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.

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