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

Monday, January 2, 2023

"The U.S. Navy was a key contributor to the German decision to end the war." — Dr. Dennis Conrad, Naval History and Heritage Command

U.S. Navy Gun Crew

Iinterview by Caitlin Hamon, World War One Centennial Commission

Dr. Dennis Conrad, Historian at the the Naval History and Heritage Command, visited the Centennial Commission on Friday, 1 December 2017, and gave a presentation on the various operations performed by the U.S.Navy throughout World War I.

Q:  What were the top five innovations developed from the war that impacted U.S. naval power in the interwar years?


1.  Airplanes—they went from the Wright Brothers to a plane that could fly across the Atlantic.

2.  The aircraft carrier, which became the cornerstone of the U.S. Navy in WWII.

3.  Development of the U-boat/submarine—the American victory in WWII was primarily the success of the USN submarines in a guerre de course against the Japanese merchant marine.

4.  ASW developments—destroyers, depth charges, and particularly sonar, which was in its early stages in WWI.

5.  Development of the Naval Consulting Board, which morphed into the Navy Research Lab, which has become the cornerstone of the Navy's R & D.

Rescuing Survivors of a U-boat Attack

Q:  In your presentation to the WW1CC group, you mentioned that the CNO wanted the USN to go on the offensive during the war. What were some of the operations conducted by the USN in that regard?

DC:  Obviously, the German fleet was confined in the North Sea and was not a threat. The threat was the submarine campaign. The U.S. discussed the possibility of attacking the German U-boat bases, but decided that was not feasible. 

The Northern Mine Barrage—a line of undersea mines stretching from Scotland to Norway was the U.S.'s attempt to go on the offensive against the German U-boat. Because the war ended just as the mine barrage was completed, whether it would have succeeded or not is a point of debate. Naval leaders did not see convoying as offensive but defensive in nature (although some officers, notably William S. Sims argued otherwise). Even the British would assign their destroyers to patrol areas hoping to find and attack submarines. Despite that viewpoint, the convoy was what in the end defeated the German submarine offensive.

North Sea Mine Barrage Plan

Q:  You also mentioned how USN efforts in the war are often considered a failure. Can you explain why this is?

DC:  They are considered a failure in comparison to the Spanish-American War (which featured two American victories against Spanish fleets) and WWII and the war in the Pacific, which was a Navy war. Therefore, what happened in WWI pales by comparison. However, I argued that the role of the USN was key to the victory because they were able to get the AEF to France without loss despite German attempts to attack American transports, and in turn, I believe, the presence of the AEF in growing numbers convinced the German High Command after the failure of their 1918 offensive, that Germany could not win the war, and therefore they surrendered. 

The U.S. Navy (and Army) planned to make 1919 the key year and were building up their strength in anticipation that 1919 would be when American power came to the fore and would overwhelm the Germans. That did not happen because the Germans surrendered in 1918 and I would argue that the U.S. Navy was a key contributor to the German decision to end the war, so I do not consider the USN to have "failed" but merely that because it did not win any major naval victories like Manila Bay, Santiago de Cuba, Midway, or the Battle of the Coral Sea, for example, it is a "forgotten" war for the USN.

1 comment:

  1. The Germans might take issue with the word "Surrender" - they signed an armistice and many - if not most - Germans thought they did NOT surrender.