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BATTLES IN THE FIRST YEAR-HELIGOLAND, CORONEL, FALKLAND ISLANDS, DOGGER BANK, AND THE AFFAIR IN THE
GULF OF RIGA
August 4, 1914 August, 1915
HEN at 11 o'clock on the night of August 4, 1914,
Great Britain declared war on Germany, Admiralty flashed by wireless to the British fleet, throughout the world, this order: “Great Britain declares war on Germany. Capture or destroy the enemy." Then followed a flood of official orders and the following personal message from King George: “I have confidence that the British fleet will revive the old glories of the Navy. I am sure that the Navy will again shield Britain in this hour of trial. It will prove the bulwark of the empire.” Sir John Jellicoe assumed supreme command of the home fleet, with the acting rank of Admiral. Daily thereafter it was expected that an engagement would be fought with the German fleet in the North Sea.
On August 7, Winston Churchill, First Lord of the Admiralty, declared as yet there had been no naval losses, except a small British cruiser, the Amphion, and the German mine-layer, Königin Luise. A flotilla of torpedo-boat destroyers accompanied by the Amphion, while patrolling the upper reaches of the English Channel, had found the Königin Luise laying mines, had pursued and sunk her, about fifty of her crew, which probably numbered 120 or 130 men, being saved by British destroyers. The Amph on continued to act as “scout,” but in making her return journey was blown up by a mine. The use of mines in seawarfare was then new.
Survivors of the Amphion said they had hardly left Harwich, when they were ordered to clear the decks for action, having sighted the Königin Luise, which refused to
stop after a shot was fired across her bows. Then destroyers, after a brief bombardment, surrounded and sank her. The German captain, revolver in hand, threatened his men when they prepared to surrender, refused to give himself up, and had to be taken by force. As the Amphion was returning to Harwich, the smoke of a big ship was seen on the horizon, and the Amphion gave chase, firing a warning shot as she drew near. The vessel proved to be only a Harwich boat, the St. Petersburg, which was carrying Prince Lichnowsky, the German Ambassador to Great Britain-afterward famous for his “Memorandum”-across the North Sea to the Hook of Holland on his way home to Germany. While continuing her journey to Harwich, the Amphion struck a sunken mine, gave two plunging jerks, followed by an explosion, which ripped her forepart, “shot up her funnels like arrows from a bow,” lifted her guns into the air, and then she sank. Falling material struck several boats in the convoying flotilla and injured some of the men aboard them, while others were burned and scalded.
By the middle of August, the North Sea was said once more to be safe as a high-road of commerce, and Denmark was sending supplies to England. Shipping was passing between England and Scandinavian ports and British cruisers as well as converted merchantmen were on every sea. The ill-starred Lus tania had arrived safely in Liverpool from New York, and the Mauretania was about to sail from Liverpool. All German and Austrian ships, which when the war began were away from home ports, had come under British attacks or been mewed up in neutral ports. More than half the ocean greyhounds of the Hamburg-American and Nord-Deutscher Lloyd liners were at their piers in New York, Boston, Pernambuco, Kiaochow, Shanghai, or Yokohoma, and to get home would have had to elude the British fleet. The magnitude of the German merchant marine thus "put out of business" was little understood, at least in this country. Its North Sea section in 1913 comprised 2,047 sailing ships of 416,559 gross tonnage, and 1,587 steamers with a gross tonnage of 4,174,186, every one of which became interned abroad or at home, save such as were at the bottom of the sea. The Baltic section numbered 583 vessels of 520,000 tons gross, and 361 sailing vessels aggregating 16,811 tons. The Kiel Canal in 1913 was used by 54,628 vessels, having a total register tonnage of 10,292,153; after the war began, the canal became little more than an anchorage for warships, and a thoroughfare for a few coasting and local steamers."
The main German war-fleet was at Kiel, safe from attack unless it ventured out. Because of the Canal, it could move in either of two ways—eastward into the Baltic, or westward into the North Sea. The enlarging of this great waterway had been completed only a few months before war was declared. Only on July 1 had Kaiser Wilhelm pronounced
formally open the enlarged canal to which had been given his name. It had been made into one of the most important artificial waterways in the world, ten miles longer than the Panama Canal, and had been used by probably ten times as many vessels as passed through Suez. It was constructed, however, more for naval than for commercial purposes, since it gave to the German fleet a short cut from the North Sea to the Baltic, and compelled an enemy, seeking to move between the same points, to sail two hundred miles around Schleswig-Holstein and Denmark. Originally completed in
1 "Statistisches Jahrbuch für das Deutsche Reich. Herausgegeben vom Kaiserlichen Statistischen Amte." 1915. (Berlin) Puttkammer u. Mübabrecht.
1895, the rapid increase in the size of ships had soon made it inadequate for both mercantile and naval uses. Accordingly, new tide-locks of double the strength and breadth of the old, had been put in and the channel deepened from twenty-eight to forty-six feet. The new locks were probably the largest in the world; they had about 60 per cent. more water than the locks at Gatun. The Vaterland could be accommodated in the Kiel Canal. As to England's naval position at the outbreak of war, Mr. Churchill on September 27, made the following statement:
“A great battle on sea has not yet been fought, but we enjoy as great command of the sea and as free use of sea-power as we should have after a decisive engagement. What is there, for instance, that we could do then that we are not doing now? German trade has ceased. German supplies have been largely strangled, but British trade, in all essentials, is going on uninterruptedly. Materials of industry and food for the people are entering the country daily in vast quantities at commercial prices. We are moving scores of men across all the oceans of the world. We started with a substantial naval preponderance, much more like 2 to 1 than 16 to 10. In the next twelve months we shall have twice as many battleships competing and three or four times as many cruisers as Germany, if the losses were even equal. Our position this time next year will be far stronger than it is to-day. You must remember that none of the ships built in my tenure of office, except the small cruiser Arethusa, has been commissioned, yet these are the most powerful and most expensive ships that have ever been built. They are the fruits of the greatest naval effort England ever made. We always regarded the first month of war as our most difficult and critical month from a naval point of view, and we have nothing to complain of in the way that the month has gone. We have made up our minds to win it if it costs the last sovereign and the last man in the British Empire.”
Except for movements in the Kiel Canal, a portion of the Baltic, and in the estuary of the Elbe, the German main fleet was now tied up. Britain, meanwhile, had outlying squadrons available as follows: In China, one battleship, four cruisers, six smaller vessels, eight destroyers, four torpedo-boats, three submarines; in the East Indies, one
? To a writer in The Giornale d'Italia (Rome).
battleship, two cruisers, four smaller craft; at the Cape, three cruisers; in New Zealand, three cruisers and one sloop; on the West Coast of Africa, three sloops; on the West Coast of America, three sloops; on the East Coast of South America, one cruiser; in the Australian Navy, one battle-cruiser, three light cruisers, three destroyers and two submarines. The Fourth Cruiser Squadron consisting of five ships, was then on the point of returning from Mexico and the West Atlantic. In addition the British had avail. able for defense and the destruction of commerce, a number of fast liners that had been put in commission under naval commanders and so had become ships of war flying the White Ensign. Many merchant steamers, at the request of their owners, had also been provided with guns, mounted astern, for defense in the event of being chased. Some eight or nine German cruisers were believed to be at sea, all efficient ships for commerce-destroying purposes, and several had high speed. How many German armed liners were out was a matter of conjecture and of much interest, inasmuch as merchant vessels were liable to seizure. Every cruiser became busy at once picking up prizes all over the world. Prize courts soon had work enough cut out to last for many weeks.
It was comparatively easy to blockade the German coast from Borkum near the mouth of the Ems, to Cuxhaven, where the Elbe pours its waters into the North Sea, but the task of bringing the German navy out to battle was difficult, chiefly because the Kiel Canal gave it a wide and deep waterway to a hiding-place in the Baltic. The topography of Denmark, moreover, was almost as great a safeguard to Germany as the canal. The German North Sea coast forms roughly a right angle. Fifty miles out from the great naval base of Wilhelmshaven lies the fortified island of Heligoland, formerly a British possession, and parted with in an evil hour by a shortsighted British statesman. The coast of which Heligoland was the vigilant sentinel has a length from Borkum to the mouth of the Elbe of about one hundred miles. Between the Ems and the principal naval base, Wilhelmshaven, on Jade Bay, is a broad peninsula through which runs the Ems-Jade Canal, navigable for destroyers.