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

July 22, 2014 Topic: HistoryMilitary Strategy Region: Germany

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

World War I could have gone very differently.

It would go too far to claim that building an asymmetric navy would have kept Britain out of the war altogether. Intervention was probably inevitable once German forces overran Belgium, opposite Britain's Channel coast. The military offensive crossed a red-line. Still, refusing to fire Britons' competitive instincts—Wegener claimed these empire-builders had seawater coursing through their veins—may have left London waffling at the outbreak of war. An ambivalent foe is an indifferent competitor and an easier foe to cow. An asymmetric fleet, then, would have equipped the German Navy better for the Battle of the Atlantic while drawing some of the venom out of Anglo-German enmity. Advantage: Berlin.

Don't Resume Unrestricted Submarine Warfare:

Similarly, Berlin could have withheld a pretext for the United States to enter the war or wage it so furiously—namely, unrestricted submarine warfare. President Woodrow Wilson ran for reelection in 1916 on keeping America out of the Great War . Wilson's campaign slogan appeared sincere. Yet German leaders' decision to resume unrestricted operations in 1917 helped transform attitudes among Americans and their president almost overnight. This was an operational decision that reverberated up to high politics, to Germany's sorrow.

By exercising self-restraint in undersea combat, German leaders could have conserved their enemies -- and simplified U-boat commanders' challenge. At a minimum Wilson would have found rallying the populace harder absent such a flagrant casus belli . Not adopting certain methods of naval warfare, then, could have helped Berlin stymie the expanded enemy alliance—and the massive fleet it would deploy—before it formed.


James Holmes is Professor of Strategy at the Naval War College and coauthor of Red Star over the Pacific , just out through the China Academy of Social Sciences. The views voiced here are his alone.