South African Military History 

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Two videos from the series World War One in Colour, titled Blood in the Air and Killers of the Sea, were screened on the 11th of September in lieu of our traditional lecture by a guest speaker. The following in essence encapsulates the contents of the videos:

World War One: A Concise Naval & Aviation History

The Naval Arms Race

Manpower, geography, and technology were the prime considerations as Germany, France, and Russia planned for war. One of the most sensible ways for Germany to overcome the challenges of geography and technology would have been to foster an alliance with Britain. The British government even approached the German government on several occasions. In 1895, Britain floated the idea of an Anglo-German partition of the Ottoman Empire; in 1898, as the French and Russians were moving close toward formalizing a military alliance, Britain and Germany had preliminary discussions about forming one of their own. Such an alliance would have made sense for a number of reasons. Britain's power at sea and its colonial empire would have complemented Germany's power on land and its dominance of central Europe. The countries had dynastic ties, too. The British royal family was of German descent. Kaiser Wilhelm II's mother was the daughter of Queen Victoria, who was married to a German, Prince Albert.

Yet family ties could only help so much. The kings and queens of Britain had influence in British politics but little real power. By contrast, Kaiser Wilhelm II controlled Germany's army and foreign policy, although, practically speaking, his superficiality enabled his generals and diplomats to run things on a day-to-day basis. One of Wilhelm's personal quirks was that he simultaneously envied and hated Britain. His animosity was personal. Wilhelm embraced German national romanticism, whose adherents typically believed that, while Germans improved themselves by cultivating the arts and philosophy, the British were a crass and materialistic nation of industrialists and merchants.

Wilhelm's anti-liberal, anti-British sentiments, coupled with his impulsiveness, kept Britain and Germany apart. During the late 1890s, without properly consulting German diplomats, Wilhelm publicly supported South Africa's Boers, many of whom were resisting Britain's efforts to incorporate their independent republics into a British-dominated South African confederation. As much as Wilhelm criticized British imperialism, he was like many prominent Germans in that he himself was an imperialist. But by the time that Wilhelm II took power in 1888, there was not much left to acquire. Bismarck had initially been sceptical about controlling overseas territories, but in the early 1880s he persuaded Wilhelm I to acquire several colonies in Africa, including the countries known today as Cameroon, Namibia, Tanzania, and Togo. In the Pacific, Wilhelm I also acquired the northeast part of Papua New Guinea as well as several island groups to the north. Under Wilhelm II, Germany acquired several more islands in the Pacific. In 1898, he acquired a more significant possession: the port of Jiaozhou (Tsingtsao - Ed.) on the north coast of China, which Germany developed as a naval base. In 1899, Germany averted a naval clash with Britain and the United States over the islands of Samoa, when Wilhelm agreed to a partition.

Disputes over small islands in the Pacific were indicative of a larger problem, a naval arms race between Britain and Germany. Between 1890 and 1914, German naval policies challenged Britain's leadership at sea, thanks in large part to Wilhelm II. He had spent childhood summers with his English relatives on the Isle of Wight, near the Royal Yacht Club at Cowes. Wilhelm became an avid sailor, a hobby that he pursued for the rest of his life. For several years after he became Kaiser, he raced yachts at Cowes, where his membership was sponsored by his uncle, the future King Edward VII. The Royal Yacht Club lay only a few miles away from the Royal Navy's base at Portsmouth. Wilhelm's visits to the ships inspired him to build a great navy for Germany. Wilhelm reminisced, "I admired the proud English ships (and) there awoke in me the wish to build ships of my own like these someday, and when I was grown up to possess as fine a navy as the English."

Naval ships had become very costly, thanks to a revolution in construction. In the early part of the nineteenth century, navies relied on wooden sailing ships. Large, triple-decker ships of the line, bristling with ninety cannons, fought the main battles. Faster, lightly armed frigates patrolled the seas and protected merchant vessels. At mid-century, sails were replaced by steam engines; wooden hulls were replaced by steel; and cannons peering through portholes were replaced by gun turrets rotating on the main deck. The battleships of the 1880s and 1890s typically mounted four large guns with a diameter of eleven or twelve inches, two per turret, plus varying numbers of medium and small guns. At the end of the nineteenth century, the British navy dwarfed all other navies, while for the most part its ships were technically superior.

Battleships were costly to build, maintain, and operate, yet Wilhelm and his chief admiral, Alfred von Tirpitz, were determined to build a navy that would rival Britain's. In 1898 they persuaded Germany's parliament, the Reichstag, to fund the construction of twelve battleships. In 1900, they obtained a long-term commitment to build nineteen. The German construction program, coupled with the Kaiser's support for the Boers, assured that the British would respond in kind. A naval arms race began, shaped by a technological revolution in naval architecture. As a rule, larger guns fire farther and more accurately than smaller guns. For this reason, around 1900 naval architects began to contemplate work on a new and revolutionary battleship, the Dreadnought. The ship was bigger than most previous battleships, with a new hull design, heavy armour plating, and new engines with turbines that were faster and more reliable than the older battleships' piston engines. Most impressively, the Dreadnought mounted ten twelve-inch guns on five turrets. The Dreadnought's trials at sea demonstrated its superiority to the old design. Between 1906 and 1913, the British produced thirty Dreadnought-style battleships, with increasingly powerful armaments: by 1913, the new battleships were mounting fifteen-inch guns. Britain also produced ten Dreadnought-style battle cruisers, ships that had weapons and engines that were similar to the battleships but which had less armour. Less armour resulted in greater speed at the cost of greater vulnerability.

Germany responded by building its own Dreadnought-style battleships and battle cruisers. In 1908, the Reichstag passed another "Naval Law" that allowed for the construction of three Dreadnought-style battleships each year. All told, from 1906 to 1913 Germany built nineteen battleships and seven battle cruisers. Germany was not able to match Britain battleship for battleship, but now the German navy did pose a significant threat to British dominance at sea. Other countries too got into the act. Austria-Hungary built four; France built seven; Italy built six; Japan built six; Spain built three; Russia built seven; the United States built fourteen. Argentina bought two from the United States; Brazil bought three from Britain.

Britain met the challenge from Germany but the numbers of Dreadnought-style battleships do not tell the whole story. Many navies relied on smaller ships, too, including medium-sized cruisers and smaller destroyers. These could move more quickly than battleships and were better suited to protecting coastlines and trade routes. Smaller destroyers and a new type of ship, the submarine, could lay mines and fire torpedoes. These were weapons that posed a significant threat to all ships, including battleships. All battleships were not created equal, either. Germany had fewer battleships, but they were better-designed and better-built than their British counterparts. German guns were lighter and made from better-quality steel. They fired shells propelled by better-quality powder that was contained in safer casings. German gun turrets were safer, too. German ships also had better armour than the British ships, as did the ships of Japan and the United States. Recognizing that heavy shells fired from long distances could hit the sides and also plunge onto the decks of ships, German, Japanese, and American designers armoured the top decks, while the top decks of British ships remained relatively thin. German machinery and optics were superior, too. Even though many Germans thought that they had lost an expensive arms race against Britain, in fact their fleet was quite formidable. Used in the right ways, it could pose a significant threat to Britain.

The construction of the German navy damaged relations with Britain, a country that would have made a useful ally, given that Kaiser Wilhelm II's botched diplomacy had resulted in an alliance between France and Russia. To the east and west and now out on the North Sea, Germany faced determined enemies. Germany's main allies, Austria and Italy, were not completely reliable. Germany's geographic predicament fostered insecurity. Its industrial, military, and naval achievements made it formidable. And its leaders made it dangerous.

War at Sea, 1914-1916

Britain and France's ability to defend their empires depended on the willingness of people in remote countries to serve their interests. While some challenged imperialism, most imperial subjects remained loyal or at least neutral. Morale in the colonies preserved Allied interests. So did Allied navies. To administer far-flung empires, Britain and France depended on their navies, and, as we have seen, the Germans also understood the connection between navies and empires, even if their empire was smaller. At the same time as the Kaiser was acquiring colonies such as Togo, Cameroon, Tanganyika, and Namibia [German South-West Africa - Ed.], he was also embarking on an ambitious naval building programme.

Much attention was paid to the construction of Dreadnought battleships, the enormous ships that mounted large, long-range cannons. Naval officers prepared for big naval battles in which fleets of battleships, cruisers, and destroyers sailed against each other, firing and maneuvering. But when war came, considerations of geography, technology, and the nature of the war led naval officers and their governments to fight differently. In the First World War, there was only one large battle between fleets, the Battle of Jutland, fought between the British and German fleets in 1916. This battle was exceptional. Instead of fighting big battles, the Allied fleets devoted themselves to economic warfare, blockading Germany's access to the sea. And the blockading fleets refused, for the most part, to approach close to Germany, where they might be trapped. Instead, Allied blockade efforts focused on sealing the northern passages that run between Scotland and Norway, a geographical strategy that choked off Germany at low risk.

Allied commanders were averse to risk because their battleships were so costly to build, one of the most peculiar features of the technological history of the First World War. Admirals also worried about the vulnerability of their battleships to new weapons, such as mines, submarines, and torpedoes. These fears were genuine. In response to the blockade, the German government pressed the construction of all these weapons. Submarines armed with mines and torpedoes sailed past (or under) the Allied blockade, in an attempt to build a blockade of their own around the British Isles. Navies on both sides engaged in grim economic warfare that killed both sailors and civilians. As on land, geography and technology made it difficult for combatants to achieve glory in combat.

There were, of course, some exceptions. At the war's outset there were a number of small naval battles on the surface that harkened back to the supposedly glorious days of "fighting sail." In 1914, Germany ordered several of its cruisers into action around the world. As we have seen, one German cruiser, the Königsberg, helped to defend the coast of German East Africa until it was sunk in 1915. Another cruiser, the Karlsruhe, sank Allied shipping in the South Atlantic before engine trouble caused it to explode in November 1914. In China, Germany kept a naval squadron at Tsingtao [Jiaozhou - Ed.]. When Japan entered the war on the side of the Allies, the German commander, Vice-Admiral Maximilian Graf von Spee, ordered his ships out to sea rather than be destroyed in port by Japan's Imperial Navy. Before the Japanese approached Tsingtao, Spee sent his fastest cruiser, the Emden, to the Indian Ocean, where it sank thirty ships and even shelled the city of Chennai (formerly known as Madras), on the east coast of India. The ship was trapped and sunk by an Australian cruiser in November 1914. In the same month, Spee's five other cruisers sailed across the Pacific toward the coast of Chile, where they engaged a squadron of British cruisers, sinking two of them; this was Britain's first naval defeat since the Napoleonic Wars. When the British Admiralty learned of the defeat, they were perturbed enough to dispatch six cruisers, including two fast battle cruisers, to South American waters.

Spee sailed his ships around Cape Horn, intending to attack Port Stanley in the Falkland Islands. When he approached the harbour he was surprised to discover the British cruisers. The British, superior in guns, speed, and numbers, chased and sank four of the German ships on December 8, 1914. Four months later the British cruisers trapped the fifth one off the coast of Chile. The cruiser actions indicated that the German navy operated at a considerable geographical disadvantage. Yet the prevailing naval technologies made it difficult for the Allied navies to achieve successes that were significant. The operations of 1914 demonstrated that British cruisers could ultimately prevail over German cruisers but the battles had little impact on the course of the war. The British navy's greatest success of 1914 was actually its escort of the ships that carried troops and supplies across the English Channel to France in August 1914, a feat of logistics that was not particularly glorious. At the end of that month, a small force of British submarines and destroyers attacked German patrols off Heligoland, near the coast of Germany. When German cruisers raced out, Britain's battle cruiser squadron intervened, sinking three German cruisers and a destroyer before breaking off the battle. The British were surprised by the quick naval raids that the Germans launched against several English seaports during the fall of 1914. In January 1915, the German navy ordered a squadron of battle cruisers to sea, hoping to lure and trap British ships at Dogger Bank, but the British had cracked Germany's naval codes and were lying in wait with their own squadron of battle cruisers. In a short, sharp battle on January 23, 1915, the British sank one German battle cruiser and badly damaged another. The German losses at Dogger Bank and Heligoland lent weight to the position taken by the Kaiser: German battleships should not venture into the North Sea, lest they be lured and trapped by the larger British navy.

In 1914 and 1915, the British navy contained the German navy on the North Sea. The story was similar in the Mediterranean. The British, working with the French, exercised a somewhat loose control in the fall of 1914 that tightened in May 1915 when Italy joined the Allies. The Austrian navy posed a threat from its bases along the Adriatic coast but it was so badly outnumbered that its ships remained at their moorings for the next four years, except for several raids. While on the Mediterranean, Adriatic and Aegean the Allied navies were superior to the forces of the Central Powers. The Germans did carry out one successful operation with two cruisers, the battle cruiser Goeben and the light cruiser Breslau. The two warships eluded Allied patrols on their way to Istanbul, which they reached at the end of August. The German government donated the ships to the Ottoman Empire as part of its effort to recruit another ally. The German cruisers were reflagged as Ottoman ships but retained their German officers and crews. The donation played an important part in the Ottoman decision to enter the war on the side of the Central Powers in October 1914. The German ships also played an important part in defending Istanbul from attack by the British and French from the west and the Russians from the north and east. While the Russian navy controlled the Black Sea, its inferior ships were not a match for the Goeben and the Breslau.

Russian naval forces improved over the course of 1915, yet at no point were they able to contemplate action against Istanbul. This was mainly for reasons that had to do with geography and technology. Istanbul is situated at the eastern opening of the narrow, fortified waterway that connects the Black Sea to the Aegean. Not only were the German cruisers still formidable-so were the fortifications along the straits. The closure of the straits had serious economic consequences for Russia. Merchants in Russia's southern ports were not able to export grain to markets overseas, nor were they able to import needed war supplies. Russia's northern ports remained open for commerce but ice closed them for most of the long winter. While Russia controlled its coastal waters, including the Black Sea, it was effectively blockaded by the Ottoman Empire's decision to join the Central Powers.

The Russians had ports on the Baltic, to the north, but the German navy controlled the outlets to the North Sea. Even so, the Germans had little success on the Baltic. The Germans chose to send their best ships to the North Sea, leaving a smaller force of old ships on the Baltic. The Russians, who had lost many ships in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905, had a numerical advantage on the Baltic, but everyone recognized that, should the Germans choose to shuttle ships from the North Sea to the Baltic, the Russians would face a formidable enemy. They responded by employing their ships in defensive positions, particularly around the capital, St. Petersburg, and by laying extensive minefields. The Baltic became a stalemate that was different in one key respect from the North Sea, where the British successfully blockaded Germany - the Germans were still able to use the Baltic Sea to transport goods. Sweden became a key trading partner with Germany, supplying the Germans with iron ore and other essential goods.

Before the war the major powers focused on building battleships, but, within a few months of the war breaking out, the constraints of geography and technology weighed heavily on naval decision makers. Germany's disadvantages could best be overcome by using a technology that had been underestimated before the war: the submarine. Before the war the British and French navies had experimented extensively with submarines. In 1914, they had fifty-five and seventy-seven, respectively. The Germans began their submarine experiments later and in 1914 the German navy only had twenty-eight U-boats. Before reading too much into these numbers it is important to remember that submarines were still in the earliest stages of design, while naval leaders had not yet thought carefully about their possible roles. Some admirals regarded submarines with contempt, as vessels that snuck about dishonourably.

One British admiral declared that they were "un-English" and were "the weapon of cowards who refused to fight like men on the surface." For the most part, admirals tended to imagine that navies would use submarines to sink other naval vessels. This was, in fact, what started to happen in September 1914, when a British submarine sank a German cruiser and a German submarine sank three British cruisers. In January 1915, a German submarine sank a British battleship in the English Channel. On account of the submarine attacks, the British fleet shifted its main base from Scapa Flow in the Orkney Islands, just north of Scotland, to harbours in Scotland and Ireland. It was only after nets, mines, and other defences were installed around Scapa Flow that the fleet returned there in early 1915. Even then, British admirals-and their German counterparts-hesitated to commit their battleships and cruisers to offensive action, fearing that they might be sunk by submarines.

After the initial encounters of 1914, it began to seem that at sea, as on land, there was a stalemate. British and German naval strategy shifted away from offensive actions by their fleets to economic warfare. The British navy used less expensive ships, such as old cruisers and armed ocean liners, to blockade the northern approaches to the North Sea in an effort to cut off supplies to the soldiers and civilians of the Central Powers. The Germans, for their part, began to use submarines against merchant ships that were on their way to Britain, creating a blockade of their own. The German submarine campaign opened in February 1915.

Submarine warfare was complicated by several factors. Germany announced that all ships approaching the British Isles were subject to sinking, but the German fleet did not have enough submarines to sink every merchant vessel. Instead, the German government hoped to sink enough ships to scare away the rest. The submarine was as much about creating public perceptions of risk as it was about sinking ships. As a strategy, it had tremendous potential to inflict economic damage on Britain. Even so, the submarine had technological limits that helped to produce a public relations problem. Submarines were small relative to other ships. They achieved success mainly through surprise, yet the element of surprise was limited by the rules of warfare at sea. By convention, naval vessels that intended to sink merchant vessels were obliged to warn the crew and give them enough time to climb aboard lifeboats. This rule required submarines to rise to the surface and notify the merchant vessel's crew that they would be sunk. This rule worked well enough for large, heavily armoured surface vessels but submarines were small and vulnerable to attack. In some cases captains of merchant vessels decided to take their chances in efforts to ram and sink submarines. The Allied navies even armed some merchant ships, calling them "Q-ships," and used them to lure submarines. Captains of British merchant vessels even flew the flags of neutral countries. Submarine captains responded to these tactics by not rising to the surface to give warnings. Submariners earned the support of the Kaiser, who announced "unrestricted submarine warfare." The Kaiser permitted submarine captains to fire their torpedoes from under the water, without warning, at any ship in the vicinity of the British Isles.

Neutral countries such as the United States found the attendant loss of civilian life to be outrageous. In May 1915, a German submarine sank the passenger ship Lusitania off the coast of Ireland, killing 1,201 civilians, including 128 Americans. The U.S. president, Woodrow Wilson, demanded that Germany cease unrestricted submarine warfare. The Kaiser complied. Once again, German submarines rose to the surface before sinking ships.

Once again, German submarines were attacked by armed merchant vessels. Faced with the choice between losing more submarines and U.S. intervention on the side of the Allies, the Kaiser chose to end all submarine warfare in September. The campaign had been a political failure even though it had resulted in the sinking of nearly a million tons of shipping.

War in the Middle East, 1914-1916

The Central Powers' key naval successes did not come in the North Atlantic or the North Sea. They came, instead, in the Dardanelles, where the Ottoman Empire held onto the passageway between the Aegean Sea and the Black Sea in the face of an Allied attack sustained from February 1915 until January 1916. The Ottomans effectively blocked Russia from exporting grain and importing munitions, ensuring a severe economic and strategic strain. Geographic considerations inspired the Allies to attack the Dardanelles from the Aegean Sea, to the west. Britain's First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, had visions of the fleet steaming through the straits, capturing Istanbul, knocking the Ottomans out of the war, and flanking Germany and Austria from the south. He believed it would be possible for the Royal Navy to mount a successful assault on the Ottoman Empire. Churchill seriously underestimated the Ottomans, who had a professional, modernising army that was receiving considerable help from the Germans.

At Churchill's direction, in February and March of 1915 the British and French navies attempted to push a fleet of ten battleships through the Narrows, in spite of warnings from senior admirals that naval gunfire could never defeat the Ottomans' well-built fortifications. The geography of the Dardanelles gave defenders a heavy advantage. Allied naval gunners had to hit Ottoman guns directly to put them out of action, but an Ottoman hit on an Allied battleship's steering or hull could put numerous Allied guns out of action. The technology of land-based artillery also made it easier to hit a ship. A land-based cannon fires a shell in a high trajectory. A miss splashes in the water and is easily spotted, enabling the observers and battery commanders to adjust their fire accordingly. By contrast, a naval gun fires in a flat trajectory. When it misses at sea, it is relatively easy to spot the splash and make adjustments. But when it misses on land, its flat trajectory means that it might miss by a lot, while the target and the actual site of impact is often obscured by dust and smoke. To further help the defence, the Ottomans laid mines and employed mobile howitzers to chase minesweepers. The mines, combined with the artillery and the fortifications, made it virtually impossible for the Allied navies to reach Istanbul.

The Allied admirals' pessimistic assessment of the fortifications proved correct during a pitched battle on March 18, 1915, when Ottoman mines, and mobile field artillery, sank three battleships and disabled three more. The Allied navies yielded to the armies. On April 25th, Allied troops landed on the Gallipoli peninsula near the entrance to the straits. At the tip of the peninsula, Cape Helles, fifteen thousand soldiers from Britain, France, and their colonies came ashore, while fifteen thousand troops from the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) landed at Ari Burnu, a point on the northwest coast that was subsequently named Anzac Cove. Allied troops met heavy resistance from the Ottoman army everywhere, yet most military historians agree that, with better planning and execution, the Australians, in particular, might have seized key positions. Instead they made several key errors. For example, the Australians landed one mile north of their planned beachhead and well-led Ottoman troops nearly drove the invaders back into the sea.

The ANZAC and other Allied forces dug in and Gallipoli became the scene of trench warfare. What caused the stalemate? During and after the campaign, journalists, historians, and official enquiries have pointed to poor strategic planning. The idea that all of European Turkey and the Balkans could become a long and successful southern front was preposterous, given the constraints of resources and geography. At the operational level, it was virtually impossible for a navy to break through the heavily fortified Dardanelles, while military operations, such as the landings at Anzac and the attacks at Lone Pine, never mounted sufficient force.

For the Australians and New Zealanders, Gallipoli came to be remembered more as a special occasion for their nations - the first time their soldiers fought outside of the British Empire and on the world stage. More Australians and New Zealanders died in France in 1916 to1918, but Gallipoli came before and for that reason is still special today. In Turkey, the Gallipoli campaign is remembered as an important step in nation-building. It is particularly remembered as the place where army major Mustafa Kemal gained recognition as a leader-he was the first president of Turkey from 1923 to 1938, during which time he embarked on modernizing reforms. At Gallipoli, Kemal and his fellow soldiers successfully resisted the Allied imperialists. However, he achieved ultimate victory with the establishment of a Republic in Turkey which was declared on October 29, 1923 having successfully driven out the British, French, Greeks, and Italians.

In January 1916, the Allies recognized that they had been defeated by the Ottoman army. The Allies gave up on trench warfare at Gallipoli and evacuated the peninsula. This was not the only defeat for the Allies in the Middle East. In the Ottoman territory of Iraq, then still called Mesopotamia, the Ottomans inflicted what was, in some ways, a worse defeat on the British. The British had two reasons for being interested in Iraq. In the years before the war, the British navy, led by Winston Churchill, began to convert its battleships from coal to oil. Oil-powered engines were capable of greater speeds, and speed, as we have seen, was a principal goal of the British navy in designing their battle cruisers. Their admirals had been willing to sacrifice armour for speed. There was another sacrifice involved in the switch from coal to oil: plenty of coal was produced in Britain itself, while oil supplies had to come from sources overseas. Depending on oil from overseas ran the risk of it being cut off by hostile powers. The large oil fields of the day lay in the United States, the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia), and the region around the Caspian Sea. It would be difficult for the British to secure access to these sources. Oil exploration had only just begun in the Persian Gulf during the years before the war. The oil fields on the southern, Arab side of the Gulf, had not yet been discovered, but it was then at least becoming clear that there was abundant oil on the northern shores - in Persia (Iran). Persian oil was starting to be exploited by the Anglo-Persian Oil Company, which had obtained a concession from the weak Persian government. The Persian government was so weak, in fact, that in 1907 Russia declared a protectorate over northern Persia and Britain declared a protectorate over the southwest. The British protectorate was managed by colonial officials from British India, who supported the development of Anglo-Persian's large refineries on the offshore island of Abadan. When Churchill began to build oil-burning battleships, he took steps to secure this oil supply for Britain. In 1913, Churchill persuaded the British parliament to acquire a majority share in Anglo-Persian. When the war broke out, Churchill was keen for the Indian government to take steps to secure the oil supply from Ottoman attack.

Concerns about oil were not the only motive for the British invasion of Iraq. Oil and battleships were bound up with British imperial power during the war, a power that was under threat in the most important British colony, India. The Indian government - which had a significant Muslim population - was especially concerned as the figurehead Ottoman Sultan, Mehmet V, as Caliph, had called upon all Muslims - especially those living in Allied countries - to rise in a holy war or jihad against their rulers.

War at Sea, 1916-1917

The results of the 1916 offensives were decidedly mixed. The battles of Verdun and the Somme put considerable strain on France as well as on Germany. In the south, Italian resilience challenged Austria, especially after the successes of Russia's Brusilov offensive in the east. The combined effects of the Trentino, Isonzo, and Brusilov campaigns put a serious strain on Austria. In the east, Germany emerged as the senior partner of the Central Powers, taking leadership of the war against Romania and Russia. Russian success in the Brusilov offensive overextended the tsar's resources nearly to the breaking point, although Russian success over the Ottomans compared favourably to the failed British efforts at Gallipoli and Kut. With France, Russia, Austria, and Turkey under terrible pressure by 1916, and with Italy playing a purely regional role, Britain and Germany emerged as the dominant powers in the world war. Before the war, Britain was the greatest power at sea while Germany was the greatest power on land. Both countries were financial and industrial powerhouses. From 1914 to1916, the British built their army into a significant power on land, thanks to the recruitment of volunteers at home and from the colonies. Could Germany threaten Britain at sea?

The start of 1916 found the battleships and battle cruisers of the British and German fleets at their ports. The British battleships of the Grand Fleet, commanded by Admiral Sir John Jellicoe, were based at Scapa Flow, in the Orkney Islands, north of Scotland. The Grand Fleet's Battle Cruiser Squadron, commanded by Vice-Admiral Sir David Beatty, was stationed at Rosyth, near Edinburgh. In stationing the two fleets in Scotland, the British were able to enforce a blockade of the northern passages, while leaving the coast of England vulnerable to attack. This vulnerability was offset by good British naval intelligence. Unbeknownst to the Germans, the British had cracked the German navy's principal codes. When German naval radio transmissions indicated an impending attack on England, the Grand Fleet could be sent south. This was a case in which a clever response to a new technology did produce a significant result.

The German High Seas Fleet, commanded by Admiral Reinhard Scheer, was smaller than Britain's Grand Fleet. At the start of 1916, the Germans had fewer battleships and battle cruisers than the British-twenty-seven to thirty-seven-but the Germans enjoyed certain advantages. Their ships had better armour and their crews had better gunners. Their ammunition was better and it was stored more safely. Even so, the Kaiser and his government doubted that the German navy could defeat the British at sea. The German navy was best kept intact, in port at Wilhelmshaven, as a defensive measure.

Admiral Scheer and most of his officers disliked such passivity. They believed that they could not only raid the coast of England but that, in doing so, they could draw smaller units of the Grand Fleet into battle and destroy them, piece by piece. When Scheer took command in February 1916 he persuaded the Kaiser to allow him to engage in more aggressive raiding and patrolling. In the next three months, German squadrons made six ventures into the North Sea, at one point shelling the small English port of Lowestoft.

In making their sorties, the Germans were willing to sacrifice radio silence for speed and maneuverability. British naval intelligence's coastal radio stations picked up German signals in the last week of May 1916 that indicated that Scheer and his fleet were going to steam up toward the Skaggerak, the waters between Norway and the part of Denmark called Jutland. Jellicoe's battleships and Beatty's battle cruisers left Scapa Flow and Rosyth even before Scheer left Wilhelmshaven on May 30. By the morning of May 31, more than 250 British and German ships of all types were all headed toward the Skaggerak.

Never before had so many ships of such tremendous tonnage gone into battle at once. Beatty's battle cruisers, joined now by the four fastest British battleships, had the greatest speed and encountered the Germans first, at 3:20 p.m. As it happened, the British battle cruisers found the German battle cruisers, which led Beatty on a chase, hoping to draw him toward the more heavily armed German battleships. The ships exchanged fire and the Germans sank two British battle cruisers-they exploded when their ammunition storage chambers were hit by shells. Beatty then ran up against the main body of the German fleet and fled north, toward Jellicoe's battleships. At 6:17 p.m., the British battleships opened fire on the Germans. The Germans responded with their own massed gunfire and the battle raged back and forth, with ships maneuvering and firing, covered by smokescreens and darkness. At 7:20, Scheer launched a torpedo attack by a squadron of destroyers. The British fleet took evasive action, effectively ending the battle. That night the German fleet steamed back to Wilhelmshaven, and shortly thereafter the British ships returned to port, too. The Germans lost one old pre-Dreadnought battleship and one battle cruiser, plus nine smaller ships, with a total loss of 2,551 sailors. The British lost three battle cruisers and twelve smaller ships, with a total loss of 6,094 sailors.

Based on the number of ships sunk and the number of sailors killed it can be argued that the German navy won the battle of Jutland. This is true in an operational sense. Looking at broader issues of strategy, it appears that the British won. After Jutland, the German navy remained, for the most part, in port at Wilhelmshaven. German ships left in force only twice. Their battleships fought the British battle cruisers again at Heligoland in November 1917, and in April 1918 the fleet steamed to Norway and back again without fighting. The main outcome of Jutland, though, was that the British fleet remained intact and was still able to enforce the blockade.

Intensification 1916-1917

Both sides believed that new tactics and new weapons promised to help break the other side. Instead they tended only to exacerbate the conflict. Such was the case with the German U-boat campaign of 1917, which pitted 120 submarines against Allied and neutral shipping in the zone of unrestricted submarine warfare declared around the British Isles. Initially Allied and neutral losses were quite high. In February 1917 the German U-boats sank 540,006 tons of shipping, including 313,486 tons that were British. In April 1917, 881,207 tons went to the bottom, 545,282 tons of it British. British ships had only a one-in-four chance of surviving a round-trip from Britain to the United States. Merchant vessels steamed out into the North Atlantic, alone and unprotected. It was difficult for the U-boats to find them in the open waters of the Atlantic but rather easy to pick them off as they entered the western approaches to British ports. Naval leaders were wedded to offensive warfare and preferred to use their ships to sweep for submarines-a low-yield tactic-rather than to guard merchant ships.

The sinkings of early 1917 caused the governments on both sides of the Atlantic to force their navies to reconsider. In May 1917, the British navy and the U.S. navy began to provide destroyer escorts for convoys of twenty ships that set sail almost every day. Convoys worked because they concentrated ships together in one place. When ships were spread about the sea by themselves, the U-boats were more likely to find them. In addition, naval vessels could communicate by radio with naval intelligence, which could often decode the positions of U-boats. U-boats that attacked convoys also could not rise to the surface, lest they be fired upon by destroyers, thus decreasing the overall accuracy of torpedo fire. As convoys were implemented, fewer ships sank. In November and December 1917, 289,212 tons and 399,111 tons were sunk, an improvement over the early months of the year.

After March 1918, the Allies never lost more than three hundred thousand tons per month. And starting in the final months of 1917, the Allies were sinking about eight U-boats per month, either by direct fire from destroyers or by laying mines. Eight U-boats were built every month, on average, so the size of the U-boat fleet remained somewhat constant, although it was difficult to replace the experienced crews that were lost at sea. By contrast, the Allies were able to build new merchant ships faster than they lost them. The German navy shifted its submarine operations to British coastal waters, where the Allies began to use aircraft in antisubmarine patrols. Antisubmarine efforts were substantial enough that U-boats were never able to scare merchant shipping off the seas, as Germany's admirals had promised the Kaiser. Yet submarines still sank quite a few ships, adding significantly to Allied war losses. At sea, as on land, neither side could claim a victory.

Air War

By contrast to the proponents of new technologies on land and at sea, in the air, the airplane had few promoters who believed it would win the war. Nevertheless, by 1917 aircraft manufacturing and flying skills had improved to such an extent that the airplane did begin to have a significant impact on the battlefield as well as on the broader strategy of the war. In 1914, the Allies and the Central Powers had a total of about seven hundred aircraft.

The airplanes were unarmed and were used mainly for purposes of observation, although radio communication with the ground was still in the most rudimentary stages. Airplane pilots played a key role in the opening battles on the Eastern and Western Fronts. Aviators on both sides relayed observations of opponents' movements to commanding officers, who factored aerial intelligence into their decision making.

As the war reached a stalemate on the Western Front, aerial observation became important for planning artillery and infantry attacks, especially since new camera technologies allowed images to be wider and more focused. In order to deprive their enemies of aerial intelligence, both sides began to emphasize the development of aircraft that could be used in combat against other aircraft, what came to be known as fighter planes. In 1914, when opposing aircraft encountered each other, pilots and observers fired pistols, shotguns, and rifles and even threw bricks and grenades at each other.

The introduction of machine guns to airplanes changed air-to-air combat and aircraft design. At the start of the war, there were many airplanes in service with push-propellers, facing backwards, as well as airplanes with pull-propellers (tractor-propellers) facing forward. When machine guns were first mounted on airplanes, they had to fire away from the propeller. These were most easily mounted on airplanes with push-propellers, but pilots were beginning to prefer pull-propellers. The push-propeller allows unimpeded views and can easily mount forward-firing machine guns, but the pull-propeller engine gives pilots more protection in a crash. If a machine gun is mounted to fire forward in a pull-propeller plane, it will obviously blow the propeller to splinters. Designers were forced to mount machine guns to fire over the propeller or to the rear, taking care to make it impossible for the gunner to destroy the tail.

One airplane manufacturer who worked closely with German pilots, the Dutchman Anton Fokker, was aware that, before the war, French designers had experimented with a gear called an interrupter that connected an airplane's engine to a machine gun. It allowed a machine gun to fire through a propeller without hitting the blades, an innovation that allowed machine guns to be mounted on the forward part of the airplane, between the propeller and the pilot, making it easier to coordinate aim and flying direction. The French had never perfected the design: French pilots had used it with some success, but the propellers still got hit regularly enough that they had to be covered by metal deflector shields. Fokker installed a version of the interrupter in a German airplane. The trials went so well that German fighters, armed with interrupters, began to drive Allied fighters and observers out of the skies.

With the development and refinement of the interrupter, pull-propeller fighter planes became the most common aircraft of the war. They were produced by the thousands. By 1917, there were tens of thousands of fighters in the skies. Combat shifted from one-on-one "dogfights" to group actions in which squadrons of aircraft tried to drive each other out of the skies over the battlefield. In this way, the other side would be denied aerial observation for artillery fire. The war in the air became just as industrialized as the war on the ground. Pilots were depicted as glamorous "knights of the air," even though their combat depended on their skills with industrialized equipment flying in mass formations. Their casualty rates were high, while the stress of flying trapped in rickety machines while enduring cold temperatures as well as fire from the air and the ground caused many to suffer from anxiety and depression.

Increasingly, aircraft were used for the unglamorous work of attacking soldiers on the ground. In 1914, small airplanes dropped grenades, gasoline bombs, and even darts on top of infantry and cavalry units. By 1917 and 1918, improved fighter aircraft were capable of dropping small bombs and of using their machine guns to fire on troops. Attacking soldiers in this way was highly dangerous. Airplanes were still relatively slow and were shot down by fire from cannons, machine guns, and rifles. Airplanes may have been glamorous to some but many observers sensed that they had become simply one more means of dealing death on the battlefield. At the Battle of the Somme in 1916, Philip Gibbs conveyed this thought with a striking natural metaphor. He wrote that "over my head came a flight of six aeroplanes, led by a single monoplane, which steered steadily towards the enemy. The sky was deeply blue above them, and when the sun caught their wings they were as beautiful and delicate as butterflies. But they were carrying death with them, and were out to bomb the enemy's batteries and to drop their explosives into masses of men behind the German lines."

The history of the air war has been so overshadowed by accounts of fighter pilots that few people realize that bombers were important, too. French bombers were among the most innovative. France relied on the well-built Voisin single-engine light bomber, which remained a reliable design for several years. It was one of the first airplanes built of steel, and it used one of the first optical bomb sights. As early as 1915, French pilots were using it to practice raiding in massed formations, one of the key tactics to emerge out of the war in the air. In 1917, they replaced their Voisins with the Breguet, one of the fastest aircraft of the war, partly because it was built from a new, innovative material: duralumin, an early form of aluminium that German engineers had formulated in the years before the war.

The French were innovators in the design of single-engine, light bombers but the overall trend in bomber construction was toward multiple-engine, heavy bombers. One of the pioneers of heavy bomber design was the Russian, Igor Sikorsky (who became famous after the war as a designer of helicopters). In 1913, Sikorsky built the first four-engine biplane, the "Il'ya Murometz," as a civilian passenger plane-complete with a heated cabin for sixteen and a toilet. By 1915, the Murometz was armed with between four and eight machine guns and converted to bombing and reconnaissance.

Germany, Britain, and Italy also developed their own heavy bombers. The Italians used a heavy bomber, the Caproni that had two pull-propellers and one push-propeller, giving it great reliability. The Italians used the Caproni in massed attacks with dozens of planes against Austrian troops during the Tenth and Eleventh Battles of the Isonzo. Massed bombing raids against Austrian positions continued until the end of the war. The Italians also used heavy bombers against Austrian shipyards and industrial facilities near Trieste. The British unveiled their first heavy bomber, the twin-engine Handley-Page, relatively late in the war, in 1916. The British used it in much the same way as the Italians used the Caproni-for raids on enemy trenches and for bombing industrial targets. In the final months of 1917, the British used the Handley-Page and other, smaller aircraft for raids on German cities. These were aimed mainly at industrial targets and continued throughout the war, even though German artillery and fighter planes shot down many of the British planes.

In part, the purpose of the British campaign was psychological-to demonstrate that Britain could retaliate against German raids on England. During the early years of the war, Germany launched Zeppelins against Britain. Zeppelins were long, cigar-shaped blimps armed with machine guns and bombs. They flew at high altitudes where they could not be attacked by fighters and artillery, yet their altitude impeded their accuracy. Intrepid fighter pilots who wished to shoot them down sometimes followed them to their bases, where they would have to descend and were vulnerable. To replace the questionable Zeppelins, Germany deployed two high-altitude bombers: the twin-engine Gotha in the spring of 1917 and the enormous Giant four-engine bomber in the fall. For the rest of the war, they raided London and south-eastern England, causing significant damage and inflicting hundreds of casualties.

These losses from long-range bombing were not high compared to the losses experienced during the Second World War, but they did cause high levels of concern on home fronts that were already under considerable strain.

Expurgated extract from: Storey, William Kelleher: The First World War: A Concise Global History: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., Lanham, USA, 2009



A small number of members have not yet paid their 2014 subscriptions. We would appreciate receiving your remittance as soon as possible.


Forthcoming Meetings:


The focus on the centenary of the First World War may overshadow another campaign which took place in South Africa from August to December 1914. It will probably slip unnoticed by most of the local press and not form part of any national debate. The Afrikaner Rebellion of 1914 had the potential of creating a serious political crisis, mostly within the northern parts of the infant Union of South Africa. However, the Rebellion's relatively quick suppression was evidence of the superior power of the state. It also reflected the tendency of the enfranchised white community, and most importantly, its Afrikaner component, to oppose any movement which threatened to take South Africa back towards its recent past. A past personified by the divisive 1899-1902 South African War. Fortunately for the government, the insurrectionists were poorly organized with inconsistent motivations. They were also splintered across three disparate regions, with little coordination between them. The talk will specifically focus upon the causes and the course of the Rebellion. It will, however, refer to its effect on the following decades and question what effect this has had on the South Africa of 2014. Dr Rodney Warwick is a member of the Cape Town Branch of the SAMHS. He has presented lectures on a regular basis over the years on aspects of 20th century SA military history, which is his particular field of expertise. He has a personal link to World War One, which he is particularly proud of. His uncle, George W. Warwick - author of that brilliant WWI battlefield memoir, We Band of Brothers - fought with the Transvaal Scottish (SA Brigade) at Delville Wood.


The battle of Plataea was the battle which finally put paid to Persian plans with regard to an invasion of the European mainland. European history would have been very different had the (almost) united Greeks lost this important battle.

The presentation will also touch on the other battles which took place during the Persian Invasion, e.g. Marathon, Salamis, and the Spartan stand at Thermopylae.

Aspects of the Persian Empire, and the role of Athens and Sparta, will also be covered as will weapons and tactics used by both sides in the battle.

Ian Cameron is the founder of the WW2 Aircraft Club in Cape Town and he also has a great interest in the history of the Ancient world.

His last presentation was on First Century Judea and the New Testament.


HOLIDAY RECESS: There will be no lecture in December. The next meeting will be held on the 15th of January, 2015 (the THIRD Thursday, in order to accommodate the school holidays).


BOB BUSER: Treasurer/Asst. Scribe
Phone: 021-689-1639 (Home)

Phone: 021-592-1279 (Office)

South African Military History Society /