** First World War I : Naval War Allied Blockade of Germany

World War I Naval War: The Commerce War

Figure 1.--The whole purpose of the World War I naval conflict was to prorcect sea lanes and blockade the enemy. And from the beginning of the War, the Allies, primarily the British Royal Navy blockaded Germany. Germany had the world's strongest army and an efficeny, modern indusdtrial base. The country was, however, not self sufficent in food. Nor did the Germans have needed raw materials except coal for their industry. As a result over time, Germany's war making power declined. Morale on the hiome fromt declined. Prticularly demoralising was that the families of the soldiers suffered. Deprived of their primary breadwinner, many families went hungary. The captioin here read, "Feeding the Children whose Fathers are Fighting for the Kaiser: A scene in Berlin showing the children whiose fathers are fightin for the Kaiser being fed by the Berliner Ladies Relief menbers."

Commerce campaigns are as old as history. The two most important materials are food and raw materials. Most of the World War I beligerants at the onset of World War were self sufficent in food production. The major exception were infustrialized Britain and Germany. This made both countries vulnerable to a commerce campaign to cut off food imports. Highly industrialized Belgium was also dpendent of food imports, but woukld be saved by American food relief. Here the Allies had a major advantage. The British had a ready source of food across the Atlantic (America and Canada) and the powerful Royal Navy to both guarantee the delivery of shipping to deliver the food and to blokade Germany and the other Central Powers. Germany's and Austria Hungary's failure to develop effective food polices was a major factior in their defeat. Both Britain and Germany were major industrial powers, but other than coal, both did not have the raw materials needed to fuel their industrial economies. Here Britain because of the Royal Navy could import the needed raw materials and prevent Germany from importing the raw materials it needed. German industry had surpassed Britain, espcially in steel producion. And here its iron ore imports were secure because they came from Sweden. Germany's diversified chemical industry was a major asset because it allowed the country to produce ersatz (substitute) materials for the war effort which helped to deal with the shiortages. A major achievenment chemist Fritz Haber's process for the fixation of nitrogen from air. This made it possible for Germsny to produce the nitrates needed for explosives rather than being dependent on Chilean supplies which the Royal Navy could interdict. (Haber also developed poison gas weapons.)

Blockade of Germany

The naval war is generally considered a side show in World War I. In fact it was a critical part of the war, especially the naval blockade of Germany. The principal impact of the naval war was Britain's ability to use the Royal Navy to blockade Germany. The British blockade crippled the German economy. Food shortages in Germany became severe as early as 1916. The German Government never introduced an effective rationing system ensure that the privations were equitably shared. And the conscription program did not take into account the need to maintain agricultural production. France produced adequate food domestically. The British maintained domestic food production and imports until mid-1917, when the U-boat campaign began to affect food imports. Germany could not, however, feed itself and the British blockade severely affected the availability of food. Garman and even more so Austrian families were affected by severe food shortages in 1916. Coffee a German staple was impossible to obtain. Consumption of fish and eggs declined sharply. Even potatos became difficult to obtain in the winter of 1916-17. Civilians had to turn to less nutritious turnips. Basic necesities like coal for heating and soap were rationed. Most civilians by late 1916 were increasingly affected by the War. Life for all but the rich " ... became a time of eating meals never entirely filling, living in unheated homes, wearing clothing that proved dificult to replace and walking with leaky shoes. It meant starting and ending the day with substitutes for nearly everything." [Moyer, p. 164.] The poor were the most severly impacted. The bread winners in many families were at the front leaving their families destitute. State allounces were provided, but were inadequate and brought less and less food as the War progressed. [Wall and Winter , p. 117.] By the end of the War food shortges were at crisis levels. Mlnutritiin affected many and real starvation loomed. Without a surface fleet strong enough to challenge the Royal Navy's Grand Fleet, the Germans at sea were left with only one response--unrestricted submarine warfare. This had the impact of alienting neutrals--most importantly the United States.


The small U-boat fleet, however, proved a major challenge to the British. Early in the War, U-boats sank three British cruisers, astounding the public both in England and Germany. The Germans backed down from unconditional submarine warfare when America protested the sinking of the Lusitania (1915). There were 1,201 civilians, including 94 children killed. Among them were Americans and American public opinion was incensed. Although the British denied it, historians have since established that the Lusitania was carrying weapons and amunition. [Massie] The invasion of neurtal Belgium and the sinking of the Lusitania combined to create the image of Germans in the American mind as modern day Huns. Making another effort to win the War, Germany in 1917 reimplemented unrestricted submarine warfare (March 1917). The Germans feared the entry of America into the War, but in the end concluded that they could force the British and French to seek terms before the American Expeditionary Force could be created and brought to France. It proved to be a huge miscalculation. As a result, America declared war on Germany (April 1917). The U-boat fleet succeeded in sinking 5,000 ships. That was an amazing 25 percent of the Allied merchant fleet. The Allies attempted to determine how to sink U-boats and developed the depth charge. It was, however, the introduction of the convoy system that defeated the U-boat. The World War I U-boat was really a surfacre vessel that could sumbmerge. Against esorted convoys, World War I era U-boats had little chance of success. In the end the German Navy only served to bring Britain and America into the War, ensuring Germany's defeat. An embittered German naval office, Karl Donnietz, confined in a British POW camp in 1918 was already planning Germany's strategy in the next war.

German Commerce Raiders

The Germans pursued commerce raiding during World war I. The Germans had to resort to raiders beause the stronger Allied navies, especially the Royal Navy, controlled the seas. They were not, however, the only raiders. The U-boats were the most significant part of the German commere raiding campaign against Allied shipping. The Germans also used merchant raiders, obsolete warships, and even occasional naval Zeppelins, although their range was limited. The merchant raiders were the most successful because they could be desguised to look like non-threatening merchant vessels, but they were armed with naval guns that could easily sink Allied merchant ships. Germany had aarge merchant marine which was either enpounded in foreign ports or tied up unused in Hanburg and Baltiv ports because of the Royal Navy blockade. Germany converted several of these merchant ships to raiders early in World War I which sunk many Allied merchnt ships before the Royal Navy tacked them down. This proved to be more of a destraction compared to the highly effective Allied naval bloclade of Germany. The best known German raider was Count Felix von Luckner (1881-1966) who came from an aristocratic family. He ran away to sea at age 13 years. Luckner commanded the sailing ship SMS Seeadler. This was an anacronism by World War I, but had the advantage of not needing to refuel. Luckner in less than a year (1916-17) until he was captured near the Fiji Islands, he sank about 20 Allied ships. He became called the 'Sea Devil'. He claimed his actions never resulted in deasths. He managed to trick his enemies and took them captive. After the war he traveled around the world, lecturing on his many adventures. The Royal Navy deployed Q-ships to engage German U-boats. They were armed merchant vessels which fooled the U-noat commanders into think that they were vulnetable merchant shipping.


Moyer, L. Victory Must Be Ours (London, 1995).

Wall, R. and J. Winter. The Upheaval of War (London, 1988).


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Created: 2:43 PM 1/24/2021
Last updated: 2:44 PM 1/24/2021