As the world plunged into war in August 1914, two German fleets and several cruisers lay beyond the North Sea, posing a serious threat to British merchant vessels and naval superiority. Beyond the British blockade, there was little chance of reinforcements and resupply of ammunition. Admiral Souchon crossed the Mediterranean with a superior French and British fleet in pursuit. Vice-Admiral von Spee had to decide what to do half a world away from Germany with colonies and friendly shipping rapidly being overtaken by Allied forces. With only the ammunition onboard his vessels, he had to fight his way through British lines to get his men home. Karl von Müller led the Emden on a daring campaign of commerce raiding as did the commander of the Karlsruhe.
Other cruisers also carried out warfare, seriously affecting Allied merchant shipping. However, the Royal Navy spent precious resources to remove these threats and Admiral Craddock swept down the coast of North America chasing phantoms only to find what he was looking for was at Coronel and the Falklands Islands.
The struggle for naval supremacy helped create the conditions for the outbreak of World War I. After the coronation of Kaiser Wilhelm II, Germany's ambitions for its 'place in the sun' – in other words a greater influence in world affairs – sidelined the traditional and familiar rivalry between France and the British Empire.
The naval arms race inspired by HMS Dreadnought may have captured the headlines, but the opening stages of the naval war were dominated by the threat from German cruisers stationed outside European waters, until they were hunted down and sunk by the Royal Navy, notably at the Battle of the Falkland Islands in 1914.
Germany switched its focus to the U-boat, seeing it as a weapon capable of winning the war by starving Britain into surrender. Unrestricted submarine warfare led to the sinking of millions of tons of shipping, but it would also force the USA to enter the war on the Allied side in 1917.
In the Mediterranean, the French fleet took the lead, while Austria-Hungary supported German actions. The Allied attempt in 1915 to use maritime power to break the strategic deadlock with an amphibious operation in the Dardanelles ultimately failed, although Allied sea power helped sustain the successful campaigns against the Ottoman Empire in the Middle East.
What would prove to be the decisive naval engagement of the war took place in 1916 at the Battle of Jutland. Whilst the clash itself was inconclusive, the German High Seas Fleet would be all but confined to port for the rest of the war, handing the initiative to the Royal Navy. The resultant command of the seas allowed the Allies to carry fresh American armies and much-needed supplies to Europe in 1917.
However, victory for the Allies was ultimately delivered by the naval economic blockade. By preventing the import of war materials and food, the fighting power and morale of the German armed forces was weakened. It was the mutiny of the High Seas Fleet in October 1918 that prompted the German Revolution and the subsequent abdication of the Kaiser.
With the aid of over 300 black and white and colour photographs, complemented by full-colour maps, Naval Warfare provides a detailed guide to the background and conduct of World War I naval operations, describing the struggle to win control of the high seas around the globe.
The struggle between the primacy of international law and military expediency lasted for nearly two years, as the British tried to reconcile their pre-war stance as champion of neutral rights with measures necessary for a successful blockade. Not until 1916 did the operation have the potential to be a decisive factor in the defeat of Germany, when pressure from France, the Royal Navy, Parliament, British popular opinion, and the Admiralty forced the British government to abandon its defence of neutral rights over the interests of the state.
The arrival of the United States as an ally in April 1917 initiated the final evolution of the blockade. The Entente and the United States tightened the blockade with crushing effect on Germany, and by November 1918, it was evidently one of the chief factors behind the victory. This knowledge reinforced the decision to retain the blockade in the months following the armistice in order to force favourable terms from Germany. In both the war and in the peace, the economic blockade performed a critical role in World War I.
While retaining the basic argument that Britain went to war in 1914 not as a result of internal pressures but as a response to external events, Steiner and Neilson reject recent arguments that Britain became involved because of fears of an 'invented' German menace, or to defend her Empire. Instead, placing greater emphasis than before on the role of Russia, the authors convincingly argue that Britain entered the war in order to preserve the European balance of power and the nation's favourable position within it.
Lucid and comprehensive, Britain and the Origins of the First World War brings together the bureaucratic, diplomatic, economic, strategical and ideological factors that led to Britain's entry into the Great War, and remains the most complete survey of the pre-war situation.