VI. The World Wars and the Interwar Period, 1914–1945 > B. World War I, 1914–1918 > 3. The War at Sea, 1914–1915
  The Encyclopedia of World History.  2001.
3. The War at Sea, 1914–1915
The British Grand Fleet (Adm. Sir John Jellicoe, commander, Aug. 4, 1914–Nov. 29, 1916) consisted of 20 dreadnoughts and a corresponding number of battle cruisers, cruisers, destroyers, and other craft. The fleet was based on Scapa Flow, Cromarty, and Rosyth, with Harwich as base for destroyers and submarines. A second fleet, consisting largely of pre-dreadnought types, guarded the Channel. The Germans had a High Seas Fleet of 13 dreadnoughts, based in the North Sea ports. The Germans remained in port, despite the efforts of Adm. Alfred von Tirpitz to bring about a more active policy.  1
The Germans devoted their attention to mine-laying and submarine work. After an attempted German submarine raid on Scapa Flow (Oct. 18), the Grand Fleet was withdrawn from that base and concentrated, for a time, on the west coast of Scotland.  2
Apart from occasional sinkings, the war in the North Sea was restricted to raids.  3
The largest naval battles occurred between German ships in foreign stations and the Allied fleets assigned to hunt them down (Nov. 1: naval action off Coronel; Dec. 8: Battle of the Falkland Islands).  4
From the very beginning of the war the question of neutral shipping had arisen. Both the British and French governments issued new and more rigorous interpretations of contraband (Aug. 20, 25, 1914), adding greatly to the list of contraband goods. To this the U.S. government replied (Oct. 22) that it would insist on the observance of the existing rules of international law. Nevertheless the British continued to revise the list of contraband and to modify the Declaration of London of 1909. On Nov. 2 they declared the North Sea a military zone, and on Jan. 30, 1915, the British admiralty ordered British merchant ships to fly neutral ensigns or none in the vicinity of the British Isles.  5
1915, Feb. 4
The German government announced that a submarine blockade of Great Britain would begin on Feb. 18. To this the London government replied with an order in council (March 11) ordering the seizure of all goods presumably destined for the enemy. Cotton was declared contraband on March 18.  6
May 7
LUSITANIA SUNK off the coast of Ireland, with a loss of 1,198 lives, including 139 Americans.  7
The sinking of the Lusitania brought the U.S. and Germany to the verge of war and created much greater tension than had developed between the Americans and Allied governments over questions of contraband and blockade. In a speech on May 9 President Wilson publicly denounced the sinking, but the note of protest to Berlin (May 13) was somewhat milder in tone, demanding reparations and abstinence from such practices in the future.  8
June 8
William J. Bryan resigned as U.S. secretary of state because of unwillingness to follow the president in his policy. Bryan was succeeded by Robert Lansing.  9
On the very next day a much stronger note was dispatched to Berlin, without eliciting a disavowal or assurance for the future. A third note was sent on July 21.  10
Sept. 1
The German government gave assurances that no liners would be sunk in the future without warning and without some provision for the safety of noncombatants, provided the ship made no effort to offer resistance or to escape. This resulted from a second period of acute tension after the sinking of the Arabic (Aug. 19), which claimed two American lives. The German ambassador at Washington, Count Johann von Bernstorff, had finally convinced his government of the real danger of war. These assurances were reasonably well observed during the remainder of the year, and so the first phase of the submarine crisis came to an end. (See The War at Sea, 1916–1917)  11
The Encyclopedia of World History, Sixth edition. Peter N. Stearns, general editor. Copyright © 2001 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Maps by Mary Reilly, copyright 2001 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.