The curious(ly limited) naval war (WWI in Real Time, Lecture 17)

The pre-war naval race and general British mastery of the seas notwithstanding, one of the more puzzling aspects of the First World War is the absence of large-scale naval campaigns. Neither the British nor the Germans committed to a full-scale naval war for mastery of the North Sea—which could’ve been pretty valuable for both of them—and Germany chose not to use its U-boats to their greatest (i.e., unrestricted) potential in 1914. While their armies clashed on a nearly apocalyptic scale on the Continent, their navies were largely sidelined. But why? We spent time in class today on this very puzzle, and, as luck would have it, I got to work out some ideas from a model that I’ll be workshopping tomorrow with the IR group here at Texas.

The answer, I think, lies in recognizing that fighting is not only costly upfront but also in terms of military capabilities or assets that, once lost, aren’t easily replaced; in other words, for both the British and German navies, using it also meant losing it. Stevenson captures this logic well:

The weaker side had little motive to risk annihilation, nor the stronger to risk nullifying its lead (p. 199)

Had the Germans and British gone all out in fighting for control of the North Sea, the costs in terms of forces-in-being might’ve been substantial. The Germans, of course, might’ve lost so much of their weaker force that, even in a short-term victory, they’d be unable to deter future moves towards their coast. Likewise, the British were stretched across the globe, protecting shipping and controlling the worldwide network of coaling stations that allowed them to exert pressure on neutrals—committing forces to replace any lost in a major naval war or to beef up coastal defense at home might’ve compromised this position. So, given dubious gains—the promise of blockade without a naval war, the difficultly of an amphibious assault on northern Germany, the British ability to rebuild lost ships in the medium term—it looks like both sides found plenty of reasons to keep their naval forces intact and keep this one small aspect of the war from approaching totality.

We drew the following game to capture the situation,

Screen Shot 2014-10-28 at 1.58.25 PM

which actually shows that the no-fighting equilibrium isn’t unique. Even if each side wanted to husband its naval capabilities, it would’ve fought had it believed that the other would’ve. That seems trivial, but it also explains some interesting features of the war, such as the occasional battle—Heligoland Bight and Dogger Bank in 1914—but the lack of sustained campaigns and each side’s willingness to refuse to press the attack on a grad scale, even if the other side was on the run. Which equilibrium prevails—fighting or no-fighting—depends on each side’s beliefs about the other’s strategy, and these can be fragile things in the fog of war…which I guess in the North Sea is both figurative and literal. When beliefs about the other side’s likely strategy were stable, we saw a pretty persistent no-fighting equilibrium, but all it would take for a switch to the occasional battle was a change in beliefs about likely strategies, not a change in the actual strategic situation.

Of course, this leaves aside the question of why Germany kept the U-boats restrained during 1914, but we’ll get to that soon enough…


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