The role of the Royal Navy in the Great War has often been overlooked, ignored or miss understood. The victory by the navy is, a fleet in being. What the fleet does is in some-ways secondary. The Fleets existence is the victory. The mere fact that we have a fleet insures Britain’s survival. It enables Britain to project force, if necessary, and influence around the globe. In the 1940s it saved the British Isles from invasion. Makes boring press, I can not imagine Churchill saying, “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to quite a lot. All hearts go out to the British sailor, who we see every day doing nothing but just existing on ships has keep our island free from invasion.” no matter how true it was.
In 1914 it was the Royal Navy that enabled Britain to move troops from the ends of the earth to France. It was the Royal Navy that enabled the British Expeditionary Force to cross the Channel in safety. Without the Navy Haig would have stood alone at Amiens. With no Navy Britain would have starved. Without the Navy there would have been no blockade of Germany. Napoleon did not understand the importance of the Royal Navy, nor did Hitler and in 1914 neither did the Kaiser. Small victories such as Coronel count for nothing, the Germans may also claim Jutland as a “Victory” it wasn’t. Jellicoe may have been the only man who could lose the war in an afternoon, but to win it all he had to do was keep the fleet in existence, and he did. The Germans may have tweaked the jailers nose, but they were still in prison, and they were going to stay there. While the Royal Navy stayed in existence Britain was never going to be defeated.
Some modern historians have argued the morality of the blockade as it was responsible for the deaths of civilians. They seem to forget the aim in a war is not only to kill the enemy it is to break their will to resist. The blockade did both. It was not the intervention of the Americans that made the Germans sign the peace treaty, it was the threat that the Royal Navy would reimpose the blockade that did that.
Mention has been made of the German “Victory” at Coronel on the 1st November 1914, where Spee inflicted a humiliating defeat on a squadron of Royal Navy Warships. The aftermath of this battle galvanised Sir John Fisher, the Royal Navy was going to get revenge. The time for that came at Port Stanley in the Falklands on the morning of the 8th December 1914. Spee had led his ships into the Atlantic, Coronel is in the Pacific. He decided to attack the wireless station and the coaling facilities at Port Stanley, and probably thought the islands were undefended. Not only was Vice Admiral Sturdee there with two battlecruisers, Invincable and Inflexable, the old predreadnought battleship Canopus was too. Beached at the entrance to the harbour to provide a steady gun platform, Canopus opened fire. Accounts such as David Stevenson’s 1914-1918 say it was a single shot, but it frightened Spee. He may also have seen the tripod masts of Sturdee’s two battlecruisers. Spee thought that discretion was the better part of valour and turn away heading out into the Atlantic. The two battlecruisers were faster and better armed and they caught up with Spee’s ships that afternoon. While still well out of range of Spee’s guns the Inflexable and Invincable opened fire. The Scharnhorst and Gneisenau went to the bottom, as well as the Leipzig and Nuremburg, both sunk by British cruisers. Coronel had been avenged.
If you ask people about the battle of the Falklands in 1914 you would be lucky to get an answer as sensible as Stanley’s, so while you are at it Ollie, make mine a double too.