The Turning Point of the First World War, 1915

In a recent post, Dr Nick Lloyd described 1915 as the ‘forgotten year‘ of the First World War. To correct this, in occasional posts throughout 2015 members of the First World War Research Group based in the Defence Studies Department will examine unknown or forgotten aspects of the war during 1915.

by Dr DAVID MORGAN-OWEN

In December 1914, British government was faced with difficult choice. The bloody battles of the summer and autumn of 1914 had all but consumed the original establishment of the British Expeditionary Force. These losses had more than been compensated for by the ‘rush to the colors’, which provided the manpower for a much expanded army, but the question of how best to deploy this new force remained unanswered. Despite growing pressure from her French ally, Britain had yet to adopt a ‘continental’ strategy. Rather, the government of Herbert Asquith attempted to adhere to a policy of ‘business as usual’; extending credit to Britain’s alliance partners, providing a limited military commitment and relying primarily upon maritime economic warfare as Britain’s primary weapon. Such an approach was intended to insulate the British economy as far as possible from the dislocation the war threatened, allowing Britain to prosecute the conflict at an affordable cost. Thus, as the first of Lord Kitchener’s new armies began to approach combat readiness in the winter of 1914, the Cabinet considered how Britain should employ her new-found military strength to best effect in the year ahead. As Lieutenant Colonel Maurice Hankey, Secretary to the Committee of Imperial Defence, noted on December 28th, ‘the remarkable deadlock which has occurred in the western theatre of war invites consideration of the question of whether some other outlet can be found for the effective employment of the great forces of which we shall be able to dispose in a few months time.’

In the subsequent debate, the Cabinet settled upon an initial naval demonstration against the Dardanelles, intended to knock the weakest of the Central Powers; the Ottoman Empire, out of the war. In doing so they sought to exploit Britain’s maritime strength to project power against the enemy’s weakest point, adopting what Basil Liddell Hart would later term an ‘indirect approach’. However, it is important to appreciate that what would become the Gallipoli campaign was but one of the alternatives to the Western Front under consideration during the winter of 1914/5. This post will discuss one of the other schemes mooted at this point and attempt to underline the importance of adopting contemporary viewpoints in assessing the actions of decision-makers at the time.

Whereas military and naval planners had consistently questioned the feasibility of forcing the Dardanelles since the mid-1880s, plans for amphibious operations in northern waters had received more detailed consideration. Inter service co-operation remained limited, but the Admiralty devoted considerable attention to potential assaults against French and Russian port installations during the 1880s and 1890s. Since the early 1900s, similar schemes had been projected against the German North Sea and Baltic littorals. In their earliest iterations, these plans had been intended to provide advanced bases to support British destroyer patrols off the enemy coastline. Suggestions to limit German egress to the North Sea by means of sinking blockships in the estuaries of major ports were also considered. It is generally agreed that all such plans were shelved in mid-1911, after the Navy presented a supposedly incoherent and unrealistic plan of campaign to the government during a major war-scare over German activities in the Moroccan port of Agadir. The consensus has been that, in the absence of a formal naval staff to conduct systematic strategic planning the First Sea Lord, Sir Arthur Wilson, betrayed a failure to comprehend the realities of modern naval warfare by forwarding proposals for a series of anachronistic inshore operations in the Heligoland Bight. Hankey himself later recalled that the navy’s plan smelt of having been ‘cooked up in the dinner hour’ and Prime Minister Asquith described the admiral’s presentation as ‘puerile’.

What these authorities failed to appreciate, however, is that Wilson’s presentation actually embodied the navy’s most recent experiments in anti-submarine warfare. The First Sea Lord had justified his plans on the grounds that they would facilitate the ‘sealing in’ of German submarines and torpedo craft. On first inspection, such reasoning appeared questionable at best. Yet, contemporary submarine boats were so slow and vulnerable whilst surfaced that British practice was to escort the craft out of port with armoured cruisers and destroyers. Exercises conducted just weeks before the crucial meeting at which Wilson laid out his plans confirmed that the navy’s best chance to intercept German submarines was when they were in the shallow coastal waters of the Heliogland Bight, before they reached the open sea. Obscured by the Admiral’s brusque style, this important fact appears to have eluded the politicians assembled at the meeting. In itself, this is not definitive evidence of fundamental shortcomings in the rationale behind the plans, however.

One man upon whom Wilson’s logic was not lost was Winston Churchill, who was appointed First Lord of the Admiralty in the aftermath of the August 1911 crisis. Soon after arriving in his post, the new First Lord became a confirmed advocate of amphibious operations against the German coastline. His natural inclination towards offensive and dramatic operations doubtless played a key role in determining this stance, which was opposed by many of his more conservative advisors. Yet, it is significant to note that Churchill developed plans for operations against the German North Sea littoral as an alternative to a bombardment of the Dardanelles in the winter of 1914/5.

For the first six months of the war, German submarines had exercised an even greater impact on the war in the North Sea than the Admiralty had anticipated. Finding a solution to this problem therefore became an urgent requirement for the naval leadership. Ever eager for a proactive response, Churchill threw his full weight behind a modified version of the plans Wilson had outlined in 1911, much to the amusement of the former First Sea Lord, Sir Francis Bridgeman, whom Churchill had unceremoniously forced into retirement the 1912. Writing to a friend, Bridgeman remarked how in 1911 ‘Churchill [had] laughed at the idea & in consequence the scheme went by the board!’ but that ‘It is therefore interesting to hear of a revival of the old projects!’

Whatever his doubts had been in 1911, after six months of war the First Lord’s mind had clearly been made up. On January 3rd he minuted that ‘all preparations should be made for the capture of Sylt’. (‘Sylt’, an island in the Frisian chain, was the codename adopted to mask the true target of the planned attack; the island of Borkum.) Circumstances conspired to ensure that the operation was put into temporary stasis several weeks later, however it continued to command the Admiralty’s interest. In the wake of the commencement of Germany’s first unrestricted submarine warfare campaign in March, Churchill was quick to return to the plans, in an attempt to mitigate the impact of the attack on British shipping. He explained to his colleagues that:

The object is to close up the mouth of the Jade and Weser & the Elbe, first by lines of mines & secondly by lines of anti-S/M [submarine] nets, & so protect these minefields from disturbance by monitors & destroyers wh[ich] are themselves not afraid of S/Ms.

On this occasion the competing resource demands of the Dardanelles campaign and the implosion of the Churchill-Fisher regime at the Admiralty in May combined to ensure that the plans again receded into the background. Professional naval opinion was divided as to their efficacy and it would have taken decisive political leadership to force their approval. Yet, it is worthwhile to appreciate just how close the ‘Sylt’ scheme came to being implemented and that the rationale behind it was more coherent than is commonly considered. Developments in technology had not invalidated the fundamental principles of naval warfare, or removed the scope for assuming the offensive in the North Sea. They merely required adaptation and initiative to circumvent. As Churchill argued when attempting to revive his scheme in the context of a renewed unrestricted submarine warfare campaign in mid-1917, the plans represented a ‘return to the old and definitely recognised policy of close and aggressive blockade’.

In examining the course of the war in 1915, it is crucial to do so unburdened by our knowledge of the events of 1916-18. At this point, the strategic options facing the Cabinet were broader than is often remembered. Our appreciation of the year 1915 must, therefore, be approached from the perspective of a fluid and dynamic strategic situation in which British policy makers sought to adopt creative solutions to the slaughter of the Western Front. That they ultimately failed in this endeavour was the product of the realities of industrialised total war, rather than a lack of imagination or humanity.

Image: ” German Submarine U-14 (LOC) (6358166395).” This image is available from the United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID ggbain.17779. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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