HMS New Zealand during the battle of Dogger Bank

World War One as a Maritime War

Although the horrific losses on the Western Front tend to portray World War One as principally a land war the maritime dimension of the war was decisive. The war was not limited to Europe or the Middle East, but was also brought to New Zealand with the Germans laying mines off the coast. Ultimately it was the Royal Navy Blockade of Germany that brought about the Armistice in 1918.

In 1914 around 81% of New Zealand’s exports went to Britain, mainly carried in British flag merchant ships, so we had a significant stake in a war that was in the main, fought half a world away.

The First World War was global war in all senses, one which reached far from the battlefields of Europe to the shores of New Zealand. It was “our” war, not just because New Zealand was a dominion of the British Empire, but Britain was overwhelmingly our major trading partner and most of the population had a British heritage. In 1914 around 81% of New Zealand’s exports went to Britain, mainly carried in British flag merchant ships, so we had a significant stake in a war that was in the main, fought half a world away.

Underlying this was the fact that 19th Century Britain was a unique global power. Her maritime strategic posture, built on a combination of economic primacy, fiscal strength, naval forces and global basing enabled her to project power across the world in a way that no other power, or combination of powers, could contemplate. Nevertheless, by 1914 this global supremacy and naval power was being challenged by Germany.

Thus the war was brought home to New Zealand in a tangible way when in 1917 a German raider laid mines off the coast, which resulted in the sinking of two ships.

In his seminal work Some Principles of Maritime Strategy in 1911, Sir Julian Corbett rightly expounded that the outcome of a war can only be determined by ‘boots on the ground’, but also that this was not possible without command of the sea. This was particularly the case in WWI. Without command of the sea the Allied armies on the western front and elsewhere could not have been provided with the wherewithal to win their battles. Everything they needed from food and clothing to ammunition and reinforcements came by sea.

PAI 0210 Colour print of the battle of Jutland titled 'The Day Battle'
Colour print of the battle of Jutland titled ‘The Day Battle’

The British Grand Fleet, from its base at Scapa Flow controlled the North Sea and the German High Seas Fleet could not gain control of the sea without defeating the Grand Fleet. As Churchill stated, the Commander in Chief of the Grand Fleet, Admiral Jellicoe, was the only man who could lose the war in an afternoon. If the German Fleet did not win the only major sea battle of the war, Jutland, it did not matter, but if Jellicoe had lost, the supplies of food from places such as New Zealand, Australia and Argentina and oil from the Middle East would not have reached Britain and the British war effort would have ground to a halt and the war could not have been won.

Unable, by numerical inferiority to face the Grand Fleet in a major confrontation, the German Navy looked for alternative ways to gain control of the sea. Britain’s life-line was across the Atlantic in the form of hundreds of merchant ships bringing everything the country required, from food to wool, to oil, to iron ore, not just to survive but to fight the war. If Germany could cut this life-line it could win the war.

Mine Found at Great Barrier Island
Mine Found at Great Barrier Island

In what would now be called economic warfare, both countries initiated attacks against the commerce of the other (another of Corbett’s principles). The British did this by establishing a traditional blockade of Germany, preventing any shipping leaving/arriving in German ports, while Germany implemented a two-pronged attack on British shipping, first by the use of surface raiders and secondly by the use of submarines. Although mainly concentrated on the Atlantic routes, the surface raiders with their greater range were more far reaching than the submarines. Thus the war was brought home to New Zealand in a tangible way when in 1917 a German raider laid mines off the coast, which resulted in the sinking of two ships.

Sir Julian Corbett rightly expounded that the outcome of a war can only be determined by ‘boots on the ground’, but also that this was not possible without command of the sea. This was particularly the case in WWI.

While the wider strategic maritime campaign was being fought at sea, on the Continent and in the Middle East vast armies were engaged in a desperate struggle. On the Allied side, neither of these could have been pursued without support from the sea. The main thrust of the Allies was in France and to ensure the supplies of men, food and materiel the English Channel had to be secure, that is, safe from attack by German surface ships, submarines and aircraft. To achieve this a combination of nets, minefields and regular patrols by surface ships and aircraft was put in place, covering the whole of the eastern approaches to the English Channel. The effectiveness of these measures is seen in the fact that no troopships were lost in the Channel.

However, the German submarine campaign was particularly effective. By mid-1917 the British shipping losses to submarines were such that Germany was within weeks of winning the war. This was resolved by the introduction of convoys and loses to submarines dramatically reduced. In the event, the British blockade resulted in acute shortages of essential items, such as food, that Germany sought an Armistice in November 1918.