World War I: A Maritime War?
Remembering World War I
• A memorial to great courage and horrific
• A warning to future generations
• A war carrying strategic and tactical
lessons which remain valid
Is 2013 an eerie reminder of 1913?
Are we the British Empire of 2013?
Is China Wilhelmine Germany?
We really don’t want to relive 1914, do
• War between a maritime alliance and a
• The shape of the war was set by the
maritime character of one of the
• The character of one adversary was set by
its maritime nature
• How much of this was obvious at the
Seapower and War
• Access to world resources, particularly
Empire resources – the sea unites
• Naval role: defend access (sea control)
• Access to the periphery of the enemy,
perhaps forcing him to spread forces thin
(not so successful)
• Financial support by maintaining trade
access (Gallipoli and Russia)
• Denying the enemy a quick victory
“Germany lost World War I because she failed to
break British seapower. All the successes of the
German army on the Continent were negatived
by the course of the war at sea. Every means of
pressure used by the Allies, which led to the
collapse of Central Powers in 1918, was only a
consequence of British seapower. Moreover the
last decisive battle, which was fought on the
Continent, was only made possible by the
exercise of seapower…” – VADM Eberhard
Weichold, KM (CinC Mediterranean 1942-44)
Maritime Aspects for the Empire
• Prewar strategists did not make the meaning of
maritime war clear (Mahan may have come
closest, but he was too subtle in his phrasing)
• Governments did not think strategically, and the
British in particular did not apply strategic
arguments to history, e.g Napoleonic and
• Interservice issues clouded prewar arguments
• Deterrence (economic) may have clouded
judgement of the likelihood of war
• Why was this the big crisis?
• Why did it take so long for the British to
realize that it was?
• Why did the British give France an openended guarantee? Was that like the ‘blank
• Why did the Germans keep going after the
• Was it extroverted civil war in Germany?
• Was it France and Russia seeing an
• Was it a mechanical march to war, a kind
of cancer in the European system?
What was the point of the war?
• For Germany: internal victory (extroverted
• For the British: continued acceptable order
– defensive aims
• For France and Russia: possible
improvement of their positions – war as
• For Austria-Hungary: perceived survival?
Two Roles of Government
• National well-being = prosperity, social
• National glory = individual exists for the
greater good of the state
All countries are governed by a mix of these
two themes, but in each case one of them
A Maritime Power
• Trade-oriented in peacetime
• Global access in wartime (unless the
enemy can cut sea routes)
• Relative immunity to invasion = disaster
• Need for coalition to fight a land war
The British Empire, 1914
• Dominions (independent but associated)
• An Informal Empire (commercial and
political association without formal ties)
The United States was part of the Informal
Empire, even though many Americans
disliked the British and preferred Germany
Maritime = Choice
“He who controls the sea can take as much
or as little of the war as he likes”
If you are safe from invasion, you can
conduct high-risk/high payoff operations
Gallipoli is a case in point
A Land Power
• Above all, instant vulnerability to land
• Mobilization as protection
• War planning is about the outbreak of war
• Limited interest in end-games, more in
survival through offensive action
• Britain as creditor nation
• German economy and society depend on
trade, hence credit
• If credit is cut off…
• But what happens to the City?
• Napoleonic Wars as World War 0
• World War II (lose France but don’t lose
• Cold War (was the Central Front all that
Why did Britain emerge stronger after the
Napoleonic Wars but much weaker after
World War I?
What Did Maritime Power Offer?
• No quick victory for Germany – war of
attrition, with the balance of resources
• The maritime alliance could recover from
disaster (e.g., Russian Revolution); the
land power could not
• Note the suddenness of the German
collapse in 1918
The British after the Somme
Pessimism: no land victory likely
War may end in a draw, as in 1801
War will inevitably resume
Need to gain leverage for the next round
Emphasis on Middle East, Caucasus
The Germans After the Somme and
Land victory unlikely in the West
Must break the Allies
Britain the fulcrum because she is paymaster
America the arsenal and part paymaster
Must break the United States
Zimmermann telegram and unrestricted U-boat
• Break Russia to gain resources to win before the
odds change decisively against Germany
Effect of German Decisions
• United States enters the war: blockade
• Russia broken, but civil war denies
• March 1918 offensive becomes final
throw, not just one among many
Could It Have Been Different?
• Deterrence did not work – a lesson for us?
• Not in duration and hellishness – once it
started, it used up what was available
• But WHO was wiped out could have been
changed – the British really did have
• So why did they not understand that?
• Who were the donkeys leading the lions?