When we are talking modern warfare, one of the words we invariably encounter is that of a “Division“. But what exactly is a “Division”? Let’s have a look at this concept in World War I:
“The partitioning of armies into ‘divisions’ came into practice in the two French Coalition Wars (France against counter-revolutionary Austria, Russia and Prussia) in the 1790s and the subsequent Napoleonic era, in which armies had to be split up to defend against or attack more than one enemy at a given time or to fulfill tactical assignments, such as outflanking or enveloping manoeuvres.
definition of a ‘division’ is that it is the smallest sub-unit of an
army that can fulfill independent assignments, i.e., the smallest unit
that has everything to fight its own small war. Thus said, it follows
that a division must have more than soldiers, guns and ammunition: it
must have a staff, engineers, signal troops, supply troops, a medical
corps, a hospital, kitchen, laundry, map bureau and so forth.
In the First World War, a fully equipped German infantry division would contain the following troops:
4 Infantry Regiments of 3,000 men each; each Regiment composed of 3 Battalions of 1,000 men; each Battalion composed of 4 Companies of 250 men; altogether 12,000 infantrymen;
1 Artillery Regiment consisting of 12 Field Batteries of 6 135 mm guns each and 2 Heavy Batteries of 4 155 mm guns (some divisions had an additional Heavy Howitzer Battalion with 16 150 mm howitzers);
2 Brigades of Cavalry, 680 sabers each, sometimes supported by 2 Field Gun Batteries of their own and a 6 Machine-Gun Company;
1 Squadron of reconnaissance aircraft, 6 machines, pilots, mechanics;
1 Special Artillery Brigade for the discretionary use of the division commander, (54 light 77 mm guns and 18 135 mm guns);
1 Special Machine Gun Company with 6 guns, and
1 Special Artillery Battalion with 18 105 mm howitzers.
Divisional troops, staff and support:
1 Battalion Combat Engineers (Sappers, in German called ‘Pioniere’ (Pioneers);
1 Signal and Communications Detachment with 2 Companies;
1 Quartermaster Train with 2 Companies;
1 Administrative Company;
2 Kitchen Companies (Butchers, Bakers, Cooks);
1 Mail Platoon and Field Post Office;
1 Medical Corps, consisting of 2 Hospital Companies and 4 Transport and Supplies Companies;
1 Veterinary Company;
1 Divisional Staff Company with 4 Detachments: Commanding Officer, Operations Officer (Ia), Supply Officer (Ib) and Intelligence Officer (lc);
1 Map Room;
1 Music Corps, and
1 Company Field Police (MP).
complete infantry division employed therefore approximately 20,000 men,
7,000 horses and a train of 1,200 supply wagons. Yet a division that
had all these troops present and correct would have to be called lucky
indeed – for after the first battle most divisions had to do with half
of these numbers – or less. In practice – after the huge losses of the
first weeks – general staffs often commissioned whole corps take over
the independent tactical roles that divisions had been assigned to
before the melee had begun.
In terms of vertical composition, two divisions formed a corps, and two corps an army. In practice, as the war dragged on and many units had to make do with smaller numbers, corps tended to get larger, sometimes as big as four divisions. When whole divisions were not available or had to be broken up, infantry brigades were used, half of a division – two infantry regiments plus whatever artillery was available.
Every country deviated from the scheme in characteristic ways. French divisions were equipped with a brigade of pre-established reserves, and while their field artillery, the 75 mm gun, was excellent and outperformed the German 77 mm model, they were usually weaker in the larger artillery calibres. British divisions were of somewhat larger size and compensated for an initial dearth of machine-guns with excellent marksmanship. Russian divisions – at least in the early campaigns – were huge, on account of their having not only three but four infantry regiments per division, i.e. sixteen battalions as opposed to twelve. American divisions were truly monstrous, roughly twice as big as German divisions.”
That nations cling to the chimera of glory and disremember failure is altogether human in its fallibility. In the same league, perhaps, is man’s perpetual underestimation of the amount of knowledge required before becoming able to judge on a subject. Perhaps ignorance may be bliss, as in Orwell’s 1984. Paul Fussell, historian and veteran of WW II, who was wounded 1945 in France, found numerous reasons to mistrust the victors’ polished platitudes and observed so many occasions of intentional misrepresentation in the treatment of the Second World War in American media that he felt compelled to conclude that “the allied part of the war of 1939-45 has been sanitized and romanticized beyond recognition by the sentimental, the loony patriotic, the ignorant and the bloodthirsty.”
Naturally, such groups derive their redactional liberty from the fact that their side won the war and hence is able to evade moral ambiguity. Nearly everybody agrees that the industrial killing of Jews, or Gypsies, with cyanide was a crime nearly without precedence in history, but so were other inventions of the twentieth century: area-bombing civilians with conventional explosives as in, say, Dresden or Tokyo, or with nuclear fire as in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. If the war had been lost, who could have explained the moral propriety of these undertakings?
Although almost seventy years have passed since the Second War‘s conclusion, misapprehensions and inaccuracies – intended or not – retain an eerie popularity. Norman Davies (No Simple Victory, Penguin Books 2006 – ISBN 978-0-14-311409-3) has written on the wilful misconceptions that are the consequences of political correctness and national myth-making. He notes that:
Over sixty years have passed since the end of the Second World War. And most people would assume that the broad outlines of that terrible conflict had been established long ago. Innumerable books have been published on the subject. Thousands of films have been screened, portraying every aspect of military events and civilian ordeals.Countless memoirs of participants’ great and small have been collected. Hundreds of major monuments and scores of museums have been created to keep up the memory of the war alive. One might think that there is nothing new to add. At least one is tempted to think that way until one starts to examine what actually is said, and what is not said. [Emphases in original]
When Professor Davis set out to visit the various galas, celebrations and festivities that commemorated the Sixtieth Anniversary of the End of the War in 2005, he chanced upon mysterious perceptions …
… the new United States World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C., bore, as its main inscription: “World War II 1941 – 1945”. The monument failed to inform the visitor that the United States did have allies, and seems to conclude that the United States fought and won the war alone, and in five years instead of seven …
… the British
celebrations somehow forgot to invite delegations from, among many other former
colonial allies, Canada, South Africa, India, New Zealand or Australia, all of
whom had participated in the war on the side of Great Britain…
… the Russian celebration on Red Square in Moscow forgot to mention, among other little sins, that the Soviet Union in the six years between 1940 and 1945 invaded and annexed the three Baltic republics Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania not only once but twice, in the process deporting and/or murdering land owners and intelligentsia. In addition, nobody thought it prudent to recall that the Soviet Union, allied with Germany in 1939, had invaded Poland and Finland only weeks later…
… none of these celebrations recalled the sufferings of the non-Jewish victims of the Fascist, Nazi and Communist regimes, nor the fate of the millions who were misplaced by the war or forcibly ejected from their homelands: over ten million Germans, five millions Ukrainians and about the same number of Poles, and millions of Byelorussians and Caucasian minorities. The Soviet Union in particular
relocated national groups, uprooting millions in the process. In the immediate
pre-war period they had forcibly removed some 500,000 Poles from the western
borders and resettled them in closed districts on the Chinese frontier in
In 1939-41 massive deportations took place from all the lands annexed by the USSR; and, once the Great Patriotic War started, strategic deportations began with an order to remove all Finns from the vicinity of Leningrad. Later in 1941, a long-standing plan (first mooted in 1915) was activated to deport the entire population of the Autonomous German Republic of the Volga. Some 2.5 million Germans were either sent to the labour armies or to Kazakhstan to join the exiled Poles. Within a decade over half of them were dead. The forced deportation and resettlement of seven Muslim nations in 1943-4 was especially brutal.
Mindful of the spectre of selective memory, Professor Davies subsequently felt the need to take a few precautions before discussing the war:
prelude to various talks and lectures on the Second World War, therefore, I
have often chosen to raise some of these problems by presenting the audience
with four or five simple questions:
Can you name the five biggest battles of the war in Europe? Or, better
still, the ten biggest battles?
Can you name the main political ideologies that were
contending for supremacy during the war in Europe?
Can you name the largest concentration camp that was
operating in Europe in the years 1939- 1945?
Can you name the European nationality (or ethnic
group) which lost the largest number of civilians during the war?
Can you name the vessel that was sunk with record loss
of life in the war’s largest maritime disaster?
These have usually been followed by a deathly silence, and then a hubbub of guesses and queries. Quelling the hubbub, I then offer my audience an opinion:”Until we have established the correct answer to basic factual matters,” I say, “we are not properly equipped to pass judgement on the wider issues.”
What are your answers to these five questions? Read Part II …
At 6 p.m. on the evening of Thursday, July 23 1914, the Austrian Ambassador to Belgrade, Baron Wladimir Giesl, presented an important note from the Austrian to the Serbian government to the Serbian Minister of Finance Lazar Pacu, who was Prime Minister Nikola Pasić‘s deputy and temporary replacement.
The legate handed Pacu and Gruić, the
Secretary General of the Serbian Foreign Ministry, the Austrian demarche, two
pages of an annex, and a brief introductory note. The reply, he said, was
expected by 6 p.m. on Saturday, July 25, forty-eight hours hence, and he was
instructed, should no answer be received or were it unsatisfactory, to leave
the capital with his staff immediately and return to Vienna.
The note read:
“On 31 March 1909,
the Serbian Minister at Vienna, on the instructions of his Government, made the
following declaration to the Imperial and Royal Government:
‘Serbia recognizes that her rights have not been affected by the fait accompli created in Bosnia-Herzegovina and that consequently she will conform to such decisions as the Powers may take in conformity with Article XXV of the Treaty of Berlin. In deference to the advice of the Great Powers, Serbia undertakes henceforward to renounce the attitude of protest and opposition which she had adopted with regard to the annexation since last autumn and she further engages to modify the direction of her present policy with regard to Austria-Hungary and to live henceforward with the latter on a footing of good neighbourliness.’
The history of recent
years and in particular the painful events of 28 June have demonstrated the
existence in Serbia of a subversive movement the aim of which is to detach from
the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy certain parts of its territories. This movement,
which had its birth under the eye of the Serbian Government, has gone so far as
to manifest itself beyond the territory of the Kingdom by acts of terrorism, by
a series of outrages, and by murders.
The Royal Serbian Government, far from fulfilling the formal pledges contained in the declaration of 31 March 1909 (in a diplomatic note to Austria, Serbia had to recognize the Bosnian annexation and promise to maintain friendly relations with Austria), has done nothing to repress these movements; it has tolerated the criminal machinations of various societies and associations directed against the Monarchy, unrestrained language on the part of the press, glorifications of the perpetrators of outrages, participation of officers and officials in subversive agitation, unwholesome propaganda in public education; in short, tolerated all the manifestations of a nature to inculcate in the Serbian population hatred of the Monarchy and contempt for its institutions.
This culpable tolerance on
the part of the Royal Government of Serbia had not ceased at the moment when
the events of 28 June last revealed its disastrous consequences to the whole
It is shown by the depositions and confessions of the criminal authors of the outrage of 28 June that the Sarajevo murders were planned in Belgrade, that the arms and explosives with which the murderers were found to be provided had been given them by Serbian officers and officials belonging to the Narodna Odbrana and finally that the passage into Bosnia of the criminals and their arms was organized and effectuated by chiefs of the Serbian frontier service.
The results here mentioned
of the preliminary investigation do not permit the Imperial and Royal
Government to pursue any longer the attitude of expectant forbearance which
they have for years observed towards the machinations concentrated in Belgrade
and thence propagated in the territories of the Monarchy; the results on the
contrary impose on them the duty of putting an end to the intrigues which
constitute a permanent threat to the tranquillity of the Monarchy.
It is to achieve this end
that the Imperial and Royal Government sees itself obliged to demand from the
Serbian Government the formal assurance that it condemns the propaganda
directed against the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, that is to say the aggregate of
tendencies, the ultimate aim of which is to detach from the Monarchy
territories belonging thereto, and that it undertakes to suppress by every
means this criminal and terrorist propaganda.
In order to give a formal character to this undertaking, the Royal Government of Serbia shall cause to be published on the front page of the Official Journal of the 26/13 July the following declaration:
‘The Royal Government of
Serbia condemns the propaganda directed against Austria-Hungary, i.e. the
aggregate of tendencies, the ultimate aim of which is to detach from the
Austro-Hungarian Monarchy territories which form part thereof, and it sincerely
deplores the fatal consequences of these criminal proceedings.’
‘The Royal Government regrets that Serbian officers and officials have participated in the above-mentioned propaganda and thereby compromised the good neighbourly relations to which the Royal Government had solemnly pledged itself by its declaration of 31 March 1909.’
‘The Royal Government, which disapproves and repudiates all idea or attempt of interference with the destinies of the inhabitants of any part whatsoever of Austria-Hungary, considers it its duty formally to warn the officers, officials and all the population of the Kingdom that henceforward it will proceed with the utmost rigor against all persons who may render themselves guilty of such machinations which it will use all its efforts to forestall and repress.’
This declaration shall
simultaneously be communicated to the Royal Army as an order of the day by His
Majesty the King and shall be published in the ‘Official Bulletin of the Army’.
The Royal Serbian
Government further undertakes:
1. To suppress any publication which incites to hatred
and contempt of the Monarchy and the general tendency of which is directed
against its territorial integrity;
2. To dissolve immediately the society styled Narodna
Odbrana, to confiscate all its means of propaganda, and to proceed in the same
manner against the other societies and their branches in Serbia which engage in
propaganda against the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy; the Royal Government will
take the necessary measures to prevent the dissolved societies from continuing
their activities under another name and form;
3. To eliminate without delay from public instruction in
Serbia, both as regards the teaching body and the methods of instruction, all
that serves or might serve to foment the propaganda against Austria-Hungary;
4. To remove from the military service and the
administration in general all officers and officials guilty of propaganda
against the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy and of whom the Imperial and Royal
Government reserves to itself the right to communicate the names and deeds to
the Royal Government;
5. To accept the collaboration in Serbia of organs of the
Imperial and Royal Government in the suppression of the subversive movement
directed against the territorial integrity of the Monarchy;
6. To take judicial proceedings against the accessories
to the plot of 28 June who are on Serbian territory; Organs delegated by the
Imperial and Royal Government will take part in the investigations relating
7. To proceed without delay to the arrest of Major Voija
Tankosić and of a certain Milan Ciganović, a Serbian State employee implicated
by the findings of the preliminary investigation at Sarajevo;
8. To prevent by effective measures the cooperation of
the Serbian Authorities in the illicit traffic in arms and explosives across
the frontier; to dismiss and severely punish the officials of the Sabac and
Loznica frontier service guilty of having assisted the authors of the Sarajevo
crime by facilitating their crossing of the frontier;
9. To furnish the Imperial and Royal Government with
explanations regarding the unjustifiable utterances of high Serbian officials
both in Serbia and abroad, who, notwithstanding their official position, have
not hesitated since the outrage of 28 June to express themselves in interviews
in terms of hostility towards the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy [and] finally
10. To notify the Imperial
and Royal Government without delay of the execution of the measures comprised
under the preceding heads.
The Imperial and Royal Government expects the reply of the Royal Government at the latest by Saturday 25 of this month at 5 p.m (this was crossed out and replaced by “6”).
[A memorandum dealing with
the results of the preliminary investigation at Sarajevo with regard to the
officials mentioned in Points 7 and 8 is annexed to this Note]
The criminal investigation
opened by the Sarajevo Court against Gavrilo Princip and associates on the
count of assassination and complicity therein, in respect of the crime
committed by them on 28 June, has up to the present led to the following
1. The plot having as its
object the assassination of the Archduke Francis Ferdinand on the occasion of
his visit to Sarajevo was formed at Belgrade by Gavrilo Princip, Nedeljko Cabrinović
and one Milan Ciganović and Trifko Grabez with the help of Commander Voija
2. The 6 bombs and 4 Browning pistols with ammunition with which the malefactors committed the outrage were delivered to Princip, Cabrinović and Grabez at Belgrade by a certain Milan Ciganović and Commander Voija Tankosić.
3. The bombs are hand grenades from the munitions depot of the Serbian Army at Kragujevac.
4. To assure the success of the outrage, Ciganović instructed Princip, Cabrinović and Grabez in the use of grenades, and, in a forest near the rifle-range at Topcider (Park), gave Princip and Grabez shooting practice with Browning pistols.
5. To enable Princip, Cabrinović and Grabez to cross the frontier of Bosnia-Herzegovina and to smuggle in clandestinely their contraband arms, a secret system of transport was organized by Ciganović. As a result of this organization the introduction into Bosnia-Herzegovina of the criminals and their arms was effected by the frontier captains of Sabac (Rade Popović) and Loznica, and the customs official Rudivoj Grbić of Loznica with the aid of various individuals.”
This document, it has been said, marked the end of the nineteenth century. Its terms were harsh, yet not entirely without precedent, and certainly more lenient than the conditions the Treaty of Versailles would impose five years hence on Germany, which empowered an Allied Control Commission to roam the length and breadth of the country in search of contraband in addition to imposing reparation payments and giving German territory to every neighbour state except Switzerland and Austria. The demands inflicted on Belgrade in 1914 might also be compared – favourably, as Christopher Clark points out – to the ultimatum of Rambouillet the NATO addressed to the Serbian government in 1999 to stop the genocide of non-Serbs in Kosovo. The Rambouillet memorandum commanded that NATO forces “shall enjoy, together with their vehicles, vessels, aircraft and equipment free and unrestricted and unimpeded access through the Former Republic of Yugoslavia, including associated airspace and territorial waters,” and gave the troops the right of manoeuvre in and the utilization “of any areas or facilities as required for support, training and operations.”
In comparison, the Austrian demands of 1914 almost appear quaint. It is true that Points 5 and 6 impeded Serbian sovereignty, but some of the evidence was unimpeachable – the hand grenades, say – and Austria had good reasons to doubt the efficiency of Serbian law-enforcement. “Vienna,” Christopher Clark diagnosed, “did not trust the Serbian authorities to press home the investigation without some form of Austrian supervision and verification. And it must be said that nothing the Serbian government did between June 28 and the presentation of the ultimatum gave them any reason to think otherwise.” Certainly the possibility of subsequent negotiations on the more intrusive points was not excluded per se, and all that Belgrade had to do in this respect would be to send a few suspected conspirators abroad or into Russian exile for some months until the affair had died down. What real harm could a few more Austrian detectives do, when Dr. Wiesner had already been in Belgrade since July 10 and the heavens had not fallen?
It is not clear, however, whether the Austrians realized that Belgrade’s problem was not the conspiracy in itself or the identity of the true conspirators – that is, the Black Hand instead of the Narodna Odbrana – but the fact that its extent reached into Belgrade’s highest places and neither Pasić’s civilian government, nor, of course, the Black Hand itself could allow their mutual relations to see the light of day. But the carefree absence of rationality in Balkan politics pretty much guaranteed that Serbia would reject the note, which was exactly the outcome Austria sought to achieve. Vanity, they knew, would prevail in Serbia, as vanity had prevailed in 1870 when Napoleon III declared war on Prussia over a telegram that seemed to infringe on France’s Imperial self-esteem. In comparison, Austria had a reasonably valid reason for war.
What this war was to entail, no one of course imagined.
The naval program of Tirpitz and Wilhelm II had earned the irritation and subsequently the enmity of England’s admiralty, and the search for the proper response became a continuous issue of British politics between 1890 and 1914, second only to the Irish question. Great Britain’s survival policy was never to let any single power dominate the continent, and in particular the Channel ports, and thus the Royal Navy’s supremacy of the oceans must never be jeopardized. Hence Britannia’s wont was always to oppose the powers-that-be on the continent and side with the lesser nations. To support the “underdogs” also made for excellent political propaganda.
Great Britain was a sea power, and thus the strategic view of her admiralty upon possible conflicts with European land powers was one tied upon the evolution of naval warfare in the Belle Époque. The Royal Navy had dominated the seas since Nelson’s victory over the French and Spanish fleets at Trafalgar in 1805. The British Empire, unlike, say, Russia, depended upon the maintenance of naval pre-eminence for its economical and political survival: power over the oceans supplied cheap transport, preserved the trade and communication lines and provided the defence of the colonies and the home waters. These were the classic duties of the ships which flew the White Ensign.
In the last decade of the 19th Century, a cabal of German nationalists, history professors and other assorted lunatics convinced Kaiser Wilhelm II to build the “Hochseeflotte” or “High Seas Fleet”, a gigantic armada-at-sea which would equal or even surpass the might of the Royal Navy. Since there was simply no strategic reason for the eccentric undertaking, Great Britain could not interpret it as anything but a maritime challenge, as evidence of hostile intentions. These were all too real, considering Wilhelm’s hate for his English mother.
The equilibrium of the global battle fleets, or “ships of the line”, as they were called, had been completely upset in 1906 by the Royal Navy’s presentation, to an astonished world, of the new battleship Dreadnought, a design that immediately rendered all other capital warships obsolete. Her builders had rejected the amalgamate of small-, medium-, and large-calibre guns traditionally carried by capital ships in favour of outfitting her with only a single class of artillery, the biggest available. Thus Dreadnought’s principal armaments were ten 12-inch [305 mm, ¶] guns, in five twin turrets.
The importance of the calibre, the diameter of the gun’s bore, lies in the fact that, with identical propellants, the effective radius of a ship’s artillery depends in the first order on its calibre; the greater the calibre, all other things being equal, the further the projectile flies, and thus the greater the radius in which the ship can bring her fire to effect. In other words, the shells of a 12-inch gun fly farther than those of a 10-inch gun, and the ship with the bigger guns can sink the opponent from a safe distance without being exposed to return fire.
The second peculiarity of Dreadnought’s revolutionary design was the thickness and the distribution of her armour: by avoiding to spend armour on non-essential systems of the ship, the constructors were able to use plates up to eleven inches thick covering the most important sections, an arrangement which became known as “all-or-nothing” armoury. The drawbacks of the massive metal coverings and the colossal guns were, of course, their contribution to the ship’s immense weight and the consequent reduction of her speed. The Dreadnoughts were rather slow for modern men-of-war, their maximum speed hovering around the twenty-knot mark. The whole conception of the Dreadnought class rendered them supremely fit for the slugfests of battling other capital ships; their low speed disabled them, however, from being used in the other half of naval warfare, the economic or cruiser war.
The word “cruiser” was coined in the 18th Century and originally denoted any warship on detached duty as a commerce raider. In the second half of the 19th Century, following the improvements in steam engines and gun technology, cruisers began to be outfitted with armour: if the ship in question had an armoured deck but no side armour she was called a “protected” cruiser, if she had both, she was called an “armoured” cruiser. The importance of cruiser warfare lies, of course, in the impediment of the flow of the opponent’s war supplies; the cruisers preferred prey were fat merchants, coal ships, or oilers. Yet, the indispensable need for speed, to chase the prey but to escape superior ships, limited the weight of armour and the size of guns available in cruiser design.
In the first decade of the 20th Century, the Royal Navy’s engineers conceived a compromise in design which at length became the so-called “battle cruiser“. A proper battle cruiser, so the idea, was to combine the guns of a Dreadnought, albeit a lesser number of them, to save weight, with as much armour as possible while retaining high speeds. The first British battle cruiser was commissioned in 1907, only a year after Dreadnought, and, quite modestly, named “Invincible“.
Human genius has frequently attempted to combine the advantages of two types, or designs, of weapons, while simultaneously striving to avoid their peculiar weaknesses. The creation of the battle cruiser was such an exercise in genius. Robert Massie explains (Dreadnought, Ballantine Books 1992, ISBN 978-0-345-37556-8, pp. 491 ff.):
France – still the
potential enemy [pre-1890, ¶] – had provoked Admiralty concerns by suddenly
launching a series of big cruisers capable of 21 knots. These ships were the
brainchild of a school of French admirals who, despairing that France would
ever be able to match Britain battleship for battleship, concluded that the
best way to bring down the maritime colossus was to unleash a pack of swift,
deadly cruisers and torpedo boats that could attack and cripple Britain’s
vulnerable overseas merchandise trade. British admirals grasped the threat.
Their reaction was to produce the anti-cruiser cruiser, a ship even faster,
stronger and more heavily gunned, to hunt down and sink anything the French
These ships, designed to fight, not simply to shadow and report, were given more armour and called armoured cruisers. Class after class was designed, launched and sent to sea … These ships, designed to fight, not simply to shadow and report, were given more armour and called armoured cruisers. Class after class was designed, launched and sent to sea … . In all, there were thirty-five of these British armoured cruisers, some of them as big, or bigger, than the Royal Sovereign or Majestic class battleships. Yet no matter how big they got or how impressive they looked, they were never expected to fight battleships. …
This was Fisher’s understanding and purpose too, at least in the beginning. [Admiral Fisher headed the design committee of the Royal Navy which was to draw up “Dreadnought” and other ships, ¶] His first battle cruisers were intended to be the ultimate in armoured cruisers, so fast and heavily gunned that they could overtake and destroy any other cruiser in the world. … Fisher wrote to Lord Selbourne [First Sea Lord, in March 1902, ¶] that he was working with Gard, the Chief Constructor of the Malta Dockyard, on a design for an armoured cruiser which would make all existing armoured cruisers obsolete.
Fisher called the hypothetical ship H.M.S. Perfection, and at the top of the list of her design characteristics he put “Full Power Speed of 25 Knots.”… The Sea Lords’ response was not everything Fisher had hoped. They authorized the Warrior and Minotaur classes, big ships with 9.2-inch guns and a speed of 23 knots, two knots beneath that what Fisher had demanded for Perfection.
Meanwhile, other admiralties were experimenting. Towards the end of 1904, word reached London that Japan was lying down two large, 21-knot armoured cruisers, each carrying four 12-inch guns and twelve 6-inch. In Italy, four Cuniberti-designed ships carrying two 12-inch and twelve 8-inch guns and capable of 21 knots were on the way. Foreigners were creeping on Perfection.
In February 1905, once Fisher’s design committee had completed the plans for Dreadnought, Perfection appeared. No longer did Fisher have to urge his projects on the Admiralty; now he was the Admiralty. [He had become First Sea Lord in 1904, ¶] And in the Fisher era, he immediately made clear, British commerce was to be protected not by scattering armoured cruisers around the world, but by building a few, immensely fast, powerful ships which could hunt down and destroy enemy cruisers wherever they fled – if necessary, “to the world’s end.”
By then, of course, the potential threat had changed nationality; it was not French cruisers that worried the Admiralty, but German ocean liners, the huge, swift, blue-water greyhounds of the North-German Lloyd and Hamburg-Amerika Lines, being constructed with a capacity to carry 6-inch guns. Designed to whisk passengers across the North Atlantic in five or six days, they could easily outrun any existing British cruiser.
Speed, then, was the preeminent requirement; speed to overtake the enemy and speed also for the new ship’s own defence: she must be able to keep out of range of battleship guns. Fisher fixed the minimum absolute margin at four knots, and, since he was building the Dreadnought to steam 21 knots, H.M.S. Perfection must be able to steam at 25 knots. Fisher also wanted maximum firepower. The biggest guns available were 12-inch, already being installed on new armoured cruisers and fast battleships by the Italians and Japanese. Having successfully argued the case for the all-big-gun battleship, Fisher now demanded an all-big-gun armoured cruiser.
Once again, the faithful and imaginative Gard gave the Admiral what he wanted. Perfection,which was to become the Invincible-class battle cruiser, came off the drawing board with eight 12-inch guns in four twin turrets. Fisher was overjoyed. With 25-knot speed and eight 12-inch guns, here was a warship capable of destroying any vessel fast enough to catch it, and fast enough to escape any vessel capable of destroying it. She could “mop up” a whole squadron of enemy cruisers with the greatest of ease, using her speed to establish her range and her long-range guns to sink the enemy without exposing herself to return fire.
She had only a single flaw: her armour was too light. Like Sleeping Beauty, for whom life was serene as long as she stayed away from spindles, the Invincible and her sisters could lead happy lives as long as they stayed away from battleships. Her speed was a precious, expensive commodity, and had been purchased at heavy price.
The three vital characteristics of a warship – guns, speed and armour – are interrelated. A designer could not have everything: if heavy guns and heavy armour were required, then speed had to be curtailed; this was the compromise built into most battleships. If a higher speed was demanded and heavy guns retained, armour had to be sacrificed. This was the case with the Invincible and her sisters. To gain four precious knots of speed, the Invincibleg ave up one turret and two twelve-inch guns of Dreadnought’s armament.
This saved two thousand tons, which could be invested in propulsion machinery. A more dangerous sacrifice was made in armour. The Dreadnought, intended to steam through a cataclysm of shell bursts, was fitted along her belt amidships with armour plate eleven inches thick, enough to stop a plunging heavy shell. Over the Invincible’s vital midship spaces, the belt armour was only seven inches thick. If the battle cruiser’s mission was to scout or to engage enemy cruisers, seven inches of armour would keep her safe. But if she were to be deliberately taken within range of enemy battleships, seven inches were not enough. … Some naval experts saw the potential danger. Brassey’s Naval Annual said: “… [The problem with] vessels of this enormous size and cost [is that] an admiral having Invincibles in his fleet will be certain to put them in the line of battle where their comparatively light protection will be a disadvantage and their high speed of no value.” In short, because she looked like a battleship and carried a battleship’s guns, sooner or later Invincible would be expected to fight like a battleship.
Since no good deed goes unpunished, the Germans adopted the hermaphroditic concept and built their own battle cruisers.
Because the two nations had built capital ships at frantic speed and with enormous cost for fifteen years, everybody expected a thunderous clash to occur within the war’s opening months. But the first two years of the conflict only saw minor engagements. On August 28, 1914, Admiral Sir David Beatty’s squadron of battle cruisers cornered a mixed German flotilla of cruisers and destroyers in the Heligoland Bight and sank three respectively one of them. In January 1915, an encounter between Beatty’s fleet and a few German battle cruisers at the Dogger Bank led to the loss of the German “Blücher” and severe damage to the “Seydlitz“, while the British “Tiger” and “Lion” suffered lesser impairments.
The Germans had scored big in October 1914 when a single mine sunk the brand-new British battleship Audacious. Somewhat smaller successes were achieved by the U-boats [“Unterseeboot”, i.e. submarines, ¶]. U 9 sank three old British cruisers, the “Aboukir“, “Hogue” and “Cressy”, in September 1914 and U 24 sank the older battleship “Formidable” on January 1, 1915.
Lack of action in the North Sea ended when the German Admiral Reinhard Scheer was invested with the command of the High Seas Fleet in January 1916. In a quest for a solution to the numerical superiority of the Royal Navy, he concentrated on Beatty’s battle cruiser division, which was by now stationed at Rosyth near Edinburgh. If he played his cards well, he thought it possible to lure Beatty’s ships into a trap and destroy them before the Home Fleet, anchored at Scapa Flow in the Orkney Islands, could come to their rescue. Scheer’s plan took into account that the Grand Fleet was bigger than the High Seas Fleet by about 40%, but the multitudes of duties she had to perform necessarily meant that she was spread over the oceans. If he could bring momentarily superior forces against a smaller part of the Grand Fleet, he could overcome the numerical deficit and victory might be possible.
One tactical variable in his plan remained a question mark to him as well as to his opponents on the British side: it was the uncertainty of how the battle cruisers would fare if they faced battleships. On another tactical variable he had to trust his luck, in regards to how early or late British naval intelligence would discover his sortie. In May 1916, his plans condensed in a scheme to lure Beatty’s squadron, composed of six battle cruisers and four battleships anchored in Rosyth, southward, by dangling before Beatty’s eyes a bait of a few German battle cruisers. Since these ships were too fast for the British Dreadnoughts harboured at Scapa Flow, only Beatty’s flotilla had a chance to catch them. As soon as Beatty was informed about the German vanguard and set out to intercept it, the German battle cruisers would turn south and lead the British ships into the trap, the guns of Scheer’s battleships.
In the event, the vanguard consisted of five German battle cruisers under the command of Admiral Franz von Hipper, plus assorted escorts, which sailed northward along the western coast of Denmark on the morning of May 31, 1916. Scheer followed about fifty miles further south, but his luck was not up to date. British signal intelligence had intercepted and decoded German radio transmissions regarding Scheer’s plans for a major operation as early as mid-May and informed Admiral John Jellicoe, commander of the Grand Fleet. Scheer had barely passed Heligoland when Beatty’s battle cruisers were sent on their way south, followed, at a distance of perhaps seventy miles, by the battleships from Scapa Flow. The Brits had reversed the role of trapper and bait.
In terms of tonnage and weaponry, the engagement that was to occur became the biggest of naval history yet. The High Seas Fleet had mobilized sixteen Dreadnoughts, six older battleships, five battle cruisers, eleven light cruisers and sixty-one destroyers (99 combat ships). Jellicoe’s combined fleets comprised twenty-eight Dreadnoughts, nine battle cruisers, eight armoured cruisers, twenty-six light cruisers, seventy-eight destroyers, a seaplane carrier and a minesweeper (151 combat ships).
First contact occurred at 2 p.m. when both sides’ destroyer screens chanced to investigate the same neutral merchant ship and thus ran into each other. Their radios alerted the battle cruiser fleets of Hipper and Beatty which now turned on collision course. Beatty’s five battle cruisers, sailing ahead of the battleships, sighted Hipper’s flotilla at around 4 p.m. and opened fire. In the battle cruiser duel, the shortcomings of the design were cruelly exposed. Beatty’s own flagship, “Lion”, was heavily damaged by hits from “Lützow“, Hipper’s flagship, but things got worse:
“Indefatigable“, duelling with the German “Von der Tann“, suffered an internal explosion which literally tore her asunder; only minutes later,”Queen Mary” exploded and sank after having received a salvo from “Derfflinger”. Only eight men survived. German ships showed much less vulnerability to the impact of British shells – whether it was better armour or a problem with the English fuses is still much discussed.
Post-battle investigation established that the German shells had penetrated the weak armour belt protecting the propellant store rooms, where the essentially unstable charges were stockpiled in the open, to be forwarded to the gun turrets. The explosion of the shell subsequently caused the detonation of the ship’s main magazine. Beatty’s first line was thus quickly reduced, but the elation aboard Hipper’s ships was of short duration. When the four British battleships emerged from the clouds of smoke and palls of rain, it was Hipper’s time to reverse course, Beatty in pursuit.
Half an hour later, the British vanguard recognized Scheer’s battleships coming up on the horizon as expected, and now it was their turn to reverse northwards, to lead Scheer into the direction of the ambush, Jellicoe’s Grand Fleet, which closed in swiftly. The slugfest continued through all these entertaining chases, and now favoured the British, who could bring the fire of their battleships’ new 15-inch guns to bear. Several hits severely damaged “Seydlitz”, again, after her unfortunate experience at the Dogger Bank and proved at least that German battle cruisers were just as vulnerable to well-aimed shells as were the British ones. “Seydlitz”‘stroubles caused disarray in Scheer’s battle formation at the exact moment when, in a confused situation, a German salvo found “Invincible”. She blew up, and her fragments joined her younger sisters in their North Sea grave. That was, however, the last lucky pot-shot for Scheer who faced an increasing curtain of 15-inch gun shells. At around six in the evening, overpowered, he decided to pull out of the game.
There might have ended, inconclusively, an already unsatisfactory encounter [from the British point of view, ¶]. Scheer, however, then decided to turn back, perhaps to come to the assistance of the damaged light cruiser “Wiesbaden” which had been left behind, perhaps because he judged that he could pass astern of Jellicoe’s fleet as it continued its advance towards the Heligoland Bight, while he made his escape through the Skagerrak into the Baltic. Jellicoe, however, once again reduced speed, with the result that the German Dreadnoughts, heading north-east, encountered the British heading south-east, and steering to pass their rear so as to cut them off from safety.
At the moment of encounter moreover, the British were deployed in line abreast, the Germans in line ahead, a relative position, known as “crossing the enemy’s T,” that greatly favoured the British. More of their guns could be brought to bear than could those of the German fleet, ranked one ship behind the other, which thus also presented an easier target. Ten minutes of gunnery, in which the Germans suffered twenty-seven hits by large-calibre shells, the British only two, persuaded Scheer to turn away again into the dark eastern horizon, leaving his battle cruisers and lighter ships to cover his retreat in a “death ride.”
The torpedo threat they presented caused Jellicoe to turn away also – for which he has ever afterward been reproached – and, by the time he turned back, Scheer had put ten miles between his dreadnoughts and the pursuit. Many German ships remained to cover Scheer’s flight, including his squadron of vulnerable pre-Dreadnoughts, and in a series of dusk and night actions they suffered losses. So, too, did the British cruisers and destroyers that remained in contact. By the morning of 1 June, when Scheer had his fleet home, he had lost a battle cruiser, a pre-Dreadnought, four light cruisers and five destroyers. Jellicoe, though remaining in command of the North Sea, had lost three battle cruisers, four armoured cruisers and eight destroyers; 6,094 British sailors had died, 2,551 German.
As far as tactical issues were concerned, the “Battle of Jutland,” as the Royal Navy called it, or “Battle of the Skagerrak”, as it became known in Germany, was a success for the young High Seas Fleet: both German armour and ammunition had proven superior to the British armaments. In terms of strategy, however, the advantage of controlling the North Sea and hence the approaches to the Atlantic Ocean remained with Great Britain; for the rest of the war the German fleet remained at anchor and ceased to be a threat to the Empire. The international press described the encounter at Jutland as an “attack on the gaoler, followed by a return to jail.” The German ships’ peaceful rusting in port was only disturbed in 1919, when a clause of the armistice commanded the fleet’s internment at Scapa Flow. The crews sailed the ships to the Orkney Islands as ordered but scuttled them after arrival, so that they would not fall into British hands.
The true casualties of Jutland were the battle cruisers which vanished from the arsenals of the modern navies as quick as they had appeared.
As we see, Austria declared war on Serbia on July 28, but it took her another eight days, until August 5, to declare war on Russia, on account of her obligations to Germany under the Dual Alliance treaty. But she could not get her act together: in a case of truly exceptional schlamperei, she forgot to declare war on Great Britain and France. After waiting until August 12, these two countries took it upon themselves to correct the Austrian oversight and declared war on Vienna, via telegram to her ambassador in Switzerland.
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