Naval and Air Battle

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Battles on the Sea

Although the focus of the war was mainly on enormous land battles, a word must be said about sea power and aerial combat. Virtually all sea operations against Germany--convoys, naval battles, sinking U-Boats and other actions--were carried out by the Royal Navy and British Commonwealth vessels. Without the maintenance of sea communication and supply no effective war could have been fought on the European continent, except possibly by France alone--with poor prospects of victory.

A key factor in the Allies' success in the Naval War was the convoy system, previously used a century earlier during the Napoleonic Wars. Nevertheless German submarines were effective and the crisis was reached in April 1917, by which time over 5,000 Allied and neutral vessels had been sunk by U-Boats. From then on, thanks to the Navy's efficient anti- submarine measures, matters improved and the menace decreased steadily.

The British and German surface fleets fought four major sea battles, at Coronel, Falklands, Dogger Bank and Jutland. The First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, remarked that, unlike the Army, the Royal Navy 'could have lost the war in an afternoon' had it been defeated. It never was. Ships flying the White Ensign fought commerce raiders in the Indian Ocean, hunted submarines in the Gulf of St Lawrence and rammed destroyers alongside the mole at Zeebrugge. The enormous endeavours of more than four years' sea warfare are not well remembered as nothing remains to mark them, and interest tends to focus on the major land battles, whose general locations are still marked by military cemeteries.

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Battles in the Air

One aspect of the war which has come to be considered 'glamorous' is that of aerial combat. On both sides aircraft observed for artillery, and machine-gunned, bombed and gassed enemy troops. The Royal Flying Corps started the war as an unknown adjunct to the Army. After mixed fortunes it was built into a fighting force of men from every country in the British Empire. The RFC devised techniques of aerial observation, photo-reconnaissance and ground support, offering the Army advantages which were not always quickly recognized. The Corps also fought in the skies over Britain during frequent German air-raids by airships and bombers which killed over 1,200 civilians. By the end of the war it was the world's most powerful and efficient air force with pilots capable of holding their own against their German counterparts. Flying without parachutes in flimsy machines called for great mettle and skill, but many hundreds of aircrew died, and No Man's Land was littered with crashed aircraft.



When the Armistice finally came, there was an underlying sadness to the celebrations. In the end, Belgium had been freed and honour satisfied but at unimaginable cost--the immolation of an entire generation of young men. Because the 1914-1918 War was so widespread, Commonwealth military cemeteries and memorials are to be found around the globe. However, the greatest concentration lies in northern France and Belgium. Indeed along the 70 or so miles of the BEF's section of the Western Front, a visitor to a war cemetery will, as often as not, be able to see a second, and sometimes third, such site from where he or she is standing.

spacer The text on this page has been taken from Courage Remembered, by Kingsley Ward and Major Edwin Gibson.

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