Your RDA of Irony

The Kaiser’s Toy

May 31, 1916:  The Undefeated German Navy

 Consider the greatest naval battles in history (and if this is a first for you, welcome to the introductory course).  Some of these monumental clashes had a profound strategic effect. 

After Salamis in 480 B.C., with the Greek destruction of their fleet, the Persians were left with nothing but their Iranian charm for supplies.  The battle of Actium, in 31 B.C., determined whether the first Roman emperor would be a dissipated has-been or a reptilian youngster.  (Bet on the reptile.)  At Midway in 1942, the Japanese lost four aircraft carriers and the initiative; after that, their strategy was fighting to the death rather than winning.

But other great naval battles really had no practical strategic consequence other than proving which fleet had the bigger ballast.  Lepanto, fought off the coast of Greece in 1571, was just a duel of imperial egos.  The Turks had no plans to invade the western Mediterranean, and the Spanish had no plans to liberate the Eastern Mediterranean.  The naval battle only indicated that God–that day–was more Catholic than Moslem.  Sometimes the motive for battle seems to be masochism.  The French and Spanish had no need to challenge the British at Trafalgar.  Perhaps they wanted to see if Lord Nelson was really that good; he was. 

And the greatest naval battle of World War I–Jutland–was just the fulfillment of a boy’s longstanding fantasy.  Unfortunately, the boy became Kaiser Wilhelm II–and he never grew up.  He wanted a navy that could challenge Britannia’s rule of the sea.  There was no practical purpose for a large German fleet.  Germany had a limited coastline and its neighbors on the Baltic Sea were not maritime threats.  Denmark had been behaving itself since the 12th century.  Perhaps the lumbering, outdated Russian fleet could have attacked Hamburg but only if someone would tow it.  Nein, the only reason for a massive German navy was to gratify the Kaiser’s ego.

Wilhelm may have been a boisterous buffoon but he was too dangerous to ignore.  So Britain had to meet his challenge by constructing  more and larger battleships.  Indeed, meeting the demands of the British navy left shipbuilders short of supplies for other projects.  A firm in Belfast had to cut a few corners in assembling a luxury liner; but if that damn ship hadn’t hit the iceberg, no one would have been the wiser. 

Furthermore, Britain ended its longstanding policy of magnificent disdain of European politics and alliance.  In 1907, it formed a cordial entente with France and Russia.  So, Britain was ready for war.  It merely had to wait for Germany to do something irrevocably stupid, like invading Belgium in 1914.

The German strategy was to goosestep its way to Paris in six weeks.  As far as the German High Command was concerned, the Navy was the Kaiser’s toy.  Nearly two years later, the army was still on its way to Paris.  (It would get there in 1940.)  The British navy was in the North Sea, daring the Kaiserliche Marine to leave port.  On May 31, 1916, the German fleet finally tried to justify its existence.

Off the Danish peninsula of Jutland, the two fleets maneuvered and shot at each other.  At the end of the day, an accountant tallying the corpses and wrecks would have said that Germany won.  With a smaller fleet, it inflicted far more damage, casualties and ship losses on the British.  Yet, the German fleet then retreated to its home ports, never to sail again and leaving the British navy in uncontested controls of the seas.

Ironically, that Fleet would have won the war–if it had been used in 1914.  At the onset of the War, the fleet could have sailed into the North Sea and the English Channel.  Yes, it would have found itself cut off from supplies, outgunned and without access to a friendly port.  What is German for sitting duck?  But so long as the German Navy was still floating between France and Britain, the British would have been unable to send 120,000 men to Belgium and Northern France to stop the German invasion.  Without the added obstacle of the  British army (which the Von Schlieffen plan had failed to calculate) the Germans might well have made their six-week itinerary to Paris.   

So the Kaiser’s navy would have won the war–even if none of the sailors lived to celebrate it.

  1. Mary Ann Jung says:

    Win or lose, I now have the utmost respect for all sailors having just completed my first cruise. The weather started getting rough. the massive ship was tossed-and all on the day I’m to debut my first show for them. The stage was rolling so badly they offered me a walker to hang onto, but I refused and sallied forth. Happily Queen Elizabeth I didn’t wretch or fall down-a triumph to eclipse the Armada defeat-at least in my pitiful mind. Anchors away!

  2. Cindy Starks says:

    Eugene — where to begin? 1) Lepanto — the Turks did have designs on the Mediterranean and, in particular, they wanted to invade and conquer Venice, so there. 2) Too bad the Brits had to send in 120,000 troops to Belgium and Northern France and lose a generation of young men. “If I should die/think only this of me/that there’s some foreign shore that is forever England.” or “In Flanders Fields the poppies blow/between the crosses row on row/that mark our place/and in the sky/the larks still bravely singing fly…” Too sad. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again (me and William Tecumsah Sherman), “War is Hell and you can’t refine it.”

    • Eugene Finerman says:

      The Battle of Lepanto (in 1571 not 1581) liberated the Christians who were kidnapped and brought aboard the Turkish galleons and lashed to the rowers oars on the underdecks. They hailed Don Juan of Austria as their liberator. And so would the citizens of lot of other cities (whose names escape me at the moment) who would have been ruled by that Muhamed guy if not for the Battle of Lepanto won by the Catholics. Ahem…guess I told you, Eugene Know-it-all Finerman.

      The battle was indeed in 1571; forgive the typo. Christians were liberated from the captured Turkish ships. But who do you think were manning the oars on the Spanish galleons? They weren’t volunteers from the Newman House. So a Turkish victory would have liberated the Spanish slaves: Moslems and Protestants. The Turks did have designs on Venetian territory: particularly Cyprus which they did conquer and hold until the late 19th century. However, they were not interested in taking Venice itself and turning San Marco into a Mosque.


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