Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Wednesday, June 30, 2021

The Royal Navy's Blockade of Germany

The Royal Navy's Blockade of Germany Began in November 1914. Since the early 18th century, blockades had been a central and coercive element in British naval strategy. When war broke out in August 1914, the British government moved immediately to strangle the supply of raw materials and foodstuffs to Germany and its allies. This marked the beginning of the "hunger blockade," a war of attrition that lasted until Germany signed the Treaty of Versailles in June 1919.

A Royal Navy Boarding Party Approaching a Neutral Ship

Armed with contraband lists, British naval ships spent the war patrolling the North Sea, intercepting and detaining thousands of merchant ships thought to be harboring cargo bound for enemy shores. This aggressive display of maritime power aroused considerable anger in neutral countries, many of whom enjoyed strong trading links with Germany. Tension heightened after the North Sea was declared a British "military area" on 3 November 1914. Despite complaints about breaches of international law, however, most neutral merchant ships agreed to put into British ports for inspection and were subsequently escorted—minus any "illegal" cargo bound for Germany—through the British-laid minefields to their final destinations.

The blockade strategy worked effectively. As a memorandum to the War Cabinet on 1 January 1917 stated, very few supplies were reaching Germany or its allies—either through the North Sea or through other areas such as Austria's Adriatic ports, subject to a French blockade since the first month of the war. Germany attempted to counter the crippling effects of the blockade with a new weapon that seemed capable of subverting British naval superiority, the submarine. For much of the war, German U-boats were deployed only intermittently against neutral and Allied shipping. Their devastating impact—as witnessed, for example, in the sinking of the Lusitania in May 1915—was offset by the international opprobrium that such attacks aroused. From 1 February 1917, however, the German naval command adopted a policy of "unrestricted submarine warfare." Despite initial successes, this high-risk strategy did not work. It provoked the USA into entering the war against the Central Powers and its worst effects were successfully countered by the convoy system. The blockade continued unabated.

German Children at a Soup Kitchen

Did the blockade starve Germany and the other Central Powers into defeat in 1918? We examine this is some earlier articles on Roads to the Great War.

Planning Armageddon: British Economic Warfare and the First World War

Starvation at War

Was the Food Weapon a Myth? 

Source: British National Archives

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