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  • Print publication year: 2017
  • Online publication date: May 2017

Germany in World War One: naval strategy and warfare


ABSTRACT.German plans for the High Seas Fleet on the outbreak of war rested on highly unrealistic assumptions. When these proved false, the fleet did little or nothing. Neither army nor navy contemplated joint action. Only the unexpected success of submarines seemed to offer hope of victory at sea, but that chance was thrown away by confused and irrational decisions based on political and psychological rather than strategic factors.

RÉSUMÉ.Lorsque la guerre éclata, les plans de l'Allemagne pour sa flotte de guerre(NDLT « Hochseeflotte ») ne reposaient que sur des présomptions profondément irréalistes. Lorsque celles-ci s'avérèrent fausses, la flotte ne fit rien ou très peu. Ni la marine ni l'armée n'envisagèrent une action conjointe. Seul le succès inattendu des sous-marins souleva l'espoir d'une victoire en mer, mais cette opportunité fut anéantie par des décisions confuses et irrationnelles, basées sur des facteurs psychologiques et politiques plutôt que stratégiques.

In October 1910 Tirpitz argued in an audience with Kaiser Wilhelm II that German naval policy had to aim at strengthening the German fleet to such an extent that

an attack would mean a great risk for Great Britain. This risk constitutes the basis of the imperial position of the German Reich and the peace-securing effect of our fleet. If the British fleet can achieve and maintain a permanent and structural strength sufficient to attack the German Reich without risk, then the fleet development was a historical mistake and Your Majesty's naval policy [Flottenpolitik] a historical fiasco.

This estimate became a reality almost four years later. During the July crisis of 1914 the anticipated deterrent effect of the High Seas Fleet(HSF) turned out to be a miscalculation, since Great Britain, relying on the superiority of its fleet and its worldwide strategic positions, did not regard the German fleet as an unpredictable risk for the security of its sea lines of communication.


In August 1914 the German Imperial Navy was under the spell of the great material superiority of the enemy. In the North Sea alone the Royal Navy had twenty-six modern capital ships(battleships and battle cruisers) compared to only eighteen equally modern units of the German Navy. The British superiority in older ships of the line as well as cruisers and torpedo boats was even more striking.

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