Beneath The Surface

It’s the middle of January, and a hundred years ago the British were talking about the weather.  Fair enough, given that the War in Europe was quiet and the only British actions of note were taking place in Mesopotamia, where propaganda was still masking the failure of attempts to relieve the siege of Kut – and fair enough given the state of the weather.

After the coldest November in British history, and the fourth wettest December ever seen in England and Wales, January 1916 was on the way to becoming the mildest on record.  These records stand today, but in 1916 the end of the world meant global warfare rather than global warming, and they were generally seen as evidence of divine critique rather than climate change.

I mention the weird warmth of Western Europe for atmosphere, so to speak, and apropos of nothing in particular, because its effects on the War were largely confined to fuel savings and logistic benefits. The kind of military opportunism that might have exploited it with a surprise initiative wasn’t on anybody’s agenda, and not just because the major European powers needed to take stock and restock before the inevitable, heavyweight confrontations of the spring.

The technologies of contemporary ground warfare were too vast and cumbersome to do anything spontaneous on a large scale; aircraft technology was only just approaching the capacity to inflict more than strategic fleabites; and, as I’ve mentioned in detail before, naval warfare’s strategic weapons, the most modern surface fleets, were far too expensive and prestigious to be risked in acts of daring. That brings me, in undeniably tortuous fashion, to today’s centenary, because on 15 January 1916 Admiral Reinhardt Scheer succeeded Admiral Pohl as c-in-c of the German Navy’s High Seas Fleet.

The High Seas Fleet was the product of Kaiser Wilhelm’s recklessly expensive attempt to rival British sea power, and had been very big news in the years before 1914.  Its construction had triggered a naval arms race with Britain, and as it grew into a formidable force of modern warships it became both a symbol of German geopolitical ambition and a source of mounting British paranoia, seen as a clear and deliberate threat to national security.  Its very existence, operating out of North Sea bases at Wilhelmshaven and Cuxhaven, compelled the Royal Navy to protect the North Sea with the Grand Fleet, a superior force on paper and centred on Scapa Flow.  Come the outbreak of war, facing each other across the Kaiser’s chosen battlefield, these naval juggernauts, the most powerful ever seen, stood ready to… wait for the other to make the first move.

And so it went.  Both fleets wanted victory, not least as justification for their enormous cost to both economies, but neither wanted risk, and by the end of 1915 what had looked like being modern warfare’s showpiece campaign amounted to a few raids and one or two largely accidental skirmishes.  This put both fleets under popular and political pressure to do better.  In politically stable Britain, respectful criticism of the Royal Navy reflected its enormous contribution to centuries of Empire.  On the other hand politically volatile Germany had no naval traditions, and at the modern equivalent of between £60 and £120 million a shot, critics of the German Navy could think of more useful things to buy than idle warships.  In short, the High Seas Fleet needed to justify itself, hence the appointment of Scheer, one of very few senior Fleet officers to have emerged from the North Sea’s phoney war with a reputation for aggression.

Approaching his mid-fifties, Scheer had been in command of the Fleet’s Second Battleship Squadron in August 1914, and transferred to lead the Third Squadron that December.  He hadn’t done much with his battleships by the time he took overall command of the Fleet – such action as took place had been carried out by Admiral Hipper’s fast, hit-and-run battlecruisers – but he had talked a good fight, and did prove a more aggressive leader than the infinitely cautious Pohl.  In May, Scheer’s willingness to take a risk would be the catalyst for the only major wartime action between the two fleets, the near miss that was Jutland, but the real significance of his tenure lay elsewhere.

Jutland confirmed Scheer’s opinion that large surface warships were redundant in the North Sea and the Baltic.  A torpedo specialist as a junior officer, he now threw his considerable weight behind increased use of submarines, both as fleet weapons against enemy warships and as purveyors of Handelskrieg, or trade warfare.

Scheer sponsored a rapid increase in U-boat construction, and made no secret of his complete support for ‘unrestricted’ submarine warfare against enemy trade.  He lobbied successfully for the restricted campaign against British merchant ships that opened in March 1916, and protested by recalling all his U-boats from the Atlantic to the North Sea when the Kaiser changed his mind in April. Scheer’s death or glory approach to submarine warfare, more concerned with victory than with keeping the USA out of the War, found full support in the autumn, when the Kaiser fell under the effective control of a new supreme command led by Ludendorff and Hindenburg.

Restricted attacks against British trade recommenced in October 1916, and U-boats destroyed about 300,000 tons of British shipping per month for the rest of the year.  British leaders were worried, but kept it from the pubic, while a triumphant German command ensured maximum publicity for the idea that Britain could be starved to defeat in six months.

Could U-boats win the War for Germany? Looks a good bet here…

As Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg’s opposition to the Navy’s new approach crumbled with the failure of peace overtures to the Allies, the German press, public opinion and most of the Reichstag were strident in their support for the campaign.  On 7 January 1917, less than a year after Scheer’s appointment, the Kaiser bowed to pressure from all sides and signed the order to prosecute unrestricted submarine warfare from 1 February.  Death or glory had won the argument over the German Navy’s wartime role, and within a few weeks the victory had provided justification for US entry into the War.

Scheer would go on to preside over an increasingly desperate search for victory through Handelskrieg until almost the end.  Appointed head of a new Naval Supreme Command in August 1918, when he knew the War was lost, he signed off his military career in the style he personified, planning a ‘heroic’ final attack on the Royal Navy’s Grand Fleet.  It was prevented by the sailors’ Kiel Mutiny on 30 October, and as Germany crumpled into revolution Scheer was finally dismissed by the Kaiser a day before the Armistice.

So, during a quiet week in January 1916, what seemed a simple change of command designed to bring vigour to the North Sea’s gigantic fleet face-off, turned out to be a catalyst that helped to redefine naval warfare in the context of total war, and to bring the United States into the business of world policing.  Thanks for that, Reinhardt.

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