The War at Sea : 1914 - 1918


World War 1 was largely fought and won on land but this could not have taken place without the movement of ships. Command of the sea enabled the Allies to bring in the vital resources and manpower required to prevail on the Western front and elsewhere. In World War I, 13 lakh soldiers and sailors from India fought on land and sea in Europe. Many among the seamen were Lascars who have been forgotten. At times, the Germans inflicted damage on the British fleet, notably at the Battle of Jutland in 1916, the largest clash of big-gun battleships of all time. Yet the Germans were never gaining command of the sea. Their U-boats, by their successful attacks on merchant ships, did come close to denying command of the sea to the Allies, especially in 1917, but by bringing the United States into the war, this campaign only sealed Germany's fate.

The U-boat threat the Germans were slower than the British in adopting submarines but as the inferior naval power on the surface, they had more scope for using them to neutralize British command of the sea by attacking both warships and merchant ships, German submarines, or U-boats (Unterseebooten) were turned against merchant ships supplying Britain in February 1915. This was after some successes against warships and was in retaliation for the increasingly tight British blockade preventing ships carrying vital supplies from reaching Germany.

Submarines could not operate by the conventional rules of merchant raiding and sometimes they torpedoed on sight. The U-boats most notable victim was the liner Lusitania, sunk by U-20 on 7th May this caused the loss of 1,201 lives with 128 Americans among them, subsequent American complaints led to orders not to sink liners, but on 19th August, U-27 sank the Arabic, killing more Americans. Pressure from Washington now forced the Germans to give up these attacks.




In October 1916, the U-boats began another campaign against commerce. At first they operated under various restrictions, but these were withdrawn on 1st February 1917. American outrage caused the US to enter the war on 6th April. That month, Allied shipping losses were over 860,000 tons. This was unsustainable and the Allies found they could solve the problem by putting merchant ships into defended convoys. The system was introduced slowly and proved very successful and although many ships still sailed independently those in convoys were safe. Monthly losses were halved by the end of the year.

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