World war 1 – a “world war”

Kaiser “Bill” – Wilhelm 2nd had a foreign policy called weltpolitic. From his time of becoming emperor in 1888 his intent was to have colonies like other European powers but particularly like those of Britain. The getting and maintaining of colonies required military forces including naval power.

By 1914 Germany was regarded as Europe’s leading industrial nation, She had the biggest army, a navy that was second only to Britain’s and she had colonies in Africa, the middle east and the far east. Like it or not those colonies were at war and under threat. All European power with colonies felt that threat and with the exception of Spain were drawn into the war. Most colonised was Africa and the map below shows the situation in 1914. Not surprisingly Africa was the scene of much fighting.

The colonisation of Africa – 1914

Although the Dutch Settlers (Boers) in South Africa still had bitter memories of their recent defeat by the British, they joined the allies and by the July of 2015 Germany had lost her south west African colonies.  The east African German colonies proved to be much more difficult. There an astute German commander went the whole of the war playing a cat and mouse game with the allies (mostly Indian troops) luring them deep into east Africa. The only time his army came under threat was at the battle of the bees when a swarm of angry bees scattered both sides.

In the far east the Germans had a colony adjacent to a British colony in New Guinea and close to the British Solomon Islands. In the middle east the Ottoman Turks, an ally of Germany, shared borders with British colonies there and posed a serious threat to Egypt and the Suez canal shipping route that Britain used to link to her colonies in India, Australia and New Zealand.

Maintaining supplies was key to a success in war and so supply ports and the shipping routes moving to and from them were significant targets. Britain had major colonies in India, Australia, New Zealand and Canada and they along with others colonies of the participants were supplying troops and war munitions.

Japan joined the war in the far east and set about attacking a German naval base on the Chinese mainland, from which German cruisers had been attacking British ports. The German battleships and cruisers under Admiral Von Spee fled south to Chile where they inflicted a defeat on British ships sent there. They then proceeded to the Falkland Islands intent on attacking the coaling station there. However unbeknown to them five British cruisers and two much faster British dreadnaught battle cruisers were there in the port of Stanley. A chase ensued and after about two days the German vessels were caught and sunk. One escaped to Chile where it was later sunk.

In the May of 2015 there was great concern in Britain because German U boats (submarines) were causing shortages of supplies. The U-boat crews had orders to sink anything that might be carrying troops or supplies. A u-boat had sunk two merchant vessels off the southern coast of Ireland. The British ocean liner Lucitania had been warned by the Royal Navy of these events  but still sailed into these waters. A torpedo from the u-boat hit her, exploded in her cargo and sent her to the bottom in 18 minutes with the loss of 1,198 lives. A second explosion had followed the first which the Germans claimed to be due to her carrying armaments, thereby justifying their action. More recent theories say it was the ship’s boiler.

With the loss of 120 American lives their Government sent a strongly worded protest to the Germans demanding that they immediately cease submarine warfare. Most Americans were wondering how soon it would be before they were drawn into this world war.

The British fleet had commanded the North Sea with only a few skirmishes as the German fleet stayed long in ports. Early in 1916 a new German Admiral decided he would adopt a more aggressive policy and in May took the whole of the German Fleet out in search of British patrols. British code breakers were aware of the plans and the British Admiral John Jelicoe set out from Scappa Flow in the Orkneys with the British Fleet.

Some six battle cruisers also left the port of Rosyth, spotted two small German ships and gave chase but then encountered 5 German battle cruisers and had two of their number sunk. When the German Fleet were seen in the distance the British turned north toward Jelicoe’s approaching fleet. There was little daylight left when the two fleets spotted each other and exchanged fire at what became known as the battle of Jutland. The British lost HMS Invincible after which the German fleet decided to run for it under cover of a thick smoke screen. The British fleet intercepted the German fleet and scored several hits after which the Germans again withdrew leaving some older vessels as a suicide squad. The British admiral fearing a massive torpedo attack held his ships back allowing the German dreadnoughts to get away. 

The Royal Navy had always resisted the providing of war ships to accompany merchant vessels sailing the Atlantic and so U-boat attacks on merchant shipping had continued to be successful. For example in the month of April of 1917, the same month as America joined the war, some 373 allied ships were lost to u-boat attacks.

In May of 1917 it was decided to introduce a convoy system.  In this system some 10 to 50 merchant vessels and perhaps troop ships might be escorted by a cruiser, six destroyers, 11 armed trawlers and a pair of torpedo boats with aerial reconnaissance equipment that could detect the movement of underwater submarines. The system considerably reduced u-boat attacks and in the following year when one million one hundred thousand troops were transported across the Atlantic only 637 of them were drowned due to German attacks.

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