Nostalgia: Deadlock on land and at sea

Picture shows a World War One munitions factory in Hayes, Middlesex.
Picture shows a World War One munitions factory in Hayes, Middlesex.

Towards the end of 1915, as winter approached, the Allied leaders, civilian and military, began to consider plans for the war in 1916. Both sides now knew that an early victory was impossible; that this war was like no other that had ever been fought. The two alliances seemed evenly balanced. Italy had joined the Allies, Bulgaria had gone over to the Central Powers of Germany, Austria-Hungary and Turkey. The Allies commanded the seas around Europe and could therefore deny their enemies access to the world’s markets. But the Central Powers had the advantage of interior lines of communication, coordination and supply, whereas Russia was virtually isolated by the Arctic ocean and Ottoman control of the Dardanelles-Bosphorus link after failure of the Gallipoli campaign.

Nevertheless, in a prolonged siege war of attrition, the Allies held the advantage. German failure to knock out France in 1914 and Britain’s immediate entry, initially in defence of Belgium, had ended in the stalemate of the Western Front. Moreover, whereas Germany and France had mobilised the whole of their military strength from the outset, as the war progressed British industrial might and military presence on the battlefield would only increase. The longer the struggle the greater the odds against the Germans, particularly since they soon had to prop up Austria and Russia’s manpower seemed inexhaustible. In the first 17 months of the war the British and French armies had suffered many more casualties than the German, but they could afford them. Eventually, the Germans would not be able to sustain their numbers and material in the face of Allied manpower, tanks, guns and aeroplanes.

Yet it was not merely a matter of manpower. The battles of 1915 had revealed that industry had to be mobilised as well as soldiers. As Lloyd George, the new Minister of Munitions, pronounced before he took office in May, 1915:

“This is an engineer’s war, and it will be won or lost owing to the efforts or shortcomings of engineers...Unless we are able to equip our armies our predominance in men will avail us nothing. We need men, but we need arms more than men”.

Returning to London from an inspection of the battlefield in Flanders in June 1915, Lord Stanhope noted that the French trenches were held by the fire of their superior artillery, whereas the British held theirs by riflemen; the former were expensive in shells, the latter were expensive in lives.

During 1915, British economic mobilisation, especially of the munitions industries, began gradually to catch up with that of France and Germany. From March, a series of government agreements with employers and trade unions effectively called a truce between capital and labour for the duration of the war. The unions accepted unskilled workers and the employers agreed to pay them union rates. In cases of disputes, both accepted compulsory arbitration. Employers tolerated limits to war profits and the unions acknowledged that munition workers should not have freedom to change jobs. By 1916, the Ministry of Munitions had set up 34 national munitions factories.

From February 1915 the Allies had begun to cooperate financially. Russia had already sold all its foreign investments and exhausted its gold reserve and became utterly dependent on Anglo-French credit. In turn Britain and France were increasingly in debt to American creditors so that “neutral” USA eventually had a compelling financial interest in Allied victory. Both British and French governments assumed that their victory would guarantee the payment of reparations by Germany and its allies.

When First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill remarked that Lord Jellicoe, commander of the Royal Navy’s Grand Fleet, was “the only man on either side who could lose the war in an afternoon.” By this he meant that if the Royal Navy surrendered control of home waters Britain would be starved into surrender, whereas the Kaiser’s battlefleet was irrelevant to German security. However, contrary to expectations, there was to be no decisive clash of battleships in the North Sea.

What Churchill did not foresee was that Britain’s survival by seaborne trade was to be endangered by German mines and German submarines, not by the Kaiser’s High Seas battlefleet which remained virtually intact until the war ended. As with the war on land, the end was to come as a result of long-term, slow attrition, not by sudden Allied victory.

The jingoists at the Admiralty chafed at the inability of the Royal Navy to deliver a crushing blow against Germany and both Churchill and Lord Fisher, the First Sea Lord, favoured seaborne attacks on the enemy’s mainland. Seapower, they argued, would counter-balance Germany’s military superiority. But failure at the Dardanelles, the resignation of Fisher and Churchill’s demotion in May 1915, meant that such ambitious, amphibious landings were never attempted. The Royal Navy had to be content to slowly strangle Germany’s economy by blockade.

Permanent patrols were set up between Scotland and Norway and across the Straits of Dover to intercept any merchant ships carrying goods to the continent. Gradually, the number of goods classed as “contraband” increased: starting with food and fuel, the list eventually included rubber, cotton, metal ores and fertilizers. Agreements were made with neutrals, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Denmark, that they would not trade with Germany and Austria. Only Sweden, which sent profitable exports to Germany, refused to comply.

To the Royal Navy’s blockade, the Germans had only one potentially effective answer - unrestricted submarine warfare. At the beginning of February 1915, Berlin announced that any ship in British waters would be attacked without warning. When this policy, in blatant breach of international law, led to the sinking of the Lusitania in May and that of the liner Arabic in August, both off the Irish coast, with the loss of many innocent civilian lives, the Kaiser called off his U-boats. Particularly after the hostile reaction in the USA, he realised that the campaign was diplomatically dangerous and economically futile. As yet, his fleet of submarines was too small to inflict crippling damage on Allied imports. Only in the Mediterranean did they score significant successes, though even there they were unable to prevent seaborne landings at Gallipoli and Salonika. In short, by the end of 1915, the stalemate of the war on land was mirrored by that at sea.