Chapter 2
The British Blockade

     In late 1914 the British suffered significant naval setbacks, which alerted the Admiralty to the need for a new naval strategy.  On October 27, while preparing for target practice, the British dreadnought Audacious struck a German mine near Lough Swilly base on the northern coast of Ireland.  Attempts to tow the enormous ship into port were unsuccessful as her sheer weight kept breaking the towing cables.  Later that day the Audacious exploded and sank after all hands had evacuated.  The Admiralty tried to keep this loss a secret, but to no avail.  Passengers aboard the Olympic, which had assisted in the towing attempts, photographed the stricken warship, and its sinking became common knowledge.1
     Another devastating British loss came on November 1 near Coronel on the western coast of South America.  Here German Vice Admiral Maximilian Graf von Spee's East Asia Squadron defeated a British squadron commanded by Vice Admiral Christopher Cradock.  Spee had two heavy cruisers (Scharnhorst and Gneisenau), and three light cruisers (N�rnberg, Dresden and Leipzig).  He simply kept his ships out of range of Cradock's numerous smaller 6-inch guns while engaging the British with his own longer-range 8.2-inch guns.  The British lost two heavy cruisers, the Monmouth (with her total complement of 675 men aboard) the Good Hope (with most of her total complement of 800 men aboard, including Cradock).  Only two light cruisers, the Otranto and Glasgow, managed to escape.  News of this defeat was a bitter pill for a British public long used to only victories at sea.2
     Letters from the pugnacious Vice Admiral Sir David Earl Beatty reveal the general pessimism in the British Admiralty during fall 1914.  He wrote to his wife saying, "We are only playing at war . . . .  We are as nervous as cats, afraid of losing lives, losing ships, and running risks.  We are ruled by Panic Law, and until we risk something shall never gain anything."3
     Beatty had written First Lord of the Admiralty Sir Winston Churchill ten days before the Audacious disaster.  He was pessimistic:

          At present we feel that we are working up for a catastrophe of a very large character.  The feeling is gradually
     possessing the Fleet that all is not right somewhere.  The menace of mines and submarines is proving larger every day,
     and adequate means to meet or combat them are not forthcoming, and we are gradually being pushed out of the
     North Sea and off our own particular perch.  How does this arise?  By the very apparent fact that we have no base
     where we can with any degree of safety lie for coaling, replenishing, and refitting and repairing, after two and a half
     months of war.  This spells trouble. . . .4

     Commander-in-Chief of the Grand Fleet Admiral Sir John Rushworth Jellicoe believed that German mining of British home waters was an outrage.  Loss of the Audacious and lack of a secure base for North Sea operations persuaded him that a new strategy was necessary to deal with the German threat.  On several occasions he proposed that the Admiralty declare a prohibited area of the North Sea.  The Admiralty went a step further, giving notice

         that the whole of the North Sea must be considered a military area.  Within this area merchant shipping of all kinds
    kinds, traders of all countries, fishing craft, and all other vessels will be exposed to the gravest dangers from mines which
    it has been necessary to lay, and from warships searching vigilantly by night and day, for suspicious craft.  All merchant and
    fishing vessels of every description are hereby warned of the dangers they encounter by entering this area except in strict
    accordance with Admiralty directions.  Every effort will be made to convey this warning to neutral countries and to vessels
    on the sea, but from November 5 onwards, the Admiralty announce that all ships passing a line drawn from the Northern
    point of the Hebrides through the Faroe Islands to Iceland do so at their own peril.5

     This new British strategy actually violated terms of the 1909 Declaration of London.  There were also the rules of naval warfare laid down at the Hague Conference of 1907, which would have precluded a British naval blockade of Germany if the Admiralty had chosen to follow them.
     The declaration's specific rules regarding blockades were based upon two main ideas.  First, belligerents were allowed full liberty to cut off their enemy's sea-borne supply lines if they could accomplish it with a "close blockade."  This meant the blockade could only contain the enemy coast and not cover any neutral ports.  Anything else would fall under the category of a "long-distance blockade."  Thus, the closing of the entire North Sea could hardly be called a close blockade.6
     The second main point in the Declaration of London with regard to blockades was the categorization of contraband.  The first category was "Absolute Contraband."  This included any military items, such as artillery.  These could be seized if they were shown to be destined for the enemy, even if they were initially to be consigned to a neutral port.
     The second category was "Conditional Contraband."  This consisted of commodities for either military or civilian ends, such as food or fuel.  Even if these items were shown to be destined for an enemy's government or military, they could not be seized unless they were proven to be destined directly for a port on the enemy coast or an enemy-fortified place.  The problem with this was that dishonest destinations could easily be written on the papers of ships carrying conditional contraband and long-distance blockades could therefore be broken.  Also, foodstuffs and fuel could be shown as destined for civilians, although those very civilians might well be munitions workers.
     The third and final category was "Non-Contraband."  This included certain raw materials that were used primarily by civilians, such as copper, nickel, iron-ore, and cotton.  Indeed, these were all potential war materials, but they might never be declared contraband by belligerent powers.  For instance, finished weapons could be detained by a British blockade of Germany, but not the materials that Krupp factories would use to make those weapons.7
     The ideas of "conditional" and "non-contraband" seem naive and this was in fact proven to be the case throughout the war.  The declaration also prohibited any long-distance interference with an enemy's export trade.  This was another unrealistic wartime demand.
     The British blockade turned the North Sea into a "no-man's land," much like those between opposing trench systems on land.  The work of the blockade was borne chiefly by smaller warships.  Larger British warships remained generally in port while smaller craft carried out blockade duties.  Cruisers made up much of the strength of patrol forces, the work of which was hardly glamorous.  The public tended to ignore these operations, believing warships engaged in actual battle represented the only truly effective use of sea power.
     The British Tenth Cruiser Squadron was a fairly typical cruiser force in terms of makeup and blockade duty.  Its area of operations stretched from Norway to the Shetland Islands, to the northern coast of Scotland.  Its duties included interception of German merchant vessels and any other ships carrying contraband to Germany.
     The Tenth Cruiser Squadron was supposed to have twenty-four ships in all, although rarely were all of them on line at any one time.  The chief vessels in the squadron initially were eight Edgar-class cruisers.  These were some of the oldest in the Royal Navy and, on November 22, 1914, the Admiralty replaced them with armed merchant cruisers after it was determined that the Edgar-class ships were not able to withstand the heavy weather conditions in the North Sea.  The remaining ships in the squadron were a hodge-podge of types, including several banana boats from the Caribbean trade, hastily mounted with 4.7, and later, 6-inch guns.8
     Regular Royal Navy officers commanded most of the armed merchant cruisers, with Royal Naval Reserve officers in command of the remainder.  Often the reserve officers had been assigned to the same ship in peacetime.  Some of the ships carried crews made up of Royal Marines, but most were reservists or former merchant marine ranks.  All ships had members of the Newfoundland Naval Reserve, the fishermen of which were adept at handling small craft, making them ideal for boarding parties to conduct visit and search.  These fishermen led very adventurous lives, often having to board other ships in rough weather.9
     The blockade was hardly glamorous in comparison with many naval battles.  It may have been slow, rather than a swift and decisive blow, but it ultimately brought widespread starvation to Germany and was certainly one of the decisive factors in the Allied victory.  The nature of the blockade was dangerous as London, not having ratified the Declaration of London, would be tempted to declare more and more items as contraband in order to expedite the starvation process.  This is exactly what she did.
     The February 4 German declaration of the north and west coasts of France as a war zone in which all merchant vessels could be torpedoed led to further Allied attempts to stop supplies from entering Germany.  The main Allied counter-measure to the German declaration was the British Reprisals Order-in-Council of March 11, 1915.  This particular order laid the groundwork for the British blockade practice that lasted until the end of the war.
     The Reprisals Order-in-Council claimed the right to detain, not to confiscate, all items of German origin, destination, or ownership.  The categories of contraband no longer applied as the long-distance blockade would now stop any ship from reaching German ports.  The blockade would also stop German export ships, restricting the main source of income used by Berlin to pay for its imports.10  The way was now paved for a diplomatic stalemate, which would doubtless involve the neutral powers.  In London's favor, though, was the fact that the March 11 order did not threaten loss of life as did the German war zone declaration.


1.    Thomas Frothingham, The Naval History of the World War Offensive Operations, 1914-1915 (New York:  Books for
       Libraries Press, 1971), pp. 150-51.
2.    Ibid., pp. 174-75.
3.    Richard Hough, The Great War at Sea, 1914-1918 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1983), p. 64.
4.    Ibid.
5.    Frothingham, Naval History, Offensive Operations, pp. 207-8.
6.    W. Arnold-Forster, The Blockade, 1914-1919 - Before the Armistice and After (Oxford:  Oxford Pamphlets on World
       Affairs #17, Clarendon Press, 1939), pp. 5-6.
7.    Ibid., pp. 174-75.
8.    Paul G. Halpern, A Naval History of World War I (Annapolis, Maryland:  Naval Institute Press, 1994), pp. 150-51.
9.    Ibid., p. 49.
10.  Marion C. Siney, The Allied Blockade of Germany, 1914-1916 (Ann Arbor, Michigan:  Univ. of Michigan Press, 1957),
       pp. 61-63.

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