World War I Centennial: Rattling the Saber at Sea

The First World War was an unprecedented catastrophe that killed millions and set the continent of Europe on the path to further calamity two decades later. But it didn’t come out of nowhere.

With the centennial of the outbreak of hostilities coming up in 2014, Erik Sass will be looking back at the lead-up to the war, when seemingly minor moments of friction accumulated until the situation was ready to explode. He'll be covering those events 100 years after they occurred. This is the 15th installment in the series. (See all entries here.)

May 7, 1912: Rattling the Saber at Sea

One of the grand traditions of Britain’s Royal Navy was the royal review, in which all the vessels of the home fleet – the core force, responsible for protecting the British Isles from invasion – assembled for a ceremonial inspection by the monarch in the Royal yacht, often followed by other yachts carrying assorted officials, nobles, members of Parliament, and so on. The first review, conducted by Edward III in June 1346, was a strictly utilitarian affair; by the early 20th century, the reviews had become spectacular events, attended by huge crowds of ordinary citizens on shore and aboard chartered pleasure vessels at sea.

While the object of this lavish display was ostensibly the British monarch, journalists and foreign observers were given front-row seats to ensure that the whole world witnessed, at least indirectly, the military might of the British Empire at sea. Indeed, the fleet reviews were the main means of projecting British naval power in peacetime – helping keep the peace, the Royal Navy Admiralty hoped, by intimidating potential rivals and reassuring friends and allies, who were invited to send ships to take part in the festivities.

May 7-11, 1912, saw the last great fleet review of the pre-war period (the next one, on July 20, 1914, turned into a wartime general mobilization) at Weymouth Bay, located on the south coast of England. Over five days, King George V and the members of Parliament observed complicated naval maneuvers by scores of ships, including dreadnoughts, battle-cruisers, and the new class of “destroyers” – smaller ships intended to protect the big ships from attack by enemy submarines. The dreadnoughts demonstrated gunnery by hitting floating targets, using smokeless powder so as not to obscure the view. At night the fleet was “illuminated” for spectators on shore with powerful electric lights in a rainbow of colors.

One of the main events of the Weymouth review was the launching of a new experimental aircraft – an airplane equipped with pontoons, allowing it to take off from the deck of a battleship equipped with a special ramp, fly around the fleet for scouting and reconnaissance, then set down again on the water, where it could be retrieved and brought back aboard the ship.

On May 9, commander Charles Rumney Samson became the first person to take off from a moving ship, piloting a Short S.27 pontoon biplane from the deck of the HMS Hibernia in Weymouth Bay. The pioneering flight, covered by newspapers around the world, helped win Samson the position of commander of the Naval Wing of the newly formed Royal Flying Corps.

The Weymouth review was undoubtedly an impressive spectacle, but it concealed growing unease among British authorities about the Royal Navy’s true strength and its readiness for war. The main fear was the growing threat posed by the German navy, just across the North Sea. Winston Churchill, the First Lord of the Royal Navy, was scrambling to deter the Germans from building an even bigger navy by promising to outpace their building by a margin of 2-to-1. But the huge expense involved in his proposed naval construction program risked political backlash in Parliament.

This prompted Churchill to propose a redeployment of British naval power from the Mediterranean to the North Sea, over the protests of commercial interests who accused him of leaving the trade routes to British colonies in the Far East unprotected. Churchill reasoned that Britain could reach an agreement with France, whereby the French navy would take over guard duties in the Mediterranean in exchange for a British promise to protect France’s northern coast from the German fleet in the event of war. And there was no doubt, Churchill assured Secretary of War Richard Burdon Haldane on May 6, 1912, that the main naval confrontation of the next war would take place in the North Sea – not the Mediterranean.

Meanwhile, innovative naval aeronautics notwithstanding, the fact remained that the Royal Navy hadn’t fought a major fleet action since the Battle of Navarino in 1827, almost a century before, in the age of wooden sailing ships. The Royal Navy was very likely superior to any rival in gunnery, speed, and maneuverability, but it remained untested in combat, and there was no way to know how new weapons like airplanes and submarines might interact with more traditional elements of naval power in a fight. Indeed, few people probably anticipated the major role played by submarines in the First World War, when Germany’s policy of unrestricted U-boat warfare threatened for a time to bring Britain to its knees – but ultimately provoked America’s entry into the war instead.

See previous installment, next installment, or all entries.

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May 7, 2012 - 7:00pm
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