Prof. Kennedy’s latest book, ‘Britain’s War at Sea, 1914-1918: The War They Thought and the War They Fought’ is now available. You can read more about it here.
Often the link between the outcome of campaigns or battles and the resulting changes to public or private perceptions; the changed nature of accessibility to critical air, sea or land domains; the subsequent inability to use military power in the same way thereafter; or, the ongoing ability to influence domestic and foreign opinion in a manner consistent with that practices prior to the combat, has gone unnoticed. Military historians have focused on the fighting; diplomatic historians on diplomatic activity; economic historians on economic factors. Rarely is any attempt made to analyse the strategic context existing at the time of battle, or to follow the ripples of tactical and operational success, or failure, through to their logical resting place amongst the strategic assessment process. Using the May 31st, 1916 Battle of Jutland, famous and infamous for its tactical indecision, questionable operational objectives, but strategic impact and enablement, we will A. show the complexity of the relationship between battle, diplomacy and strategic decision making, as well as B. reinforce the centrality of the oceanic domain to the overall war efforts of both the Allies and the Central Powers, one seeking to use it to create overwhelming power and the latter attempting to deny the Allies access to it for that purpose.
In January 1916 Anglo-American strategic relations were becoming more strained due to the increasing restrictions on American maritime commercial activity being imposed due to Britain’s blockade policy. Tighter and more extensive contraband lists, as well as an increasing number of American vessels being seized and detained for Prize Court proceedings in United Kingdom harbours, was whipping up a higher degree of anti-Britishness in the United States than had been seen since the beginning of the war. German propaganda and nominal gestures of conceding for American demands regarding attacks on merchant shipping and the contemplation of possible peace negotiations had moved the initiative as far as wooing American public opinion towards Germany for the moment. Forthcoming British replies to the American State Department rejection peace proposals and demands for a lessening of the blockade’s effectiveness would only exacerbate that condition. One of the very real dangers of a rift in Anglo-American relations was the fact that America could limit its sale of munitions to Great Britain in order to get the terms governing blockade policy changed in their favour. Such an embargo would have a crippling effect on the Allied war effort until alternative sources of munitioning could be established in Canada, Australia India, or Latin America. Sir Cecil Spring Rice, the British Ambassador to the United States hinted and insinuated to the American State Department throughout late January 1916 that they should prepared themselves for little movement by the British with regard to weakening blockade policy. While relations between the two nations did not fracture, or indeed impair the ability of the Allies to wage war, Germany retained a more favoured position within the American Congress and large swathes of the public in the spring of 1916. That governmental and public perception of Germany would change rapidly as the autumn of 1916 came to pass, and that change was a direct result of the Battle of Jutland. While Germany was held in good odour in the United States in the immediate aftermath of the great sea battle, the question of Germany’s desire and willingness to use unrestricted submarine warfare was an issue of concern to America.
In early October 1916 the American Chargé at the Embassy in Berlin, Joseph Grew (future American Ambassador to Japan in the 1930s and at the time of the outbreak of the war in the Pacific) reported that Germany’s return to indiscriminate submarine warfare was a distinct possibility. The Chancellor von Bethmann-Hollweg, who was opposed to unrestricted submarine warfare, along with the Kaiser, and key senior Army officers such as Generals Ludendorff and Hindenburg, continued to be able to dissuade the Reichstag from approving the unleashing of the submarine weapon, but it was thought that such a state of affairs would not last for long. The German Navy was seen to be readying itself physically for a renewed submarine offensive, with more material and resources being targeted at the construction of a greater number of such vessels. With Admiral Tripitz and other members of the naval staff agitating openly and covertly for a resumption of submarine operations it was thought not possible for many party members and leaders within the Reichstag to remain opposed to the renewal. By mid-October the conviction that submarine warfare ought to be carried out indiscriminately was gaining ground among the leading men of all parties and the great mass of the German people.
On October 13th German naval officers, heading by the commander of the High Seas Fleet, Admiral Scheer, presented the Emperor with a petition demanding the immediate resumption of submarine warfare without consideration for neutral rights as being the only way to win the war. The petition referred directly to the outcome of the Battle of Jutland for Germany’s strategic condition:
High sea battle may damage the enemy but would not force England to make peace as fleet could not overcome disadvantages of Germany’s military geographic situation and great [naval] preponderance of the enemy. Victory can be attained only by overcoming English economic life which means beginning of a submarine war against British commerce. To choose any weaker method would be in vain and I most urgently dissuade Your Majesty, as I did before, from the choice of this dubious form, not only because it does not correspond with the character of submarine weapons, but the endangering of the boats would not compensate for the profit to be obtained thereby. It would also be impossible in spite of the great conscientiousness of the commanders to avoid in England’ waters where American interests are lively such accidents as would humiliate us and which would force us to give in if we cannot hold through to the fullest extent.
More and more the realization of the Battle of Jutland signalling the end of any consideration of the use of the sea to progress German war aims in a conventional fashion was percolating throughout the German policy making system.
By November the “von Tripitz” policy, as the submarine solution was described by Grew, was frustrated still by the reluctance of the political apparatus to approve the use of full unrestricted warfare. The fear of embroiling the United States fully and openly on the side of the Allies was a major part of the opposition’s argument. And, while parts of the German Navy recognized this potential danger in escalating the situation thru such submarine actions, they believed the risk worth the investment, and that America would not engage in the war if enough effort was spent in either compensation or propaganda to put the blame for Germany’s need to take such measure squarely at Britain and her blockade’s feet. With the blockade beginning to be felt to a greater extent and through a wider range of parts of the economy, pressure to counter such effects were growing greater and greater in Germany. Denied access to the sea by the finality of the Jutland engagement, but requiring some means of exerting pressure onto the strategic lifelines that were the British Sea Lanes of Communication which ran throughout the world, Germany was left with no choice.
The Battle of Skagerrak forced the German strategic policy makers to have to return to the one thing that was assured to rekindle harsh German-American relations, and, by default, create closer Anglo-American strategic relations. To arrive at that decision took time, time that saw a strategic paralysis and dissonance within the German strategic planning elite. That disconnection and friction allowed the Allied blockade valuable time to tighten the economic blockade both at sea and in various markets, such as strategic metals. As well, the naval victory and resultant German debate over the return to submarine warfare was observed by the Americans. That German debate and resultant action worked to further influence the American strategic policy making elite into believing that Germany’s eventual ability to win the war could only revolve around actions detrimental to American strategic interests. Overall, therefore, the Battle of Jutland’s strategic ripples resulted in a great commonality and accommodation of strategic relations between Great Britain and the United States in areas related to the vital ground occupied by economic warfare.
Image: A steamer sinking after being torpedoed by a German U-boat, courtesy of the Imperial War Museum.