Previous page Page 12 of 18 Next page
Index |  History |  Highlights |  WhatWhenWhere
To 7th century AD
8th - 9th century
10th - 12th century
13th - 15th century
16th century
17th century
18th century
19th century
The approach of war
     The Battle of Jutland
     US involvement
     Russian front

Hitler in power
Steps towards war
World War II
To be completed

Bookmark and Share
The Battle of Jutland: 1916

The early summer of 1916 brings the only major sea battle of the entire war. Since the loss of the Blücher at Dogger Bank in January 1915, the German High Seas Fleet has been content to remain in the safety of German waters in the Baltic, leaving the U-boats to carry on the war at sea. Meanwhile Britain's larger Grand Fleet watches over the North Sea from its base at Scapa Flow.

However in 1916 the Germans devise a plan which they hope will entice into a trap one half of the British fleet, which can then be destroyed in isolation. The scheme has two related parts.


First a small force of cruisers is despatched to bombard the east coast ports of Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft. It is hoped that this will prompt Admiral Jellicoe to send down less than the whole fleet from Scapa Flow, to end this annoyance. He does just that, despatching one battle squadron.

The next step in the German plan is to send a scouting group of cruisers up the Norwegian coast, tempting the British across the sea to move south of them and cut them off. But the cruisers are to be followed at a distance of fifty miles by the entire High Seas Fleet under its admiral, Reinhard Scheer.


A succession of accidents frustrate and alter these plans. British listening devices intercept a message on May 30 suggesting that the High Seas Fleet is on the move. Jellicoe responds by steaming south with the rest of the Grand Fleet from Scapa Flow, heading for a rendezvous near the entrance to the Skagerrak (the channel to the north of Denmark's province of Jutland, leading into the Baltic Sea). This accidentally brings the British and German fleets into the same area.

They fail to notice each other until a chance encounter in the early afternoon of May 31. At that stage the battleships of both fleets are still miles apart. By about 4 p.m. the cruisers of both sides are in combat. Two hours later the battleships open fire.


In the gathering dusk these massive vessels, armed with enormous guns, cumbrously manoeuvre and wheel about with the same objective as the old ships-of-the-line - to be in position to fire a broadside at an enemy less well placed. In the event the chaos is such that neither side has a decisive advantage before night falls and contact is lost.

When the tally is taken, the Germans are the winners. The British lose marginally more ships and twice as many men (about 6000). But in another sense the German effort fails. After the battle of Jutland (known to the Germans as the battle of the Skagerrak) the Grand Fleet is still in command of the North Sea - while the German fleet prefers once again to remain safely at home, shy of the high seas after which it is named.


The USA and World War I: 1914-18

World War I, involving Austria-Hungary, Germany, Russia, France and Britain as the main contestants, begins in Europe in August 1914. From the start public opinion and the majority of political leaders in the USA have been of one mind - America's best interest lies in remaining a neutral nation, uninvolved in the European conflict. Yet from the very first months this conviction already tends to be undermined by the maritime strategy of the two main combatants.

Britain is busy using her navy to blockade Germany, preventing even neutral ships from trading with continental ports. In doing so, she harms America's trade (and even seizes a few US ships for breaking the terms of the blockade). Meanwhile Germany, relying on submarine warfare to frustrate the blockade, represents a threat to the actual lives of American citizens on the high seas.


The sinking of the Lusitania in May 1915 provides the first crisis. Later in 1915, under US pressure, the Germans modify their submarine campaign. But there are regular demands from the military to revive it, and in February 1916 Germany announces a renewal of activity. On March 24 an unarmed Channel steamer, the Sussex, is sunk with the loss of many lives, among them US citizens.

The US president, Woodrow Wilson, is facing a presidential election later in the year. One plank in his campaign is that he has kept America out of the war. He demands and receives new assurances from the Germans that they will not attack other merchant ships without warning, while behind the scenes he tries to get himself accepted as a mediator between the warring parties.


His good offices are not entirely welcome, particularly when - after his re-election in November 1916 - he intrusively demands that both sides state the terms on which they would be willing to end the war. In subsequent months he develops his own plans for a lasting settlement, based on the concept that it must be a 'peace without victory' (meaning no recriminations if either side is perceived as the loser). But for the moment harsh reality is overtaking Wilson's idealism.


In January 1917 the German high command decides to resort once again to all-out submarine warfare. President Wilson is informed on January 31 that this will begin on the following day. Since this announcement breaks the pledge given to him after the Sussex incident, he severs diplomatic relations with Germany. And he persuades Congress to pass a bill allowing US merchant ships to be armed. Germany refrains from attacks on US ships during February, but three are sunk on March 18 with many lives lost. There is public outrage against Germany, and not for the first time this month. The previous occasion has been the publication, on March 1, of an intercepted German telegram.


The telegram, destined for Mexico, was sent by the German foreign secretary, Arthur Zimmermann. Intercepted, decoded and passed to President Wilson by the British admiralty, its content proves to be highly inflammatory. Zimmermann suggests that in the event of the USA entering the war, Mexico should side with Germany. Germany will in return back Mexican recovery of Texas, New Mexico and Arizona.

Wilson therefore has widespread public support when he asks approval for a declaration of war on Germany, assuring Congress that the citizens of the USA will be privileged to make the necessary sacrifices to safeguard democracy. War is declared on 6 April 1917.


The USA can provide immediate support for the Allies in two areas. Credit and loans can be rapidly arranged (by the end of war, eighteen months later, these amount to as much as $9.5 billion). And the powerful US navy is in a state of readiness. But manpower is more problematical. The armed services number only 378,000 men when war is declared. Conscription is immediately introduced, in May 1917, and by November 1918 the number enlisted will amount to 4.8 million.

But it takes time to get the conscripts trained and ready for service in Europe. The Germans can rely on a breathing space on the western front before the arrival of the Americans. For a while they make exceptionally good use of this brief opportunity. In the spring of 1918, under the overall command of Erich Ludendorf, they launch three massive assaults against different parts of the line. They succeed as no such offensive has done in the past three years. Indeed the first, pushing towards Amiens, brings the Germans forty miles into France within a few days. The other two create similar great bulges into French territory. But it is too late. US troops are in action on the western front in large numbers from May 1918, and many more divisions are on their way.

In the second battle of the Marne (from July 18) and in the battle of Amiens (from August 8) the German forces are driven back. With these German defeats the psychological tide of the war finally turns.The German decision to seek an armistice comes with surprising speed after the start of a new Allied push in the west. The war ends with the signing of an armistice in France on November 11. In the peace talks that begin in Paris in January 1919 Woodrow Wilson's vision of the future plays an influential role.


The Russian front: 1916-1917

After the campaigns of 1915, bringing into German hands the whole of Russian Poland, the German high command can reasonably expect a relatively quiet Russian front during 1916, enabling maximum forces to be deployed against Britain and France in the west.

However Russia springs a surprise in June 1916, with a sudden and completely unexpected advance (the 'Brusilov breakthrough') by a large army under Aleksey Brusilov. In the first three days 200,000 Germans and Austrians are captured on a broad front stretching from Lutsk to Chernovtsy, and for a few weeks the impetus is maintained. It brings the Russians back into the territory of the Austro-Hungarian empire, in eastern Galicia.


The Brusilov offensive also has a profound effect on the western front. It causes the diversion to the east of seven divisions which the Germans had been hoping to deploy against the British on the Somme.

The casualties suffered by the Central Powers at the hands of the Russians are immense (750,000 men dead, wounded or captured by the time Brusilov's advance is finally halted), but as so often in history Russia herself suffers even more, with an equivalent loss nearer to a million. In a war-weary and ill-provisioned Russian army, the summer's adventure lowers rather than heightens the appetite for a fight. Even more dramatic events in 1917 will have a similar effect.


The very sudden collapse of the Romanov dynasty, in March 1917, is followed by rival claimants to power (the Provisional Government and the Petrograd Soviet). This has a disastrous effect on the troops in the front line, confronted now by conflicting messages from home.

The Provisional Government wants the war to continue, being as eager as the tsar to humble Austria-Hungary and to win Istanbul and the Dardanelles from the Turks. The Petrograd Soviet has no interest in the war, except as a seedbed of revolution. On 15 March 1917 its members issue Order No. 1. This states that committees of soldiers and sailors are to be set up in all military units. They are to take control of all arms, which are only to be issued to officers as the committees decide.


The next stage in the destruction of the Russian army as an effective fighting force follows immediately after the revolution of November 1917. On November 8, the first day after the coup, Lenin issues a Decree on Land, abolishing the private ownership of large estates and assigning the land to the peasants. This has an immediate and debilitating effect at the front. It gives a strong incentive to peasant soldiers to hurry home and stake their claim.

On the same day Lenin also issues a Decree of Peace, offering to come to immediate terms with Russia's enemies on a basis of no annexations, no indemnities and self-determination for all who want it.


Meanwhile during 1917, confronted with a lack of stomach for the fight in both the Russian army and government, the Germans have continued their advance along the Baltic coast - among the small nations which are already proclaiming independence from Russia.

Lithuania has been in German hands since September 1915. Now a German army advances into Latvia, taking Riga on 3 September 1917. On November 26 Lenin's new government orders all Russian units on the European front to stop fighting. At the same time an armistice is proposed to Germany. It is signed at Brest-Litovsk on December 15.


During the subsequent peace negotiations the Russian position is inevitably weak - though Lenin confidently hopes that revolution will break out in Berlin and Vienna to strengthen his hand. While he and his deeply divided colleagues prevaricate, the Germans reinforce their negotiating position by continuing to march through Latvia and into Estonia, in blatant disregard of the armistice.

On 3 March 1918, with only a tiny majority of his government in favour, Lenin signs the treaty of Brest-Litovsk. By its terms Russia loses control over Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and the Ukraine (together representing much of the nation's iron and coal resources). With the treaty signed, Germany is free to concentrate all her efforts on the western front.


Previous page Page 12 of 18 Next page
Up to top of page HISTORY OF GERMANY