How WWI Was Fought From The Sea

By | February 19, 2017

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Although World War I was fought on land and in the air, the Naval presence at sea was largely credited for Britain’s victory. When the war started in 1914, the British Navy was the most powerful in the world. To win the war, the armed forces needed to employ covert war tactics and defensive strategies on the sea, using the latest available weapons and technology.

Battle Ships & Dreadnoughts

These ships were crucial in World War I. Battleships were large ships equipped with guns, cannons, and other weapons of war. However, Dreadnoughts were the mother of battleships. Because these ships usually took years to build and required hundreds of crew, they were the symbol of naval power in the early 20th Century. As a military tactic, some naval forces would paint their battleships in dazzled black-and-white patterns to confuse their opponent. These dazzled patterns made it difficult for their opponents to estimate the distance of the ship, and this gave them a tactical advantage.


Mines were a common weapon in the battle at sea. They were cheap, destructive, and once laid, they required no crew. Both Britain and Germany used mines in the North Sea in their attempt to block trade channels and weaken each other’s forces.

U-Boats & Submarines

These underwater warships were the preferred arsenal of the Germans because they were cheaper than battleships, required less man-power and epitomized the element of surprise. U-Boats (the German abbreviation for “unterseeboots” or “undersea boats”), were usually armed with torpedoes that destroyed the ships above. The British – with their advanced Naval power – thought that the use of submarines was for the cowardly, so they discouraged their use. The Germans however masterfully used them to their advantage. With sonar technology still in its infancy, a battleship’s crew had to spot a U-Boat’s periscope to know that it was lurking nearby. By the time this was seen, it was often too late. At the beginning of the war, German armed forces only had 29 U-Boats, but they successfully sank 5 British cruisers in the first 10 weeks. In the three-month period between October, 1916 and January, 1917, German U-Boats destroyed 1.4 million tonnes of allied shipping.

Trade Blockades

Despite the battles on the ground and in the air, the trade blockades at sea are what crippled nations. Norway, Sweden, and many other neutral countries were also affected. In order to curb the food and raw-material supplies to Germany, Britain laid mines in the North Sea with its Royal Navy Grand Fleet. Of course, Germany had similar tactics, and they used U-Boats to attack Merchant ships in order to weaken Britain’s imports. The Germans successfully destroyed over half of all the food supplies transported by the British Merchant Navy in the four-year period of World War I. Despite this, the German people also suffered greatly with devastatingly low food supplies. The same was true for Britain since the only access to the island was via ships. World War I turned out to be a test of endurance rather than force and Germany eventually surrendered on November 11, 1918. 

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