World War I: Five Ways Germany Could Have Won the First Battle of the Atlantic

World War I could have gone very differently.

Editor's Note: Please see our other "Five Ways" articles including: Five Ways D-Day Could Have Been  a Disaster, Five Ways a Nuclear War Could Still Happen, Five Ways Japan Could Have Won World War II and Five Ways The Soviet Union Could Have Won the Cold War.

Few outcomes are fated in war. Oftentimes the losing side loses not because it's physically outclassed or is short on skill and élan but because it errs more frequently and more grievously than the victor. It is conceivable, for instance, that Imperial Germany may have won the Battle of the Atlantic—the U-boats' effort to sever sea routes connecting beleaguered Great Britain with North America—had it done certain basic homework. Knowing the saltwater environment, exploiting the revolution in naval technology, and exercising self-restraint may have let Germany prevail on the high seas.

Alas for the Reich, insight into marine combat was foggy in Berlin. It would have been hard for Kaiser Wilhelm II, his state secretary of the navy, Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, and his other lieutenants to take some of these steps. Germany had a continental strategic culture. An all-pervasive cult of the battleship gripped Germans. Quirks of individual intellect and character applied blinkers to leaders' thinking about the sea. That's a lot to overcome.

Nor are such constraints on imagination anything new. All statesmen and commanders worth their salt strive to transcend the limits on human foresight. Think about the fable of the Scorpion and the Frog. A scorpion implores a frog to carry him across a river. He promises not to harm his benefactor—after all, they'll both drown if he does—only to sting the frog to death in midstream. As the two creatures sink, the scorpion explains that he had to sting him. It's in his nature.

There's wisdom in fables. Cataloging the ways Germany could have triumphed in the Atlantic is a venture in guesswork. It's a matter of postulating what the Kaiser, Tirpitz & Co. may have accomplished if they weren't who they were—if they weren't scorpions. Nevertheless, this is a venture worth undertaking, if only to remind us how prized a commodity imagination—and the resolve to act on it—remains in enterprises like diplomacy and warfare.

No single masterstroke would have changed the outcome of the undersea battle, which was a series of unconnected tactical actions more than a battle per se. Consequently, what follows resembles a five-step plan—five interconnected things Berlin could have done to bolster its maritime prospects—more than a list of discrete actions that would have let the U-boats rule the waves. With those caveats, my list of Five Ways Germany Could Have Won the First Battle of the Atlantic:

Understand the Sea:

Carl von Clausewitz—a land-bound strategist for whom water barely seemed to exist—vouchsafed that the first, the most sweeping, and the hardest act of statecraft is to fathom the nature of the endeavor on which you're embarking. Right. On the briny main as on land, a combatant's intellectual fundamentals must be sound to prevail. Germans failed woefully at this basic task.

Don't believe me? Then take it from Vice Admiral Wolfgang Wegener, an officer in the German High Seas Fleet. After the war, Wegener endeared himself to no one in the navy old guard by starting The Naval Strategy of the World War—his effort to explain what went wrong during World War I—with the words, "We never understood the sea. Not one of us."

What did Wegener—dubbed a "hairsplitter and a professor" by one erstwhile shipmate—mean by this? For one thing, he suggested that his homeland, a continental state ringed by powerful competitors, simply lacked the habit of thinking about maritime strategy. The Hanseatic League once deployed a great merchant fleet, but as far as a German battle fleet...fuggedaboutit. The Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch, and English dominated the oceans.

And they did so for centuries while Germany remained a patchwork of small states. German unification came only in 1871, while the German naval buildup commenced only around the turn of the century. It may have been too much to expect a youthful seafaring state to compete on equal terms with a neighbor whose custom was—as King Charles II put it —to command at sea.

For another, Wegener posited three benchmarks a nation must clear to qualify as a great sea power, namely geographic position, a strategic factor; the fleet, a tactical factor; and the Nietzschean-sounding "strategic will" to the sea, a strategic culture that spurred on a nation's seaward quest. Wegener used the remainder of his treatise to show how Germany fell short of each.