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Naval Warfare

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HMS Good Hope of the British Royal Navy going down with her last guns firing

By 1914, although Britain could boast 30 dreadnoughts to Germany’s 20, the latter’s increasing naval strength was a concern, and Britain knew that any losses at sea could seriously jeopardise her dominance. Despite the expectation that Britain’s naval superiority would result in a decisive confrontation at sea, British naval commanders were cautious about engaging with the enemy. They were particularly wary of mines and torpedoes as evidenced by an incident in September 1914, when three British cruisers were sunk by a German submarine in the Channel with the loss of 1,500 lives.

The British naval strategy was instead to prolong the economic blockade of Germany that was causing increasing shortages – and  hunger – for the Germans. So the British Grand Fleet remained in harbour at Scapa Flow off the coast of north Scotland, keeping watch while the German High Seas Fleet chose not to challenge them, save for an incident at Dogger Bank in January 1915, an action upon which the British failed to capitalise.

On 31 May 1916, a new German commander, Admiral Scheer, having had enough of this impasse, led his fleet out to battle against the British in the North Sea, just off the Danish coast. The Battle of Jutland, as it became known, was indecisive – the British lost 14 ships to Germany’s 11, but the German fleet had apparently fled from the British.

In the aftermath of Jutland, Germany chose to focus on submarine warfare, implementing a policy of “total war” at sea. Germany declared all approaches to the British Isles a war zone, making merchant ships legitimate targets alongside naval vessels; the Germans considered these submarine attacks as a justified retaliation for the blockade.

Such a strategy caused outrage among the international community in May 1915 after the sinking of the passenger liner Lusitania, resulting in the loss loss of more than 1100 civilians, including 128 Americans. The sinking pushed the United States further towards entering the war.